Sailing in Style: New and Revitalized River Vessels Debuting in Europe

Increasingly, travelers are clamoring for more new options on European rivers. The good news is that many new river vessels will launch in 2019, plus existing ones are getting major makeovers with more luxury upgrades. Depending on the specific ship, guests will benefit from higher crew levels, creating an enhanced level of service; new onboard spaces and culinary concepts; and more active or in-depth shore excursions. Other luxury river lines are introducing new itineraries or allowing consumers to plan farther in advance for their vacation by opening reservations earlier than in the past. Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening on European rivers in 2019. 

New Danube Explorer

Twice as wide as most European river vessels, AmaWaterways’ new 196-passenger AmaMagna will begin sailing the Danube River in May. With elegant, contemporary design, this vessel easily could have accommodated more passengers. Instead, the line opted for fewer guests, a more intimate onboard aura, new public spaces and spacious accommodations, most with balconies, ranging from 355 square feet to 710 square feet.

We’d reserve one of the six 474-square-foot Grand Suites or, for the ultimate in pampering and space, the 710-square-foot Owner’s Suite. All AmaMagna suites come with a welcome gift, including a bottle of champagne; use of a mobile device for unlimited Wi-Fi ashore and complimentary laundry service. When it’s time to dine in style, guests can choose between the Main Dining Room, the Chef’s Table specialty restaurant, a new al fresco restaurant with retractable windows and Jimmy’s Wine Bar Restaurant, named for the line’s late co-owner Jimmy Murphy. 

AmaMagna’s Zen Wellness Studio will offer group classes focused on stretching, cardio and circuit training, led by a professionally trained wellness host. The ship will have a top deck walking track, small fitness center, two massage rooms, a hair salon, heated pool, whirlpool and Sun-Deck “pop-up” bar. Plus, bicycles will be available for guest use ashore. What’s unusual? We can’t wait to see AmaMagna’s aft Water Sports Platform, home to a 14-passenger Sundowner boat that will provide intimate river excursions. 

For romantically minded couples, the ship’s “Renewal of Vows” package will include a symbolic renewal of vows ceremony led by a designated official; two one-hour massages; one manicure / pedicure or hair salon service; bottle of champagne; turn-down service with rose petals; custom-made dessert; and Sundowner (boat) excursion with champagne. It’s reservable up to 90 days prior to sailing. 

Amawaterways’ 196-passenger AmaMagna will debut on the Danube River in May. 

AmaMagna will launch the line’s new “Exclusive Concierge Golf Program,” an added-charge package for select cruises. Golf enthusiasts will tee off on up to five courses. The line will arrange tee time reservations, private luxury Mercedes transportation to / from the golf courses, club cleaning after each round, à la carte lunch with beer / wine at each course, one golf round per course, one shared golf cart per round, one range token per round and a welcome gift of golf balls, a pitch repair tool, course guides and leather shoe bag.

Destination-wise, this new vessel will sail these itineraries: the week-long “Melodies of the Danube” from Budapest, Hungary, to Vilshofen, Germany; “Romantic Danube” from Vilshofen to Budapest; “Christmas Markets” voyages; and “Wine Themed Cruises.” Port calls will include such cities as Vienna, Austria, Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungary, plus a visit to Austria’s Wachau Valley wine region. During its wine-themed sailings, AmaWaterways will replace Bratislava with Krems, Austria, so guests can explore the winemaking town of Gobelsburg.

Many shore tours and active excursions are included within AmaWaterways’ cruise fares, plus guests will receive an exclusive evening / private reception at a castle and a complimentary Oktoberfest celebration. Optional day tours will include such storied destinations as Salzburg, Austria, with its “Sound of Music” sites, and the Czech Republic’s medieval Cesky Krumlov. Guests can add on stays in Prague, Budapest or Munich, depending on itinerary. 

This year, AmaWaterways is also launching the 156-passenger AmaMora on Portugal’s Douro River. 

The Magnificent Seven

Look for more fast-paced growth this year from Viking, which is launching six new 190-guest Longships — Viking Einar, Viking Sigrun, Viking Sigyn, Viking Tir, Viking Ullur and Viking Vali — on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, and the slightly smaller Viking Helgrim on Portugal’s Douro River. Aptly described as a “thinking person’s” cruise, Viking appeals mostly to travelers 50 and over with a strong passion for art, history, culture, viniculture and scenic beauty. All vessels are adults-only (age 18 and up). 

