Moving Forward: The Top Developments for River Cruise Lines

As the new year begins, Luxury Travel Advisor has selected the “Top Three Developments” for major luxury river lines for 2020 and 2021. What are the top “threads” of change? Here’s a look.

Building on its success in “the exotics,” Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is extending its reach farther across the globe. For our top development for 2020 and beyond with Uniworld, we cite two new itineraries in the Peruvian Amazon, a totally new region of sailing for the luxury river line. Guests will set sail on the 16-suite Aria Amazon, starting in late September 2020. 

Travelers on the new 15-day “Peruvian Amazon & Machu Picchu Exploration” itinerary will first stay in a five-star hotel in Lima, Peru; it will be followed by a seven-night cruise through the Amazon rainforest, and end with travel in Peru’s Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco. Alternatively, the 11-day “Peruvian Rivers & Rainforest Discovery” itinerary includes Lima time plus Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve and an Amazon voyage roundtrip from Iquitos. 

Onboard Aria Amazon, guests will have panoramic Amazon rainforest views and five-star cuisine created by chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. Among the many inclusions are unlimited choice of spirits and wines, scheduled airport transfers, all gratuities onboard and ashore, curated excursions and onboard entertainment and enrichment. 

Certainly, Amazon eco-adventure is a prime draw of these new voyages, but foodies also will love exploring Lima’s searing-hot restaurant scene. Reservations made months in advance are a “must” to dine at Central, serving yummy dishes with indigenous Peruvian ingredients created by top chef Virgilio Martinez Veliz, or, alternatively, Maido for Japanese-Peruvian seafood fusion cuisine. 

Uniworld’s Sao Gabriel will launch on Portugal’s Douro River in April. Shown here is a Grand Suite, which offers 307 square feet of space. // Photo courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Our number-two pick for Uniworld is its fleet news with multiple new vessels. Uniworld’s new Sao Gabriel will launch on Portugal’s Douro River in April, with an entire top deck of suites with enhanced butler service that allows for anytime dining flexibility. Across the continent, River Countess is being completely revitalized and will re-emerge in March as La Venezia. A 10-day northern Italy itinerary will begin with a two-day Milan stay, followed by eight-days of cruising through and around Venice, the Po River and to such outer Venetian isles as Burano, Mazzorbo and Torcello; an eight-day, cruise-only option is also offered. 

Debuting this month on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia is the new Mekong Jewel, 33 feet longer than Mekong Navigator (which it replaces) but with similar capacity so guests will have more space and amenities. Look for two dining venues, a main restaurant and an al fresco eatery on the upper deck. Traveling on a 13-day itinerary between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Siem Reap, Cambodia, Mekong Jewel guests also will visit Phnom Penh and Angkor in Cambodia.

Egypt is back on consumers’ radar and Uniworld’s new Sphinx will debut on the Nile River in September. Guests will spend 12 days exploring Egypt’s top sites on an itinerary that’s roundtrip from Cairo. Sphinx will have three dining venues, a swimming pool, massage room and 42 luxurious suites. 

The most spacious accommodations are the four 495-square-foot Royal Suites and the 20 430-square-foot Grand Suites. But even the lead-in accommodations are roomy with French Balcony cabins at 233 square feet. Delivering the “Egyptian experience,” the ship’s interior design will include locally sourced Egyptian artwork, fabrics and hand-carved furnishings. 

Our third pick for Uniworld’s top development is a new 12-day “Rhine, Moselle and Blissful Baden-Baden” itinerary. It will begin in Germany’s spa town of Baden-Baden and, at Frankfurt, guests will visit the famed Caracalla Spa or Sea Salt Grotto. 

One of the latest trends is for river lines to delve into authentic storytelling — often via video — so potential luxury cruisers can visualize the experiences. With that in mind, we’ve selected Crystal River Cruises’ new “MasterClass Video Series” (just launched) as that luxury line’s top thread for the coming year. As they’re introduced, the new MasterClass videos will be viewable on Crystal’s YouTube channel and distributed via the Crystal Insider blog. 

