|Aqua Expeditions' M/V Aqua has 12 suites, all with floor-to-ceiling windows.|
New ships, refurbishments and improved itineraries are ensuring river cruising plays second fiddle to none.
Like their counterparts sailing the oceans, river cruise lines are steaming forward with new ships and routes. In March, Avalon Waterways christened its newest vessel, Avalon Felicity, the line’s ninth new ship in Europe since 2004. The ship set sail less than a year after the inaugural cruises of sister ships Avalon Affinity and Avalon Creativity. One thing is for certain: The commitment to expanding the river cruise segment is at an all-time high.
Avalon is resolute in increasing its customer base by targeting first-time river cruisers. This year, the line is offering shorter itineraries, including four- and five-day cruises on the Danube River. Its Taste of the Danube, between Vienna and Budapest, was designed specifically to ingratiate first-timers.
France is also on the line’s radar this year, with nearly 100 departures from the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea. Avalon says it’s increasing its Western European itineraries and departures 200 percent to meet demand for travel along the Rhône, Saône and Seine rivers. The line’s 16-day Grand France itinerary—from Paris to Côte d’Azur—allows guests to sail aboard both Avalon Scenery and Avalon Creativity. Tip: For World War II buffs, opt for the eight-day Paris to Normandy’s Landing Beaches cruise, which explores such D-Day sites as Omaha Beach and the Pointe du Hoc monument.
|Avalon Waterways’ Felicity was christened in March and will operate shorter itineraries to entice first-time cruisers.|
Note: Avalon’s ships are as grand as their itineraries. All staterooms measure 172 square feet and 90 percent boast floor-to-ceiling windows with sliding doors (perfect for observing the scenery as it passes by). Avalon Felicity has 65 staterooms and four 258-square-foot Junior Suites. Other amenities include flat-screen TVs, hair salon and a large Jacuzzi pool. Alfresco dining is available at the ship’s Sky Deck grill.
AMA Waterways is stepping up its efforts, too. In doing so, it’s pushing the technology bar higher. The line’s new “infotainment system” includes enhanced Internet connectivity courtesy of a new 3G service (note: if you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, you know how poor Internet service can be!) and, for cinephiles, first-run films as well as classics.
AMA is big in Vietnam—so much so that it’s set to deliver a new ship exclusively for the region in 2011 as part of its Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong program. Until delivery, AMA will continue with the ms La Marguerite operating the seven-day itinerary from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap in Cambodia (and the reverse). Once joined by the new ship, which will be larger than ms La Marguerite and feature 12 suites, the two vessels will run concurrent service—one sailing downstream from Siem Reap, the other sailing upstream from Ho Chi Minh City. The program includes two nights in Hanoi and an overnight cruise aboard a traditional Junk in Ha Long Bay.
|One of Two Master Suites aboard AMA Waterways’ La Marguerite. The accomodation has its own whirlpool tub and private balcony.|
To the north, in Russia, AMA will add ms Amakatarina to its fleet in May 2011. The ship will then operate AMA’s Russian Waterways program. The 212-passenger, 106-cabin (76 with balconies) ship will have four different suite categories ranging from 280 square feet up to 432 square feet. For 2011, the 11-night Russian Waterways program, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, features two nights in the Russian capital and six nights of cruising the country’s colorful and historical waterways. Highlights include the Golden Ring cities of Uglich and Yaroslavl, a transit across the Onega and Ladoga lakes and three nights on board the ship in St. Petersburg.
Egypt is steadily becoming a hotbed for cruising. Uniworld’s River Tosca, which operates along the Nile, has been re-launched after a seven-week drydock. The ship resumed sailing the Nile on March 22, with new flooring in all public spaces and accommodations as well as improved upholstery.
Two other Uniworld ships, River Queen and River Empress, sailing the Rhine were also recently remodeled for the 2010 season. Borrowing design concepts from sister company Red Carnation Hotels, guests can expect a boutique-hotel feel (think dynamic color schemes and fabric-laden walls). All staterooms are also now outfitted with L’Occitane bath products.
