Menu
Menu
quirky-cruise-barge-lady-cruises-couple-drinking-wine-on-ship-deck

Barge Lady Cruises

Barge Lady Cruises, the inland waterways operator of roughly 50 luxury small-ship hotel barges, has been around for more than three decades expanding its reach throughout western Europe, the UK and Ireland, almost wherever their shallow craft can navigate. Europe is blessed with natural waterways and a rich heritage of canal building that goes back several hundred years to when shallow-draft boats called barges were vital in transporting goods between the major ports of Europe.

Today, commercial traffic still exists on some rivers and canals, though private yachting, barge travel, and on the larger canals and rivers, riverboats, dominate.

When we’re talking barge cruising, most are owner operated by passionate folks who enjoy offering a boutique hotel experience on these sturdy, charming and wonderfully quirky conveyances. Moving at just about four miles an hour, the point is to soak up the lovely scenery along the way while enjoying great food and wine.

Barge Lady Cruises

AMARYLLIS -6- star barge cruises in France. * Photo; Barge Lady Cruises

Barge cruising may be the slowest form of cruising (a walking pace), hence sightseers are rewarded with an up-close and highly personal take on the region chosen.

RELATED: Barge cruise newbie? These first timer tips will help!

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

The fleet numbers 50 moored all over Western Europe — some conversions from cargo barges and others newly-built specifically for the pleasures of canal cruising. Berth capacities range from 2 to 22.

The smaller capacity barges are perfect for private charters by families, good friends and affinity groups.

Against the backdrop of their longtime relationships within what is a small industry, Barge Lady Cruises will curate itineraries based on specific requests such as vineyard visits, historic destinations, birding, cycling, golfing, hiking, walking and so on. Otherwise the vessels operate as hotel barges where you book your cabin or cabins and share the experience with (hopefully) like-minded others. Though do keep in mind, if you don’t take a fancy to the other passengers on an intimate 6- or 8-passenger canal barge, you’re stuck. Definitely consider booking the whole boat with friends or relatives.

In 2018, the firm opened a Canadian office for barge cruising along the scenic waterways of Ontario.

Wine on deck anyone? * Photo; Barge Lady Cruises

Passenger Decks

Two or three decks; cabins, indoor public spaces and possibly a third open deck. Naturally, no elevators.

Passenger Profile

Anyone who wants to leisurely see a specific region, comfortably and close up without the hassle of having to cope with driving, trains, and dealing with an unfamiliar foreign tongue. Language on board is English, though the crew will speak the local language too.

Price

$$ to $$$entirely dependent on the star classifications. See explanation under cabins.

Itineraries
  • All cruises last six nights/seven days and cover about 50 miles.
  • Barge Lady vessels cruise virtually every region of France where canal and rivers exist;
  • Holland (especially in the bulb season) and some venture into Belgium’s dense network of waterways;
  • Germany along the Mosel to Luxemburg City and Trier (canal locks);
  • Italy following the Po River and Bianco Canal from Venice to Mantua;
  • England along the busy Thames lined with attractive villages and historic riverside pubs, all just west of London;
  • Scotland’s cross-country Caledonian Canal that links four lochs (including Ness);
  • Ireland’s eternally-green landscapes bordering the Shannon River.
  • Barge Lady Cruises

    Germany – cruising the Mosel River * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Included Features

A dedicated crew including a chef and a tour guide; pre-arranged pickups and drop offs include nearby railways stations, hotels or rental car offices; open bar and paired wines with lunch and dinner; daily escorted sightseeing and entrance fees; daily maid service; and use of onboard amenities such as bicycles, hot tubs, and WiFi. Suggested tipping is 5-10% of the fare.

Why Go?

Barging is leisurely cruising par excellence. Travel on waterways at the pace of a fast walk, a bit faster by following the towpath on a bicycle, and dead stop in the evenings. You are amidst beautiful landscapes when under way, and when tied up, close to lovely villages for after-dinner strolls.

Daily excursions with no more than 20 people, often less, take you to beautiful spots, vineyards, chateaux, artisan workshops, and local produce and craft markets.

Barge Lady Cruises

Barge trips begin in Venice to travel inland along the Po River. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

When to Go?

While the barge cruising season runs from April to October, there are seasonal plusses and minuses. Early and late in the season will see fewer tourists at the most popular sights and fewer private craft on the waterways. However, it may be too cool to remain on deck when underway and in the evenings when tied up.

The beauty of barging is that you’re mainly cruising in the countryside, which substantially lessens being beset by teeming crowds.

Cabins

The cabin sizes generally dictate the star rating, with 3-stars at roughly 100 sq. ft.; 4-stars at 125-200 sq. ft.; 5-stars at 200 sq. ft. with hot tub; and 6-stars at 250 sq. ft. with hot tub. Because barge cabins are located at the waterline, they have portholes or small windows, not big picture windows as with riverboats.

Barge Lady Cruises

A cabin on the Amaryllis. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises                                                                     

Public Rooms

Barges have a lounge, possibly a second semi-partitioned seating area; dining area; forward outdoor seating on the same deck; and perhaps additional open and/or covered seating above the public spaces. Small book collections will reflect the cruising regions, often along with reading left behind by past passengers.

Barge Lady Cruises

Cruising the Canal du Midi in southern France. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

RELATED: Cruising the canals of France aboard the Esperance.  by Elysa Leonard

Dining

Food is most definitely a major attraction and will reflect the country and region. Breakfast and lunch will be buffet and dinner served with paired wines. Cooking and presentation will be of a high standard, and catering is for a few not hundreds or thousands as on ocean-going cruise ships. Often the chef will introduce the evening meal. A cocktail hour with canapés precedes dinner.

Barge Lady Cruises

Wine and cheese from France aboard Barge Lady cruises

Activities & Entertainment

The cruising day may start with an excursion, then return for lunch, cruise in the afternoon, and tie up at night or cruise in the morning with lunch aboard and an afternoon excursion. There may be evening musical entertainment and often a chance to visit the town on foot from the landing. Leisure time is spent viewing the scenery at four mph from the comfort of the deck, joining the captain in his wheelhouse, watching chef in his open kitchen, relaxing in a hot tub, tasting wine and spirits from the onboard cellar, socializing on deck, and of course good old fashioned reading and scenery gazing.

Special Note

If barging is of interest and you are a neophyte, compare how barge cruising is different or similar to riverboat cruising to determine if it fits your travel style.

Along the Same Lines

There are many barge companies and others will be added. Abercrombie & Kent gets a brief mention on QuirkyCruise as they charter some of Barge Lady’s vessels.

Contact

Barge Lady Cruises, 101 West Grand Avenue #200, Chicago IL 60654; 800-880-0071; bargeladycruises.com.

Barges often tie up alongside a village landing, where you want to be. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Barges often tie up to a village landing, just where you want to be. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

quirkycruise bird

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Active European River Cruises on the Rhine & Moselle

By John Roberts.

When it comes to the great rivers of Europe, those often enjoyed on a delightful river cruise, the Moselle is too often overlooked.

This stunningly gorgeous river is a tributary of the Rhine, and it’s notable for its terraced vineyards that grow some of Germany’s best Riesling.

The Moselle is also where I started my “Legends of the Moselle, Rhine and Main” river cruise with Emerald Waterways, embarking in the scenic upriver town of Bernkastel-Kues.

Our ship for the week, Emerald Destiny, would take us on a journey to the towns of Cochem and Koblenz before reaching the Rhine River. Then along this great waterway we would visit Miltenberg and Wertheim in the Lower Franconia region of Bavaria and continuing to Wurzburg and Bamberg as we traversed the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

European River cruises with Emerald Waterways

Sporty John alongside the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

The entire voyage was similar in many regards to the more than a dozen European river cruises I have enjoyed on the Rhine and Danube rivers, with walking tours of the towns and villages alongside hearty meals onboard the ship. We also had a full menu of castles, ruins, churches, terraced hillside vineyards and charming towns that provided wonderful eye candy as we sailed lazily along the winding rivers.

For more great QuirkyCruise features delivered to your inbox, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The cruise on Emerald Destiny, however, differed in many important ways to me. I was particularly drawn to try this cruise because of Emerald Waterways’ new EmeraldACTIVE program.

Offered on all of Emerald’s European river cruises, the program offers a wide range of cruise entertainment and activities led by activity managers. Traditionally, river cruises have entertainment offerings that typically include a piano player in the main lounge each afternoon and at night after dinner, as well as a selection of guest performers who come onboard in certain ports to highlight song and dance styles from their region of Europe.

You might also have cooking demonstrations or an activity like a painting class.

However, the EmeraldACTIVE program delivers a more energetic vibe, ideal for families with kids as well as any travelers who are simply young at heart.

Each day, passengers were offered a broad array of cool things to do, from exercises to interactive entertainment, led by our engaging Activity Manager Harry Jordan, who hails from the U.K.

The ship does not have a piano player, by the way. I dove right in to participate in as much as possible, and in fact, I had one of the most fun cruises I have ever had — on the rivers,  or anywhere else, to be honest.

Great beer on a European River cruise

Cheers! * Photo: John Roberts

A Week on the Move

Bernkastel-Kues, our embarkation port, is a small town of just more than 7,000 residents that sits in the Middle Moselle region, the heart of wine-growing Germany. Highlights include the colorful half-timber buildings and the Medieval Market Square.

We kicked off our EmeraldACTIVE week with a 12-mile bike ride around the town and countryside. Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard, and passengers can sign them out for personal use in each port or on guided bike excursions led by local guides.

bicycling on a river cruise in Europe

Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard for personal use or guided rides. * Photo: John Roberts

We docked for an overnight on the bank opposite the bustling town and with the iconic Burgruine-Landshut Castle ruins looming overhead. The castle has been a ruin since a fire in the late 17th century, and Harry led a large group of passengers on a post-lunch afternoon hike to take in the views from high above the river and town. The hike was the second active endeavor of that first full day.

I was really liking the active nature of the cruise so far. I mixed in a morning run, as well, to round out my day.

jogging along the Rhine River

John works in a quick jog whenever he can! * Photo: John Roberts

The full scope of the EmeraldACTIVE program became clear during that evening when Harry, who is a trained singer and dancer, gave his “Not Quite Diamond” cabaret performance in the ship’s main lounge. Harry ran down a nearly complete list of all the Neil Diamond classics, teasing us until the very end when he feigned signing off for the night with one notable omission from his song list. Alas, the night was complete when we all joined in to a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline” before finishing off our cocktails and heading back to our cabins.

Harry the cruise manager of Emerald Destiny

The multi-talented and multi-tasking activity manager Harry Jordan. * Photo: John Roberts

The EmeraldACTIVE program also features a lineup of fitness-focused sessions. Pilates took place outside on the Sun Deck; morning stretching classes were in the lounge; and yoga and aqua aerobics were conducted in the indoors pool area. (Emerald Destiny’s large indoor pool with a sun roof can be opened in good weather conditions.)

You also can enjoy petanque, a game similar to boules,  as well as golf putting competitions on the Sun Deck.

Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Pilates on the Sun Deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Activities for all Fitness Levels

AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer a wellness program and onboard wellness hosts, and that line’s programming is decidedly more challenging and aimed at exercise fanatics.

Related:  John’s QuirkyCruise article about his AmaWaterways fitness cruise.

But the Emerald Waterways program has more activities and a broader appeal — designed mostly to keep people entertained and interacting with one another.

The activity manager is essentially a co-cruise manager. The position adds a lot of value for passengers, says Ray Muehlbauer, corporate cruise director for Emerald Waterways.

