Stylish Sailings: New River Cruises and Itineraries

In Avignon, France, Scenic guests will be captivated by 
one of the most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe, the Palais des Papes, and the surviving arches of the 
prominent medieval bridge, Pont Saint Benezet. // Photo by Getty Images / fenlio

Whether it’s a bike ride along the blue Danube, wine tasting in a medieval castle or an art class with an expert painter, a European river cruise can deliver authentic local experiences, plus luxurious accommodations and highly personalized service. As 2019 begins its downward slope, Luxury Travel Advisor looks at a sampling of what’s new in 2020 for luxury sailings on European rivers. 

Certainly, the south of France is an enticing draw, and Scenic will debut a new 12-day “Spectacular South of France” itinerary from Paris to Lyon next year. After an overnight stay in the City of Light, Scenic’s guests will board a high-speed TGV train to Lyon, where they’ll embark on the 155-passenger Scenic Sapphire. Cruising highlights? Guests will explore Beaune, Tournus, Pérouges, Avignon and Arles. Culinary-minded travelers likely will appreciate the “local” experience in Avignon, where guests will shop with the ship’s chef at a fresh food market and then return to the ship’s Scenic Culinaire kitchen for a cooking lesson.

In addition, we particularly love the Chalon-sur-Saône call for Scenic’s included wine tasting experience at Château de Meursault, an estate that’s tantalizing to the senses. Dating from the 12th century, the château’s wine cellars hold several thousand barrels and hundreds of thousands of bottles. The estate’s vineyards span the Côte de Beaune, with prestigious AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the French wine classification system), including Aloxe-Corton, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault.

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Also new is Scenic’s eight-day “Lower Danube Explorer” linking Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia, and likely a good choice for luxury guests who love viewing architectural treasures on a grand scale.  While exploring Budapest, travelers seeking to chow down on Hungarian favorites in a casual venue can head for Borze, a sleek downtown Budapest eatery that serves tasty chicken paprikash and rakott krumpli, a potato gratin with sausages, sour cream and eggs. On this itinerary, cruisers also will watch skilled Hungarian Plain riders in a Puszta horse show and enjoy a home-cooked meal with a local family in Osijek, Croatia. 

The Scenic Culinaire experience gives guests an 
opportunity to get a deeper understanding of French flavors through a series of onboard cooking classes. // Photo by Scenic Cruises / Gillies Zaiser

On another front, Scenic and National Geographic Expeditions are teaming up for their third season as river partners with voyages on France’s Rhône River and the Rhine River for Christmas season. National Geographic experts and photographers will lecture onboard, guests can hone their photographic skills, and during the Rhone sailing, a National Geographic expert will lead guests on exploration of the Pont-d’Arc Cavern, known for reproductions of prehistoric drawings found in Chauvet Cave.

Many new river ships will debut in Europe for 2020 including Taucks new 84-passenger Andorinha, named for a Portuguese migrating swallow beloved by the locals. The pampering vessel will launch the line’s three new Douro River voyages, which are Tauck’s first there. For the most luxurious digs, cruisers can select a 300-square-foot suite (there are 12) on the upper Diamond Deck or, alternatively, 225-square-foot staterooms primarily on the Ruby or mid-level deck. Onboard, guests can spread out in the Panorama Lounge, Compass Rose restaurant for fine dining, and a second dining venue, Arthur’s.

As for the itineraries, the new ship’s eight-day “Villages and Vintages: Cruising the Douro River Valley” will showcase the region’s wine heritage and quaint villages. Guests can choose from several walking tours in Porto, perhaps touring the historic center or visiting the Ribeira riverfront district. Other highlights are a private dinner with wine pairings at the family-run wine estate Quinta do Portal; an exploration of the medieval town of Guimaraes; and a visit to a port wine “cave” in Vila Nova de Gaia for a tour and tasting. Or, how about a cycling excursion through the Vinho Verde wine region. Tauck’s new 12-day “Exploring the Douro, plus Lisbon & Madrid” itinerary anchors the Douro river cruise experience with two-night, pre- and post-cruise stays in Spain’s and Portugal’s capital cities with included Tauck sightseeing. 

