Jane Archer, The Daily Telegraph, July 11, 2012
River cruising may be considered a relaxing holiday choice but behind the scenes there’s frantic activity as riverboat operators ramp up their offerings to keep pace with the demand for holidays on water. Europe remains the big seller, and with more than 20 vessels due to launch on the rivers and canals traversing Germany, France, the Netherlands and Portugal, no other region comes close to stealing its crown.
When it comes to farther-flung rivers, Asia, and specifically the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) in Burma (Myanmar), is most in demand, with capacity at full stretch and cruises there almost sold out until 2014. Go west and you’ll find the Upper Amazon inching its way onto the cruising map, while closer to home the Garonne in France is the newest “wine waterway” to embrace river vessels.
On board, an increasing number of river companies are opting for all-inclusive pricing. New for 2014, Uniworld River Cruises (0800 988 5867; titantravel.co.uk ) is adding alcoholic and soft drinks and gratuities to the flights, domestic and overseas transfers, sightseeing and free Wi-Fi already included in the fare.
American cruise line Tauck (0800 961834; tauck.co.uk ), which already includes gratuities and sightseeing, will also be serving free alcoholic and soft drinks next year, as will the French operator CroisiEurope (020 8328 128; croisieurope.travel) although the latter’s guided trips ashore and gratuities remain optional extras.
Taking centre stage next year is the Irrawaddy river, where six companies are launching small, colonial-style cruise boats next year. Viking River Cruises (0808 256 7697; vikingrivercruises.co.uk) ran its first cruises on the Irrawaddy in December 2012; six months later the 16-day holidays (three nights in Bangkok, a 10-night cruise and two nights in Yangon) on the Viking Mandalay were practically sold out. The cruises commence in January 2014.
On the river to Mandalay
The good news is that if you’re too late for Viking’s sailings and are struggling to get space with Burma stalwart Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; orient-express.com ), which launched a second boat earlier this month, there are other boats coming on stream later in 2014. Pandaw (020 3287 6113; pandaw.com ), which has six boats in Burma, is launching two more – Kindat and Kalaw – in July 2014 on a new seven-night itinerary, with two or three nights in Mandalay and Bagan at the start and end of the holiday, and one or two nights’ cruising in between. Holding 40 passengers apiece, the boats will sail the Mandalay to Bagan stretch alongside the existing vessels Orient and Sagaing. Prices start at $950 (£640) per person cruise-only for seven nights in July. Pandaw is also launching the Kalay, a 10-passenger boat based in Mandalay available for private charter (from $45,000/ £30,210 per week).
AmaWaterways (0808 223 5009; amawaterways.co.uk ) and CroisiEurope plan to launch boats on the Irrawaddy in the autumn and winter of 2014 respectively, while from September, the Austrian-based Amadeus by Lüftner Cruises (02380 003303; luxus.travel ) will run 10-day voyages from Prome (Pyay) and via Bagan to Mandalay on the 56-passenger Irrawaddy Explorer. From £2,587 per person cruise-only, departing on September 21.
The latest company to get in on the act is the luxury cruise-and-safari operator Sanctuary Retreats (020 7190 7728; sanctuaryretreats.com ), which launches the 48-passenger Sanctuary Ananda in December, to sail three, four and seven-night cruises between Bagan and Mandalay, with longer itineraries on the Chindwin river and to Yangon. As well as sightseeing (included, as are soft drinks and local beer), there’s an opportunity to learn to cook local dishes with a Burmese chef. From £1,669 per person for three nights, departing on December 3, 10 and 17, excluding flights.
Sailing the Mekong
After a couple of years in the spotlight, activity has slowed a little in the lower Mekong, with stops in Cambodia and Vietnam, but two new names will appear there in 2014. Starting in March, Aqua Expeditions (00511 434 5544; aquaexpeditions.com ) will offer seven-night cruises from Siem Reap (arrive a day early to visit the temple complex at Angkor Wat) to My Tho, about 80 minutes’ drive from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), on the new 40-passenger Aqua Mekong, as well as three and four-night cruises between My Tho and Phnom Penh. Prices are not yet available.
In September, Amadeus by Lüftner Cruises is launching the 68-passenger Mekong Navigator, sailing between Kampong Cham, about five hours’ drive from Siem Reap, and My Tho. Along the way you’ll be visiting local villages and markets, as well as having time in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. From £1,812 per person cruise-only, departing September to December 2014.