Onboard, guests will discover modern, Scandinavian design and a layout that’s similar from ship to ship. Vessels are named for Norse gods or warriors, so the new Viking Tir is named for the Norse god of heroic glory while the new Viking Einar honors the Norse “Earl of Orkney.” Where do the ships go? Viking Einar’s eight-day “Rhine Getaway” will sail from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. We’d suggest a pre-cruise stay, given Viking’s wide array of options, including Basel or Lucerne, Switzerland; Lake Como, Italy; Amsterdam; or the U.K.’s Oxford and Highclere Castle, popular with fans of PBS’ “Downton Abbey” series. 

Viking Tir will sail a new 10-day “Holland and Belgium” itinerary between Amsterdam and Antwerp, Belgium (overnights in both). One highlight for World War II buffs likely will be the Nijmegen call; there cruisers can learn about Operation Market Garden, the 1944 Allied attack near Arnhem, portrayed in the movie, “A Bridge Too Far,” and pay homage to fallen soldiers at Oosterbeek’s Airborne Cemetery. Those seeking a longer cruise can consider Viking Tir’s 15-day “Grand European Tour” itinerary from Budapest to Amsterdam. 

At Wertheim, Germany, Viking provides an “included” walking tour, but we’d suggest cruisers reserve the optional “Modern Aristocracy” tour, a “Privileged Access” excursion offering a glimpse into Europe’s modern-day nobility lifestyle. Cruise guests will visit Schloss Mespelbrunn, castle home of Countess Gräfin Hedwig Margarete; it’s ringed by a moat, sports a scenic tower and has a Knights’ Hall. After viewing a trout-filled pond, guests will “retire to the salon” with the countess or a family member to taste smoked fish. Cruisers also will stroll through Milten-berg before visiting Schloss Lowenstein, the estate of the Prince of Lowenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg and Princess Stephanie, Viking Hild’s godmother. In the former stables, now a winery, cruisers will sample the princess’ wines, signature venison pate and regional bread. 

Avalon Cruises’ Avalon Expression is seen on the Danube in Durnstein, Austria. The vessel resembles its new sister ship, the 165-passenger Avalon Envision, which will launch this spring.

Top accommodations on all Longships are the 445-square-foot Explorer Suites with wraparound balconies; a living room with balcony access; separate bedroom with French balcony; and a large private bathroom with glass-enclosed shower. Explorer Suite guests receive such perks as a Silver Spirits beverage package and private airport transfers within Europe. 

On the Douro this year, the new Viking Helgrim will sail the wine-focused, 10-day “Portugal’s River of Gold” itinerary from Lisbon to Porto. For top accommodations, choose the 302-square-foot Veranda Suites with a spacious sitting room, full-size veranda and sleeping quarters with a French balcony. 

Bon Voyage in Style

This spring, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will launch a luxurious “super ship,” the 130-passenger Bon Voyage, after a full-ship refurbishment / revitalization of its River Royale. Uniworld is adding more crew members to Bon Voyage to create a higher crew-to-guest ratio. That’s a nice plus for onboard service, which is already at a high level on this brand. In addition, Uniworld is known for crafting one-of-a-kind vessels with intricate interior design that reflects the ship’s region of operations. Not surprisingly, Bon Voyage, which will sail along France’s Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde rivers, will have interior design reflecting Bordeaux and the region’s gastronomy and wine culture. 

The new ship’s redesigned top deck will offer a new swimming pool and lounge area, plus an adjacent casual dining venue will serve light fare and offer chef-led cooking classes. The dining room will have a newly added chef demonstration area and a new bistro inspired by Paris’ Bouillon Pigalle. Four new luxurious Grand Suites will be introduced, as will marble bathrooms throughout the ship. 

Bon Voyage’s eight-day “Brilliant Bordeaux” itinerary should attract oenophiles and gastronomy fans alike. Guests can choose everything from “Let’s Go” to “Do as the Locals Do” and “Village Day” excursions, all hosted by English-speaking local experts and included within the cruise fare. During the Libourne “Village Day” excursion, guests will journey with a guide to the local farmers market to peruse fresh bread, fish, meats, cheeses and vegetables. On another day, Uniworld will take guests on a walking tour of the winemaking town of Saint-Emilion, famed for its Monolithic Church; they’ll also sip local vintages during a wine tasting experience.   