For families with children, Tauck’s new “Douro Discovery: A Family River Cruise in Portugal” is part of its popular Bridges Collection. Luxury Travel Advisor likes the Bridges concept as these cruises aren’t simply “family friendly” but instead designed for an entire ship full of families. An onboard Tauck Family Host keeps everyone engaged with activities, crafts and family fun. Families will stay two nights pre-cruise at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon and post-cruise at Madrid’s Westin Palace, with a five-night cruise in between. 

In Lisbon, they’ll be treated to a tour, reception and welcome dinner inside the 18th-century National Palace of Queluz, a fun tram ride through the 16th-century Bairro Alto quarter and a maritime museum tour. Families will stroll on a medieval Coimbra walking tour before embarking Andorinha at Porto. While cruising, active families can hike through Pinhão’s hilltop vineyards and kayak on the Douro. After disembarking, a Salamanca, Spain walking tour is included.

Cruisers on Tauck’s Andorinha can hike through Pinhão’s hilltop vineyards and kayak on the Douro. // Getty Images / inaquim

Desire to prepare gourmet dishes created by Crystal’s chefs from its river, ocean, yacht and expedition voyages? Next year, river cruisers who sail on one of Crystal River Cruises’ five designated “30th Anniversary Collection” Rhine or Danube river voyages will receive a complimentary “30th Anniversary Cookbook” with savory recipes created by the line’s chefs from all Crystal experiences. Other perks include celebratory programs and commemorative luggage tags. 

In other news, the all-suite luxury river line now offers a junior cruiser’s menu with kid-friendly dishes and smaller portions. On the bike front, the line currently carries e-bikes on Crystal Mozart for guests to take out independently or for use on guided bicycle tours. On its four other Rhine-class vessels, the line arranges for e-bikes to be brought to the ship. But things are changing this month as the line eliminates e-bikes (guests were getting injured). Instead, all vessels — starting in mid-July — will carry their own new, snazzy Trek bikes (regular bikes) for independent use and group bike tours.  

Later this year, Crystal Mozart will leave the Crystal fleet and transfer to Genting Hong Kong, Crystal’s parent company, for a new Asian project (details yet to be announced). But as one chapter closes, another opens. Crystal’s river operation has its own exciting new development. In Vienna, it’s in soft-launch mode for a new river-docking location exclusive to Crystal and adjacent to the Hilton Vienna Danube Waterfront; several of the line’s vessels have already docked there and it will be fully operational in 2020. 

With the introduction of a new Crystal “convenience package,” guests can arrive from North America, stay at the hotel and get good night’s sleep and, after they check out on embarkation day, Crystal will transfer their luggage directly from hotel to ship. If a voyage ends in Vienna, guests with late departing flights also will have hospitality services at the hotel. Since Crystal will still use its other Vienna docking location, it also has plans for a new Web page that guests will check a few days prior to embarkation to find out where their ship is docked.    

For 2020, most Crystal river departures on the Main, Rhine, Mosel and Danube are seven nights mixed with a few longer itineraries, including 10-night Mosel River cruises, 10-night Danube River cruises and 16-night Amsterdam-to-Budapest cruises. For those 16-night voyages, the line will reduce the number of departures to one departure monthly between May and October, as it believes that’s the “sweet spot” of desired timing. Crystal is also planning two new extended 2020 land packages, one in Prague and another in Zurich at the Savoy Baur en Ville with transfers and a city tour.   

A year ago, Crystal tested a “Delightful Danube” itinerary between Regensburg, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary, and it proved popular. Now, Crystal will offer it for 2020 on the 106-passenger Crystal Ravel and sister, Crystal Mahler, with overnights in Regensburg, Germany, Vienna and Budapest. A three-night, add-on Prague package is also available. Luxury Travel Advisor also likes the choice of Regensburg for turnarounds as the city is a treasure trove of German history, architecture and eco-options. 

What’s special? The city’s Porta Praetoria is the world’s only surviving Roman legion camp gate and the Old Town with Stadtamhof is an incredibly well-preserved Medieval city. Regensburg also is a hub for cycling routes. One savory dining option for guests exploring independently around the city is the one-Michelin-star Storstad, a modern Swedish restaurant with simplistic design, Nordic cuisine, a highly rated wine list and panoramic views of Regensburg’s Old Town.

