Back to Europe: River Cruises on the Douro, Rhone, Danube and Beyond

As the European Union has opened up travel for vaccinated Americans and some other international visitors, river cruise lines are headed back to Europe’s rivers. Here’s what’s happening this summer, as announced by river lines at press time. River lines are “restarting” on Portugal’s Douro River, Italy’s Po River and the Venetian Lagoon, France’s Seine and Rhone/Saone Rivers and in the Bordeaux region, as well as on Europe’s Rhine, Danube and other rivers. 

Sailing Portugal’s Douro

Multiple river lines are restarting operations this month on the Portugal’s Douro River. Advisors say their clients enjoy a Douro cruise because Portugal is a lovely country with warm, friendly people, rich history and amazing food. “The people of Portugal are very welcoming and that is one of the biggest draws,” says Susan Wolfson, owner of Go Astro Travel, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network in Allentown, PA

Cruising the Douro is also quite different than cruising along other European waterways. “The river is not navigable at night, so all sailing takes place during the day,” Wolfson explains. “This gives guests a bit more down time to relax and enjoy the beautiful, terraced vineyards and unique locks, and also of course the port wine that the region is famous for.” She also tells cruisers about the region’s cherry liqueur, called Ginjinha or Ginja, which “tastes like a cherry pie.”

Viking River Cruises will set sail this July on five European river itineraries.

Viking River Cruises will set sail this July on five European river itineraries, including Portugal’s “River of Gold,” a 10-day voyage from Lisbon to Porto on Viking Torgil. Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours will return to the Douro on July 30, 2021 with Scenic Azure, while sister line, Emerald Cruises, will begin sailing in Portugal with Emerald Radiance on July 31, 2021. CroisiEurope will return to the Douro this month, too.

Many river lines are offering special fares or promotions to get travelers back to traveling overseas. One example? For new bookings made through August 31, 2021, Emerald is offering savings of $2,000 per couple on the eight-day “Secrets of the Douro” itinerary for July 2021 through September 2021 sailings and $1,500 savings for October 2021 and November 2021 sailings.

Overall, the mood of river line executives was buoyant after the E.U.’s announcement to allow American travelers. “We are so excited to see the situation in Europe evolving in a positive direction,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-founder, AmaWaterways. Her line’s AmaDouro will start sailing on the Douro River through Portugal on July 3, 2021, while AmaVida is slated to begin sailings in Portugal and Spain on July 27, 2021. 

Look for Riviera River Cruises to also restart on the Douro River in July with two itineraries operated by Douro Elegance and Douro Splendour. The first voyage is planned for early July, and 12 voyages will operate by the end of August. A Lisbon extension is expected to be available on select departures. 

“We went to Lisbon prior to our cruise and it really is a must do,” Wolfson believes. “We stood at the place where the great explorers left from — the Belém Tower. It set us on the right path for our voyage on the Douro. In addition, we learned about the reason for port wine while we enjoyed it.” Port wine became popular in the 17th century as England was at war with France, so more traditional wine sources weren’t readily available. The English searched for alternatives and discovered Portugal’s fortified sweet wine.

Wolfson also talks to her clients about the fresh seafood and produce they’ll see and can taste along the Douro. “During our July trip, figs were in season and we could not get enough of them,” Wolfson says, adding that they had them for dessert every night. 

Tauck will sail its first Douro departures on the 84-passenger Andorinha this year.

Tauck had planned to launch the new 84-passenger Andorinha on the Douro last year, but it will sail its first Douro departures on the new vessel this year instead. Two itineraries are planned for 2021, with a third Tauck Bridges itinerary to be added for 2022. 

“We’re thrilled to be restarting our European river cruises as of August 1, 2021,” said Joanne Gardner, Tauck’s vice president, worldwide operations, who added that the first voyages will be in France, followed by Portugal. “The situation in Europe is improving rapidly.” That said, Gardner and other executives stressed that advisors should check their companies’ websites for the latest, often-evolving requirements and health/safety protocols.   

