There’s a lot more to cruise travel than sailing the seven seas on gigantic floating bazaars. River cruises offer a smaller scale, more intimate, and sometimes even hands-on experience.
The hottest segment of cruise travel is river travel — new ships being built, new itineraries and destinations in the works, new cruise packages being offered. In Europe and Asia especially, river cruising is big and getting bigger.
Cruising a river as a different vibe than ocean cruising. In general, the whole experience is more intimate. If anything, it might be closer to what ocean cruising used to be, before the cruise ships evolved into enormous floating theme parks.
A typical modern river cruise vessel will typically carry only about 100-200 passengers total, maybe as many as 400 for the very largest ones. Your newer ocean cruise ships nowadays carry more than double that on one deck.
That means just about everything on the river cruise — from boarding to meals to disembarking — figures to be faster and a lot less hectic.
River cruisers aren’t just smaller. Their cabins are all lower to the water and every cabin gets a nice big window. The newer ones come with a balcony, as well, the better to take in the views.
When you cruise the world’s oceans, there will be days when all you see is ocean. Endless sea, endless sky, air that doesn’t smell like auto exhaust. If you’re lucky, maybe a few or a few hundred dolphins showing off beneath you. For some folks — and I’m one of them — that’s plenty entertainment enough.
Lots of other folks aren’t nearly that easily amused at sea, however. The cruise lines know it, and they’re designing their newer ships accordingly.
The two biggest lines today, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are so worried that their thousands of passengers might grow bored that they’ve spent the last decade or so transforming their ships into floating entertainment centers — restaurant districts, amusement parks, theaters and shopping malls at sea. Not to mention the bars and casinos, of course.
The only thing missing, mercifully, is the parking lot.
You won’t find all that hype aboard a river cruiser. The river itself, and the lands through which it passes, are the stars of the show. And unlike an ocean cruise, when you’re plying a great river, the scenery changes by the day, the hour, the minute.
Towering skylines give way to towering forests, mountains, sand dunes, farm fields, vineyards. Above the banks of European rivers, you may spy castles, cathedrals. In Asia, perhaps ancient temples. In Africa, wildlife.
Vessels of all kinds, from small pleasure boats to low-slung barges laden with cargo, huge freighters and tankers, and even the occasional sea-going cruise giant, form lines of traffic that literally flow on either side of you.
You’ll also see people — working, playing, living on and with the river.
I discovered all this, oddly enough, during a Caribbean cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas. The cruise originated in New Orleans, which meant that the first day was spent slowly negotiating a hundred miles of the twisting, turning Mississippi River.
Around every serpentine bend, it seemed, there was something waiting to hook your attention — a massive oil refinery here, a historic battlefield there, huge commercial vessels flying the flags of seemingly half the United Nations.
Who needs a television in the cabin when the best show going is right outside?
And river cruises offer shore excursions, just like than sea-going counterparts.
Nor is river cruising a one-size-fits-all affair. As small as most river cruise vessels are compared with oceangoing cruise ships, you can go smaller still, aboard commercial barge converted to carry passengers, some carrying as few as six. You’ll see a lot of these in Europe, plying the smaller rivers and canals long abandoned by most commercial traffic.
The pace is leisurely enough that you can take a bike ashore and ride ahead, exploring the countryside and stopping in villages along the way, then re-boarding downstream in time for lunch or dinner.
In places where old hand-cranked locks help raise and lower barges along the canals, you can even get off the barge and lend a hand cranking the gates open and closed.
Unlike the ocean cruise industry, which is dominated by a relative handful of giant companies, there are far more river cruise operators around the world. Some sail in multiple regins around the world, while others limit themselves to a single country or continent:
RIVER CRUISE LINES
Ama Waterways (Europe, Asia, Africa)
Avalon Waterways (Europe, Asia, Africa, USA)
Grand Circle Travel (Europe)
Uniworld (Europe, Asia, Africa)
Vantage Travel (Europe, Asia)
Viking River Cruises (Europe, Asia, Africa)
President Cruises (China)
Europe is the old-school venue for river cruising, and you can cruise the Amazon River in South America, as well as Russia. But the hot new river cruise market is in Asia.
The growth of tourism in China and Vietnam, coupled with the opening up of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is opening up ancient river and breathtakingly beautiful country little seen by Western travelers. It’s the reason river cruise lines like Viking are busily building new ships.
China in particular is offering tour packages that include not only Yangtze River and Three Gorges cruises, but airfare to and from China as part of the package, sometimes for substantially less than $2,000 per person.
Indeed, the one country that seems to be lagging when it comes to river cruising is the United States, which has some of the world’s major rivers — including the one that Native Americans dubbed “the father of waters,” the Mississippi.
What you find mainly in this country is a relative handful of steamboat cruises, aboard actual old-time steamboats or modern replicas of them. The theme is almost always the same, trying to re-create the ambiance of Old South. Antebellum 2.0, so to speak. Mansions, plantations, cotton and sugar cane fields. Slavery. Ah, the “good old days.”
IBIT says: Until somebody comes along to make river cruising as modern and attractive here in the States as it is elsewhere in the world — without the sanitized version of US history as a bonus — I’ll look Europe, South America and Asia for a chance to head upriver.
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