The Old town of Regensburg with Stadtamhof is a well-preserved medieval German town on the Danube, which is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. // Photo by Getty Images / Juli Scalzi

In March 2020, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will debut the luxurious, 134-passenger S.S. La Venezia — the soon-to-be revitalized River Countess — on a 10-day itinerary that starts with an included two-day land stay in Milan. There, guests will view Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic masterpiece, “The Last Supper,” before continuing to S.S. La Venezia for an eight-day cruise through and around Venice, along the Po river and to the outlying Venetian islands of Burano, Mazzorbo and Torcello. Guests can also purchase the eight-day cruise as a cruise-only option. Look for this pampering vessel to offer new one-of-a-kind interior décor inspired by Venetian culture, four elegantly appointed suites (No. 409 to No. 412), two dining venues including an Italian kitchen on the upper deck, a spa, library, lounge and bar. 

While River Countess was damaged in June while docked in Venice — after being hit by the MSC Opera, which experienced a technical issue — repairs are under way and Uniworld says the River Countess should resume cruising in Italian waters later this month. 

Another amenity-laden new ship launching in March 2020 is Uniworld’s new 100-passenger S.S. Sao Gabriel on Portugal’s Douro River. Luxury travelers will discover more lavishly appointed suites than on the Queen Isabel and interior décor, cuisine and wine will reflect the Douro Valley region. We’d opt for the most spacious, pampering accommodations, the Grand Suites, No. 301 to  No. 304. Uniworld also is adding butler service onboard for the ultimate in pampering. 

Luxury travelers certainly love multiple dining choices and Uniworld has many savory options. What’s more fun than progressive dining? Uniworld now offers that on all its European Super Ships; guests can chow down on appetizers in the galley, enjoy dessert on the top deck and have other courses in between in other spots. For example, a typical progressive menu could have a soup of the day served with puff pastries, a homemade seafood cigar with sweet chili dip, beef roulade, fresh, locally sourced vegetables, refreshing sorbet and more. Progressive dining menus vary by sailing, the chef onboard, destination, season and region. 

Uniworld also offers farm-to-table cuisine on its ships with fresh local meats, vegetables and seafood sourced locally. Several ships feature alternative dining, such as Max’s restaurant on the newly renovated S.S. Beatrice; here, cruisers can take a cooking class and create everything from wiener schnitzel to goulash. And when cruisers aren’t focused on food, they can eyeball the ship’s outstanding artwork, including pieces from Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Pino Signoretto.

Debuting next year is AmaWaterways new 156-passenger AmaSiena, which will sail seven-, 10- and 11-night itineraries on the Rhine, Main, Mosel and Danube Rivers. What’s nice accommodations-wise is that this vessel has connecting staterooms, perfect for families or friends traveling together. 

Multiple dining options include regionally inspired cuisine in the Main Restaurant and a wine-paired tasting menu in The Chef’s Table Restaurant. If an active mood strikes, the Sun Deck’s walking track, pool with swim-up bar, fitness room and complimentary fleet of bikes are available. Cruisers can also take classes led by a professionally trained onboard Wellness Host.

In addition, AmaWaterways is debuting two new itineraries on the 196-passenger AmaMagna, its highly innovative, wider-than-typical Danube vessel, which just launched this summer. That ship will sail a new seven-night “Gems of Southeast Europe” itinerary from Budapest, Hungary to Giurgiu, Romania with stops at Bulgaria’s Belogradchik Rocks and the UNESCO-designated Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo, Bulgaria. 

AmaMagna also will operate a 14-night “Grand Danube” itinerary from Vilshofen, Germany to Giurgui, Romania, through seven countries. Certainly, wine tasting is a top reason for luxury travelers to cruise Europe’s rivers and AmaWaterways plans more than 70 hosted Wine Cruises in 2020. Guests can expect onboard lectures and wine tastings led by wine experts, as well as exclusive excursions to private cellars, wineries and vineyards. 

For example, on the “Melodies of the Danube” wine-themed voyage on March 20, 2020, Rebecca Sciandri Griffin of Napa Valley’s Sciandri Family Wines will host the voyage, and on March 22’s “Gems of Southeast Europe” wine-themed cruise, Earl & Hilda Jones of the Abacela Vineyards and Winery Roseburg, Oregon, will serve as hosts.

