IF YOU'VE RECENTLY BEEN TO EUROPE ON A CRUISE SHIP, TWO THINGS ARE UBIQUITOUS. One: sticker-price shock. Though Italy might have Starbucks, two lattes in Venice will put a nice dent in your daily allowance. Two: tourists. Yes, you might very well be one of them, but stepping off a cruise ship in a European port is a quasi cattle call with shore excursion personnel herding people in one direction, while guileful provincial taxi drivers gather in queue formation awaiting tourist prey.
It's enough to persuade some not to leave the ship altogether. But that's not why you go to Europe, is it? It's to see the sights, the sounds and the smells (both good and bad), right? One transient method gaining popularity is river cruising, which, unlike its older sibling, ocean cruising, is confined to Europe's, Asia's and North Africa's vast systems of rivers. Forget the deep blue sea and clear your mind of any preconceived notion you might have—river cruising is an experience all its own.
What's so Great?
First off, while the cruise industry cannot be blamed for the strong euro versus the weak dollar mess, it is somewhat culpable for the tourist swell created when 4,000 cruise passengers are dumped off at a port. Well, riverboats are known for carrying no more than 200 passengers, which comes in handy when it's time for them to disembark in a particular city—instead of a cattle drive reminiscent of a John Wayne picture, there is an air of civility and calm.
One of the reasons is that more often than not, riverboats aren't even pulling into ports. With river cruising, the city serves as the port. When a boat pulls up, passengers step off and literally are in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city or town. As any ocean cruise experience will remind you, the major attractions of a city can be miles away from the port, which can be vexing when ship schedules require passengers to be back onboard at early-evening times.
The flexibility of river cruising is another advantage. Say you love a particular town and want to stay a little longer for dinner, or perhaps even stay overnight. No problem, you can catch up with the boat the next day farther downriver. Well—knock on wood—if you've ever been unfortunate enough to miss a cruise ship, catching up with it is going to cost you a lot more than some measly taxi fare.
Here's another perk: scenery. Being out on the clear blue sea is an awe-inspiring experience, especially the first time, but after a while you get it—there's the water, there's the horizon, don't fall in. River cruising, conversely, offers a scenic glide under centuries-old bridges, past venerable cathedrals and prewar homes. Did I mention that river waters are also placid compared to the ocean? No need for the Dramamine.
Or a boatload of extra money. Cruise ships are notorious for getting into your wallet well after you have booked and paid for your cruise. This means shelling out for shore excursions, wine and liquor, the casino, the spa and specialty restaurants. On a river cruise, most extras are built into the cruise price, including shore excursions, wine and usage of items such as bicycles. And you won't even have to worry about paying for the spa or losing all your hard-earned money at the casino because rarely do riverboats provide either.
Vacations should be anxiety free and river cruising provides more than a modicum of peacefulness. Moreover, any discussion about river cruising isn't complete without hearing the words "small" or "intimate"—two money words at the tip of every river cruise executive's tongue. A riverboat is a vastly different experience compared to ocean-going vessels. First off, they are scaled down and have none of the dazzle and glitz one might find on a Carnival or Royal Caribbean ship. Hopping casino—nope; Broadway-style theater—negative; twisting water slides—not here; overblown announcements pushing onboard shopping or the drink-of-the-day—thank goodness, no. What you do get are comfortable quarters, delicious cuisine (often prepared with local ingredients) and a chummy—dare I say intimate—atmosphere.
That said, the true stars of any river cruise are the charming cities and towns that passengers greet each new dawn. From Budapest and Vienna along the Danube to St. Petersburg and Moscow on the Volga, riverboats cut a path through the multitude of waterways and arteries that are the very DNA of Europe, Russia and Asia. The true greatness of Europe, to name just one continent, is found in its cities, towns and villages. Old World cities are drenched in culture, history and a spirit that differs from city to city, and a river cruise allows the tourist to experience each destination in a very personal and exclusive manner, one that truly captures the essence of the city.
Undoubtedly, river cruising still gets swallowed up in the shadow of ocean cruising, but has the opportunity to ride the coattails of its better-known older sibling. As ocean cruising continues to grow in popularity—remember, cruising, in general, as a vacation choice is still in demand—so too does riverboat cruising. For most North Americans, a river cruise is not an entry-level vacation; ocean cruising, on the other hand, is. As more and more people become seasoned in sailing at sea, their tastes will evolve and lead toward a natural curiosity into river cruising.