Top River Cruises for Foodies

Food and cooking are an important part of any culture’s heritage. “To allow guests to truly enjoy their regional cultural experience, many river cruises are offering culinary shore trips, onboard cooking classes, and menus featuring fresh, locally sourced produce” that highlight the itinerary, says Noam Meppen, owner, Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Scottsdale, AZ. If clients have a love of food and a passion for immersive travel, a culinary themed river cruise or river cruise with culinary perks can be perfect, Meppen and other agents believe.  

“River cruises are popular for people who love food because you get to try so many different foods on the ship and while you’re in the different towns and cities, so we focus on that because that’s what we love about river cruising,” says Laura Williams, franchise owner, Cruise Planners in Omaha, NE

The World Food Travel Association’s “State of the Food Tourism Industry’s 2018 Annual Report” showed that 93 percent of travelers have engaged in special / memorable food and beverage experiences other than simply going to dinner in a local restaurant. So, here’s what’s new for river cruisers with a foodie mindset.   

At Max’s restaurant on Uniworld’s newly renovated Beatrice, guests can take cooking classes where they’ll create local European cuisine — such as wiener schnitzel and goulash — alongside the chef. // Photography: Uniworld

Special Culinary Sailings

Celebrated Dallas culinary notables Paula Lambert and Stephan Pyles will sail May 23, 2019, on a special departure of Riviera River Cruises’ “Burgundy, the River Rhône & Provence” river cruise, a collaboration between the line and David Morris International. In southern France, cruisers will head out on exclusive group culinary and wine tours curated and hosted by Lambert and Pyles. Lambert is one of America’s pioneer artisanal cheesemakers and founder of Dallas’ Mozzarella Company, while Pyles is renowned for southwestern U.S. cuisine; he has created 22-plus restaurants in five cities including Dallas’ Flora Street Café

Chef Luca Manfe will be onboard Tauck’s April 8, 2019 departure of “The Romantic Rhine” itinerary. Luca won the fourth season of FOX’s “MasterChef” reality TV show. He’ll be onboard for the full sailing and will be doing live cooking demonstrations, a “Meet Luca” presentation, a Q+A evening and a signature dinner. He’ll also mix and mingle with guests throughout the cruise — sharing recipes and cooking tips.

For 2019, American Cruise Lines is offering culinary-themed cruises on the lower Mississippi between New Orleans and Memphis. Currently scheduled 2019 dates are: April 20, June 8, July 21, August 14, October 19, October 29 and November 2; the weeklong sailings are on the traditionally styled America and Queen of the Mississippi and the new, modern riverboat American Harmony, debuting next year. These cruises will give foodies the taste of everything from chicken gumbo to BBQ shrimp, Louisiana jumbo lump crab cakes and bourbon pecan pie. Cruisers can watch cooking demonstrations, enjoy food & wine pairings, learn new recipes and take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Louisiana Culinary Institute.

How does cuisine entice clients to book? “We will first place the clients with a culinary cruise that matches their preferences — wine, chocolate, farm-to-table or local fare — and take it up a notch,” says Lucinda Belden, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Carrollton, TX. For example, the agency might set up the client to have dinner with an onboard chef or other culinary perk…then “we customize it even more than the cruise line.” 

On shore, Belden says her agency extends the unique events by finding non-cookie cutter experiences: “We have done special arrangements like dining in the home of a local from Cuba and cooking the meal with them in the kitchen… or getting a private tour and hands-on experience with a chocolatier from working with the nibs to making their own bars.”

CroisiEurope’s “Valleys of the Rhone and Saone: Gastronomy and Vineyards” is a gastronomically themed itinerary 
on the Camargue; it sails roundtrip from Lyon, France on November 19 and November 23. Guests will dine one evening at the Abbey of Collonges.

New Dining Programs & Venues

Updates to onboard dining continue to entice new guests. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has launched new culinary programming this year including progressive dinners and cooking lessons with their expert chefs. With a farm-to-ship culinary approach, Uniworld has introduced progressive dining on all its European Super Ships. Guests can eat each course in a new location — enjoying appetizers in the galley and dessert on the top deck. Menu offerings vary for each sailing as the dishes change per chef, destination, season and region. 