In Bordeaux, guests can choose from a “Do as the Locals Do” Bordeaux heritage walking tour; a “Let’s Go” biking trip through backstreets; or the “Connoisseur Collection” combination of a Bordeaux walking tour and caviar tasting. Travelers who wish to independently explore Bordeaux during their free time can check out the savory new La Boca FoodCourt opened in late 2018 along Euratlantique’s Quai de Paludate. Part of La Halle Boca, it comprises more than a dozen local restaurants with different specializations, plus it has a wine  / cocktail bar and a self-service beer stand. 

For passionate crafters or knitters, Atelier Bordeaux, the city’s new branch of a major French craft / design store, has opened near Hotel de Ville. Here cruisers can browse and buy designer fabrics, wool and natural and organic knitting yarns. New thrill attractions include Climb Up Bordeaux (a rock wall climbing center) in Merignac’s Decathlon village and, for those who prefer skydiving without jumping out of a plane, the VenturiZone (wind tunnel) simulator in Gujan-Mestras.   

For a more in-depth France experiences, Uniworld’s 15-day “Portrait of Majestic France” itinerary from Paris to Bordeaux will combine the “Brilliant Bordeaux” itinerary on Bon Voyage with a high-speed TGV train ticket to Paris and a “Paris and Normandy” sailing on Joie de Vivre. The line also offers a 22-day “Ultimate France” itinerary between Bordeaux and Avignon with three cruises, one each on Bon Voyage, Joie de Vivre and Catherine

More Panoramic Views

Creating Panorama Suite accommodations in which beds face the view and a large expanse of glass drops (with a push of a button) to create an interior balcony was an Avalon Waterways design innovation a few years back. It’s a great way to create an open-air balcony without sacrificing living space. What’s new? Well, that concept has proven so popular that this year the river line’s entire European fleet will consist of Suite Ships with two full decks of these Panorama Suites, as well as other accommodations. Launching this spring is the 165-passenger Avalon Envision.

Explorer Suites are top accommodations on all Viking Longships. These 445-square-foot suites have wraparound balconies.

Certainly, the 200-square-foot Panorama Suites are popular, but for luxury travelers, we’d reserve one of the 300-square-foot Royal Suites; they will have that open-air balcony concept plus a sitting area with a couch and two chairs, king-sized bed (convertible to two twins), a roomy closet, writing desk, library space, minibar and bathroom with a marble countertop, double sinks, large shower, and toilet in a separate closet. 

Guests will dine at the casual Panorama Bistro, al fresco Sky Grill or the glass-walled Dining Room and can order Avalon Fresh selections created in collaboration with Austrian chefs Leo and Karl Wrenkh. New for 2019, the line is introducing FlexDining with more flexible seating times, more two-top tables for couples, Sky Deck bar service, and nightly food fare upon request at the bar. Really nifty? New this year, guests can request made-to-order picnic lunch boxes to take ashore.

Avalon Envision will offer complimentary Wi-Fi access, a Fitness Center and Adventure Center with bicycles and active gear. An Avalon Adventure Host will assist guests with active excursions, maps and such activities as kayaking, canoeing and jogging. The Club Lounge will offer books, board games and a 24-hour self-serve beverage station and snack treats, plus the ship has an Observation Lounge and Sky Deck with whirlpool, lounge chairs and deck games.

Among Avalon Envision’s itineraries is the 10-day “Legendary Danube 2019,” which starts with two nights in Prague before cruisers board the ship in Nuremberg, Germany. Time permitting there, guests who love German sausages can head out to historic Zum Gulden Stern for a tasty “Nurnberger Rostbratwurste,” a local bratwurst freshly grilled on a beechwood fire. Sides include fermented cabbage, home-made potato salad and freshly ground radish. For dessert, we’d order the apple strudel.  

Ports on this itinerary include Passau and Roth, Germany; Linz, Melk and Vienna (overnight), Austria; and Budapest (overnight). One plus is the inclusion of Regensburg, which features lovely original architecture from multiple periods. The line’s guided city walk will take guests into Old Town Regensburg to see the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) and Porta Pretoria, the old Roman gates. 