“What our Activity Managers do is probably five main categories,” he says. “One is the EmeraldACTIVE program, supporting it together with the professional guides. That helped us massively because now we have the guides and someone from the ship who can help the guests and answer any questions.

Ray Muehlbauer

Ray Muehlbauer. * Photo: John Roberts

“Plus, all the wellness activities. We’ve had requests from people to be able to do morning stretch, yoga, Pilates and maybe some mild walking on the deck. On top of that, we do onshore activities (like the hike in Bernkastel-Kues) to show the guest a little more of the towns and cities. Maybe take them to a beer garden or something like that, or for bike rides, hikes, walks — whatever the city has to offer.

“When we’re cruising, we we provide nightly entertainment and game shows, trivia, karaoke, passenger talent shows and dance classes, you name it.”

I had fun doing  yoga, daily runs, bike rides, walks and hikes during the days in port. But it was indeed the daily afternoon and night-time activities that made this cruise a standout.

Most activities were well-attended, with more than a dozen passengers participating in the putting contests and Pilates sessions. The trivia sessions were packed and lively in the main lounge. A handful joined me as Harry led yoga and water aerobics classes.

Aqua Aerobics on a river cruise in Europe

Water aerobics is one of the many ways to keep fit and active on the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

That said, most passengers I mingled with didn’t book this cruise because of the focus on activities, though it was a bonus for many who enjoy being active and maintaining some daily fitness regimen.

The crescendo of the whole voyage, however, was the ship’s end-of-week disco dance party. Harry spun tunes as DJ, and the dance floor was packed with 70-plus people at a time. It was raining men, indeed — and women and crew members — as we were heaving and whirling all around the floor with arms pumping late into the evening.

entertainment on a European river cruise

Harry’s singing was a big hit! * Photo: John Roberts

The Week’s Itinerary

After leaving Bernkastel-Kues, it was on to Cochem, home of the imperial Cochem Castle and its majestic views over the Moselle Valley.

Cochem Castle on a river cruise

The beautiful Cochem Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I began my day with run along the river before joining the walking tour of the town and shuttle ride up to the castle, which I think has the most picturesque and iconic river views of any destination along the Moselle or Rhine Rivers. We were blessed with an especially sunny day, which made the image even more stunning.

European river cruise castles

Check out the view from the castle! * Photo: John Roberts

Europe river cruise excursions

Stunning Cochem views! * Photo: John Roberts

Emerald Destiny set sail at 1 p.m., and we enjoyed lunch and activities onboard as we journeyed toward Koblenz, which sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine. A few of us went out for an evening walk and a couple beers in Koblenz.

The next day, passengers rode the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress during a drizzly morning. I ran across a bridge crossing the Rhine and then up to the fortress before taking the cable car back.

At noon, we set sail for Miltenberg. This period of afternoon cruising took us through the Middle Rhine Gorge, always a highlight of a Rhine River Cruise, as you get to pass the famed Lorelei rock and dozens of historic villages, castles and ruins.

Sailing continued overnight and into the next morning before we arrived at Miltenberg for a city tour and short hike up to Miltenberg Castle. The ship then sailed and we would meet it later as in Wertheim. We were free to carry on with our adventures in these two splendid German towns.

Miltenberg views

Views from the Miltenberg Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I was able to break off for a quick run after our tour in Miltenberg, and when we arrived in Wertheim, I found a secluded hiking route up to the castle there. The weather was hot, and by the end of the day, after exploring the two cities, I was more than ready for a hearty dinner and cold beers back onboard Emerald Destiny.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner on board with a view. * Photo: John Roberts

Harry delivered his second cabaret act after dinner, sending us off the bed with the songs of the Rat Pack still on repeat in our heads.

Our ship arrived in Wurzburg harbor the next morning, and after a morning stretch session with Harry, passengers were off to tour the Wurzburg Residence — a UNESCO World Heritage site and a beautiful baroque palace — and a visit one of the country’s oldest and largest winery for a tasting session.

exercising on board a European river cruise

Harry’s morning stretch class was a great way to start the day. * Photo: John Roberts

We had free time to explore the historic old town area of Wurzburg, and many from our ship settled in for a glass of wine and snacks or a sausage at a café or wine bar near the Old Main Bridge (Alte Mainbrucke), while some ventured to the Market Square to pick up souvenirs and sweets.

We then sailed from late afternoon until the next morning until we reached Bamberg. During the evening, we enjoyed a festive time on Emerald Destiny with the farewell gala dinner featuring choices of Chateaubriand (roasted beef filet) or salmon and chorizo, followed by Baked Alaska for dessert.

Afterwards, dozens of people hit the dance floor as Harry played DJ for Disco Night. I have never seen such enthusiastic passenger participation on the dance floor. We worked up a sweat and sang along to familiar hits from the 70s and 80s.

In Bamberg, another city tour was on tap. The ship arrived after lunch, and we shuttled to town to explore the cathedral, a garden and other sights.

Bamberg visit on a Europe river cruise

Pretty Bamberg. * Photo: John Roberts

Bamberg's lovely gardens

Bamberg’s lovely gardens. * Photo: John Roberts

But the highlight on this day would a sampling of the city’s famed “smoke beer.” The stout dark brew owes its smoky flavor to the process that uses malted barley dried over an open flame. We all washed down a couple salty pretzels with the cold and flavorful beers.

beer and pretzels in Europe

Beer & pretzels in Bamberg * Photo: John Roberts

This unique taste of Germany was a pleasant way to toast the end of a great voyage with new friends — half of our week’s 170 passengers were from the U.S., with a quarter each from the U.K. and Australia.

The next morning, the journey would end in Nuremberg, and we would all go our separate ways, but with fond memories of a special trip.

Related: John’s QuirkyCruise article about his sporty Ponant & Backroads cruise to New Zealand.

Onboard Emerald Destiny

The ship carries up to 182 passengers in 92 staterooms (two solo cabins), and it basically owns the standard design you’ll find among almost every other European river ship. There are four decks, a Sun Deck up top, small gym, main dining room and a bar/lounge area that also has a small library and coffee area.

Emerald Destiny does Europe River cruises

The 182-passenger Emerald Destiny, on the left * Photo: John Roberts

But Emerald Destiny and all other Emerald Waterways ships are unique with a large indoor pool at the back of the ship. This space was my favorite aside from being out on the Sun Deck.

The pool area has loungers with soft cushions, foot stools and a bar. There is a swim-against jet in the large pool (4.5 feet deep), and the activity manager offers aqua aerobics classes in the water and yoga sessions on the pool deck. The roof opens above the pool when the weather is nice. The pool area also serves as a movie theater at night, as the water is drained and pool floor raised to provide more seating. A screen drops down, and a surround-sound system offers the perfect environment as you can watch select recent releases each night.

small pool on a European river boat

Emerald Destiny’s pool area is impressive. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge also offers plenty of comfy seating, and an area near the front of the lounge offers bar-style seating or tables so you can enjoy the views over cocktails or during lunch or breakfast. A small buffet is set up daily in the lounge for a lighter breakfast and lunch option.

pretzels on a river cruise in Europe

Snacks … pretzels of course! * Photo: John Roberts

An outside deck at the bow in front of the lounge is also available with a few lounge chairs, and this is a relaxing spot to enjoy the scenery as you sail or navigate locks.

Cabins are spacious and comfortable enough, with plenty of storage. Minibar drinks and snacks come with an added fee, but water bottles are replenished in your room as needed. You don’t have a full walkout balcony but a flexible indoor/outdoor space that converts with the touch of a button that drops down the glass to railing level so you can enjoy the fresh air and views.

cabin view on European river cruises

The view from John’s cabin balcony. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the Emerald Destiny’s public areas and cabins!

Meal Time

The main restaurant features a breakfast and lunch buffet with select featured menu items daily. The highlight of the voyage for many was the traditional Bavarian lunch feast put out as we sailed from Miltenberg to Wertheim. This featured sausages, pork loin, sauerkraut, spaetzle and pretzels — with servers circulating around the room handing out mugs of German lager at a furious pace.

beer mugs on a Europe river cruise

Mugs of beer were plentiful. * Photo: John Roberts

Dinner includes appetizers, soups, main courses (meat, fish and vegetarian choices) and desserts. Wine, beer and soft drinks are included in your fare for lunch and dinner.

Some of the delicacies we enjoyed: onion soup, mushroom risotto, forest mushroom cappuccino, trilogy of lamb, breaded hoki fish filet, pork tenderloins, poke bowl (tofu) and sliced duck breast and leg.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Desserts included panna cotta, pumpkin seed parfait and Black Forest cake.

I found the service to be excellent, and the crew always on the lookout for how they can help and ready with a friendly greeting and smile. This was a nice change from lukewarm hospitality I have seen on other river cruises in recent years.

I should note that the itinerary, sailing from the Moselle and on through to the Rhine-Main-Danube on the way to Nuremberg takes you through numerous locks and under low bridges such that the Sun Deck is off limits to passengers for most of the latter stages of the cruise. This could be a disappointment if you aren’t aware of this detail on these itineraries. However, Emerald Destiny handles this nicely by offering the pool area as an alternative, with wonderful panoramic views and an open roof to the skies above.

Next time you’re on an Emerald Waterways European river cruise, head out back to the pool, and you just might find me there again.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

In a nutshell, John says …

writer John Roberts

John Roberts

Why Go?
  • Emerald Waterways has carved out a space offering affordable and higher-energy fun river cruises.
  • The new EmeraldACTIVE program ensures passengers will always find an activity to keep them entertained and engaged.
  • The indoor pool (it transforms into a cinema at night) is a highlight of an attractive and comfortable ship, and service stands out.
Caveats:

At 182 passengers, the space-per-passenger ratio is a bit smaller than on the spacious boats of the luxury river cruise lines.

Video Overview:

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

in port in Oxford

Narrowboat Cruise

By Robin Andersen.

Guy uses the long wooden pole to push the narrowboat away from the grassy bank where we moored overnight. I am at the tiller and I push the throttle forward into gear, pointing the boat toward the center of the canal, as our big diesel engine kicks in. We head south on the glassy water toward the next stop we see on the map.

narrowboat cruise in england

Photo: Robin Andersen

We boarded our 47-foot boat “Windsor” in Heyford, where we signed up for a 4-day excursion down to Oxford. There we will turn the boat around, and head back up. How we are to accomplish this feat remains a mystery to me.

narrowboat cruising

Photo: Robin Andersen

We are on the Oxfordshire canal, said to be the most scenic of them all. Though this is our first narrowboat adventure, I’m inclined to agree.

narrowboat cruise on the Oxfordshire canal

Photo: Robin Andersen

Maps of the canal system form an intricate, interlacing set of threads that seem to tie the country together.

route mapNevertheless, the canal system is a well-kept secret even to Britons, and few travelers have ever navigated these waterways.

narrowboat cruise route to Oxford

Photo: Robin Andersen

The most import points on the map, of course, are the pub icons with names like The Rock of Gibraltar, The Plough, and The Boat Inn. They are the constellations we use to find the best places to tie up and spend the night.

After leaving Heyford, our first stop is The Rock, and an evening filled with fish ‘n chips and beer, listening to canal buffs spinning the lore, and explaining the complex rules of etiquette for boating down the canal.

Narrowboating in England

Photo: Robin Andersen

Slow & Steady

We are gliding effortlessly at four knots—about the same speed that it takes to walk the towpaths that run alongside of the canal.

narrowboating

Photo: Robin Andersen

Built in the 18th and 19th centuries, the canals were used as the most efficient way to transport just about everything from coal to beer, as Britain moved into the industrial age. In those days horses on the towpaths pulled the heavily laden boats up and down the canals.

narrowboating canal

Photo: Robin Andersen

Passing under the old stone bridges transports you to the bygone days of a slower time.