On Andorinha, Tauck will operate two itineraries and guests will stay in 42 cabins, including 12 300-square-foot suites on the upper Diamond Deck, and 20 225-square-foot staterooms primarily on the vessel’s Ruby or mid-level deck. The remaining accommodations (six 200-square-foot cabins and four 150-square-foot cabins) will be on the lower or Emerald Deck.  

With design and décor reflecting the Douro River Valley’s climate and cultural traditions, Andorinha will have a new, Arthur’s pop-up Sun Deck restaurant (named for chairman Arthur Tauck, Jr.). This casual eatery rises from the stern on hydraulic lifts and diners will enjoy countryside views while having a meal. Arthur’s can be “lowered” as needed along the route when navigating under certain Douro bridges.   

Back to Italy and France

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises will restart European river cruises this summer in Italy. Its newly revitalized Super Ship, La Venezia, will operate Uniworld’s “Milan, Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy” itinerary, with the first voyage departing June 18, 2021. Guests will spend two days in Milan before boarding in Venice. Cruisers will sail roundtrip from Venice along northern Italy’s coastline. Activities will include a private evening opening and lighting ceremony at St. Mark’s Basilica and a trip further south to discover Chioggia, a charming fishing port.  

La Venezia also will operate the eight-day “Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy” cruise itinerary. “We’ve been waiting for this moment and are beyond thrilled to be back on the rivers,” says Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld’s president and CEO, who assures guests that “their safety is our main priority, which is why we’re taking all of the necessary precautions to ensure they’re comfortable when they’re ready to explore the rivers with us again.” 

Reflecting new interior design by artist and textile designer Mariano Fortuny, La Venezia will welcome guests with more suites, more dining areas with space for social distancing and more luxurious finishes, while maintaining a high crew-to-guest ratio.   

This month, CroisiEurope plans to begin cruising Italy’s Po River as well as France’s Seine and Gironde Rivers. In early July, it will also restart on France’s Rhone/Saone Rivers and on French canals.  

In France, Uniworld plans to restart voyages for Bon Voyage on June 27,  2021, Joie de Vivre on July 4 and Catherine on July 11, 2021. The eight-day “Brilliant Bordeaux” voyage on Bon Voyage will sail through southwestern France’s Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde Rivers; an eight-day “Paris & Normandy” itinerary operated by Joie de Vivre will sail roundtrip from Paris through Normandy’s countryside; and Catherine’s “Burgundy and Provence” voyage will cruise the Rhone and Saone Rivers. 

Three AmaWaterways river vessels will return to French waterways this summer, too. AmaLyra will begin sailing France’s Seine River on July 22, 2021, and AmaKristina will return the same day to France’s Rhone River. AmaDolce will be back sailing within the Bordeaux region in western France on July 29, 2021.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ newly revitalized Super Ship, La Venezia

Tauck, too, plans to return to France soon with seven river cruises on the Rhone and Seine, including two Tauck Bridges itineraries designed specifically for families. 

In July, Viking will relaunch on the Seine with “Paris and the Heart of Normandy,” an eight-day voyage operated roundtrip from Paris on Viking Fjorgyn. An eight-day “Lyon and Provence” voyage on Viking Buri also will sail from Avignon to Lyon on the Rhone/Saone Rivers. For clients seeking a robust Francophile journey,  Viking’s 15-day “France’s Finest” combines the northern and southern France itineraries in one seamless experience. 

“It is clear that many people are eager to get back out into the world, and I would like to thank all of our destination partners for their support as we plan our return to service,” says Torstein Hagen, Viking’s chairman. 

Rhine and Danube

On a personal note, Karst was born in Germany and emphasized that she couldn’t be happier that Europe is opening up this summer “to safely welcome back tourists to assist with the much needed economic and social recovery.” On July 21, AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna will commence its restart on the Danube River, followed by AmaSiena sailing on the Rhine River, starting July 29.  