Bulgaria’s UNESCO-designated Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo will be visited by AmaMagna guests during the “Gems of Southeast Europe” itinerary.  //Photo by Getty Images / tupungato

From France to Austria, Riviera River Cruises is introducing new 2020 cruises, including two on the Seine and Danube Rivers. A new eight-day “Seine, Paris & Normandy River Cruise” will take guests from the City of Light to the D-Day landing site at Omaha Beach and from lovely Honfleur to Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny. Also, a new “Vienna, Bohemia & the Treasures of the Danube” cruise features Vienna, the Roman city of Regensburg, medieval Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic and more.

Separately, Riviera has solo traveler sailings on the Danube, the Rhone, the Rhine and the Douro, and will add three more 2020 solo traveler sailing dates — bringing total solo cruises to seven. What’s unusual? These voyages are dedicated entirely to solo travelers with no single supplement and they include fine dining onboard and many included tours. 

The new solo departures are “Amsterdam, Kinderdijk & the Dutch Bulbfields River Cruise for Solo Travelers,” five days departing March 30; “The Seine, Paris & Normandy River Cruise for Solo Travelers,” eight days departing March 31 and “Medieval Germany River Cruise for Solo Travelers,” eight days departing October 24. 

On the Rhine River, Avalon Waterways will launch the new, 164-passenger Avalon View next year. This ship will field two full decks of the popular Panorama Suites with drop-down windows and beds facing the water. The most spacious accommodations are two 300-square-foot Royal Suites.

Avalon also is introducing three new tulip-focused itineraries, providing opportunities to “ooh” and “aah” at field after field of colorful blooms; tulip numbers are estimated in the millions. On a new “Tulip Time in Holland & Belgium” itinerary from Amsterdam to Brussels, guests can bike Arnhem’s riverbanks on one day and head out on another to bake an authentic “Vlaai,” a traditional local fruit pie or tart. Also new are eight-day “Tulip Time Highlights” and 15-day “Grand Tulip Cruise of Holland & Belgium” itineraries.

In addition, Avalon is adding new four-, five- and six-day itineraries in 2020; these include the new five-day “Taste of the Rhine,” six-day “Heart of Germany” (formerly offered at Christmas season, but now throughout 2020) and four-day “Taste of the Danube” voyages. Avalon packs a lot into these short itineraries. On “Taste of the Rhine” sailings, guests will set off on an Amsterdam culinary walk, view Rhine Gorge castles, enjoy wine tasting, take a guided Cologne tour and stroll Rudesheim, where vineyards surround the town. 

Next year, Avalon is introducing new author and photography cruises; themed wine, beer, history, heritage and Christmas Markets voyages; and culinary-themed voyages such as a “Culinary Experience in Burgundy & Provence” on March 31 and “A Culinary Experience on Rhine & Rhone Revealed” on March 24.  

One of the most anticipated 2020 European events for river cruisers is the Passion Play in Germany, a depiction of Jesus Christ’s struggles, death and resurrection. This “live” Christian drama has been performed by Oberammergau’s citizens once every decade since the 1630s. Among lines offering cruises incorporating the event, Viking River Cruises will offer a new 10-day river cruisetour, “Oberammergau, The Passion Play,” taking travelers to the play’s 42nd installment and allowing them to combine that experience with exploration of destinations in Germany, Austria and Hungary.

Guests will see The Passion Play performance and sail on a 190-passenger Viking Longship with modern, Scandinavian design, a comfortable “Living Room” and an infinity pool aft, not to mention wrap-around Explorer Suites. The suites have separate sleeping and sitting rooms, a wraparound veranda with 270-degree views and a French balcony. During this Passion Play itinerary, guests will listen to a tour and organ concert at the 17th-century St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Passau, Germany; a Mozart and Strauss concert in Vienna; and look at Nuremberg’s World War II history, including Zeppelin Field and the Palace of Justice, site of the Nazi war trials. 

Looking for a wellness experience? Viking’s luxury guests can soak in Budapest’s Thermal Baths, just as the Romans did and as locals do today. The thermal waters flowing through the city are said to provide restorative, wellness benefits. While most dates for Viking’s Passion Play itinerary are sold out, at press time, space was still available on the July 23, 2020 departure. To know more about what’s new in European river cruising for 2020, visit www.luxurytraveladvisor.com.

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