Narrowboat Canal cruise

Photo: Guy Robinson

Four knots creates no wake, and the still, calm water, together with the sound of bird chatter and the near total absence of industrial noise creates an ambiance known only to the canal.

narrowboating canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

It puts a smile on Guy’s face.

slow narrowboating cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

Lots of Locks

But you inevitably must come to a lock. Did I mention this is an 18th-century mode of transport—with 18th-century technology—a time when we were all probably a little more hardy. But going through a lock is the only way to get down the canal.

narrowboat gears

Photo: Robin Andersen

First you pull your boat over to the mooring post, but only after you’ve jumped off a moving vessel, not quite close enough yet to the bank. And here’s a tip; don’t forget to take the line with you before you jump!

Narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

You need to approach the lock with determination, windlass in hand. Don’t drop it into the lock!

working a narrowboat

Photo: Robin Andersen

Use your windlass to crank up the “paddle-gear.”

As you crank up the “paddles,” the heavy steel plates on the gate, watch the water rush into the lock. Only after the lock reaches the same level as the canal do you open the gate and pull your boat into the slender passageway. Release the paddles back down slowly, don’t let them drop. Then close the gate.

narrowboat crank

Photo: Robin Andersen

It helps to use gloves.

working a narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Guy Robinson

Here, you propel your body with all your might, sometimes backwards, to open the lock gate.

hands on narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

After closing the gate behind, raise the paddles on the front gate and watch your boat drop hastily to the lower level of the water. Then open the front gate, and you are ready to motor out to the lower level of the canal as it descends in elevation with the land. Here’s a different technique to open the front gate.

narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Guy Robinson

I love the moss-lined stone walls and the view from inside the lowered lock just as we are about to make our escape through the slim stone arch and get back onto the calm waters of the canal.

narrowboat canal cruising

Photo: Robin Andersen

Close the gate behind you and marvel at the stone steps and grassy slopes of Pigeon Lock, which are exceptionally beautiful.

narrowboat cruising in England

Photo: Robin Andersen

It’s a real sense of accomplishment to succeed, and get on the other side of the lock. But don’t worry, you will repeat this process many times on your journey up and down the canal.

narrowboating in England

Photo: Robin Andersen

Lifting Bridges

Old wooden lifting bridges are easier to tilt up and go under.

narrowboating in Oxford

Photo: Guy Robinson

But they can offer other challenges. Getting through this tight stone passage is tricky.

narrowboating through lifting bridges

Photo: Robin Andersen

They offer another satisfying feeling of success!

narrowboat cruise navigation

Photo: Robin Andersen

Sleeping on a narrowboat in the Oxfordshire countryside is about as restful as it gets. Here we are moored for the night. It’s quiet and comfortable, and you wake up to birdsongs, though they do like to start the day at an early hour. Our boat comes fully equipped with bathroom, shower and running water, but the tank holds only so many gallons.

docked at Thrupp

Photo: Robin Andersen

We fill the water tank using the boat maintenance stations along the way. This one is in the classic little English village of Thrupp.

pubbing in Thrupp

Photo: Guy Robinson

Detective Inspector Morse

We moor at Thrupp to visit the Boat Inn, a favorite hangout of Colin Dexter, the novelist who created the fictional character, Detective Inspector Morse. Dexter roamed up and down the towpaths and frequented the pubs along the canal route. They say, write about what you know, and Dexter seems to have done just that.

Morse likes his pint of beer at any time of day, and in the BBC TV series Morse based on the novels, the detective is frequently seen sitting at one of the pubs along the canal enjoying a pint.

Oxford narrowboating

Photo: Robin Andersen

Narrowboats can be seen floating by on the water in episodes of Morse, and the spin-off series Lewis. An entire episode of Morse was devoted to a cold case from the 1800s when a woman was killed traveling on a narrowboat for hire. One Lewis episode had a suspect living on a moored narrowboat. And more than once, a body has been pulled out of the Oxfordshire canal.

As one of my fan-friends joked after we got back from our cruise, canals seem to be “dangerous places where people often end up murdered. You were lucky to have survived your jaunt.”

narrowboating and pub crawls

Photo: Robin Andersen

We left Thrupp in an early morning mist, just after the boat pictured here.

other boats on the canal

Photo: Robin Andersen

Traffic Jams

The canals are not wide, and at times they can narrow even further. If moored boats crowd both sides of the canal, it can test your nerves, and navigational skills. Just keep the tiller on a steady course and never go over four knots while passing moored boats.

slow and steady goes it while narrowboating

Photo: Robin Andersen

Signs remind those at the helm, or in canal lingo, “elum,” or the “steerer,” to slow down when passing moored boats.

navigating a narrowboat

Photo: Guy Robinson

On our way down the canal we admire boats much longer than ours. This one is at least 72 feet, and is the permanent residence of an entire family. It is well looked after, and its glossy new coat of paint shows it’s also well-loved.

narrowboating in england

Photo: Robin Andersen

Sights Along the Way

Permanent mooring often results in canal-side gardens, this one complete with a chiminea for enjoying a cool spring evening beside your boat, on dry land.

flowers along the canal

Photo: Robin Anderson

This Tea Room is open for business and features a fancifully decorated narrowboat. It can be reached by boat, or on the other side, by car.

colorful narrowboats

Photo: Robin Andersen

Muddy Waters is a children’s book series that tells the stories of fearless narrowboats as they embark on big adventures down the canals and waterways of Britain. You might call them the equivalent of Thomas the Tank Engine for narrowboats. This boat was once owned by the author herself, Sarah Clatcher.

fanciful narrowboat paint jobs

Photo: Robin Andersen

Visitors

Guy’s sister Kate jumped on board when we tied up just before Oxford. She lives in England, and has always wanted to ride down the canal on a narrowboat but never got around to it.

narrowboating is fun!

Photo: Robin Andersen

Kate and her husband Pete parked in the lot at The Plough and walked across the wide expanse of grass, and then a field to get to our mooring site.

narrowboating near Oxford

Photo: Robin Andersen

In this shot we are actually moored, just having a little fun horsing around on the boat at the tiller.

horsing around on deck

Photo: Guy Robinson

As we cruise further south, getting closer to Oxford, the canal begins to pass behind houses, where some owners keep boats alongside the banks for easy escapes on to the waterway.

narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

With the rural landscapes of Oxfordshire behind us, the setting gives way to the manicured gardens of the Oxford suburbs that back onto the canal. Fun statuary with an English twist are placed to hail boaters as they glide past.

views along the way

Photo: Robin Andersen

Oxford!

And here we have finally arrived in Oxford, where we must turn the boat around. Guy and Kate try to back the boat in, making a complete hash of it to the amusement of many onlookers. Shouting from the bank of the canal, I yell repeatedly they are doing it wrong, but they are well into sibling shenanigans.

They head in bow-first only after two failed attempts backwards. They tell me later their only regret was being caught without earplugs, so they might better have ignored my shouting.

in port in Oxford

Photo: Robin Andersen

On our way back up the canal after finally, successfully reversing course in Oxford, we pass by once again, the beautiful countryside of the upper portion of the Oxforshire canal.

lovely narrowboating scenery

Photo: Robin Andersen

Where just over the next boat.. is a peaceful herd of cows!

cows along the way

Photo: Robin Andersen

Toward the end of our trip, just as we are feeling terribly accomplished about negotiating all the locks, navigating, and crewing the boat with just the two of us, this hardy fellow passes by all on his own. He single-crews his beloved narrowboat up and down the canal systems of Britain.

other narrowboats

Photo: Robin Andersen

When we get back on the train at Heyford, we are in Oxford in 20 minutes. The same journey there and back just took us four days to complete. But here’s to our narrowboat canal cruise that seemed to us like a dance.

toasting narrowboating

Photo: Guy Robinson

We dance to keep dancing, for the pleasure of it, not necessarily to get to the other side of the dance floor.

Guy's reflection

Photo: Robin Andersen

In the end we are most grateful to the Canal and River Trust for doing such a wonderful job keeping the British canals open and in great working order for recreational boating.

the end of the trip

Photo: Robin Andersen

The words on this boat reflect the best sentiments of those who travel, not necessarily to arrive at a final destination.

narrowboat design

Photo: Robin Andersen

Quick Facts

Deck plan

Finding & booking a narrowboat:

We booked through Oxfordshire Narrowboats online. I also called them to ask questions and they were very helpful.

Price range:

We paid 490 pound sterling for a 47-foot boat for four days and four nights on the narrowboat. Prices vary by excursion, length of the boat and season.

the narrowboat interior

The interior. * Photo: Oxford Narrowboats

Boat capacity:

Our boat had one double-bed berth, and two big fold-out chairs, so it could sleep four.

The longest narrow boat can sleep up to 12 people comfortably.

Operating the boat, tiller, the locks etc:

Oxford Narrowboats provide a handy little well-organized booklet with terms and instructions. In addition, a staff member rides with you for about 15 minutes to the first lock, and shows you how to go through it. After you make your booking, they send you an information booklet and ask that you to read it before you arrive to take your boat out.

Narrowboating season:

We loved our March booking because it was not that cold, and we seemed to have the canal “all to ourselves.” The most popular time are the summer months, but you may have to wait behind several boats to get through the locks at the height of summer on a weekend.

There are permanently moored boats over the winter, and many people boat all year round.

Mealtime:

There is a little fridge and a well-functioning stove on board. We ate at the pubs at night, but the first night we heated up some Indian take-out we brought with us. Al dishes and flatware are provided.

The sleeping arrangements

The sleeping arrangements. * Photo: Oxford Narrowboats

Sleeping compartments:

It was perfectly comfortable. We are both tall, and the berth was long enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Robin Andersen & Guy Robinson are an adventurous couple, who, when they’re not professing at Fordham University, are walking through woods, riding trains or seeking out farmer’s markets for edibles and artisanal treats of all descriptions. They live just a little north of New York City, where Robin writes her books and Guy is close to his field biology research sites.

quirkycruise bird

 

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Avalon Impression

Avalon Waterways

Avalon entered the fast-growing river cruise market in 2004 and is owned by the Swiss-based Globus family of travel industry brands. The line aims for the upper end of the river cruise market, operating a large number of riverboats on a vast range of European itineraries (nearly three dozen) as well as programs in the Galapagos and along the Peruvian Amazon, the Mekong, Ganges and the Nile.

The line’s affiliation with the Cosmos and Monograms travel brands means Avalon Waterways offers countless add-on itineraries for before and after your cruise, and can coordinate the various legs seamlessly.

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Visionary on the Danube. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

COVID-19 UPDATE

Avalon Waterways will resume cruising in November 2020.

Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

FLEET
Europe (Avalon Suite Ships)

Avalon Panorama (b. 2011 & 166 p) – Danube & Rhine Rivers

Avalon Vista (b. 2012 & 166 p) – Danube & Rhine Rivers

Avalon Visionary (b. 2012 & 128 p) – Danube, Rhine & Moselle Rivers

Avalon Artistry II (b. 2013 & 128 p) – Danube, Rhine & Moselle Rivers

Avalon Expression (b. 2013 & 12 8p) – Danube, Rhine & Rhône Rivers

Avalon Impression (b. 2014 & 166 p) – Danube River

Avalon Illumination (b. 2014 & 128 p) – Danube & Rhine Rivers

Avalon Poetry II (b. 2014 & 128 p) – Rhine, Rhône & Saône Rivers

Avalon Tapestry II (b. 2015 & 128 p) – Seine River

Avalon Tranquility II (b. 2015 & 128 p) – Danube & Rhine Rivers

Avalon Imagery II (b. 2016 & 128 p) – Danube & Rhine Rivers

Avalon Passion (b. 2016 & 166 p) – Danube & Rhine Rivers

Avalon Envision (b. 2019 & 166 p) – Danube River

Avalon View (b. 2020 & 166 p) – Danube & Rhine Rivers

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Artistry II on the Rhine. * Photo: Avalon

Asia

Avalon Siem Reap (b. 2015 & 36 p) – Mekong River

Avalon Saigon (b. 2017 & 36 p) – Mekong River

Ganges Voyager (b. 2015 & 56 p) – Ganges River

South America

Treasure of Galapagos (b. 2009 & 16 p) – Galapagos Islands

Delfin III (b. 2015 & 44 p) – Amazon River

Egypt

MS Farah (b. 2011 & 124 p) – Nile River

Passenger Profile

Most, age 50 and above, hail from the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia, with some younger passengers on the shorter itineraries.

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features
  • Onboard meals
  • Coffee, tea, soft drinks & water
  • Wine, beer & spirits with dinner, sparkling wine with breakfast
  • Wi-Fi (including in cabins for Europe cruises)
  • Most shore excursions
Itineraries

Avalon Waterways’ cruise itineraries are packed with options to extend your cruise with land tours.

In Europe, the huge variety offers cruise tours lasting from 5 to 22 nights, generally adding a land portion at one or both ends of the river cruise. Land travel may be by high-speed train such as TGV, Thalys, and Eurostar or motorcoach.

Springtime tulip bulb season cruises navigate the intricate waterways of Belgium and Holland; French rivers include the Seine, Rhône and Saône; the Rhine with or without the Moselle; combine the Rhine and Rhône between Amsterdam and Cote D’Azur; the Upper and/or Lower Danube, the latter including, on some cruises, sailing all the way to the Danube Delta just in from the Black Sea.

Longer European itineraries may cover, for instance, the Upper Rhine and then via the Main, Main-Danube Canal and the Danube all the way to Vienna; with the granddaddy of all from the North Sea to the Black Sea (22 nights).

In South America, cruises to Galapagos and along the Peruvian Amazon include a 7-night Galapagos cruise-tour with the inclusion of sights in and around Quito, Ecuador; 14-night cruise tour that combines the Galapagos cruise with a land tour to Cusco and Machu Picchu (Peru) and Quito (Ecuador); and a 17- to 19-night cruise tour with the addition of the Amazon River lodge including day cruises on the river.

For Asia, cruises along the Mekong include 7-night voyages between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and (near) Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Longer itineraries of 12 or 17 nights include Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Halong Bay in Vietnam, respectively. On India’s Ganges River, there are 6-night cruises round-trip from Kolkata and 12-night journeys from Delhi to Kolkata.

In Egypt, Nile River itineraries include 9 nights round-trip from Cairo, and 13 nights from Cairo to the Dead Sea, exploring Jordan.

Sample Itineraries

The best way to explore Central Europe, the Magnificent Europe cruise on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers is a 14-night itinerary from Amsterdam to Budapest. The cruise begins with a canal tour from Holland’s capital, then it’s on to Germany to visit Cologne and sail through the dramatic Rhine Gorge. In Germany, you’ll also call at Rüdesheim, Würzburg, Volkach, Bamberg, Nuremberg and Regensburg before sailing through the Main Danube Canal to Melk, Austria. Finally, the journey passes through the Wachau Valley to Vienna and on to its final stop in Budapest, Hungary.

Another popular itinerary is the Mekong Discovery, a 7-night cruise that starts at Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, exploring the city and smaller local village via sampan. Cruising up the Mekong, stops at rural villages reveal temples, local cottage industries and cultures. The cruise finishes near Phnom Penh, Cambodia with tours of the city.

Avalon Waterways

The Avalon Expression on the Danube. * Photo: Avalon

Why Go?

River cruising conveniently takes you in one conveyance to a vast array of cultural, historic and scenic sites with so many of Europe’s major capitals (Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade) and most picturesque towns growing up along the banks. In Asia, South America and Egypt, river cruises access cultures, natural scenery and wildlife, and historical wonders in ways that overland touring can’t.

When to Go?

In Europe, most cruises operate from April through October, while some begin in March and end in November. Christmas markets cruises have increasing appeal.

South American cruises generally take place from January to July and September to November. In India, cruises generally take place in the cooler months of January and February, and September to November, while Mekong cruises are generally year-round. In Egypt, cruises are also offered year-round.

Sustainability Initiatives

The company has removed all single use plastics from their cruises and supports The Ocean Cleanup organization.

Activities & Entertainment

The line offers a lot of included excursions and activities. Excursions ashore may be on foot when the dock is convenient to the destination or otherwise via bus and offer a range of interest levels with local guides, from classic sightseeing to hands-on discovery experiences to active ventures.

The AvalonGo Mobile App aids in self-guided exploration. The onboard cruise director provides commentary at significant locations throughout the cruise. An Adventure host guides fitness activities and active excursions. The “Active Discovery” cruises on the Danube offer hiking, biking and canoeing and opportunities to explore an ice cave or salt mine. Other activities can include archery or cooking lessons.

Onboard entertainment will showcase local musicians and singers after dinner and special interest talks while underway.

Avalon Waterways

Entertainment in the Panorama Lounge of the Avalon Artistry II. * Photo: Avalon

SHIPS 
Avalon Suite Ships (Europe)

Avalon’s European fleet of 14 riverboats, known as Suite Ships, are almost identical, so this write up refers to all of them. Built for a capacity of either 128 or 166 passengers, all of them have four decks, with elevator access.

Avalon Illumination

The Avalon Illumination, a Suite Ship. * Photo: Avalon

 

Passengers have a choice of three dining venues, from the al fresco Sky Grill to casual meals at the Panorama Bistro or an elegant 4-course dinner under floor-to-ceiling windows at the Panorama dining room or 24-hour coffee and snacks. Menus feature regional cuisines and have an abundance of healthy choices.

All riverboats share a forward Observation Lounge, forward Panorama Lounge and bar and aft-facing Club Lounge with a book and games library. The Sky Deck is laid out stem to stern with open and covered deck space for lounge chairs, whirlpool and game area. There’s also a fitness center.

Avalon Suite Ships come with large cabins and substantially different configuration — for example the 200 sq. ft. Panorama Suites and 300 sq. ft. Royal Suites in which the beds face a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass expanse that slides open to the outside railing, rather than arranging the beds, as most do, parallel to the windows. The sensation gives your entire cabin a feeling of a cozy, protected balcony with a clear view to the outside.

In cabin: en suite, TV with entertainment options, complementary Wi-Fi, minibar.

A 200 square-foot Panorama Suite. * Avalon Waterways

Avalon Siem Reap

Avalon Saigon

Along the Mekong, Avalon Waterways operates two 36-passenger sister ships, Avalon Siem Reap and Avalon Saigon.

Avalon Saigon

The Avalon Saigon. * Photo: Avalon

Despite their diminutive size (each has only two decks), they are still Avalon Suite Ships, as each has signature cabins open to the outside with 14-ft. sliding glass doors and windows; they measure 245 sq. ft. A forward-facing covered lounge provides a 180-degree view and connects to an interior air-conditioned panorama lounge with bar.

The aft dining room seats all at once for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menus offer both Asian and western dishes.

An Avalon meal on a southeast Asia river cruise. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

The ships also have a fitness room, sundeck with plenty of shade, a spa treatment room and library with games.

In cabin: en suite, individual climate control, in-house telephone, safe, hair dryer, and complimentary bottled water

Avalon Cruise, Mekong

The mighty Mekong rises in China and passes through three Southeast Asian countries. * Photo: Ted Scull

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

If you’re lucky, this is Angkor Wat at sunrise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ganges Voyager

A 56-passenger riverboat decorated in colonial-era style, Ganges Voyager has three decks (there is no elevator).

The Panorama Dining Room offers Indian and western menus and includes beer, wine and soft drinks with meals.

There’s also an air-conditioned lounge with glass walls and another shady al fresco lounge, a fitness room, spa treatment room and library with games.

Most cabins measure between 260-280 sq. ft., some with pretty four-poster beds, all with French balcony. 

In cabin: en suite, individual climate control, TV with on-demand movies, in-house telephone, minibar, safe, hair dryer.

Ganges Voyager

Ganges Voyager. * Photo: Avalon

Ganges Voyager

Heritage Suite on Ganges Voyager. * Photo: Avalon Cruises

Treasure of Galapagos

Accommodating 16 passengers, Treasure of the Galapagos has cabins and common areas on three decks (no elevator).

Common areas include a dining room, indoor lounge and bar, shaded outdoor lounge, sun deck with Jacuzzi and observation area.

Cabins measure 215 sq. ft., and all have balconies, while the master suite is 430 sq. ft. with two balconies.

In cabin: en suite, individual climate control, safe, hair dryer.

Treasure of Galapagos

Treasure of Galapagos. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

Delphin III

Cruising the Amazon, Delphin III’s three decks are built to accommodate 44 passengers with a dining room, indoor and outdoor lounge (with nightly entertainment), an outdoor plunge pool, exercise room, spa, and excursion skiffs on board.

Most cabins are 237 sq. ft. and all have large picture windows.

In cabin: en suite, individual climate control, complimentary filtered water, safe, hair dryer.

Avalon Waterways

The Delfin III, seen here when still called Amazon Discovery. * Photo: Steve Cukrov for Globlus/Avalon.

Avalon Waterways

The silt-laden waters of the Upper Amazon. * Photo: Ted Scull

MS Farah

On five decks, MS Farah has a lot of facilities including a large restaurant (with vegetarian options on the menu), barbecue on the sun deck, pool and pool bar, lounge bar, library dedicated to Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho and fitness center with sauna and steam rooms. They even hold cooking classes on board.

Avalon Farah

The 120-passenger Farah. * Photo: Avalon

There are 60 cabins, most of which are 239 sq. ft. All have floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows for excellent views. There are also a pair of royal suites

In cabin: en suite, individual climate control, TV with cable programming, Internet, tea & coffee-making facilities, minibar, safe, hair dryer.

Avalon Waterways

A camel watches over its territory, the site of the pyramids at Giza. * Photo: Ted Scull

Along the Same Lines

Emerald Waterways and AmaWaterways offer comparable itineraries on Europe’s rivers and canals.

Contact

Avalon Waterways, US-based; Avalonwaterways.com; +1 (877) 797-8791

TWS

 

Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for a monthly update of our best posts! 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

The Emerald Dawn of Emerald Cruises

Emerald Waterways.

Emerald Waterways started in 2014 and operates a fleet of six similar riverboats along Europe’s Rhine, Main, Danube and Moselle Rivers. Other vessels cruise the Rhône and Saône Rivers, Portugal’s Duoro River, Croatia’s Dalmation coast, Russia and the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.

Known as Evergreen Waterways in Australia, the line is a division of Scenic, a multifaceted travel company. The price point is mid-range and the boats’ decor falls into the modern minimalist style.

The exception is Emerald Waterways’ new luxury yacht, to debut in the summer of 2021 for the company’s new Emerald Yacht Cruises brand, with sailings in the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Red Seas.

Emerald Waterways is a real gem, offering good-value river cruises mostly in Europe, Russia and on the Mekong; it’s owned by the same firm that operates Scenic, a higher-end line.

Emerald Harmony of Emerald Cruises

The 2019-built Emerald Harmony is based in SE Asia. * Photo: Emerald Harmony

COVID-19 UPDATE

The global COVID-19 pandemic that emerged in early 2020 has been exceedingly challenging for travel companies and travelers alike. While the situation remains fluid, we at QuirkyCruise.com are working hard to provide accurate and timely updates the small-ship cruise lines we cover. However, for the most up-to-date information we recommend that our readers consult each cruise line directly.

