Sometimes thinking small delivers the bigger view.
That’s the reward planners can bet on with river cruises. Gentle, intimate vessels may not boast the arena-sized entertainment of their cruise ship cousins, but these travel-sized ships mean passengers get up-close views of life via waterways where bigger vessels dare not enter.
Unlike large-ship cruising, days on a river cruise tend to be more structured and curated. The only choices planners have to make are the waterway, the time, and the river cruise company. Here is a smattering of group-friendly ideas sure to delight in Europe, the U.S., and farther afield.
River cruising originated in Europe after World War II, and for good reason. The waterways cutting through the continent offer access to fairy-tale castles, medieval cities and destinations synonymous with romance.
River cruise ships in Europe are roughly the same long, flat shape and size, as all boats have to pass under the same bridges and fit through the same locks — limiting their size and therefore the number of passengers. There may be a small fitness center, plunge pool or deck for lounging.
Many companies provide ground transport to the ship, especially if booked with airfare. Once onboard, the daily routine includes an overview of the itinerary to prepare passengers for what can be a tightly packed schedule. Operating like an escorted bus tour, most operators provide a choice of two excursions per port. Travelers pick between a slower-paced walking tour or a more active excursion like biking or hiking.
For most lines life on board is all-inclusive, from meals to drinks and gratuities. As for accommodations, while each room will have a window, and some a balcony or terrace, all river ships share docking ports in Europe. So while at the port of call, views may be blocked by a neighboring ship.
Travel planners should consider companies such as Viking, Scenic, AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways and Tauck River Cruises.
Traversing 10 countries from Central Europe to the Balkans, itineraries along the Danube almost always stop in Vienna; Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungary. A typical Danube itinerary begins in Regensburg, Germany. Before embarkation, enjoy a tour of the rare German city that wasn’t disfigured by war. Day two brings passengers to Vienna to tour the Palace of the Hapsburgs. On day three, explore Passau, Germany, a Bavarian town, with a hike to the Veste Oberhaus, the city fortress dating back to the early 1200s. The following day dock in Bratislava and explore the baroque city. End the journey in Budapest with a tour, a piano recital at the Institute of the Blind or a Jewish History walking tour.
A river cruise on the Seine will take travelers from Paris to Normandy and back, in one of the most treasured stretches of France. Many begin their cruise with a few days in the City of Lights before embarkation. Then, spend two days docked in Le Havre, a strategic port city and focal point of WWII. Tour the Route des Abbayes by bus to take in ruins of medieval monasteries and contemplate what the beaches of Normandy witnessed. Day five brings passengers to Rouen, where must-sees on a walking tour include the cathedral.
Starting in the Alps, the Rhine winds its way northward through picturesque towns in Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands. A typical itinerary begins in Amsterdam, where any visit would be remiss without a canal cruise tour. In Rudesheim, Germany, the gateway to the Rhine Gorge and the middle Rhine Valley famous for its castles, plan to catch a lift in a cable car to the Neiderwald Monument. At the summit, view the vineyards and enjoy a local Riesling tasting. A day in Ludwigshafen, Germany, will offer a Heidelberg excursion or hiking tour. Cap the cruise off with a tour of Strasbourg, France, the gem of Alsace.
Small ship cruising in the U.S. punches above its weight — especially on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and the Mississippi River and coastal waters around New England.
Small ships in the U.S. look a little different than their European counterparts. They tend to be paddlewheelers, yachts or small ships with multiple decks hosting fewer than 200 people on board. Room sizes range from 150 to 300 square feet.
Typically, river cruising in the U.S. includes meals, snacks, beverages, gratuities and basic excursions. Evening entertainment might include performances by local artists. Often, the itinerary begins the night before the ship leaves the dock with a pre-cruise hotel stay. Unlike on European river cruises, passengers are not wedded to the ship or group, and venturing off to explore alone is normal.
For domestic river cruises, check out American Cruise Lines, American Queen Voyages, UnCruise Adventures and Viking River Cruises.
American culture is on full display on the Mississippi. You can cruise its length or consider a lower Mississippi cruise spanning Memphis, Tennessee, to New Orleans. Start with a tour of the blues in Memphis, then look to Cleveland, Mississippi, to explore the sleepy town’s contributions to music. On day two, explore Vicksburg, Mississippi, to consider a significant Civil War battle site. Spend a day in St. Francisville, Louisiana, an antebellum town with hundreds of sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Stop at Nottoway Plantation to peel back the complicated layers of the state’s history. Finally, disembark in New Orleans to play, eat and explore.
The Columbia and Snake Rivers
Small-ship cruising on the Columbia and Snake rivers invites passengers to take in the same magnificent sunsets and sunrises witnessed by Lewis and Clark. The expedition almost always begins in Portland, Oregon. Spend the pre-cruise day in the city or visit Mount St. Helens. The unhewn spirit of the West can be glimpsed on the second day in Astoria, Oregon, the oldest settlement west of the Mississippi. Step off the boat the next day in one of the nation’s richest wine regions and learn about the pioneering spirit of those who took the Oregon Trail in The Dalles, Oregon. Spend the final day eating, sightseeing and tracing the footsteps of Lewis and Clark in Spokane, Washington.
Coastal New England
New England cruises are largely all-inclusive but check ahead of time to be sure. Not all of these routes include a pre-cruise hotel stay. Begin the trip in Providence, Rhode Island, and explore three centuries of American history. The next day, be transported to the backdrop of Moby Dick: New Bedford, Connecticut. Enjoy the Whaling Museum excursion or an Acushnet Harbor cruise. Move on to Nantucket, Massachusetts, and its idyllic shores, and explore Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, full of neatly painted Colonial homes. Enjoy the “Avenue of the Mansions” in Newport, Rhode Island, and visit Battleship Cove in Bristol, Massachusetts.
A river cruise to faraway places can be a lovely way to experience a vastly different and new destination while maintaining the ability to retreat to the safety and security of a modern and well-furnished cabin.
Many of the vessels serving these exotic destinations offer familiar amenities, including a restaurant, lounge deck, outdoor pool, modest gym and library. Where they differ is in their design. Many of these river cruise ships boast sharp angles, dark colors and natural textures like wood and leather on the exterior. Some, like the Aqua Nera in the Amazon, are designed to blend in with the jungle around them. Transfers, gratuities, airfare and drinks outside of mealtime are not typically included in these river cruise options. Excursions vary broadly according to the destination and cruise line. Check with AmaWaterways, Aqua Waterways, Avalon Waterways or Viking River Cruises for more information on exotic river cruises.
Cruising along the peaceful Mekong River will take travelers on a vibrant, authentic journey through Cambodia and Vietnam. Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, embark and enjoy a welcome dinner onboard. Day two brings passengers to Sa Dec, Vietnam, with a visit to a local produce market. On the third day, take a trishaw ride to view a craftsman’s workshop. On day four, explore Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and walk into the Royal Palace and National Museum. View a Buddhist blessing ceremony on the fifth day in Oudong, Cambodia, and visit a silk village and local school on day six. At the end of the week, take a walking tour of Angkor Ban, one of the last remaining traditional villages in Cambodia that wasn’t razed under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
The Peruvian Amazon beckons to travelers aboard a river cruise in the heart of the world’s most dense and biodiverse landscapes. Embarkation takes place in Iquitos, Peru. Each day, excursions, presentations and discovery trips lead passengers ever deeper into the magic of the Amazon. Swim with pink dolphins, hike after dusk to spot nocturnal species or spend the day in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in Peru to view macaws, parrots and falcons.