City Breaks With A Difference
Lifestyle, food and travel writer Becky Wiggins shares her expert advice on why a river cruise is a great holiday choice!
Why choose a river cruise?
For an intimate and relaxing cruise holiday, river cruising is hard to beat. And though river cruise ships might not be able to provide the vast array of entertainment, shopping and dining offered by ocean liners, river cruises make up for it with cosy dining, where your waiter remembers your name, friendly service, ease of access (imagine hopping on and off your ship right in the centre of your chosen city), and an easy two minute potter back to your room after dinner. And what’s more, river cruising can be the perfect choice for first-time cruisers. ‘For someone looking to cruise that doesn't like the idea of large ships, then a river cruise is ideal’, explains River Cruise Consultant Gill Williams. ‘It's like a collection of city breaks rolled into one holiday - and you only have to unpack once!’
What to expect on a river cruise
At the very heart of river cruising is the opportunity to get under the skin of each destination on your itinerary, so you’ll find yourself arriving in the very heart of your destination, ready to disembark and start exploring. My own favourite city, Budapest, is a perfect example of this, and nothing beats gliding along the Danube on a moonlit light, taking your first glimpse of the riverfront panorama glittering with thousands of lights. It’s truly breathtaking. You might not find all the amenities of the big ships, but that means you won’t find the queues either: you can wander into breakfast at your leisure, meet and chat with new people at dinner (there tends to be one sitting, often at larger tables, so socialising comes with the territory), and spend lazy, sun-drenched afternoons on board, watching life go by while sipping a cocktail on your top deck lounger.
More reasons to love river cruising
Most river cruise lines operate on an all-inclusive basis with standard excursions, drinks with dinner, coffee, tea and even afternoon tea included in the price. So, although you might initially think it’s an expensive option, you’re not likely to have to pay out for anything when you get on board. You’ll also get a wonderful vista as standard, because unlike ocean vessels, there are no inside cabins on a river cruise. Whether you opt for a porthole window, a French balcony (floor to ceiling sliding doors but with no balcony space), or an actual balcony, you’ll always have a view of the river. The destination is the star of the show when you’re river cruising, so don’t expect many ‘sea days’ as most of the travel between ports takes place at night (with the exception of a few scenic cruising stretches such as the UNESCO listed Wachau Valley on the Danube, and the breathtaking Three Gorges on the Yangtze). I love the sensation of waking, refreshed after a good night’s sleep, to find that the ship been magically transferred to your new destination. Plus, of course as Gill points out: ‘there is no sea sickness, as the boats have flat bottoms and you don't get waves on the river!’.
You might not find lavish spas and state of the art fitness centres on board, but many river cruise lines offer top deck yoga sessions, bikes for hire, massage therapy and even a pool. Each of Emerald’s fleet of river cruise ships boast a heated pool complete with retractable roof and a bar area, and Uniworld’s newest boutique Super Ships, SS Maria Theresa and SS Joie de Vivre offer wellness areas complete with heated resistance pools, spa area and gym. Plus, on SS Joie de Vivre, the area transforms at night into either a French supper club, or a cinema.
Cabins tend to be well-equipped but quite compact (unless you’re really splashing out), but think of it as just a place to lay your head, as you’ll be spending most of your holiday out enjoying your chosen destinations. Plus, you’ll find roomy lounge and bar areas on board where you can relax.
Pick your itinerary
From the stunning Gothic architecture of Budapest to the pretty wedding cake castle sitting atop Bratislava and beyond to the pastel churches and cathedrals of Austria, a Danube river cruise is a wonderful way to discover the treasures of central Europe. Or choose a Rhine cruise to explore Germany’s Black Forest; the bustling European capital, Strasbourg, and colourful Amsterdam. Sail the Douro from Lisbon to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Porto via the fascinating Spanish city of Salamanca, or discover the secrets of Moscow and delve into the majesty of the palaces of St Petersburg on a cruise down Europe’s largest river, the Volga. ‘My favourite river cruise was a trip on board Uniworld's River Countess (soon to be SS La Venezia after a multi-million pound design renovation in March 2020) around Venice! (Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy Cruise)’ says Marketing Manager, Lewis Johnston. ‘It's a river cruise with the best of both cruising worlds... at times you get the feeling of being out at sea as the Venetian lagoon is so vast, but you're sailing towards Chioggia & Polesella on the Po River so you get the true river cruise experience. The ship docks right in the heart of Venice too, so St Marks Square (or Piazza San Marco) is on your doorstep! Picturesque and with fantastic Italian food - my favourite!’