Emerald Waterways is offering incentives such as $2,000 per couple discounts on all 8+ day itineraries or choose free international flights. The line also has flexible booking terms such as reduced deposit (for a limited time) and free deposit protection that allows for reservation changes before the final payment and also offers savings on flights to Europe for longer cruises.

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

Star-Ships

Emerald Star (built 2014 & 180 passengers) — Rhine, Main, Danube & Moselle Rivers

Emerald Sky (b. 2014 & 180p) — Rhine, Main, Danube & Moselle Rivers

Emerald Dawn (b. 2015 & 180p) — Rhine, Main, Danube & Moselle Rivers

Emerald Sun (b. 2015 & 180p) — Rhine, Main, Danube & Moselle Rivers

Emerald Destiny (b. 2017 & 180p) — Rhine, Main, Danube & Moselle Rivers

Emerald Luna (b. TK & 180p) — Rhine, Main, Danube & Moselle Rivers

Emerald Liberté (b. 2017 & 138p) — Rhône & Saône Rivers

Emerald Radiance (b. 2017 & 112p) — Douro River in Portugal

Emerald Harmony (b. 2019 & 84p) — Mekong River

Emerald Cruises Emerald Sun

The Star Ship “Emerald Sun.” * Photo: Emerald Cruises

Other Ships

MS Nizhny Novgorod (b. 1977, refurbished 2019, 204p) — Russia

MS Rossia (b. 1978, refitted 2007, 224p) — Russia

MS Hamees (b. TK & 142p) — chartered Mövenpick journeys, Nile River

MS Swallow (b. 2019 & 36p) — Croatia’s Dalmatian coast

MS Lastavica (b. 2020 & 36p) — Croatia’s Dalmatian coast

Future Plans

Emerald Azzurra (b. 2021 & 100p) — luxury yacht scheduled to debut July 2021, Mediterranean, Adriatic & Red Seas

Passenger Profile

For the most part English-speaking from Australia, North American, and Britain.

Passenger Decks

Riverboats: four decks, three of them with cabins, and two more public rooms. An elevator connects the three cabin and public room decks.

Price

$$  Expensive but good value and lots included in the fares.

Included Features
  • Most excursions (at least one for every port)*
  • Biking & hiking tours
  • Independent use of onboard bicycles
  • Beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee & tea with lunch and dinner
  • Bottled water in cabins
  • Some on-shore meals
  • Pre-paid on-board gratuities
  • Wi-Fi onboard
  • Transfers
  • Port charges
  • *More in-depth excursions are available at an extra cost through the DiscoverMORE program focusing on art, local history, culture and food.
  • Cologne Cathedral, seen on a Rhine cruise. * Photo: Ted ScullCologne Cathedral, seen on a Rhine cruise. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries

Emerald’s European river cruises comprise 5- to 15-day cruises on the Rhine, Main, Danube and Moselle Rivers, as well as the Rhône and Saône; 8 to 22 days on Portugal’s Duoro River; and 11 days on Russia’s Volga River.

Southeast Asia, 8- to 21-day cruises ply the Mekong.

Eastern Mediterranean, a 16-day land-and-river package includes a tour of Israel combined with a Nile River cruise.

Sample Itineraries

  • The eight-day Danube Delights cruise covers four countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. The journey departs from Nuremberg and calls at Regensberg, Passau, Linz, Melk, Dürnstein, Vienna and Bratislava before ending at Budapest.
  • The 10-day Secrets of the Douro cruise visits the wine country and landmarks of Portugal and Spain, sailing from Porto and calling at Pinhão, Vega de Terrón, Salamanca, Pocinho and Régua, concluding at Porto.
  • The 16-day Israel & Ancient Egypt river cruise begins in Tel Aviv, Israel where you’ll tour the city for two days before sailing to Haifa for tours of Acre and Galilee, which includes a cruise on the Galilee Sea; a short drive to Jerusalem for a couple days of guided tours throughout the city before returning to Tel Aviv for a flight to Cairo and on to Luxor, Egypt. From Luxor, cruise the Nile with calls at Dendra, Esna, Kom Ombo and Aswan, with a short flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel and return to continue cruising the Nile before flying back to Cairo for three days of tours.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. * Photo: Ted Scull

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go?

A European river cruise introduces you in the space of a week or so to several different cultures, long histories, and scenic delights with one unpacking and one packing chore. Asian river cruising is the least stressful way to see diverse culturally-rich countries.

Sustainability Initiatives

The Emerald Harmony was the line’s first Star-Ship to ban all single use plastics.

Now on all river ships, passengers will be provided a complementary metal water bottle to refill from water stations on the ship, and reusable glass water bottles will be provided in the cabins.

Plus, recyclable bamboo and paper straws will be used in the restaurant, bar and lounge, while cabin toiletry miniatures will be replaced with refillable dispensers.

When to Go?

Summer in Europe can be a bit hectic ashore at the most popular port calls, while May and October are less crowded months,. The months of March and April, also times of fewer tourists, may have more unsettled weather.

The Emerald Dawn of Emerald Cruises

The Emerald Dawn. * Photo: Emerald Cruises

Activities & Entertainment

While most activities take place ashore, the line has added options like yoga classes, aqua aerobics and smartphone photo workshops on board, as well as deck games like chess with giant pieces and shuffleboard.

Emerald Waterways pool

Some of the Emerald riverboats have small pools. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

Musical entertainment comes aboard on selected evenings. An Activities Manager leads guided complimentary cycling tours, rural and urban hikes, and various walks, and can also help passengers plan their own activities ashore on foot or bicycle.

EmeraldACTIVE offers reasonably fit passengers the chance to hike in Germany’s Black Forest on a Rhine cruise and on the Danube; tour by bicycle (also available for independent touring) in the scenic areas around Melk, Austria and glide along the streets of Belgrade, Serbia.

RELATED: Active River Cruising on Emerald. by John Roberts

The list of bike tours includes Amsterdam, Hoorn, and Veere in the Netherlands; to La Roche-de-Glun in southern France, and Melk to Dürnstein along the Danube in Austria. Hikes can include a vineyard in Tournon, France, a climb up to Dürnstein Castle in Austria, or to Belogradchik Fortress, a Roman-era surveillance tower built into a natural wonder, depending on your cruise.

Canoeing is also a new feature in quiet waters, especially in Portugal’s Douro Valley, where you can take a single or double kayak and paddle close to the vineyards. The aim is broaden the interest to appeal to a more active clientele.

How about this for inventive use of space — every evening they drain the heated swimming pool and presto! It magically morphs into a cinema, complete with a bar! — Ted Scull

Emerald riverboat moored at Koblenz on the Rhine. * Photo: Ted Scull

Emerald riverboat moored at Koblenz on the Rhine. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

Star-Ships (Riverboats)
  • Emerald Star
  • Emerald Sky
  • Emerald Dawn
  • Emerald Sun
  • Emerald Destiny
  • Emerald Luna

The flagships of the Emerald Waterways fleet, these six riverboats each measure 135m in length and have four decks, three with cabins, connected by elevators. The main restaurant serves buffet breakfast and lunch, either indoors or al fresco, and a four-course dinner nightly. In fine weather, there’s barbecue on the Sun Deck. A heated pool transforms by night into a cinema and lounge, shielded from the elements by a retractable glass roof.

Other recreation facilities include a sun deck with lounge chairs, putting green, games area, walking track, fitness and wellness areas and a salon. Cabins are all outside-facing, and comprise 72 suites, most with private balconies created by picture windows that open from the top at the push of a button, and 20 staterooms. All cabins have individual temperature control and large windows. They measure in size from 117 sq. ft.  for a single stateroom; the rest ranging from 162 to 315 sq. ft.

In cabin: en-suite, TV with movies, telephone, free Wi-Fi, safe, minibar, complimentary bottled water, hairdryer.

????????????????????????????????????

A spacious, light-filled balcony cabin. * Photo: Emerald Waterways

Emerald Liberté

This boat is almost identical in layout and facilities to the fleet’s six flagships (above), but is slightly smaller at 110m in length. The dining room also boasts authentic locally-sourced fine cuisine with wine paired by on-board sommeliers. Cabins number 68, comprised of 14 staterooms and 54 suites, all outside-facing and most with private balconies created by picture windows that open from the top at the push of a button, measuring from 106 sq. ft. for a single stateroom; the rest ranging from 170 to 315 sq. ft.

In cabin: en-suite, TV with movies, telephone, free Wi-Fi, safe, minibar, complimentary bottled water, hairdryer.

Emerald Radiance

A smaller, more intimate version of the fleet’s flagships (see above), this riverboat measures 89m in length, with fours decks connected by an elevator. It also boasts a crew-to-passenger ratio of 1:3. Facilities include indoor and al fresco dining, sun deck with deck chairs, pool, walking track, lounge, fitness and wellness areas and salon. Fifty-six cabins include 10 staterooms; the rest are suites, all are outside-facing and most have private balconies created by picture windows that open from the top at the push of a button. They measure in size from 153-170 sq ft for a stateroom; the suites ranging from 160 to 300 sq ft.

In cabin: en-suite, TV with movies, telephone, free Wi-Fi, safe, minibar, complimentary bottled water, hairdryer.

Emerald Harmony

This 73m long riverboat has four decks and was built for the Mekong with specs that allow it to dock in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City while still providing for many of the unique facilities of its European river boats. These include an on-board dining room, a pool that transforms by night into a lounge, shielded from the elements by a retractable glass roof, sun deck with lounge chairs, games area, walking track, fitness and wellness areas, salon and self-service laundry.

Forty-two cabins include four staterooms with porthole views; the rest are suites, all are outside-facing and most have private balconies created by picture windows that open from the top at the push of a button — all cabins measure 315 sq ft.

In cabin: en-suite, TV with movies, free Wi-Fi.

Other Ships

MS Nizhny Novgorod

Originally built in 1977, this 129m long boat was refurbished in 2019. It has four decks, two of which contain cabins. Facilities include two restaurants, two bar areas, a solarium, sauna, ironing room, small souvenir shop and conference hall. Of the 106 cabins, six are suites measuring 298 sq. ft., the remaining cabins range from 142-167 sq. ft. All are outside-facing and have large windows and either queen or twin beds.

In cabin: en-suite, TV, radio, refrigerator, air-conditioning, safe.

MS Rossia

Built 1978 for sailing in Russia, this traditional and authentic riverboat was refitted 2007. The 125m boat has four desks and an elevator. Facilities include a restaurant serving European and Russian-inspired fine cuisine and complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner; a bar with free Wi-Fi; library; wellness center and souvenir kiosk. All 106 cabins have views with sizes ranging from 12.4-14.6 sq. meters.

In cabin: en-suite, TV, refrigerator.

MS Hamees

This 72m long riverboat has five decks, with cabins on three of them. Facilities include a restaurant and lounge, pool, sun deck and reading room. Each of the 72 cabins measures 244 sq. ft. and has queen or twin beds and outward-facing views.

In cabin: en-suite, TV, hair dryer, air-conditioning.

MS Swallow & MS Lastavica

These identical 49m. yachts are perfect for docking in small ports. Each has four decks, two decks with cabins, and facilities that include an air-conditioned restaurant and al fresco terrace where meals are served with complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks; a bar, lounge, Jacuzzi, sun deck with lounge chairs and a swim platform with fitted steps that lower into the water. Eighteen cabins have queen or twin beds and either a porthole view (in 129-150 sq. ft. cabins) or window (in 124-198 sq. ft. cabins).

