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- There are more riverboats doing Europe cruises than in any other region
- River cruises cover shorter distances than other small-ship cruises
- River cruise passengers, especially in Europe, are typically older than on other small-ship cruises (70s+)
Steamboats plying the great rivers of the world emerged by the first few decades of the 19th century as the principal means of moving passengers and freight. In North America, both sternwheel and sidewheel steamboats eventually numbered in the thousands, becoming storied icons of American Heritage. Europe’s navigable rivers largely created such great commercial and cultural centers as Paris, Lyon, Cologne, Frankfurt, Vienna, Budapest and Prague. The Nile was the primary “highway” in Egypt and Sudan, as the Amazon in Brazil; Irrawaddy in Myanmar (Burma), and Yangtze in China. Cities positioned near the sea – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, St. Petersburg (Russia), Alexandria (Egypt) and Shanghai – became thriving commercial links between deep-sea and inland trades.
Today, cruising these rivers has developed into the fastest growing section of the worldwide cruise craze with the newest riverboats offering some of the amenities once found only on ocean cruises plus a much wider range of itineraries. Some people collect rivers as I like to, especially in North America and Europe.
The most intense river tourism takes place on the Rhine, Elbe, Rhone and Danube in Europe, then along the Yangtze in China and until the recent political turmoil, the Upper Nile in Egypt where a cruise was, and hopefully will be again, an integral part of Egyptian travel.
In Europe, the river cruise has largely replaced the multi-nation bus tour, as riverboat travel allows you to unpack once and yet visit a whole string of cities and towns without shuffling from hotel to hotel. And in many cases, river landings are well positioned, just where you want to be.
Riverboats fit neatly into this small-ship guide as passenger capacities fall below 200. Most offer all outside cabins arranged over two or three decks, with large windows, some sliding open, French doors for stepping up to a railing or small private balconies. With so much to see all around, the forward observation lounge is the key public room while the wide open sun deck serves the same purpose in good weather. Cabins amenities will usually include TVs, decent storage space for what is always a casual dress policy, and small bathrooms with showers. For more specifics, see the individual river lines.
Meals generally take place in a single restaurant handling all passengers at one open seating where you choose with whom you wish to share a table. That way you easily meet new people. Riverboat food will reflect, to some extent, the region in which it operates while catering to the tastes of its clientele, generally a 50+ crowd, which for the purposes of this guide, will be those lines catering to English language speakers. Rarely will the gastronomic delivery come up to the very high standards of the luxury deep-sea cruise ships as riverboat galleys are small and the focus is the destinations. Some of newest have alternate dining venues, sometimes fully enclosed and at other times including an open or covered terrace.
The Daily Routine
A daily cycle may see the boat dock for a full day or just the morning or afternoon, in which case you then enjoy daylight river cruising that might be scenic and serene with vineyards lining the banks or intriguingly industrial with intense barge traffic and locking through operations. The accommodations aboard those passing barges and tows are quite comfy for those living aboard, and the deck may carry the family car and bicycles. Other ways to pass the time while cruising: attend a lecture on the next destination, head to small spa if one is aboard, or more likely browse the modest library collection and use one of the few computers for Internet access. During the overnight hours, as you sleep, the boat glides its way to the next port.
Most river lines offer an included shore excursion program that may begin as a walking tour directly from the boat or include a short transfer by bus. Today, most guides use a microphone that sends the commentary to an earpiece receiver, so the voice comes across at a conversational level, allowing you to face what is being described rather than straining to hear and see the source of the commentary. The system works well outside and inside museums and churches where a peaceful atmosphere may be maintained.
Going With the Flow
Living aboard a riverboat is more compact than aboard an ocean cruiser as the dimensions are governed by the width and depth of the waterways, the heights of fixed bridges and the size of the lock chambers. Long, narrow and low slung are the results. When a bridge is extra low, the Sun Deck may have to be cleared, and the captain’s pilothouse might even descend into an open cavity for safe passage.
Occasionally, a river may be in flood and water levels simply too high to proceed under the spans or the opposite, the water levels are too low and boat may be danger of running aground. Alternate arrangements could involve transferring to another boat that is located on a still navigable stretch or moving into hotels and continuing the itinerary by bus. Both situations understandably interrupt the seamless way that makes river travel so attractive. I have made more than a score of river cruises, and only one was interrupted (by high water) and that tributary of the Mississippi is no longer used.