Crystal’s first new MasterClass episode, “The Art of Food,” features Georg Pfandl, the line’s executive chef; he relates his vision behind the blending of Asian and Austrian cuisine and how Crystal River Cruises’ menus are tailored daily to reflect fresh finds at local markets. Other videos will illustrate behind-the-scenes activities and “the art” of food, wine, entertainment, destinations, dessert and service. 

The MasterClass series will also bring viewers face-to-face with many of the crew members who create the Crystal experience. Sommelier Ilija Marojevic will showcase wine pairings using local vintages in the region of sailing while Jozsef Reichenbach, pastry chef, will outline the artistic desserts that reflect the river destinations. Hotel director Sonja Gruber will talk about personal touches that distinguish Crystal’s style of luxury and service. Another video will feature Norbert Wittmann, a local German master butcher, and renowned tenor Steffan Mullan who performs onboard the river vessels.

Our second “top thread” for Crystal River Cruises is an enticing new 2020 three-night Prague extended land program. Luxury guests on dozens of Crystal Ravel and Crystal Mahler voyages that operate between Regensburg and Budapest can opt for this new Prague extension either pre- or post-cruise. Among the appealing perks are a half-day visit to Prague Castle to tour areas of the palace and grounds not normally open to the public, plus an excursion to Kutna Hora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Czech Republic.

Pick number-three is Crystal’s fine-tuning of itineraries for its four 106-guest ships to focus more strongly on seven-night cruises. This speaks to a changing luxury marketplace as more luxury travelers are executives, entrepreneurs or working professionals who can’t be away for weeks at a time. Others are loyal past guests and new-to-Crystal travelers now increasingly desiring more than one vacation annually.   

So, moving forward, Crystal is offering mostly seven-night European voyages — which can be extended with pre- or post-cruise options. That said, it’s sprinkling in a mix of 10- to 16-night voyages, too. 

AmaWaterways has a greater focus on France for 2021. Shown here is AmaLyra on the Seine River in Rouen, France. // Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways

For AmaWaterways, our top pick is the line’s greater focus on France for 2021, in response to burgeoning consumer demand for more French itineraries. In 2021, AmaKristina will reposition to the Rhône River, joining AmaCello, which will also sail a new Rhône / Saône itinerary, “Essence of Burgundy & Provence” between Chalon-sur-Saône and Arles. Cruise guests can learn to cook French food at a culinary school in Valence. Land options include three nights pre-cruise in Geneva, Switzerland and three nights post-cruise in Barcelona, Spain. 

Most notably, though, we like that for 2021, AmaDante will join AmaLyra on the Seine River and operate a new “Impressions of the Seine & Paris” itinerary from Paris to Le Havre or in reverse. New land options for that itinerary will include two nights pre-cruise in Paris and four nights post-cruise in northern France (three in St. Malo with a visit to Mont St. Michel and one in Paris). 

While in Paris on a pre- or post-cruise stay (from mid-July onward), a new sightseeing option for cruisers is a tour of Hôtel de la Marine, an 18th-century palace on the Place de la Concorde. It was the French Navy’s headquarters from the time of the French Revolution through 2015. Reopening to the public for the first time in two centuries this summer, it will showcase royal and state “period furniture,” tapestries and decorative objects, displayed in the palace’s ceremonial ballrooms. 

For those who love a bit of bubbly, what better place to taste it than in France’s Champagne region? AmaWaterways will add a new land extension there in 2021; guests will visit vineyards and savor Veuve Clicquot and Moet et Chandon in tastings. This new land program will be available as an add-on to AmaWaterways’ “Europe’s Rivers & Castles,” “Rhine & Moselle Splendors” and “Vineyards of the Rhine & Moselle” itineraries.

