River Cruise Preview: New Vessels Hitting the Waterways in 2018

The Pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo will be a major draw for guests sailing on Viking Ra’s new 12-day “Pharaohs and Pyramids” itinerary.

Soaring consumer demand for river cruises is fueling the construction of new vessels. For 2018, luxury travelers have more choices and, among those, we’re particularly excited about this sampling of global developments.

On the Nile

Launching in March, Viking River Cruises’ modern, 48-passenger Viking Ra is now “essentially new” after being stripped down to the steel frame and rebuilt. In fact, this Nile vessel is the first to be operated by the line itself, although it has offered Nile cruises previously on other operators’ vessels. Guests sailing on Viking Ra’s new 12-day “Pharaohs and Pyramids” itinerary will begin in Cairo with a three-night stay at the The Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo or a similar property. Included tours will take guests to the Pyramids of Giza, Mosque of Muhammad Ali and the new Grand Egyptian Museum, opening this spring with a huge draw — the full tomb collection of King Tutankhamun.

While in Cairo, travelers who want to taste great Egyptian cuisine almost any time of day can head to Zitouni at the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza. With an extensive buffet adjacent to an open kitchen, it serves up a yummy signature dish, Molokheya, a hearty Egyptian stew served with crispy chicken and spices. After several nights acclimating to Egyptian culture in Cairo, cruisers then will take a flight south to Luxor, where they’ll board Viking Ra for an eight-day, roundtrip cruise calling at Edfu, Qena, Esna and Aswan. Voyage highlights are 11 included shore excursions, a Nubian evening event and a camel ride.

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AmaWaterways’ AmaLea will debut on “Tulip Time” itineraries roundtrip from Amsterdam.

Look for Viking Ra’s design to combine modern Scandinavian elements (reflecting the line’s heritage) with Arabic influences. Guests can soak in Nile views from the ship’s pool, whirlpools or cushioned loungers, amid such décor as mashrabiya-styled screens and canopies that conjure up images of Egyptian dhows (sailing vessels). Want more stunning views? Just head for the interior lounge / bar and open-seat restaurant, both with floor-to-ceiling windows.

All of Viking Ra’s 291-square-foot accommodations are air-conditioned suites. We’d choose one of 20 Veranda Suites (AA and AB), as these have both a full-sized balcony off the living room and a French balcony in the bedroom. Suite (AC) accommodations, instead, have two picture windows. All suites have a sofa, two flat-screen TVs, hotel-style beds convertible to two twins, a private bathroom with shower, refrigerator and more. We also like that this river vessel has a shipboard spa and complimentary Wi-Fi. 

Travelers desiring to see more of the region can check out Viking’s optional, three-night, pre-cruise stay in Jerusalem or a four-night, post-cruise stay in Jordan. The fully escorted Jordan package includes two nights at the Petra Marriott Hotel and one night each at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea and Le Meridien Amman (or comparable properties). Also in the package are eight meals, including daily breakfasts; three full-day tours; the Cairo-to-Amman flight; and all transfers between the hotel and airport.

On the Rhine, Main and Danube

Launching in 2018, AmaWaterways’ upscale 158-passenger AmaLea will offer 78 elegantly appointed staterooms and four high-end suites, No. 301 to No. 304 on the Violin Deck. We’d suggest luxury travelers reserve one of the latter for its 350 square feet of space, large sitting area, separate bedroom area and spacious bathroom, with both a bath tub and separate shower. Most accommodations onboard, including the suites, have the brand’s signature twin-balcony concept — with both a French balcony and outside balcony. 

Suites have in-room temperature control; deluxe hotel-style bedding with Egyptian linens, down pillows and duvets; a flat-screen TV that doubles as a computer; a large wardrobe; desk and chair and more. Other complimentary services include an on-demand entertainment system with a TV, movies and music library, Internet and Wi-Fi and bottled water replenished daily.

Shown here is the rendering of the dining room that will serve locally inspired cuisine.

What’s to do onboard? Guests can arrange for a massage, stroll the Sun Deck’s walking track, get a new “do” in the hair salon or take a dip in the heated pool with swim-up bar. Inside, the Main Lounge is a space for drinks, tapas between meals, enrichment programming and nightly entertainment. 

