Like their oceanic counterparts, river cruises are becoming ever more popular and catering for an increasingly broad range of travellers.
The key advantages of river cruises for many are that they take you through the heart of the communities they call at, you tend to get more time on shore, and the ships are typically like floating boutique hotels.
Many European cities were designed to be viewed from the river, Troy Ackerman, the New Zealand manager for Globus, owner of river cruise company Avalon Waterways says, so a river cruise enables you to see them at their best.
Ackerman says the rise in Kiwi river cruisers in recent years has been “exceptional, yet not unexpected given many will have visited Europe before and are looking for a repeat experience with a difference”.
Tony Laskey, director of marketing and communications at The Travel Corporation agrees, saying the company has seen an increase in younger second- or third-time travellers to the continent looking “to experience a different side of Europe”.
Given the time and money needed to get to Europe, longer cruises of three weeks or more are most popular with New Zealand travellers, Laskey says, but the company’s river cruise brands – Uniworld and U by Uniworld – have seen more Kiwis take shorter cruises as part of a longer holiday. They may, for example, combine a one- or- two-week cruise with a guided, land-based tour or independent travel.
Famous European rivers such as the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine and Po remain popular choices, but Laskey says there’s been increased interest in lesser known rivers such as the Moselle, which flows through France, Luxembourg and Germany.
Meanwhile, the growing number of river cruises in Asia and South America are opening up the interiors of these continents to travellers who may not have ventured there otherwise.
While China’s Yangtze was once the only major river cruise destination in Asia, it has been joined by the likes of the Mekong in Southeast Asia, Irrawaddy in Myanmar, Ganges in India and Red River in Vietnam.
“In recent years, Indochina has emerged from the realm of adventure tourism to have a far broader appeal to travellers seeking a sense of the exotic,” Ackerman says. A cruise along the Mekong – which passes through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China and Myanmar – is literally an exploration of the “lifeline for the people of these regions”, he says. Passengers are transported through cities and towns as well as ordinarily harder-to-reach villages and rural areas.
India is another emerging market for luxury river cruising, Ackerman says, with journeys along the Ganges allowing passengers to see iconic sites such as the Taj Mahal, visit St Mother Teresa’s former home and the heart of the Hare Krishna movement and meet artisans including saree weavers and goldsmiths.
Australian-owned Scenic Luxury Tours and Cruises’ Evergreen Cruises is set to launch a luxury “Star Ship” on the Mekong in 2019 with Asian-themed decor and features including a pool, “Lotus Lounge” with low tables, locally-inspired menus and owners’ suites with wrap-around terraces complete with hot tubs.
The three itineraries through Cambodia and Vietnam promise to give passengers an insight into traditional rural lifestyles, offering such sights as children rising water buffalos and rice paddies tended to by worked in conical hats as well as tourist hot spots such as Hoh Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Siem Reap.
In South America, a cruise along the Amazon River enables passengers to experience the jungle from the comfort of a luxury liner – something, Ackerman says, which “may have otherwise seemed impossible”.
Like their oceangoing sisters, river cruise ships were traditionally the domain of older travellers but they too have witnessed an increase in multi-generational travel and become more friendly.
Laskey says Uniworld’s “Generations” cruises, geared towards families, continue to grow in popularity, offering all-ages activities and excursions while maintaining the luxury features and quality service the brand is known for.
River cruise lines are also working to entice younger cruisers with the likes of themed parties, gyms, wellness centres, diverse menus and active excursions.
U by Uniworld – which offers river cruises through France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Netherlands and Hungary – is targeted squarely at “next-generation” cruisers, offering mixology sessions, silent discos, paint and wine classes, rooftop yoga sessions and barbecues, karaoke nights and giant board games.
Excursions are often active and designed to give holidaymakers a sense of local life – think an evening of classical music in Vienna, a street art tour in Paris, a bike ride along the Danube or kayaking beneath the arched bridges that connect the Bavarian town of Bamberg to the island that houses the muralled Old Town Hall/porcelain museum.
Avalon has also introduced a range of active excursions along with “flexi dining” which, as the name suggests, enables guests to eat when and where they like.
“Guests may elect to take their luncheon on shore with them as they explore local villages or take in local attractions and sights by foot or bike,” Ackerman says.
Ultimately, river cruises are becoming more flexible than ever before, he adds, essentially allowing guests to create bespoke itineraries.
“Every day is an exciting new adventure for you to simply step into.”