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River beds

Modern-day adventurers have tended to shy away from the clunky cruise ship. Now, the exuberant luxury of Europe’s boutique river boats are luring them back onto the continent’s mighty waterways

Pont des Arts over the river Seine 

In the age of steam travel, tunnelling through peaks and descending into valleys by rail became the most sumptuous way to trek across Europe. From the plush dining car of the Orient Express, travellers viewed the majesty of Europe’s countryside, satisfied in the knowledge that they alone had access to the continent’s cultural capitals. But things are changing.

Over the last five years, Europe’s meandering waterways have evolved into luxury routes. While cruising along the mighty Danube or the majestic Seine, travellers in superior vessels are given the unique opportunity to revel in the fresh air of remote valleys – only moments later ducking under the mighty bridges of Paris or Prague. Visitors who opt to float along the Rhine can ramble into quaint medieval towns – long forgotten and unreachable by rail or air. River cruises are the new way to explore Europe’s hidden gems. The splashes of exuberant opulence visitors find aboard each ship are merely an added bonus.

Avoid the circus
A lot of globetrotters are decidedly wary of the term ‘cruise ship’, and they have every right to be. The conventional ocean liner has gained a reputation as a bothersome, floating zoo, which fails to provide cultural encounters and instead distracts tourists with subpar Broadway review shows and dimly lit casinos.

Ships tie up along the chic sidewalk cafés of Paris and Budapest, maximising sightseeing potential

Yet this does not mean the industry as a whole has nothing to offer. A cruise ship doesn’t have to be 20 times larger than Vatican City or include a minimum of eight Olympic-sized swimming pools to provide a stimulating and enjoyable holiday. In fact, intimate boutique cruise ships are slowly making a comeback, providing culturally starved travellers with the most amorous European adventures.

“If you want Vegas on the high seas, or a ramped-up romp with non-stop entertainment, a river cruise is most likely not going to be your cup of tea,” says Cruise Critic contributor John Deiner. “But if you want a relaxing holiday that lets you take in a number of destinations with a minimum of effort, you really can’t beat it.”

Since 2008, the river cruise industry has grown by 10 percent each year. According to a study by the Travel Leaders Group, European river cruises in particular have surged in popularity – and thus far are 2013’s most-booked luxury holiday.

It’s not hard to see why. Whereas the average number of passengers on a goliath North American cruise liner is 2,300, most of the ships that travel Europe’s waterways can accommodate no more than 150 guests, and often fewer. In part, this cap stems from practicality; several sections of the continent’s great rivers are treacherously narrow, so light and slender ships are required to navigate otherwise desolate waters. Yet keeping the trips relatively small also enhances the deliberately intimate nature of river cruising. On a ship of 79, travellers can get to know one another and even make new friends, if they so choose. They don’t need a GPS locater to find the dining room or reception, and a typical staff ratio of 3:1 ensures a personal relationship with the vessel’s crew.

Your floating hotel
Because the crew on river boats have fewer passengers to care for, total comfort for every guest becomes the priority. Boutique operators such as UniWorld lavish their staterooms with marble bathrooms and private French balconies. The sumptuousness of each ship’s decor is evocative of the golden age of sea travel that accompanied the Titanic to its watery grave. Original works of art hang in each room and suites are packed with products handcrafted in Provence.

Onboard chefs tailor the experience with dishes based on the vessel’s location

At APT, Concerto Class ships provide passengers with twin balconies for a private view of the passing scenery. If any guest happens to grow weary of the architecture and ancient ruins on shore, rooms come equipped with satellite television and there are several lounges and libraries. Exercise facilities and whirlpools are common on most vessels, while discreet staff offer a plethora of dining options.

Whereas chefs aboard Caribbean mega liners are known to dish out assembly-line menus for the ship’s 12 restaurants, the dining experience on board Europe’s river boats is decidedly more exclusive. A certified global master chef heads the kitchen on each UniWorld excursion, accompanied by a wine programme developed by the sommelier of the Relais and Chateaux hotel. The wines provided by operators are improved only by the fact that – unlike on most ocean liners – the all-inclusive rates on river voyages tend to include alcohol.

Onboard chefs tailor the experience with dishes based on the vessel’s location. Bratwurst and craft ales are never in short supply along the Rhine, while French classics, such as buttered escargots, are plentiful along the Seine. There is also often a chance to accompany the head chef to local produce markets. Where possible, ingredients are sourced from local growers. Passengers could hardly ask for a higher standard of European cuisine. That said, guests are by no means encouraged to stay on the ship.