Regional menu items may include soup of the day served with puff pastries, homemade seafood cigar with sweet chili dip, beef roulade, fresh locally sourced vegetables, sorbet and more. Additionally, River Countess’ restaurant L’Osteria opens with Italian antipasto, fresh market salads, al fresco pizza freshly made from the ship’s professional pizzaiolo (pizza maker), breadsticks from the local markets, freshly cut prosciutto di Parma and local sweets.

In 2019, Avalon Waterways will introduce its new FlexDining program, providing more flexibility at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pam Hoffee, managing director, Avalon Waterways puts it this way: “In addition to providing guests with multiple dining venues like the Panorama Bistro and the Sky Grill to bringing healthy food options to the plate with Avalon Fresh, FlexDining offers our guests the opportunity to enjoy open dining times, more two-top tables for couples, bar service on the Sky Deck and daily night fare, on request, at the bar. We even provide complimentary picnic lunches to those interested in taking their dining experience off the ship.”

Highly anticipated for a May 2019 launch on the Danube River is AmaWaterways’ new 196-passenger AmaMagna, twice as wide as a normal European river cruise vessel. Onboard, two new eateries will complement the existing dining venues. Jimmy’s Wine Bar Restaurant’s menu is expected to be similar to the Main Restaurant, but the dishes will be served family-style at high-top tables. 

Separately, AmaMagna’s Al Fresco Restaurant, which will be open for lunch and dinner, will serve small plates of lighter fare with a variety of vegetarian option. As a member of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an exclusive international culinary society, AmaWaterways offers locally inspired cuisine. Besides its Main Restaurant and the two new eateries, the new ship will offer the line’s popular Chef’s Table specialty restaurant — where the kitchen becomes part of the entertainment. 

The Bistro is a second restaurant at the stern of Riviera River Cruises’ newest ships on the Rhine, Danube, Main and Moselle rivers, including the Robert Burns that launched in April. It’s a more intimate dining experience, with seating for no more than 34 guests and an open kitchen. The chef presents signature dishes from menus that vary by season. Weather permitting, panoramic windows may be opened to the terrace for al fresco dining. Look for The Bistro to also be onboard the William Wordsworth and George Eliot, both launching in 2019.

In Asia, Pandaw recently added private dining for two onboard, subject to availability. Guests can reserve it in advance online, and they’ll dine for a night or the entire cruise, depending on their choice, at a table for two. It’s a great way to assure a romantic couple’s dinner one night, yet still convivial dining with others on other nights. 

AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna will debut on the Danube in May 2019.  

Culinary Shore Trips

Increasingly guests have choices that include culinary-focused shore excursions. Williams cites cooking school excursions and a chateaux dinner, for example. On Abercrombie & Kent’s “Paris, Burgundy & the South of France” itinerary, guests can take a Montmartre (Paris) food walk with six tasting stops, as well as a shore trip that includes an off-ship lunch at a family-run Provençal farm. Or, on “Prague and the Blue Danube” cruise, A&K’s guests can attend a strudel-making lesson at Schönbrunn Palace. Meals ashore for A&K guests on a “Switzerland and the Rhine” itinerary also range from cheese tasting in Edam, the Netherlands, to chocolate tasting in Zurich, Switzerland.

In Vienna, Crystal River Cruises offers “Cooking Like a Chef at Kempinski,” where cruisers will join the culinary masters in the kitchen of the five-star Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna; its Michelin- and Gault-Millau-rated restaurants are under the direction of Chef Anton Pozeg. During a two-hour cooking workshop, the executive or sous chef will guide cruise guests to create classic Austrian and international cuisine. At times, Chef Pozeg may even join the group to provide expert tips. After the lesson, guests will dine on the feast they’ve created. 

While in Linz, Austria, Crystal’s guests also can take “Linzer Torte Baking Workshop & City Walk.” These culinary-focused excursions are offered on multiple Crystal Mozart, Crystal Mahler or Crystal Ravel voyages in 2019. 