Our second selection for a top development moving forward for AmaWaterways is its overall fleet growth. This year, the line will launch the 156-passenger AmaSiena on the Rhine, Main and Moselle. Look for connecting staterooms, dining choices including a Main Restaurant and an intimate Chef’s Table Restaurant, a sundeck walking track and a pool with swim-up bar. A professionally trained Wellness Host will be onboard to conduct classes.

In March 2021, AmaWaterways also will launch a sister vessel, AmaLucia, on Tulip Time cruises in the Netherlands and Belgium, before repositioning it to the Danube, Rhine, Moselle and Main rivers. Separately, AmaBella and AmaVerde will rejoin the AmaWaterways European fleet in 2021, sailing Dutch and Belgian Waterways and the Danube. 

And third on our list of “top threads” for AmaWaterways is a new region of sailing. Although no details were available at press time, Luxury Travel Advisor has confirmed with the line that AmaWaterways plans to introduce Egypt cruising and land adventures, starting in January 2021. 

For Avalon Waterways in 2020, our top development is the line’s embracing of more options for time-starved travelers and new-to-cruise guests desiring a shorter voyage to see what river cruising is all about. Avalon is offering new four-, five- and six-day river cruise itineraries including “Taste of the Rhine,” “Taste of the Danube” and “Heart of Germany.”

Formerly a holiday season cruise, the six-day “Heart of Germany” cruise is newly offered in 2020 as a year-round option. Sailing the Main River and Main-Danube Canal between Frankfurt and Nuremberg, Germany, the cruise also includes guided hiking through a Bavarian village, touring of Wurzburg and Bamberg, beer tasting and much more. 

Striving to create greater consistency in ship and stateroom experiences is our number two pick for Avalon. The line will launch the new 164-passenger Avalon View on the Rhine this year. It’s the line’s 14th so-called Suite Ship in Europe and its 17th worldwide. The new ship will include two full decks of 200-square-foot Panorama Suites, famed for their floor-to-ceiling glass with one portion that drops down to create an open-air balcony. Seeking the top suite? Select either No. 308 or No. 310, both Royal Suites. 

Greater focus on personalization / customization is our third top development for Avalon Waterways in 2020. Its new “Your Way” program invites cruisers to chart their own pace and taps into Avalon’s sister companies, Monograms and Globus, so guests can book their river cruise, then add on a land extension. 

One option is an Avalon land extension with expert, guided sightseeing. Another is a Monograms independent vacation package with hotel accommodations, city sightseeing and local host services. Yet another is a fully escorted Globus tour with sightseeing, hotel accommodations, transportation, and services of a coach driver, tour director and certified local guides. 

For Tauck, Luxury Travel Advisor’s top new development pick is the upcoming launch of the new, 84-passenger Andorinha, slated to sail Portugal’s Douro River starting in March with three new itineraries. A soaring glass-ceilinged atrium will span both the Ruby and Diamond decks, filling the Andorinha’s lobby, reception area, main restaurant and lounge with natural light. Throughout the ship, select local cultural touches include gorgeous Portuguese tiles.

Forty-two cabins will include 300-square-foot suites (12 of them) on the upper Diamond Deck, and 225-square-foot staterooms (20 of those) primarily on the vessel’s Ruby or mid-level deck. Other cabins range from 150 to 200 square feet. 

Douro River cruise vessels can operate only in the daytime by law, so Andorinha’s Sun Deck has been designed and outfitted to serve as a sightseeing platform with canopied Balinese day beds for comfortable, shaded lounging, plus an infinity-style pool that’s five times the size of the plunge pools on Tauck’s other river-boats. This deck also will have an outdoor grill, bar and pop-up Arthur’s restaurant that rises on hydraulic lifts to become a fully functioning casual eatery serving steakhouse fare and regional dishes. It’s an alternative to the main Compass Rose restaurant.

Tauck’s new 12-day itinerary features a seven-night Douro cruise on Andorinha with two-night hotel stays in Lisbon and Madrid. Other options are an eight-day “cruise-only” itinerary and an eight-day Tauck Bridges family cruise.  