In Aqua Expeditions’ traditional stamping ground of Peru, Avalon Waterways (0800 668 1801; avaloncruises.co.uk) is introducing three-day cruises on the Amazon as part of a 12-day tour of the Peruvian Amazon. As well as the cruise, which is a round-trip from Iquitos on Aria (a 32-passenger boat owned by Aqua), with piranha fishing and a night expedition in search of caiman, you’ll have two nights in Lima, one night at the Sacred Valley, a night in Machu Picchu and two nights in Cusco. Prices from £5,635 per person including flights, on all dates between February and December. Smaller boats sail close to the Yacapana Isles, near the shore of the Pacaya Samiria Nature Reserve and the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón rivers, but the Amazon is more about appreciating nature rather than adhering to timetabled stops.
AmaWaterways introduced holidays on the Chobe river a couple of years ago, combining big-game spotting with cruising on the 28-passenger Zambezi Queen and visits to Cape Town, Victoria Falls and the Kruger National Park. New for next year is a 14-day rivers and rails holiday that swaps the Kruger for three nights on board the luxury Rovos Rail, travelling from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg. From £7,182 per person cruise-only (but including internal flights) departing on March 14, 2014.
This is where you’ll find most of next year’s new river-cruise boats, including another nine of Viking River Cruises’s new-generation Longships, which will be sailing the Rhine or Danube, or a long voyage combining the two.
Notable, too, are Scenic Tours’ (0800 566 8777; scenictours.co.uk ) new Scenic Jade, featuring butler service, balconies and complimentary minibars; three more Panorama-class vessels from Avalon (with cabins that have a wall of glass that opens wide to form an indoor balcony), and another AmaWaterways duo – AmaSonata and AmaReina – with inside/outside balconies.
Tauck, meanwhile, is launching Savor and Inspire, which have new-look lower-deck cabins with a raised sitting area and larger window, part of which can be opened. Tauck also has a new one-week Romantic Rhine cruise between Amsterdam and Basel, including wine-tasting in Alsace and excursions in Strasbourg or the Black Forest, Heidelberg, Koblenz and Cologne. From $3,990 (£2,680) per person cruise-only, departing on July 5, 2014.
Where canals are king
For those interested in exploring canals, Scenic has four new eight and 11-day voyages on the canals and waterways of Belgium and Holland (from £2,345 per person, including flights), while CroisiEurope has four departures on a 10-day Rhine/Rhône cruise in spring and autumn. From €1,303 (£1,120) per person, cruise-only.
On the Douro in Portugal, Viking is launching another two Longships – smaller versions that will fit through that river’s narrow locks. Viking Hemming and Torgil will each hold 106 passengers (the original Longships hold 190) and sail a 10-night River of Gold cruise – two nights in Lisbon and seven on the cruise, sailing from Porto to the Spanish border and back. From £1,095 per person, including flights, departing on December 12.
In France CroisiEurope, which has held sway on the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers in Aquitaine, will be joined by Viking and Uniworld, who are launching cruises there in March and April respectively. Its one-week voyages from Bordeaux follow much the same route, with visits to the Médoc and St Emilion wine areas, and Sauternes, home of the eponymous sweet wine, but while Uniworld is moving one of its older vessels to the region (River Royale will take up its new duties after a colourful makeover), Viking will deploy a Longship, Viking Forseti, featuring modern Scandinavian-style decor and private balconies. From £1,095 per person (Viking) or £1,999 per person (Uniworld), both including flights.
The hotel barge specialist European Waterways (01753 598555; gobarging.com ), meanwhile, has a new six-night itinerary on the Canal de Garonne from August to November next year, sailing between Castets-en-Dorthe and Boe on the eight-passenger Rosa. Among the included excursions is a wine-tasting near St Emilion, cheese tasting in Le Mas d’Agenais and a visit to a cooperage. From £2,480 per person, cruise only.
Paris from the water
With the River Royale off to Aquitaine, Uniworld is putting a new vessel on its eight-day Burgundy and Provence cruises on the Rhône. The SS Catherine will have an indoor pool, an African-themed bar and cabins with full-sized balconies. From £2,099 per person, departing on November 14. Three new Viking Longships (Hermod, Buri and Heimdal) will also arrive on the Rhône, sailing an eight-day Portraits of Southern France route between Chalon-sur-Saône and Avignon. From £1,395 per person, including flights, departing on April 13.
Moving north to Paris, and the opportunity to tack on a short stay in the French capital is proving a draw for those cruising the Seine. Both Scenic Tours and Tauck make their debut on the river next year.
From July, Scenic is operating 11-day cruises on the new Scenic Gem, which is a smaller version of the company’s other vessels, with balconies that convert into sun lounges, butler service and all-inclusive pricing (but 128 passengers instead of 169). From £2,995 per person (book by July 31), including flights, departing on October 16.
Tauck launches on the Seine in April, offering holidays that combine seven nights on the river with two nights in Paris on the 118-passenger Swiss Sapphire. From $3,690 (£2,480) per person, cruise-only, departing on April 1.
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