This product will appeal to foodies, given that AmaWaterways is a member of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the by-invitation-only international culinary society founded in Paris in 1950 to honor the Royal Guild of Goose Roasters, with origins dating to the 13th century. In the ship’s main dining room, guests will dine on locally inspired cuisine paired with unlimited wine and beer at lunch and dinner. Not to be missed is The Chef’s Table, the ship’s intimate, specialty restaurant that seats just 28 guests. Its savory “tasting menu” comprises three appetizers, a champagne sorbet intermezzo, three main courses and three desserts. How about cod fillet with beurre blanc and crayfish cake, served with blanquette de veau charolais with saffron and a side dish of porcini ravioli with truffle mousseline and fresh asparagus?

Starting in March, AmaLea will debut on “Tulip Time” itineraries roundtrip from Amsterdam before repositioning for multiple Danube River itineraries. Among them is a seven-night “Romantic Danube” itinerary from Vilshofen, Germany to Budapest with calls at Passau, Germany; Linz, Weissenkirchen (for Durnstein and Melk) and Vienna, Austria; and Bratislava, Slovakia. Guests also can choose a three-night, pre-cruise option - either Prague or Munich. For those exploring Munich independently, the revolving Restaurant 181 in the Olympic Tower couples tasty cuisine (both avant-garde dishes and signature cuisine) and superb urban views. We’d try the Hokkaido pumpkin soup followed by the wiener schnitzelof Piedmont veal and cranberries.

Amadeus River Cruises will launch the 162-passenger Amadeus Queen on Netherlands/Belgium and Rhine, Main and Danube cruises. Seen here is a rendering of the indoor pool area.

Also launching this year on the Rhine, Main and Danube are Crystal River Cruises’ 106-passenger Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy, both luxurious “Rhine-class” sisters to Crystal Mahler and Crystal Bach. Crystal definitely will deliver the pampering with butler service for all accommodations, king-sized beds that face panoramic balcony-windows, walk-in closets, ETRO robes and slippers, flat-screen HDTVs, personal iPads for guest use, Nespresso machines and more. Many accommodations will have dual vanities in the bathrooms.

We’d select a two-bedroom Crystal Suite (category CS with 759 square feet) or one-bedroom Crystal Penthouse (category CP with 506 square feet). But, those are highly popular so reserve far in advance. Another option is the 253-square-foot River Suite Deluxe, as it has a writing desk / vanity area, one arm chair with small table, a bedroom area and well-appointed bathroom. Accommodations allow guests to stay connected, as bedside nightstands have a wireless charging pad and USB outlets. 

Guests will dine onboard with a “Crystal Casual” dress code and open seating in the Waterside Restaurant, while custom wine tastings and pairing dinners are typically set up in the Euro-chic Vintage Room. The Bistro serves coffee, charcuterie and European pastries, while the Palm Court is a popular gathering spot for cocktails, conversation, enrichment lectures and entertainment, including piano music and dancing.

This spring, Crystal Debussy will sail roundtrip “Tulips and Windmills” voyages from Amsterdam and then one-way voyages between Amsterdam and Basel, Switzerland. A 10-day “Rhine Christmas Markets” itinerary on November 30 includes two nights in Amsterdam and calls at Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Speyer, Kehl and Breisach, Germany, before ending with an overnight in Basel. Among Crystal Ravel’s itineraries is a 14-day “Majestic Europe” voyage from Basel to Vienna (with overnights in both), departing June 7. Guests will explore ashore at Kehl, Speyer, Mannheim, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Miltenberg, Wertheim, Wurzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Deggendorf and Passau (overnight), all in Germany, plus Melk and Krems, Austria.

Ho Chi Minh City will be explored by guests of Avalon Saigon’s “Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong River” itinerary.

Also new in this region? Amadeus River Cruises will launch the 162-passenger Amadeus Queen on Netherlands / Belgium and Rhine, Main and Danube cruises. Abercrombie & Kent also is offering its Connections European River Cruises program on the Amadeus Queen (along with other Amadeus vessels) in 2018. The new ship embodies the Amadeus “Silver” ship concept with enhancements.

Eagerly awaited? It’s Amadeus Queen’s indoor swimming pool, a first for the Amadeus fleet. The pool area’s retractable roof can be opened or closed. The pool area also will host enrichment lectures and movies. For good scenic views while sailing, we’d head for the large forward-facing Panorama Bar on Mozart Deck or enjoy dinner with a view at the Restaurant. As for accommodations, we’d opt for the large, 284-square-foot “Deluxe Balcony Suites,” each with an outdoor balcony and cozy interior reading corner with sofa.