Shopping ashore in a fresh market with a river line’s chef also is increasingly popular. During Viking River Cruises’ 2019 “Chateaux, Rivers & Wine” itinerary roundtrip from Bordeaux, guests can opt for “Le Marche des Capucins,” which is a guided shore excursion through Bordeaux’s covered market, located just south of the city. Cruisers will tour the stalls alongside a Viking chef, engage with local food vendors and sample such regional specialties as cheese, olives, cold cuts and fresh oysters. 

Cruise Planners’ Williams is now promoting that particular Viking itinerary for a September 2019 group sailing, which is jointly hosted by her agency and the well-known owners of a local Omaha restaurant. “We already have 50 people interested that are new names to us as they are coming from the restaurant’s following,” Williams stresses. “It helps to have the right pied piper when promoting these offerings, especially when they are also going on the cruise.”

Viking River guests also have such onboard culinary-focused options as the Aquavit Terrace with superb river views, or checking out what’s growing in the ship’s herbal garden.

Culinary Tastings and Classes

Most river lines strive for “authenticity” — allowing guests to sample local cuisine onboard. During 2019, Emerald Waterways’ seven-night “Sensations Lyon and Provence” itinerary between Lyon and Marseille features a Provencale dinner hosted by local Chef Fabien Morreale on one day and an onboard cheese and olive tasting on another day; both are EmeraldPlus activities. 

Sister line Scenic offers cooking classes onboard in its Scenic Culinaire program. On the week-long “Bordeaux Affair” itinerary roundtrip from Bordeaux, France, a Scenic Freechoice shore excursion includes shopping with a chef at a local Bordeaux food market and then a cooking class onboard featuring local produce. 

New too on Uniworld is that several restaurants, including Max’s restaurant on the newly renovated Beatrice, offer intimate cooking classes where guests can create local European cuisine —such as wiener schnitzel and goulash — alongside the chef. At La Cave du Vin on Joie de Vivre, guests can select fresh ingredients and prepare a seven-course meal with the ship’s onboard chefs such as foie gras from the region, lamb de Provence, regional desserts and cheeses.

Yes, there is an uptick in people taking a river cruise for culinary offerings, says Belden, who cites two reasons. “First, I am promoting it more,” she says; agents can check our sidebar on page 28 for promotional tips from Belden and other agents. In addition, Belden says: “People are learning this is the type of experience they enjoy most as a central part of their river cruise.”

Scenic guests can participate in the Scenic Culinaire program that offers cooking classes. 

Promoting Culinary River Cruises

Promoting culinary focused options on rivers across the globe is done best, many agents say, with a local connection. “We’ve done cruise nights at local restaurants where we serve appetizers and wine or beer, and the cruise line does a presentation about their product and itineraries,” says Noam Meppen, franchise partner, Expedia CruiseShipCenters, Scottsdale, AZ. He ties culinary offerings with the destination being highlighted. So, he’d choose an Italian restaurant that serves traditional Italian dishes and wine for a cruise night event that focuses on an Italy / Mediterranean itinerary. 

Lucinda Belden, franchise owner and vacation specialist, Dream Vacations, Carrollton, TX, also promotes through cruise events; she invites river line representatives to participate, has food-wine from the region of the sailing and brings in local music and related vendors. Travel Leaders Network agent Nora Blum, director of sales and marketing in the Maple Grove, MN agency location, says consumers sometimes just don’t know what questions to ask. But when they come to a cruise event, the river line reps help them understand the options.

“We find these consumer events really help the customers understand our value and help them find the right cruise,” says Blum, who notes there is also more of an urgency to book once consumers have attended, plus the agency has a call-to-action to entice participants to confirm. Other ways to promote culinary river cruises? Belden also promotes through an e-newsletter, social media posts and regular advertising. Sometimes it’s just one-on-one contact that’s most effective.

Lisa Long, co-owner of Luxury Vacations LLC, an independent agency in the Avoya Travel Network, Marietta, GA, calls and e-mails her customers regularly to see if they have plans for an upcoming river cruise. She reminds them about available inventory and itineraries, because when the ship has availability for fewer than 165 guests, the space books up quickly.

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