Get out and explore
“I like to say ocean cruising is a drinking man’s cruise. River cruising is a thinking man’s cruise,” says Torstein Hagen, the founder and chairman of Viking River Cruises. “With river cruises, a destination is the destination.”

Many cruise operators in Europe share Hagen’s conviction and it has driven providers to dish up culturally exquisite itineraries. Most ships will dock in the centre of a towering European capital or a picture-perfect medieval village at least once every day. As with food and drink, the all-inclusive deal usually includes a tour of each destination. In Italy, for example, guests can spend an entire day in Bologna learning how to make fresh pasta in a quaint Italian kitchen. In Hungary, passengers step back in time as they’re wowed by the renowned skill of rural csikos (the country’s answer to American cowboys). With Avalon or AmaWaterways, guests are taken to one of Vienna’s revered concert halls for a night of candlelit waltzing to the timeless masterpieces of Mozart.

Even the shortest adventure will expose guests to a diverse array of alien European customs and luxuries. Those who wish to explore at their own pace will be equally engaged by the castles and amphitheatres that scatter each city. Unlike ocean liners, these vessels dock in the heart of their destination. Ships tie up along the chic sidewalk cafés of Paris and Budapest, maximising sightseeing potential. What’s more, guests aren’t stifled by the restrictive schedules ocean liners tend to impose upon their passengers. Larger destinations often merit multiple days at port, and voyagers can explore at their leisure.

For those who believe they’ve ‘been there, done that’, themed cruises make niche interests accessible. Noble Catalonia, for example, sponsors several journeys that are musically inspired. On voyages such as the ‘Magic of Mozart’, guests are taken to idyllic locations where they enjoy private chamber concertos. Avalon offers trips down the Seine based upon notable impressionist paintings, giving guests the chance to be part of the backdrops that inspired Monet. Tours informed by Europe’s longstanding horticultural specialties are also a popular choice.

For history fans, Saga organises tours focusing on the Rhine’s medieval heritage, while Avalon escorts guests around some of World War II’s most hard-fought areas of Normandy. AmaWaterways sponsors several ‘Jewish heritage’ tours down the Danube, allowing travellers to reconnect with their rich European ancestry. If you’re passionate about Europe’s gastric traditions, several operators provide river tours stopping at wineries or chocolatiers. In Portugal, guests can even live like royalty as they float along the Douro in the same prolific barge that hosted the Queen during her diamond jubilee flotilla in London.

The particulars
Because there’s such a wide array of destinations and itineraries, there isn’t a right or wrong time to take a cruise through Europe. Most lines operate their standard voyages from March to November. However, the possibilities don’t end with winter’s first snow. Providers like Noble Caledonia offer tours of Europe’s renowned Christmas fairs – sprawling German markets filled with unique holiday crafts – and ships whisk guests from fair to fair, mulled wine in hand. New Year’s cruises are also gaining popularity, allowing visitors to take in the architectural majesty of Prague and Venice during the quietest parts of the year. All-inclusive cruises tend to cost between £1,500 and £5000 per person, depending upon the depth of the itinerary and the level of luxury guests seek. This price is in the same region and often less than that of an ocean cruise, but without the thick crowds and hollow pageantry. As their popularity continues to grow, it’s worth booking well in advance to secure preferred dates or to bag a journey with your favoured theme.

Exploring Europe by river isn’t for everyone; many ships aren’t fully handicapped-accessible, and even the most exciting itinerary still means sticking to a schedule. Yet for many, river cruises are emerging as the best way to take on diverse slices of Europe, in bite-sized chunks. They provide the freedom of fresh air and exploration that a nostalgic rail journey could never match. The masterful boutique ships that float up and down the Seine and the Douro epitomise decadence, privacy and comfort. There’s no better way to explore the European countryside – and with popularity surging, there’s no better time to book.

Top tips to prepare for your river cruise


Get fit before you go. If you want to explore each port in full, expect to do quite a bit of walking.

If it’s within your budget, try to book a stateroom with a balcony. It’s worth the extra cost to be able to enjoy the tranquil scenery in private.

If time allows, book a few extra nights separately in your starting or final destination to make the most of your trip.

Budget a minimum of €50/day in spending money. You won’t spend much (if any) money onboard, but a lot of ports mean a lot of shopping opportunities.

Book now. River cruises are surging in popularity, and some operators are almost full for 2014.

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