I’ve been a land-based traveler for most of my life. Motor coaches and cars have helped me explore everything from Italy’s Tuscany region to Ireland’s Rings of Kerry. But recently I discovered a love for river cruising.
After returning from a cruise on the legendary Rhine, I’m happily considering trips to other iconic waterways such as the Danube for next year. Sure, there were a few wrinkles, but they didn’t take away from what I found was a charming, intimate experience — with not only the river but the people on the ship. Whether from the deck or the sliding glass door in my cabin, there was always something to see, from steep vineyard hills and medieval castles to industrial plants. I also got to know the eclectic group of 130 passengers on the ship, mostly baby boomers. They included a law firm partner, a teacher, a physics professor on a honeymoon and a priest.
The small scale of river ships — which typically carry no more than a couple hundred passengers — is a large part of their appeal, in contrast to ocean-going mega-ships that carry thousands. On a river ship, you don’t need a GPS device to figure out where the lobby or the dining room is. And there’s a sense of intimacy, with plenty of cozy moments. On my trip, some passengers partook in movie night, with popcorn shared in paper bags while watching Eat Pray Love on a flat-screen TV in a lounge. I participated in an impromptu mini-Mass with five others in a corner of the ship officiated by the passenger priest. He improvised with that night’s dinner bread.
The idea for the trip started with my globe-trotting mother, who’d taken a trip on a barge on the Seine in the 1990s and had always raved about it. So for $3,100 (per person, double occupancy, excluding airfare), my mother, my sister, a friend and I booked an eight-day trip with Avalon Waterways on the Rhine, starting in Basel, Switzerland and ending in Amsterdam, with stops that included Strasbourg, France, and Heidelberg and Cologne, Germany. Typical of most river cruises, the price covered meals, wine with dinner and most shore excursions.
While river cruises carry just a fraction of the number of passengers that go on mainstream cruises, the industry has been exploding. The number of people taking river cruises has increased 57 percent since 2008, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. That compares with 23 percent growth for mainstream cruise during the same time frame. European river cruises are expected to carry about 400,000 people next year, said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, among the world’s five largest river cruise operators.
“People love it. It’s convenient, and visually, you get to see more,” says Lanie Morgenstern, the trade group’s spokeswoman. The trips are geared to a more sophisticated traveler who wants to mix up the trips for a deeper understanding of the area, she added.
New river boats also have more amenities than in the past. The vessels must be narrow enough to fit through locks and low enough to pass under bridges that predate large cruise ships, so their cabins are traditionally smaller than on ocean-going ships, with less room for large recreational areas. But river cruise operators are finding ways to add features such as small pools, and they’re upgrading in other ways, too, improving menus and decor.