In cabin: en suite, complimentary Wi-Fi.

EMERALD YACHT CRUISES
  • Emerald Azzurra (July 2021)

Under the newly-launched Emerald Yacht Cruises brand, this 360-foot long, 100-passenger super yacht is scheduled to debut in July 2021. Spacious cabins will start at 285 sq. ft., most of them with private balconies. The ship will also have a marina platform for water sports like paddle boarding and snorkeling.

Contact

Emerald Waterways

Boston, MA 02111, USA

Tel: +1 (857) 444-4371

info@emeraldwaterways.com

EmeraldWaterways.com

 

Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruise in Ukraine

By Gene Sloan

I am sitting at the very front of the Viking Sineus, in the glass-lined Panorama Bar, looking out over what may be the most tranquil stretch of water in all of Europe. For the past few hours, we have been steaming northward on the Dnieper River from Dnipro, a Ukrainian city of nearly one million people, toward the bustling Ukrainian capital of Kiev (pop. 2.9 million), and I have yet to see another ship of any size.

No barges, no tankers, no day boats carrying tourists. We have passed a few small fishing boats, but nothing like the numbers you see on other European rivers. It seems even the locals have forgotten about this 1,400-mile-long waterway.

Viking River Cruises on serene Dnieper

Ukraine’s serene Dnieper River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Rising in the Valdai Hills of Russia and flowing southward through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, the Dnieper is one of the longest rivers in Europe — longer than the Rhine and Seine combined. But it’s little visited by Western tourists, or anybody else for that matter, and barely used for commerce.

That always has been the case to some extent. But it’s even more so now that Ukraine is embroiled in a Civil War-like conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s far-eastern corner. That has scared some tourists away, not that it should.

As of this year, the Dnieper is home to just one overnight cruise vessel of any note — the one that I am aboard. As recently as two years ago, when there were more worries about the intentions of the Russia-backed separatists, even this ship wasn’t sailing.

A TRULY QUIRKY CRUISE

Even in the best of times, the Dnieper isn’t considered an A-list river destination. Meandering through the relatively non-descript central part of Ukraine, past low-lying farmland, forests and Soviet-built industrial towns, the waterway lacks the romantic scenery of the Danube, with its vineyard lined Wachau Valley, or the medieval charm of the Rhine. Nor is it a gateway to Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. If that’s what you’re after, this probably isn’t the trip for you.

But a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine on the Dnieper has its allures. Most notably, it offers a window onto Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, who have managed to maintain an identity despite centuries of invasion and domination by outside powers.

If you’re curious at all about this long-suffering, only-recently-independent country of 45 million, if only because you’ve been hearing so much about it lately in the news, a trip on Viking Sineus can be eye-opening.

In addition to historical sites dating as far back as the 11th century, when Kiev was at the center of the mighty, Viking-founded Kievan Rus federation, the “attractions” you will see include faded Soviet monuments, Stalinist Empire-style apartment complexes and other remnants of the Soviet era (until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union), plus artifacts from the recent conflict in the east.

One moment in you’ll be looking at an 18th-century cathedral, the next moment walking through a display of bombed-out vehicles from the eastern Donbass region.

The trip also will give you a chance (unofficially, without the assistance of Viking River Cruises) to visit one of the world’s most unusual (and poignant) sites: The still-radiation-contaminated nuclear disaster zone that is Chernobyl. It’s just a two-hour drive from where the ship docks in Kiev. (More details at the end of the article.)

In short, this is a bit of an outlier when it comes to European river cruises. As quirky cruises go, it may be one of the quirkiest of them all.

Viking River cruise Ukraine sign

Hey mom … we’re not far from Baltimore! * Photo: Gene Sloan

AN ANOMALY IN THE VIKING FLEET

Viking Sineus is operated by Viking Cruises, but it isn’t a typical Viking ship. Nearly all the line’s 60-plus river vessels in Europe are of the same modern “longship” design that began rolling out in 2012. But Viking Sineus is one of a handful of Viking ships that dates back far earlier — all the way back to 1979! It also has an unusual history that, for a history lover at least, is part of its allure.

Viking River Cruises

The 196-passenger Viking Sineus was built in 1979. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Built in East Germany during the height of the Cold War and originally named Mikhael Lomonosov, the vessel initially served as a getaway for high-level Soviet apparatchiks (or so the story goes). It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that it entered the Viking fleet.

The good news is Viking Sineus doesn’t feel like it dates to the 1970s. In fact, while its exterior is a bit Old School, its interior looks almost new. That’s because Viking recently revamped Viking Sineus in a major way, gutting and rebuilding cabins and public spaces with the same modern Scandinavian design found on the longships.

The massive overhaul of Viking Sineus took place in 2014. But due to the recent conflict in Ukraine, the vessel only resumed sailing in 2018. Given its schedule is seasonal, that means there only have been about 20 voyages since the ship emerged from its makeover.

Viking Sineus docked. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Cabins & Public Rooms

If you’ve cruised on a Viking ship before, you’ll feel right at home on Viking Sineus. Its 98 cabins are similar in style to those found on the longships, with light walls, streamlined furniture, big televisions and modern bathrooms. Two-thirds have balconies.

The author’s balcony cabin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

For the most part, the public areas are stylish and comfortable. If they have a flaw, it’s that the main lounge, the Sky Bar, is too small to accommodate the number of passengers who arrive at cocktail hour for drinks and nightly port talks. While the crew brings in extra chairs for the occasion (jammed edge-to-edge in rows facing the stage), it’s not a particularly pleasant place to kick back before dinner.

Viking Sineus also has a far smaller top-deck lounge space than the longships. Not that this is a problem. We saw few people heading up top during our voyage.

As is typical for Viking ships, there is no fitness center, spa or hair salon on board. Nor is there a laundry room, though laundry service is available through your room attendant for a somewhat hefty extra charge (185 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $7, for a blouse; 225 hryvnia, or about $9, for trousers).

Viking Sineus does have a small library with books and games tucked between the rows of cabins on Deck 2. There’s also a small shop selling nesting dolls and other Ukrainian crafts.

a library Viking River Cruises

The library/game room on board. * Photo: Gene Sloan

JUST ONE EATERY

When it comes to mealtimes, there essentially is just one option on Viking Sineus, the 196-seat Kiev Restaurant. Located at the back of the ship on Deck 3, the room offers open seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a well-distributed mix of tables for two, four, six and eight. If you’re a couple looking for privacy, you’ll have no problem finding a table for two. But there are plenty of bigger tables, too, if you’re a larger group or eager to share a meal with new friends.

Breakfast and lunch in the Kiev Restaurant are buffet style with additional a la carte items available from servers (made-to-order breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, buttermilk pancakes and French toast; lunch brings cheeseburgers, hot dogs and a changing lineup of specials such as a pulled-pork sandwich and beef ragout). In the one exception to the one-eatery situation, early and late risers will also find coffee, tea and pastries in a corner of the Panorama Bar.

Ukrainian Favorites

Dinner in the Kiev Restaurant is a table-served affair with changing three-course menus. The highlight of the menu every night is the “regional specialties tasting” — a starter, entrée and dessert that offers a taste of local Ukrainian cuisine. A typical night might bring classic Ukrainian red borscht as a starter, followed by local butter fish with a celeriac purée and a Ukrainian plum cake.

Viking River Cruises

A classic Ukrainian red borscht was served, of course. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dinner menu also offers a rotation of two non-Ukrainian entrees each night, plus two starters and a dessert. These dishes are mostly Continental, ranging from braised beef with an onion sauce and mashed potatoes to seared pike perch with creamy vegetables and glazed beets.

In addition, as is typical on Viking ships, an “always available” section of the menu at dinner offers a classic Caesar salad as a starter and three traditional entrees: beef tenderloin, poached Norwegian salmon and roast chicken. Always-available desserts include Crème Brulée, a cheese plate, a fruit plate and ice cream.

In general, the food on Viking Sineus is quite good, and the Ukrainian dishes stand out. My favorite dish of the trip was the Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes that appeared on the regional-specialties menu early in the voyage. Slow-cooked and beautifully glazed, the meat just fell off the bone and boasted a wonderful, stew-like favor.

Viking River Cruises dinner

The Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes. * Photo: Gene Sloan

As is always the case on Viking ships, beer, wine and sodas are available during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. Just be warned that the included wines, locally made in Ukraine, are relatively basic. For those who crave something swankier, a selection of extra-charge wines is available, too.

Of note, the entire dining room and bar staff, as well as nearly all other crew on board, is made up of local Ukrainians, most of whom live in the cities the ship visits. Only the captain, program director, hotel director and maître d’hotel are from outside the country (including Italy and Germany).

This lends a wonderful authenticity to the on-board experience, as if we are staying in a local hotel. The (all-female) dining and bar staff — nearly all young, energetic and outgoing — have a good command of English and are happy to talk about life in their native country. Ditto for the excellent front desk staff.

ONE-WAY FROM ODESSA TO KIEV

For 2019, Viking Sineus is operating one-way voyages between the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Kiev. The northbound version of the Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, starting in Odessa, includes a short passage across the Black Sea before the vessel reaches the mouth of the Dnieper and heads upstream to Kherson, Zaporozhye, Dnipro, Kremenchug and Kiev. The southbound version of the trip does the same in reverse.

Viking River Cruise Ukraine itinerary

The itinerary.

For 2020, Viking is tweaking the itinerary by adding a visit to nearby Romania to the beginning or end of every trip. Instead of Odessa, the northbound version of the newly named “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour will begin in Bucharest, Romania, with a two-night hotel stay. Tourgoers then will transfer via a long bus ride to Tulcea, Romania, where Viking Sineus will be waiting to take them across the Black Sea to Odessa and the Dnieper cities of Kherson, Zaporozhye and Kiev. The southbound version of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine will offer the same in reverse.

Note that, for 2020, stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug are being dropped.

Here, a day-by-day look at the northbound version of the itinerary as it is offered in 2019:

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 1-4: ODESSA

If you’ve heard anything about Odessa, you’ve probably heard that it’s home to the Potemkin Steps. The soaring granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is the city’s iconic attraction. It’s also the best way to reach Viking Sineus if, like me, you arrive for your cruise a day early and spend the night in Odessa’s historic center. The ship docks right at its base.

Walking to Viking Sineus from a nearby hotel, I find myself offering an homage to Battleship Potemkin’s legendary massacre scene as I bump my 40-pound suitcase down the stairway’s 192 steps (you can avoid the steps by riding the adjacent incline railway for less than $1). I am pushed on not by Cossacks with fixed bayonets but by a crowd of tourists.

Viking River cruise in the Urraine

The granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Over the coming days, I discover Odessa is more than the Potemkin Steps. Founded by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1794, the once-wealthy Black Sea port city entices with a faded grandness. Rows of tree-lined boulevards are lined with elegant but often crumbling Art Nouveau, Baroque Revival and neoclassical buildings, including the spectacular Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.

VIking River Cruises stop in Odessa

Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.* Photo: Gene Sloan

As we are told during an initial tour, Odessa was one of the most important cities of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, smaller in size only to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. As a major and wealthy trading port for centuries, Odessa, not unlike Alexandria in Egypt, was very international.

Pearl of the Black Sea

Called the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” it was a key warm-water port for Russia well into the 20th century, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Viking Sineus remains docked in Odessa for the first three nights of my Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, allowing plenty of time for exploring. As is typical with Viking river sailings, every day brings at least one included excursion, starting with a walking tour that hits the highlights of Odessa’s historic district.