Viking River Cruises is already heralding its 2011 cruise season with a new ship, refurbishments and two new itineraries. The line, now in its 10th year, will offer 20 itineraries in 2011 ranging from eight to 17 days in five regions: Europe, Russia, Ukraine, China and Egypt. For the 2011 season, Viking is introducing two new itineraries. The 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe itinerary is an eight-day Danube River cruise through five countries—Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania—bookended by hotel nights in Budapest and Bucharest. The 12-day Pharaohs & Pyramids cruisetour explores Egypt with hotel nights in Cairo, plus a four-night Nile River cruise and a three-night Lake Nasser cruise.
Viking also has a new ship launching in 2011, the Viking Emerald, which will operate on China’s Yangtze River. Every stateroom will have a full balcony. In addition to the two 840-square-foot Presidential Suites, Viking Emerald will also have 14 suites and four junior suites among its 132 staterooms spread over five passenger decks.
Continuing the line’s fleet refurbishment program, Viking Pakhomov will undergo a complete bow-to-stern renovation, giving rise to two suites and 102 deluxe staterooms and all-new public rooms. The ship will be identical to its sister ships, Viking Surkov and Viking Kirov, sailing Russia’s rivers.
In Europe, Viking is refurbishing Viking Schumann, which sails along the Elbe River. The ship will receive eight spacious deluxe staterooms in addition to other upgrades to its standard staterooms and public areas. Viking Schumann’s renovations will match that of its sister ship, Viking Fontane, which was completely redone for the 2010 cruising season and sails the line’s Paris to Prague itinerary.
Meanwhile, cruising the Peruvian Amazon is gaining momentum and no line does it better—or more luxuriously—than Aqua Expeditions. Currently ambling along with one ship, the M/V Aqua, Aqua Expeditions will have two ships this time next year with the induction of M/V Aria. The 32-passenger vessel, which will carry eight more guests than Aqua, is being built in Iquitos, Peru.
Aria will have 16 cabins with floor-to-ceiling picture windows (a staple of Aqua Expeditions), a fully air-conditioned top deck with Observation Lounge, an exercise room, outdoor Jacuzzi with sun deck and a signature restaurant helmed by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino (think knock-your-socks-off ceviche!).
The vessel’s itineraries will vary from sister ship Aqua, but it too will explore remote areas of the Amazon River. Like Aqua, the ship will be staffed with four world-class naturalist guides and will also include an Amazon Wildlife reference library and air-conditioned multimedia room.
Denise Chiriaco of Worldwide Travel Associates in Avondale, PA, is a Vacation.com river cruise expert. “River cruises are the best way to see a lot of different sights and history,” she says, recounting an Avalon Waterways’ cruise she took. “I started with an overnight in Budapest, joined the ship the next day and cruised down the Danube River. I was able to travel through three countries in only eight days! I traveled from Budapest to Austria to Germany, and every day there was a tour of the area where we docked.
“River cruises do attract an older customer, but I would like to see it attract all ages, even families. All your meals are included, and my cruise had wine with dinner every evening. You could sit anywhere you like when you dine and, if you like, you could switch whom you sit with every night. What made it more fun was that the food and the wines were a reflection of the regions we toured.
“The atmosphere aboard a river cruise ship is very relaxed and there is no need for formal wear. Hint: A good pair of walking shoes is a must as most of the streets abroad are cobblestone. On my first river cruise, I wasn’t too sure if I would get motion sickness; I did not. You see land on both sides, which is comforting.
“When I talk to my friend who came with me, we still say it was the best trip ever. We have a lot of clients that book river cruises and they just keep coming back for a new region year after year. The best time of year to do these trips is in the summer. The Danube itinerary does continue into the winter months since Germany is so big during the Christmas holidays and all the areas are decorated and lit up for travelers.”
|Viking River Cruises’ Viking Danube sailing past Austria’s Melk Abbey on the Danube River. The ship has 75 staterooms, all with river views.|