Space-Ship Updates

In 2017, Scenic introduced a new design for its two Space-Ships sailing on France’s Saone / Rhone rivers. This year, it’s extending that concept to all eight Space-Ships — Saone Ruby, Scenic Pearl, Scenic Jasper, Scenic Opal, Scenic Amber, Scenic Crystal, Scenic Jade and Scenic Jewel — sailing the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers; all are being revitalized this winter.

Look for a reduction in the number of accommodations and a lowered count of 161 guests for Scenic Ruby and Scenic Pearl and 165 guests on the other vessels. Scenic will keep the same crew count, though, enhancing the already-high onboard service levels. In addition, each vessel will receive two new 520-square-foot Royal Owners Suites, plus a larger wellness center with gym, massage and hair dresser services, and even a salt therapy lounge, hand-crafted from salt bricks. 

With controlled humidity and temperature, that salt lounge’s micro-climate will mimic that of a natural salt mine. We’d stretch out on one of three inclining lounge chairs, nicely separated by light curtains to provide a sense of privacy. Low-level lighting and calming music will set the mood and create a relaxing, noninvasive way to feel energized and healthier. Negatively charged salt ions bear a high kinetic energy and will offer the same refreshing feeling that one might find when standing on a beach, plus have other wellness-related benefits. Scenic suggests 45 minutes for the experience. 

For active guests, the line’s onboard yoga and stretching classes — presented by an onboard wellbeing coach — will help guests limber up for the day’s activities. Scenic plans new, more active excursions for every itinerary this year; these include hikes or e-bike tours allowing guests to pedal for maximum fitness or let the bike do some of the pedaling. 

Expanding Horizons

Ships aside, much is new for guests on European rivers. This year, Tauck will introduce an eight-day “Impressions from the Seine: Paris to Normandy” itinerary, its third Seine option designed exclusively for adult travelers; it’s likely to appeal to younger professionals constrained by limited vacation time and will have active shore excursions, healthy menu options and yoga-inspired stretching classes.

Guests will start with a full day in Paris and a choice of museum visits, followed by a free afternoon to explore independently or shop. After visiting Versailles the next day, guests will sail on Tauck’s Sapphire to Rouen where they’ll be treated to a Tauck-exclusive dinner at the 16th-century Chateau du Taillis. During this cruise, travelers can take Tauck’s tour to the D-Day Beaches at Normandy to see Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery, and elsewhere along the river, go ashore to visit Les Andelys, Vernon, and Giverny for a pre-opening visit to Claude Monet’s home, gardens and studio. 

Some river lines are doing more to assist luxury cruisers in securing their ideal vacation earlier. Crystal River Cruises, which launched Crystal Ravel last summer, has launched three other new river vessels within the past two years and operates a five-ship European river fleet. It has opened its 2021 river cruise reservations nearly three years in advance. That’s much farther out than the norm and gives luxury travelers more time to plan and anticipate what’s to come. Also, Book Now Savings guarantee the lowest fares with sizable savings per suite on select sailings.

In 2021, Crystal’s new “Eastern Danube Discoveries” itinerary will debut on the line’s largest river vessel, Crystal Mozart, to Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. Other 2021 highlights include springtime “Tulips & Windmills” sailings, Christmas markets sailings and “Enchanting Moselle” voyages. On every voyage, Crystal will provide inclusive, curated shore experiences, optional excursions, complimentary signature events and exclusive dining experiences.

In Bordeaux, Uniworld guests may opt for a “Do as the Locals Do” heritage walking tour; or a “Let’s Go” biking trip. Photography: Getty Images / RossHelen

Other European river cruise companies also draw upscale guests, depending on the itinerary or vessel. This year, Riviera River Cruises is launching the new 167-passenger William Wordsworth on the Danube River. Top accommodations are the 269-square-foot Deluxe Balcony suites on the Diamond Deck. Riviera will also debut the 132-passenger George Eliot, a new, smaller ship-class on the Rhine / Moselle rivers. CroisiEurope Cruises will launch a newly revitalized river ship on the Rhone River this year and the new 132-passenger Amalia Rodrigues on the Douro River. And in April, Lueftner Cruises will launch the new 164-passenger Amadeus Star on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers.

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