Viking River Cruises

Odessa’s historic district. * Photo: Gene Sloan

In addition to visiting the Potemkin Steps, we ramble down lovely, pedestrian only Primorsky Boulevard, located at the top of the stairway. We stroll pedestrian only Deribasivska Street, the main shopping corridor, and stop at City Garden, where I mimic the locals by snapping a selfie with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. I have no idea who he is, but it seems like the thing to do. (Well ok, let’s find out!  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonid_Utyosov)

Viking River cruise stop in Odessa

Selfie time with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Still, perhaps my favorite Odessa site is the opulent statue of Catherine the Great (known as the Monument to the Founders of Odessa) – if only for the story that goes with it. Erected in 1900, the statue was ripped down in 1920 by the anti-Tsarist Bolsheviks, only to be put back just 12 years ago by the Ukrainians. Take that, Soviets!

World War II Sites

In another included tour, we descend into the Odessa Catacombs, a renowned network of subterranean tunnels under the city and its outskirts where Soviet partisans hid during the war. Our guide, Nadya, shows us where the partisans slept, ate and fought to the death with German-allied Romanian soldiers who were sent into the labyrinth-like lair to flush them out.

Odessa Catacombs on a Viking River Cruise

Odessa Catacombs. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Originally excavated in the 19th century as part of limestone mining operations, the tunnels supposedly stretch for more than 1,500 miles, only a small portion of which is open to the public.

A half dozen other excursions offered by Viking during our stay include a visit to Odessa’s sprawling Privoz Market with the ship’s chef, a brandy tasting at the local Shustov Cognac Museum and a night out to the opera. All come with an extra charge.

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I round out my visit with an included tour to the Odessa Fine Arts Museum. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky, you probably haven’t heard of any of the Ukrainian and Russian artists whose work is on display. But the building itself, a former neoclassical palace, is impressive, and the art is a window onto the Ukraine of old.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 5: KHERSON

Today is the day we finally begin working our way up the Dnieper. During the night, Viking Sineus has traveled eastward along the coast of the Black Sea from Odessa to the mouth of the waterway — nearly 100 miles. The ship already is well inland by the time most passengers awake.

At first blush, our only stop for the day, the small port city of Kherson (pop. 300,000), doesn’t look like much — a mishmash of decaying, graffiti-splashed buildings that might best be described as forlorn. But for a history nerd like me, it’s beguiling.

As our guide for the day, Lena, points out, Kherson was founded in 1778 by Russian prince Grigory Potemkin, the famed lover and lieutenant of Catherine the Great, and it hides intriguing pieces of his story.

Potemkin Again

We start a two-and-a-half-hour tour with a stop at the central park Potemkin ordered built, fittingly home to a soaring statue of him. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks tried but failed to topple the statue with two tractors — a metaphor, perhaps, for the movement’s struggle against capitalist ideals. Another stop brings a visit to St. Catherine’s Cathedral, also built under Potemkin’s watch and now his final resting place.

Viking river cruises in Kherson, Ukraine

The Potemkin statue. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Catherine the Great, who dispatched Potemkin this way to develop the region, famously traveled down the Dnieper to see how he was faring (supposedly past hastily constructed “Potemkin villages” designed to show progress). You can see the chair in St. Catherine’s Cathedral where she sat during her visit.

Viking River cruises to Ukraine

Catherine the Great’s chair. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Our touring also brings us to the aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II — the all-female band of Soviet aviators who terrorized Hitler’s invading army with daring tactics. They were known for cutting their engines during bombing runs and gliding to their targets so they wouldn’t be heard coming.

Viking River cruise in the Ukraine

The aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A final stop delivers us to the Monument of Glory, a World War II memorial that is classically Soviet in style — that is, taller and more triumphant than all reason. But I have spotted something even more alluring at the end of the adjacent park: A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. It takes a little hustle, but I make it there and back in our allotted 12 minutes of free time.

Viking River cruise to see Soviet-era tanks

A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. * Photo: Gene Sloan

By lunchtime, Viking Sineus is churning northeast on the Dnieper on its way to its next stop, Zaporozhye.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 6: ZAPOROZHYE

If you’re a lover of engineering marvels, you’re in for a treat this day. Just be sure to be up early. As it approaches Zaporozhyre, Viking Sineus must traverse one of the deepest river locks in all of Europe. Located at one of the biggest hydroelectric dams on the Continent, the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the lock raises the ship 108 feet — nearly 11 stories.

Viking River cruises Ukraine cruise

The lock at Zaporozhyre rises up almost 11 stories. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dock for Zoporohyze is just north of the lock, and within minutes of passing through it, we are touring the city.

An industrial center of 700,000 people known for steel, aluminum and aircraft engine production, Zoporohyze isn’t a place you go to see grand monuments, historic sites or charming neighborhoods. What it offers is a glimpse of everyday life in a typical Soviet-era Ukraine city.

Heading into town by coach, we parade down eight-mile-long, six-lane-wide Sobornyi Avenue, which our guide bills as the longest central boulevard in all of Europe. As dreary as it is meant to be grand, with a succession of blocky, Stalin-era buildings, it is lined in places with loudspeakers that once spouted out Soviet propaganda.

Notably, a road sign declares we’re just 234 kilometers (about 145 miles) from Donetsk, a key city at the edge of the Donbass region where pro-Russia separatist forces have been battling against the Ukrainian military since 2014. Barely mentioned on Western newscasts in recent years, it is a simmering struggle that has left around 13,000 people dead. Our stop in Zaporozhye is about the closest we will get to the conflict zone. In theory, we could drive to it in a few hours, and that’s a bit surreal to contemplate. But the reality is that, in terms of this cruise, it’s a world away.

During a stop at Zaporozhye’s central park, I ask a young barista at a coffee stand about the situation. She tells me she and her friends initially were worried the Russia-backed soldiers might continue westward right into Zaporohyze. But things have settled down, and the worry has dissipated, she says. The bigger issue now, she says, is that it’s become hard to get an apartment, since so many Ukrainians from the East have fled this way and filled them up.

Viking River cruises

Coffee carts in Zaporozhye’s central park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Talking to locals such as the barista offers a snapshot of the struggle that is life in Ukraine. She tells me she makes the equivalent of about $17 a day, and that’s quite good, she says. The typical person she knows makes about $250 a month. Ukraine, you will learn on a visit here, is incredibly poor by Western standards, in addition to having suffered terribly from war and famine over the past century.

After our short tour of the city center, we head to Zaporozhye’s main tourist attraction, a reconstructed Cossack fort on Khortytsia, an island in the middle of the Dnieper. Intertwined with Ukrainian and Russian history, the Cossacks were centered here from the 16th to 18th centuries. Later in the day, we return to the island for a display of Cossack horsemanship.

Viking River Cruises

The reconstructed Cossack fort. * Photo: Gene Sloan

From the Cossack fort, there is a great view of the entirety of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, which itself is a site with a significant history. Hailed as one of the great achievements of Soviet industrialization, it was the third largest power plant in the world when it opened in 1932, just behind the Hoover Dam and Wilson Dam in the United States. During World War II, retreating Red Army soldiers dynamited the dam to keep it out of German hands, resulting in a tidal surge that killed as many 100,000 people.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 7-8: DNIPRO & KREMENCHUG

As noted above, Viking will be dropping stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug in 2020. As a result, I won’t go into great detail about our visits to the two destinations, other than to say that Dnipro, in particular, was intriguing. Once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program, it was for many years a secretive “closed city” that was off limits to foreigners. It only opened to outsiders in the 1990s.

In Dnipro, I sign up for a wonderful (and quirky!) extra-charge tour to the Aerospace Museum, where we ogle once-classified artifacts of the Dnipro rocket program while a retired engineer talks us through the city’s role in building an intercontinental missile that could hit the United States.

Viking River cruise visit to Dnipro

Dnipro was once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The stop is paired with a visit to what is roughly translated as the “Technical Museum Time Machines,” an oddball temple to retro-cool, Cold War-era cars, toys, video games and other memorabilia.

Our visit to Dnipro also brings an included tour to the city center, where we survey the small but display-packed National Historical Museum. It harbors everything from 2,500-year-old stone idols found in the region to Cossack clothing and weapons.

Just outside, a more timely, open-air exhibit labeled the “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine” is filled with bombed-out vehicles, bullet-ridden road signs and other poignant reminders of the conflict just down the road.

Viking River cruises museum visit

The open-air “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine.” * Photo: Gene Sloan

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 9-10: KIEV

Viking is saving the best for last by devoting the final two days of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine to Kiev. The Ukrainian capital is by far the most vibrant, stylish and historically interesting city in the country. Built on hills overlooking a bend in the Dnieper, it offers iconic attractions such as St. Sophia’s Cathedral — a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with 1,000-year-old frescoes and mosaics — and lovely squares and parks for strolling. There’s also plenty of restaurants, bars and other nightspots.

Visiting Kiev on a Viking River cruise

And another angle on stunning St. Sophia’s Cathedral. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Kiev also is the place where the story of Ukraine’s recent struggle finally comes into focus. One of the sites we visit during an initial tour of the city is Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square that was at the center of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Peaceful now, it was for several days in 2014 the site of dramatic clashes between protestors and government forces that ended with the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (now in exile in Russia). Makeshift memorials with pictures of the 100-plus people killed during the conflict line the area.

Approaching Kiev aboard the Viking Sireus

Approaching Kiev. * Photo: Gene Sloan

We approach Kiev on a perfectly sunny afternoon, and our program director, Oliver, ushers us to the top deck of Viking Sineus for a celebration. Leaning on the railings, we marvel at the golden spires of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a walled monastery complex once home to 2,000 monks.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine in Kiev

Kiev’s walled Pechersk Lavra monastery complex. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Later, we will descend by candlelight into its subterranean caves, dug by the priests that lived there as hermits. The labyrinth-like complex still holds their mummified remains, laid out in glass coffins.

Kiev has quite a bit to offer, enough for Viking to operate an overlapping mix of seven different tours during our two-day stay. Many are built around themes such as Jewish Kiev or Ukraine During World War II. But I make a last-minute decision to skip nearly all these outings to spend a full day visiting what may be the region’s most intriguing (and disturbing) destination: The site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

I Chose Chernobyl

Just 62 miles north of Kiev, the radiation-contaminated area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, has been open to visitors with permission on a limited basis since 2011 — as long as they don’t stay long.

While mainstream tour operators such as Viking don’t offer excursions there, several local companies in Kiev will take small groups into the area for several hours at a time, handling the required paperwork and smoothing things over at checkpoints.

Along with two other Viking Sineus passengers, for $99 USD a piece, I sign up for a visit with a company called Solo East, which picks us up in a van right at the ship for the two-hour drive to the exclusion zone.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking River cruise

All aboard for the Chernobyl Express. * Photo: Gene Sloan

At the first checkpoint, we are issued radiation detectors that will monitor our exposure, although the official word is that it will not be significant (if we follow the rules). At the same time, we are told not to touch anything or sit down, lest we contaminate ourselves. There still is plenty of radiation around.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine

Radiation detectors are a must. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A bit to my surprise, we can motor right up to the melted-down reactor, which recently was covered in a new (and supposedly safe) containment structure. But the most gripping part of the experience is wandering through nearby Pripyat, the small city built to house the power plant’s workers.