Tauck’s two special 2020 departures will feature Mickela Mallozzi, who is seen above at the Asrlar Sadosi Festival in Navoi, Uzbekistan. // Photo by Madina Khusanova

A second new top development for Tauck is its new eight-day “Christmas” sailing, “Yuletide Spirit: Brussels to Amsterdam” on Grace, with visits Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges in Belgium, plus Rotterdam, the Netherlands. While the December 6 departure is sold out, the December 13 and December 20 departures had availability at press time. Four 2021 departures are also available. 

Our third “top thread” for Tauck is its continuing focus on innovative cultural offerings, including two special 2020 river cruise departures featuring Mickela Mallozzi, a professional dancer, musician, and host and executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series, “Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi.” The show chronicles her experiences traveling the world, immersing herself in local folk dance, music and cultural traditions. 

During the April 22 sailing of Tauck’s eight-day “Danube Reflections” sailing from Regensburg, Germany, to Vienna, and the reverse trip on October 14, she’ll show Savor guests how travel and dance intersect, and provide lighthearted, entertaining and interactive performances and workshops. 

Luxury Travel Advisor’s top pick for a major development with Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours is its decision to take on full management of its entire European river cruise fleet this year. That includes ships on the Rhine, Main, Danube, Saône, Rhône, Seine and Douro rivers. It’s all part of Scenic’s global focus to ensure consistency and excellence in product delivery across the entire fleet.

Scenic has managed six vessels in the fleet internally since 2017, with G&P Cruise Hotel Management handling an additional five. Scenic stressed that G&P has done a fantastic job, given that guest satisfaction rates are about 95 percent positive. But the decision to go in house is what the line calls its “next logical step” in consistency for a global brand. 

In addition, Scenic Group will benefit from increased purchasing power, but more importantly, it believes having the entire hospitality crew directly employed and managed by Scenic will create the right culture. Scenic plans to invest in high-level crew standards, leverage e-learning and enable crew career paths. 

Another top development for Scenic, second on our list, is expansion of cruise and land-based tours to Egypt and Jordan for the 2020-2021 season, with new Oman and Israel escorted tours as well. A new 12-day “Wonders of the Nile” itinerary includes a cruise on Sanctuary Sun Boat III. This itinerary is roundtrip from Cairo and begins in Giza with a luxury hotel stay and three days of tours (the Great Pyramids and other top spots). 

Guests then board the 34-passenger boutique ship to sail from Abu Simbel to Aswan. Fun activities for guests? They can take an optional hot air balloon flight and they’ll have curated, themed entertainment afloat, such as a party complete with Egyptian delicacies, music and dancing. 

Another new option is a 19-day “Egypt and Jordan Experience,” which includes sightseeing in both countries and a six-night Nile River Cruise on Sanctuary Sun Boat III. Scenic guests are immersed in the historical sites of both countries during tours and while on a six-night Nile river cruise. Creativity abounds as guests can select from several “one-of-a-kind” experiences, including a re-enactment of Roman chariot races; a private visit to the Royal Automobile Museum in Amman, Jordan; and floating in the Dead Sea. 

Sanctuary Sun Boat III delivers an intimate boutique experience modeled on the “Roaring Twenties.” Spacious cabins have oversized picture windows and amenities found in high-end hotels, including a Sun Deck pool and tented lounge chairs, as well as high-quality dining in the Copper Tray Restaurant. 

As a third “thread” for the coming year, Scenic continues to develop strong enrichment offerings. For example, National Geographic photographers will sail on the April 13 sailing of Scenic Jade and the April 15 sailing of Scenic Pearl; both operate roundtrip from Amsterdam. In addition, Scenic recently expanded its partnership with National Geographic Expeditions to include new itineraries — Rhône River, Rhine Christmas Cruise, Russian river cruise and so on.  

