Travel

Take me to the river: The other (less blackjack, more bicycling) side of cruising

Luxury ocean cruise companies like Crystal are launching river ships like the Crystal Bach and crafting unique itineraries
Crystal River Cruises
Luxury ocean cruise companies like Crystal are launching river ships like the Crystal Bach and crafting unique itineraries

After a day spent gliding along the rice paddies and stilt houses of the Mekong River, including a visit with a local family, all 60 of us convened in the Viking Mekong’s dining room for a Cambodian family-style dinner. (Fried tarantulas!) Later, we settled into the Sun Deck, under the stars, for the evening’s entertainment: one of our program directors performing a mash-up of Bruno Mars tunes. (“Uptown Funk,” sung with a Vietnamese accent and accompanied by the our freestyle-dancing crew, was a definite showstopper.)

If your idea of cruising is a humongous ship and a cast of thousands, you’ve never been on a river ship. This is cruising, minus the surf pools, casinos, Broadway shows, and zip-lines. In short: Minus the glitz, the ocean, and most of the people. Mega ships can carry up to 4,000 souls; on a river vessel, it’s more like 160 folks, or less. Some companies, like Tauck, are actually decreasing the number of passengers on board and enlarging their suites, plus adding casual restaurants, a hint of what’s happening in the industry. (More about that later.)

“Mega [ocean-going] ships can be awesome if you want a lot of choices, great entertainment onboard, a huge spa and fitness facility, and kid’s clubs,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-at-large of Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com.) River cruises are great if you’re interested in destination immersion, and want to forge a community with other travelers onboard in a more intimate venue. Oh, and if you’re OK with only one or two dining rooms, not six themed restaurants. (To be fair, smaller sea-going cruise ships offer a similar vibe, but we’re going for dramatic contrast here.)

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Our French Colonial style riverboat on the Mekong was simple but comfortable. We got used to no TV and spotty Wi-Fi. We didn’t care (much), because the itinerary — including the astonishing temples of Siam Reap — was so incredible. Since you don’t spend long days at sea like you do on an ocean cruise, the ship isn’t the main event on a river cruise: it’s more about the destination than the journey. “Snazzy ships are fun, but we’ve found that the places we visit on a river cruise are paramount,” Brown says. “A great cruise line will offer a comfortable and cozy hotel-that-floats.” While some river vessels are fancier than others, offering butlers and the like, it’s really about having “a great on-land experience, and then relaxing on board while the captain does all the driving,” Brown contends.

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Every day, there’s another port city or charming village to explore. Beyond the usual European routes along the Rhine, the Rhone, and the Danube, river vessels are plying rivers such as the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, India’s Ganges, and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, among the more exotic locales. You can even combine an African river cruise with a game safari — a trip that’s on our must-do list. A hot destination right now: Portugal’s Douro River. “Trips typically start with a pre-cruise visit to Lisbon,” Brown says; the Douro is up north. “It’s the heart of Portugal’s wine country, with a vibrant culinary scene, and the terrain is gorgeous, too,” she adds.

You could kick back in a lounge chair and admire the views, but you’d be missing out. “River cruise lines are offering ever more active itineraries, and upping their health and wellness game,” says Michelle Baran, who covers cruising for the trade publication Travel Weekly.

One example she cites is Avalon Waterways, with its expanded Active Discovery program of excursions, like kayaking, biking, and cave exploration. “Some of my favorite new activities are water sports — I love the idea of exploring the waters that you’re sailing in new and fun ways,” Baran says. Some of those ways including canoeing in the canals of France, an option offered by Crystal River Cruises, and kayaking to a monastery-turned-brewery in Germany, an excursion choice on a U by Uniworld cruise. If hiking through the Black Forest sounds like an amazing vacay day, check out the itineraries offered by Emerald Waterways. An activity option we’d love to try: pedaling alongside castles in Austria on an electronic bike, on a Danube River trip offered by Scenic cruises.

Speaking of the Danube, our Cruise Critic expert considers it to be a perfect destination for the first-time river cruiser. This European river “is absolutely magic with its blend of cosmopolitan cities such as Budapest, Vienna, and Cologne, and lesser-known towns and villages like Bratislava, Durnstein, and Regensburg,” Brown says. If you have two weeks, you can start in Amsterdam and wind up in Budapest. Only have a week to spare? Start with Budapest and venture into Austria and Germany, departing out of Munich.

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Besides the sporty options, river cruise lines offer cultural activities that appeal to travelers who seek authentic experiences, a major trend in travel. “The river lines have really upped the ante on the choices of shore outings they’re offering,” Brown notes. From city tours for the first-time visitor, to truly bespoke outings, like castle visits (led by a resident of the great house) to cooking a meal with a chef at a local restaurant, you can go beyond the typical tourist experience on a river trip. “And you can vary the pace of your trip, spending a couple of days on in-depth tours and then another day hanging out at a local café, watching the world go by,” she says.

Hmm . . . active excursions, cultural immersion; could the river lines be courting a younger-than-typical cruise traveler these days? Yep. U by Uniworld is a new brand being launched by a luxury river cruise line, aiming to woo passengers from age 21 to 45 “with more freedom — basically, fewer inclusions — and hipper activities on and off the ships, such as silent disco parties and pub crawls,” Baran says. If you’re older than that, tough luck; find another cruise! “They’re looking to invite a passenger onboard that has not been part of the river cruise conversation at all to date,” she notes. For the really young cruiser, companies including Tauck and AmaWaterways, offer family-friendly sailings.

Will millennials come aboard? Hard to say, but Uniworld’s move may be a sign of where riverboats are heading, to more and varied excursions and a more fun, casual onboard vibe. “What I find interesting is that the experience that U by Uniworld has built to cater to the millennial audience — immersive experiences, destination-focused itineraries, and an infusion of a more casual onboard ambience — is equally prized by other generations of travelers, starting with baby boomers,” Brown says.

Other trends that are emerging: “We can expect to see more innovative dining options, ranging from more venues onboard — even if they’re just small wine tasting rooms with 10-person seating — to meals with local families,” Baran says. Pools on ships also seem to be making a comeback, she says, with lines like Emerald Waterways, Amadeus River Cruises, Scenic, Uniworld, and AmaWaterways incorporating small pools into their newer ships.

Pools and wine dinners? Sure. Sounds fun. But nothing compares to the magic of seeing an Old World city, a-sparkle after dark, from the deck of a riverboat.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@globe.com.