With these suites guests have a choice of bed configuration (double or twin), luxurious bathroom with shower, minibar, walk-in closet, flat-screen TV, individual climate control, bathrobe for guest use, a hair dryer, direct-dial telephone and in-room safe. Other accommodations mainly have large windows that automatically drop to create an interior, open-air balcony. 

In addition, Riviera River Cruises will launch its new 169-passenger, upscale MS Robert Burns in 2018. Itineraries include the 15-day “Cruise the Heart of Europe” from Cologne, Germany to Budapest, and two eight-day options, “Rhine Cruise to Switzerland” from Cologne to Lucerne and “Blue Danube” cruise roundtrip from Budapest. If travelers desire to taste authentic Hungarian cuisine while independently exploring Budapest, we’d suggest making a reservation at Hungarikum Bistro. A good starter is “The Taste of Hungary” for sampling local meats and cheeses. 

Top accommodations? They’re Suite Nos. 303 to 306 on the Diamond Deck with 274 square feet of space; tropical hardwoods, neutral tones and contemporary lighting; twin beds that can be joined to form one larger bed (if desired); and a marble bathroom with a fully glazed shower, rainforest showerhead, contemporary lighting and Crabtree and Evelyn bath products. Among many appealing onboard spaces are a glass elevator between the Emerald, Ruby and Diamond Decks as well as a spa and wellbeing area. 

On the Mekong

Launching this fall is Avalon Waterways’ new 36-passenger Avalon Saigon. Its narrow draft will allow it - at certain times of the year, depending on water conditions - to sail the entire way from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, without the need for guests to get off and take a motorcoach or air flight. Guests can expect modern ship design mixed with Vietnamese and Cambodian touches, plus Avalon’s signature brand feature of beds that “face the view.”

American Cruise Lines’ American Song will launch on the Mississippi River this fall. Shown above and here are renderings of the lounge.

Each of Avalon Saigon’s 245-square-foot Panorama Suites will have a 14-foot-long, wall-to-wall panoramic window; guests will simply slide the panels aside to create a huge open-air balcony, or, even in bad weather, still enjoy grand views. Accommodations will have Comfort Collection Beds, a choice of bed configuration, Egyptian cotton linens and either soft or firm pillows. The large private bathroom will have a full shower with glass door, hairdryer and premium bath amenities. Suite perks will include a writing desk / vanity with mirror and a comfortable chair; closets with shelves; an alarm clock; bathrobes and slippers for guest use; in-room safe; individually controlled air conditioning; complimentary bottled water and more. 

Guests will relax in the air-conditioned Panorama Lounge or the open-air observation lounge, which has a shade system and premium lounge chairs. In areas where signal is available, guests will have free Wi-Fi access. Cruisers can also book a massage in the spa treatment room, work out in a small fitness room or browse the library’s volumes and games. Travelers will dine in an open-seating dining room with both Asian and western cuisine; four-course, à la carte dinners will include a choice of salads, soups, entrées and dessert or cheese. Breakfast and lunch buffets include a “live” cooking station where a chef creates cooked-to-order or local specialties. Complimentary wine and beer are provided at lunch and dinner.

Among Avalon Saigon’s itineraries is a 13-day “Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong River” northbound route from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Guests spend three nights in Ho Chi Minh City before boarding the vessel. Along the river, guests will visit Wat Hanchey for a traditional water blessing by local monks. Another enticing treat is a walking tour through rural Angkor Ban village with its traditional Khmer houses and a visit to a local school. Two nights are spent at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap (or a similar hotel), giving guests two days at the ancient Angkor sites. 

Separately Pandaw River Expeditions also is building a new river expedition vessel, the 28-passenger Sabei Pandaw, debuting in November on the Mekong in Laos (the line’s third there). With double-decker styling, this classic-styled vessel will offer 14 air-conditioned, 162-square-foot Pandaw staterooms with sliding glass doors. They open onto an outside promenade, accessible to all guests; the line provides a few chairs and a table outside for each stateroom. The ship’s open-plan salon includes a lounge / bar and restaurant (also air conditioned) with flexible indoor or outdoor dining. 