Fleet expansion is our top pick for what’s ahead for Viking River Cruises, the world’s largest river cruise line. This year it’s adding four new river vessels custom-built to navigate the Seine River in Paris. With design inspired by the line’s Viking Longships and built specifically to sail the Seine, these new 168-passenger vessels will operate the eight-day “Paris and the Heart of Normandy” cruise, all starting by 2021. Sailing roundtrip from Paris, guests on this itinerary will explore Giverny and Claude Monet’s gardens / farmhouse; learn about Joan of Arc in Rouen; and about the history of World War II in Normandy.

We believe guests will love that the new Viking Fjorgyn, Viking Kari, Viking Radgrid and Viking Skaga will dock adjacent to the Eiffel Tower, perfect for walking out to explore the city. The new Seine vessels are all slightly smaller than the Viking Longships but will have many of the same features, including the Aquavit Terrace, a wide stateroom variety and a Scandinavian design aesthetic. 

Nothing has put European river cruising on the map like Viking’s sponsorship of PBS’ Masterpiece series through the years that the “Downton Abby” series air on TV. So, our second “top thread” for Viking is the continuation of strong partnerships that celebrate culture and the arts — drawing sophisticated luxury travelers and new-to-cruise guests onboard. 

The Highclere Castle will be visited by Viking guests during a new five-day “British Collections of Ancient Egypt” extension. Seen riding is Lady Carnarvon. Photo courtesy of Viking River Cruises

Viking recently partnered with Focus Features, Universal Pictures and Carnival Films for the last fall’s release of the new full-length “Downton Abbey,” film based on the series. Honoring the film, the line recently unveiled a new five-day, pre- and post-cruise extension, “Great Homes, Gardens & Gin,” that will give guests an exclusive look at several country estates that have served as settings for PBS and Masterpiece productions.

Starting in 2021, this add-on will be available for Viking’s “Rhine Getaway” itinerary. Guests will receive a Viking Privileged Access tour of Highclere Castle (where “Downton Abby” was filmed) with gin tasting. They’ll also visit Broughton Castle, setting for the Masterpiece series, “Wolf Hall,” plus tour Chavenage House in the Cotswolds, known from Masterpiece’s “Poldark.” 

Finally, for our third Viking highlight, we’re citing the new 82-passenger Viking Osiris, debuting on the Nile River in September — doubling the size of Viking’s “owned capacity” in Egypt. Just a year ago, Viking launched the completely revitalized Viking Ra, its first owned-and-operated Nile vessel. During the 12-day, “Pharaohs & Pyramids” cruisetour, guests can experience Egypt’s cultural treasures in seven destinations. It starts with a three-night stay at a first-class Cairo hotel and sightseeing. Guests will then fly to Luxor, visit the Temples of Luxor and Karnak and then board their Viking vessel for an eight-day roundtrip cruise. 

They’ll receive Privileged Access to Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens and head out on excursions to Esna’s Temple of Khnum, Qena’s Dendera Temple complex, Abu Simbel’s temples and Aswan’s High Dam. Other activities include a visit to a Nubian village and elementary school, before guests board a flight back to Cairo and stay one night. 

Some first-time Egypt travelers may feel a bit overwhelmed as tour guides relate unfamiliar tales of pharaohs and ancient Egyptian gods. So, we like Viking’s innovation in launching two new, five-day pre-cruise extensions for this itinerary. These allow guests to enhance their basic Egyptology knowledge before arriving in Cairo. Cruisers will have Privileged Access to archives and exhibits in London and Oxford that are not normally accessible to the public. Guests will learn about famous Egyptologist, Howard Carter, discoverer of Egyptian King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Carter’s benefactor, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. 

On the new five-day “British Collections of Ancient Egypt” extension, cruisers will visit the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum early morning before it opens to the general public. They’ll enjoy a candlelight visit to the home and personal museum of Sir John Soane, whose Egyptian antiquities include a 3,000-year-old sarcophagus. Additional museum visits are included, as is a tour of Highclere Castle, the country seat of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, to view the earl’s private collection of Egyptian artifacts.

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