Of course, river cruising isn’t exclusively limited to European city breaks. ‘My favourite river cruise destination is Ho Chi Minh City, says CEO Phil Nuttall, ‘it's historic, chaotic, friendly and the food is incredible’. AMAWaterways’ Charms of the Mekong cruise, from Siem Reap offers the chance to undertake an incredible journey through Vietnam and Cambodia, experiencing life in rural villages, and even includes a visit to a Buddhist monastery for a special blessing by the resident Monks. Or splash out and experience the music, history and Southern hospitality on one of American Cruise Lines’ stunning riverboats on a round trip from New Orleans, cruising the mighty Mississippi and visiting the stunning Oak Valley Plantation, the Civil War battlefields of the city of Vicksburg and fascinating Louisiana state capital, Baton Rouge.
Which river cruise line?
‘We feature many different cruise lines that cater for all types of travellers, from budget shorter cruises to lavish ultra-luxury sailings’, explains Lewis Johnston, ‘and from solo cruises with low or no supplement to full group charters (we have a group on a Bordeaux cruise in 2020 featuring a day at the famous Bordeaux Wine Festival)’. Although much more compact than ocean vessels, river cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes, although many cruise lines have ships purpose built to fit their destinations. Viking’s famous longships are chic, spacious, and – as the name suggests, long – perfect for the wide European waterways they sail. Viking’s fleet also features Viking Ra, built specifically to navigate the Nile (soon to be joined in September 2020 by state-of-the-art Viking Osiris). Uniworld’s luxurious river cruise ships are like floating boutique hotels, offering the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the river cruise industry with unparalleled levels of service and super stylish accommodation. Emerald Waterways’ newest ship Emerald Harmony has been cleverly designed to sail the majesty of the Mekong and allow it to dock in the very heart of Ho Chi Minh City, and AMA’s Zambezi Queen uses an eco-friendly water jet propulsion system which is kind to the environment as well as being quiet, especially for wildlife viewing along Africa’s legendary Chobe river, and boasts unobstructed views from each of its 14 suites.
Because river cruise ships tend to arrive in the very centre of their destination, it’s easy to head off on your own to explore, or, if you prefer, join a provided walking tour, a bicycle tour or even an exclusive experience created just for you. Local guides are always generous with their knowledge and will point out interesting sights or even great local restaurants and bars if you’d rather explore independently. However, some excursions are not to be missed: Scenic offer ‘Enrich’, a range of made to measure experiences, from a privately escorted wine tasting experience at a French Château, or a medieval banquet in Germany’s Marksburg Castle; each are unique, and designed to help you discover more about the culture of your destination. Uniworld’s included Exclusive Experiences offer guests once in a lifetime opportunities, including a private art tour of the Vienna Art History Museum, or even the chance to meet a real-life Austrian princess in her 13th-century castle.
Preparing for your first river cruise
Although your choice of what to pack will obviously depend on your destination, river cruising in general tends to be quite informal. It’s worth checking out the weather for your chosen destination in case you’ll need a waterproof coat, and River Cruise Consultant Diane Ware recommends ‘a pair of comfortable walking shoes! With tours included in most ports, and with most cruise lines, you have the option to do plenty of exploring!’. It’s helpful to pack lots of light layers (we’ve all been that person who wore a jumper and then sweltered when the sun came out) and swimwear even if there isn’t a pool just in case there’s an excursion to some local baths or a lake. ‘I'd also say leave your posh frocks at home (unless you want to of course)’, adds Diane, ‘pack as if you were taking a hotel or city break: casual, but smart!’.
Booking your river cruise
‘Most river cruise lines give great early booking offers and many of them avoid discounts so you can usually book ahead safe in the knowledge that you are unlikely to see your cruise cheaper later on’, advises Avalon’s Giles Hawke.
Make sure you read all the paperwork sent to you by your cruise consultant. For example, it’s generally your responsibility to make sure you have the correct visa for your visit (as part of the RiverCruising.co.uk 5* customer care, our river cruise agents will advise you at the time of booking what you will need, and also how to obtain them).
Make the most of your consultant’s expertise by chatting about your own requirements. They’ll often be able to advise on adding pre- and post-cruise hotel accommodation so you can spend a few extra days exploring.
Make sure you’re clear about any special assistance requirements before you book. It’s no secret that some river docks can make access a challenge with steps and ramps, especially with unpredictable water levels, and sometimes river ships can be double – or even triple - moored, making it necessary to cross through one or more ships to access the dock. The crew will help as much as they can, but as a guide, you should be required to disembark unaided.
If you are interested in booking a river cruise, or you’d like to discuss them in more detail with our team, please get in touch! You can visit us at The Travel Village on Highfield Road, South Shore, Blackpool – you can call us on 0800 810 8229 – or you can search our site full of great value river cruises!