American Cruise Lines’ American Song will launch on the Mississippi River this fall. Shown above and here are renderings of a stateroom.

This vessel should appeal to adventurist travelers as a comfortable means to off-the-beaten-path destinations. On November 11, Sabei Pandaw will begin operating a 10-night “The Laos Mekong” itinerary. Starting in September 2019, it will then move farther along the Upper Mekong to China’s Yunnan province to sail a 14-night “The Mekong: from Laos to China” itinerary, visiting Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China. Highlights include visits to Luang Prabang, Laos, tribal villages and national parks. 

Designed to meet navigational challenges of shooting the rapids in the Laos gorges, Sabei Pandaw also will have the shallow draft needed to sail year-round into China. Cruise fares will include local transfers, entrance fees, English language guide services, crew gratuities, main meals, locally made soft drinks, local beer and local spirits, jugged coffee and selection of teas and tisanes as well as mineral water. 

On America’s Waterways

We’re eager to get a first glimpse of American Cruise Lines’ new type of North American river vessel. Launching on the Mississippi River this fall, the 190-passenger, five-deck American Song will be the first in a series of modern, new riverboats with contemporary styling, spacious accommodations that all have private balconies, a four-story glass atrium and multiple shipboard lounges. Complimentary Wi-Fi will be available throughout this ship.

CroisiEurope’s adventure-style itinerary on the Chobe River

We’d opt for one of the ship’s two 445-square-foot Owner’s Suites with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and a private wraparound balcony. As for 2018 sailings, American Song will sail roundtrip New Orleans cruises or one-way voyages between Memphis and New Orleans. Guests on Memphis departures can also reserve a pre-cruise, two-day “Deluxe Graceland” optional package. In spring 2019, this vessel will reposition to the Pacific Northwest for Columbia and Snake River sailings. 

In addition, in spring 2018, American Cruise Lines will launch the new 175-passenger American Constitution, a sister to the American Constellation, on inland East Coast waterways.

On the Chobe River

If travelers desire to explore wild Africa on an intimate adventure-style cruise, CroisiEurope launches the new 16-passenger, eight-suite African Dream II this year on the Chobe River; it will have an upscale, modern look and neutral color scheme. The main deck will offer six 193-square-foot suites with French balconies and two similarly sized suites with a 36-square-foot full balcony. All suites offer two twin beds that can be joined into a single, larger bed configuration, as well as a private bathroom with shower, air conditioning, TV and more.

CroisiEurope’s adventure-style itinerary on the Chobe River will land safari outings to explore the scenes of Africa.

Guests will have 360-degree, wraparound views from the Sun Deck so it’s likely they’ll spot elephants, other wildlife or birds. Scenic views are also on tap from the ship’s panoramic lounge and restaurant and its cozy terrace that has a hot tub. Plus, the itinerary features land safari outings to search out wildlife and travelers can add land stopovers in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia or Zimbabwe. One thing is certain, wherever guests wish to vacation in 2018, these and other new river choices await. 

Updates on the Horizon

During 2017, many upscale river lines including Scenic renovated existing European vessels. What’s ahead this year? Here are a few refurbished / updated ships slated to relaunch. 

Uniworld will relaunch its 156-passenger S.S. Beatrice (formerly the River Beatrice) on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers this spring. After a bow-to-stern renovation, the ship will gain a fresh, sleek-look, redesigned lounge, elegant grand staircase, a private space (replacing the Captain’s Lounge and Library), two new 375-square-foot Royal Suites and an additional Owner’s Suite; and several connecting staterooms for families. 

African Dream II’s restaurant will provide panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes.

Tauck’s Treasures and Esprit are being reconfigured and will relaunch this spring with some larger cabins and roomier public areas. Passenger count also will drop from 118 to 98. On the Ruby Deck, 30 150-square-foot cabins are being replaced with 20 225-square-foot staterooms. For families, two sets of connecting cabins will be added to the Diamond Deck; each connects a Category 5 cabin with an adjacent Category 7 suite.

For those 21 to 45 years of age, the new U By Uniworld brand will launch this spring. The A, a refurbished, reconfigured 120-passenger vessel (formerly the River Ambassador) will sail the Rhine, Main and Danube, while The B (formerly the River Baroness) will navigate the Seine.

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