AmaMagna is twice as wide as most river vessels, so interior venues are quite spacious; that’s a big draw for first-time river cruisers coming from an ocean big-ship line and wondering if river cruising is right for them. Plus, AmaMagna has a slew of well-appointed suites, too. 

CroisiEurope is returning to the Rhine River on July 2, 2021 and the Danube River on July 8, 2021, plus it will restart cruising on Spanish and German rivers this summer.

Viking is returning to the Rhine region with its popular eight-day “Rhine Getaway” that sails between Amsterdam and Basel, Switzerland. Whatever the river, whatever the itinerary, it’s good to check each cruise line’s website for the latest developments with health/safety protocols. For example, the "Viking Health & Safety Program" was developed in partnership with an international team of medical advisors, including Raquel Bono, M.D., Viking’s chief health officer, a retired vice admiral of the U.S. Navy Medical Corps who recently led Washington State’s medical and healthcare systems’ pandemic response.

Tapping into a network of dedicated shoreside labs, Viking’s river cruise teams can administer frequent, quick and easy non-invasive saliva PCR tests for river cruise guests and crew. New air purification technology has been installed on all Viking ships, which have always featured independent air handling units for all guest staterooms. Additional health checks, sanitization and physical distancing measures are in place too. Check for more details. 

Rudi Schreiner, president, AmaWaterways, points out that his line “successfully operated river cruises during summer 2020,” so it’s experienced in implementing enhanced health and safety protocols to keep guests safe. Last year, AmaWaterways operated months of successful, safe charter sailings on AmaKristina for a German tour operator. 

At press time, Walter Littlejohn, senior vice president and managing director, Crystal River Cruises, had sent a letter to travel advisors, stating: “I am pleased to announce that our plans are well underway to resume river cruising in Europe beginning August 29, 2021 as we are cautiously optimistic about the recent news from the European Union allowing entry for vaccinated travelers.”

He called that a necessary and welcome step toward the resumption of unfettered European river cruising, but also said: “It is important to note the adoption of these protocols by the individual E.U. member states that impact our multi-country itineraries is a critical next step, as the member states ultimately control the borders.” 

But as Europe starts opening up to American and international river cruise guests once again, “restarting these itineraries is just the first step in getting all of our ships back on the rivers this year,” believes Bettridge. “Demand for river cruising is at an all-time high.”

Emerald Cruises will begin sailing in Portugal with Emerald Radiance on July 31, 2021.

River News Tidbits 

Crystal River Cruises has introduced its 2023 European river season line-up of voyages for the Danube, Rhine and Moselle Rivers and waterways of Belgium and the Netherlands. New in 2023 are shorter five-night sailings, including Crystal Ravel’s “Danube Discovery” from Vienna, Austria to Vilshofen, Germany, and Crystal Mahler’s “Playgrounds of the Netherlands & Belgium,” roundtrip from Amsterdam. 

Several new, longer, extended voyages include Crystal Ravel’s 14-night “Pearls of the Danube” to Austria’s Wachau Valley, Vienna and Budapest, Hungary, as well as Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Crystal Mahler’s new 15-night “Vineyards, Castles & Masterpieces” itinerary operates from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, while that ship’s 17-day “Grand Rhine & Moselle” will sail from Amsterdam to Basel.

Emerald Cruises has introduced its 2022 Special Interest Cruise collection. Departing August 21, 2022, an eight-day “Wines of the Moselle Cruise” between Mainz and Bernkastel, Germany, will focus on the region’s vinicultural history and explore its local wines through lectures, daily tastings and tours of wine estates. Fares begin at $3,295 per person, double occupancy. Other new Emerald-themed options include a “Danube Spa, Arts and Culture Cruise” between Budapest, Hungary and Passau, Germany, departing July 21, 2022, and an eight-day “Rhine Spa, Arts & Culture Cruise,” sailing from Mainz, Germany to Basel, Switzerland, departing June 26, 2022.

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