Ukriaine Viking River cruise stops in Kiev

If I was standing here 33 years ago, I’d be dead. The dome behind me is the new containment structure over the melted-down Reactor #4. The amount of radiation released during the accident was 400 times the level of the bomb over Hiroshima. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Once home to nearly 50,000 people, it was evacuated in two days after the disaster and is now a ghost town on an epic scale. We shuffle down its eerily quiet main streets, empty of people — past government buildings, a hotel, a movie theater, a stadium and the small amusement park with a yellow carousel that is shown in so many Chernobyl documentaries. It’s all slowly crumbling and being retaken by the forest.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking river cruise

Pripyat was abandoned. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Viking Ukraine cruise

Pripyat was evacuated in just a few days, including this amusement park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Given the terrible impact that the disaster had on the people of the area and beyond (recently recounted in the five-part HBO series Chernobyl), it’s a heavy experience. But it’s also enlightening. And that may be the best way to describe this river cruise in its entirety.

From stories of man-made famine in the Soviet era that left millions dead to World War II devastation to more recent struggles, we hear a lot that is sobering on this trip. But we also leave with a better understanding of a place that, despite it all, seems to be moving forward.

IF YOU GO …

For 2020, Viking plans 10 departures of its new “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour starting on May 28. The final sailing ends in early October. Including the added Bucharest stay, the trips will be 11 nights in length — one night longer than this year’s itinerary.

Fares for the trips start at $3,799 per person, based on double occupancy, with the rates including lodging, most meals, tours during every stop, and beer and wine with dinner.

The northbound version of the itinerary can be extended with a three-night pre-cruise stay in Vienna and/or a three-night post-cruise stay in Istanbul that are priced at $649 and $1,199 per person, respectively. Passengers on the southbound version of the trip have the same two options in reverse. There also are pre- and post-cruise Romania tours available for $799 per person.

Visit Viking  for more info on a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine.

Gene SloanGene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Check out Gene’s other insightful articles for QuirkyCruise.com: Danube River cruise on AMAWaterway’s new AMA Magna.

 

 

 

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Edward & Cindy Anderson operate the French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

French Canal Barge Q&A

Barge cruises are an excellent way to indulge in fine French wines, cheeses and cuisine while moving at a snail’s pace through historic and beautiful regions of France. Like floating boutique hotels, French barge cruises offer an intimate and personal connection to the culinary and cultural riches of France.

To find out more about this small-ship niche, QuirkyCruise.com’s Heidi Sarna had an e-chat with Edward Anderson, owner-operator of the luxury canal barge, the Grand Victoria “The Queen of Burgundy.” 

Edward & Cindy Anderson operate the French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

Edward & Cindy are the owner-operators of the Grand Victoria (and their cute Lhasa Apso “Angus” is the adorable mascot!). * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: What makes the Grand Victoria special?

Edward: While it offers the same luxurious amenities and features of other 5-star canal barges in France, the Grand Victoria isn’t technically a barge. It is a purpose-built one-of-a-kind private river yacht commissioned in 1986 by the famous Belgian liqueur family “De Kuyper.”

Madam De Kuyper had the yacht built for her and her family to cruise the rivers and waterways of Europe. It was later repurposed as a cruising hotel, very similar to the canal cruise barge boats seen in France and other parts of Europe.

French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

The lovely 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: Why should a traveler consider a French barge cruise?

Edward:  It is a magical way to experience a carefree vacation with friends and family

Everything is taken care of so you can just sit back and relax, while learning about the food, wine and culture of a region in France.

Further, a barge cruise allows you to unpack once and spend a week visiting different regions of Burgundy. It sure beats packing and unpacking as you go from one hotel to another.

Q: Why did you choose to be based in Burgundy?

Edward:  Having travelled extensively in France before, Cindy and I knew that the wines and food of Burgundy would be very attractive to visitors. The region is well known for its famous Burgundy wines, delicious food and rich culture and history, from the gorgeous château and medieval towns, to verdant vineyards and vibrant village markets.

special offer on cruises with cheese plates

The ubiquitous cheese platter aboard the Grand Victoria! * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: What is your most popular Burgundy itinerary?

Edward:  Our cruises on the Burgundy canal used to be our most sought after cruise, but over the past few years, we have seen an increase in interest to cruise the Saône and Petit Saône rivers. I think the growing interest is because they offer a combination of small canals and twisty river sections as well as the ability to cover some distance and see more of Burgundy than one would normally see on a canal only cruise.

A lock house on a French Canal Barge

Going through locks, and passing quaint lock houses, is part of the fun of a canal cruise. * Photo: Grand Victoria cruises

Q: Where do your French canal barge cruises start and end?

Edward:  Our most popular itinerary between Pontailler-sur-Saône and Tournus covers approximately 130 kilometers.

This allows guests to cruise the magical and scenic Petit Saône with its narrow waterways and locks (much like a canal) and then gradually enter the Saône River to visit places like Chalon-sur-Saône (the birthplace of photography) and Tournus with its impressive Abbey St. Philibert dating back 1,000 years.

French canal barge map

The popular Tournus to Pontailler-sur-Saone River intinerary. * Photo: Google Maps

Meanwhile, another route passenger enjoy is the 100-km journey between Chagny and Auxonne. [You can read more about this itinerary in a recent QuirkyCruise article by Christina Colon.]

Q: How do guests get to the Grand Victoria?

Edward:  We pick our guests up in Paris by chauffeured vehicle or from the Dijon train station, for those who prefer to cut down the journey time in the car and travel on the comfortable high-speed TGV train.

French barge cruise

Most guests spend a few days in Paris before or after a Grand Victoria cruise. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Q: Describe your typical guests.

Edward:  The Grand Victoria tends to attract a slightly younger barge customer than most barges. Perhaps it’s our chíc décor or our cruise itinerary, we’re unsure exactly why.

We’ve had customers from all walks of life, from Hollywood producers to farmers, New York attorneys, Californian thrill seekers, Louisiana oil industry and Montana ranchers.

Most of our guests come for the culture, the food and the wine, combined with a little bicycle riding and walking, visiting new and interesting locations and experiences. Of course our guests’ over-riding goal is to have a relaxing time with family and friends on a luxury French barge cruise.

special offer for a grand victoria barge cruise

The lovely sun deck of the 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: What is a typical dinner on board like?

Edward:  To really whet your appetite, I’ll share two sample menus with you:

Sample Menu #1

Appetizer

Seared scallops with truffled potato purée and sweet ginger chili, served with a Chablis 2013 Blanc.

Main Course

Roasted duck breast with prosciutto, roasted vegetables, fennel purée, parsnip crisps, and veal demi-glace, accompanied with a glass or two of Santenay 1er Cru “La Comme” 2014.

Cheese

Neufchatel cœur fermier AOP, Morbier AOP lait cru and Fourme d’Ambert AOC.

Dessert

Lemon tart with Italian merengue.

French cheese on French barge cruises aboard the Grand Victoria

Chef Phil’s exquisite French fromage was out of this world! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Sample Menu #2

Appetizer

Spiced duck wontons in a lime and chili broth with cashews and cilantro, accompanied by a bottle of Rully 1er Cru “La Pucelle” 2015 Blanc.

Main Course

Fillet of charolais beef with wild mushroom ragout, baby carrots and parsnip gratin, served with Chambolle Mussigny 1er Cru “Le Charmes” 2010.

Cheese 

Saint Agur, Tom Tomme de Savoie fermière, and Mimolette extra vielle.

Dessert

Summer fruit Millefeuilles.

French barge cruise aboard Grand Victoria

Meals are a highlight of a Grand Victoria cruise. * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: Are most of your cruises full charters?

Edward:  Yes, most of our cruises are full charter as we accommodate just 6 guests. However we do offer open cruises during the low season, in July and August, when we require a minimum of 4 passengers to set sail.

French Barge cruise is a great option for small groups of friends

A group of 3 couples enjoying a week on the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: What is your role during a cruise? Are you and Cindy present on every cruise?

Edward:  One of the nice things about the Grand Victoria is we are owner-operated. This means Cindy and I are on board with you as your hosts, and are always there for you when you need us.

I captain the vessel and serve as the tour guide and wine steward.

driving the Grand Victoria

Edward at the helm of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Cindy does an amazing job of keeping the operational and logistical side of the operation running, from managing the interior, to provisioning the vessel. She also manages the chefs and hostess’s daily duties, and handles bookings and guest inquiries.

As owners and operators, it allows us to tweak or customize an itinerary at a moment’s notice. We don’t have to ask permission or check in with corporate offices. We take care of our customers first-hand and are on site always to do so.

Q: Where are you from and how did get into the canal cruise business?

Edward: Cindy is originally from Rochester, New York, and I am originally from southern Africa. I was born in Livingstone, Zambia, famous for the “Victoria Falls.” I then lived in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) and South Africa, before immigrating to the US. Today we live in Tampa, Florida, where we spend our winters.

The catalyst for our starting on this adventure was when our son Alex was involved in a serious car accident whilst riding his bicycle, suffering a traumatic brain injury. We decided to change our careers, and create a new life that allowed us all to work together operating a beautiful boat in a beautiful part of the world.

And so, we operate the Grand Victoria as a family venture with our son Alex as the deck hand adding to the team. Alex has recovered, going from strength to strength, and Cindy and I have fallen in love with our life aboard the Grand Victoria in Burgundy.

Q: Do you have special offers to share with QuirkyCruise readers?

Edward:  In fact we do! We’re offering QuirkyCruise readers an exclusive 20% off full-boat French barge canal charters when booked before Jan 2, 2020. Mention code QC2020. Here are more details.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

Going through locks, and passing quaint lock houses, is part of the fun of a canal cruise

Vineyard visits and wine tasting are a big draw. Cheers! * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Expedition Lines Act to Reduce Air Pollution

Special Note: As only three of the 12 ships in the Hurtigruten daily service coastal fleet fall below our limit of 300 cabin passengers, a brief addendum at the end will describe the remaining ships that handle from 451 to 640 berthed passengers. Also, the expedition ship FRAM (276 passengers) will then follow with a full review and varied itineraries that include northern Europe, Iceland, Greenland, partial NW Passage, Canadian Maritimes and the U.S. East Coast en route to and from the Antarctic season. Others to follow and mentioned below under itineraries.

Hurtigruten

Norwegian ships (like the ones Hurtigruten operates) traveling north from Bergen, the country’s principal west coast port, have tied the south with the north beyond the North Cape since 1893 carrying passengers, all manner of cargo and until relatively recently, the mail. This venerable service has gradually evolved from serving as a much needed transport link to one that increasingly thrives on overseas visitors who come to ogle and partake in the delights of one beautiful country. During the course of a 12-day, 2,500-mile round-trip voyage, the ships put in at 35 different ports each way, and as the northbound schedule varies from the southbound, many served at night on the way north will become daylight stops in the other direction.

Tip: If limited in time, the northbound routing calls at the more interesting ports during convenient daytime hours.

Sailing deep into the Geirangerfjord. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing deep into the Geirangerfjord. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

LOFOTEN (built 1964 & 153 beds), VESTERALEN (b. 1983 and enlarged 1989 & 301 beds), SPITSBERGEN (b. 2009 & 243 beds). Deck passengers are not counted. The LOFOTEN will be withdrawn from the coastal service with a final departure from Bergen in December 2020 and a return to Bergen on January 2, 2021.

When another operator is hopefully announced, we will share the good news here!

Note: If you live in North America and book through the Hurtigruten agency for this region, you can no longer book either the classic LOFOTEN or VESTERALEN. You have to book through an office in Europe —  https://www.hurtigruten.co.uk and email: uk.sales@hurtigruten.com. These older ships are ignored (worse: banned from booking) in North America while their heritage is touted and extolled in Europe.

Passenger Profile

International passengers (from principal countries: Norway, Germany, Britain, US), mostly over age 40 occupy the cabins, plus Norwegians and European backpackers of all ages traveling locally (a few stops) in cabins and on deck.

Passenger Decks

LOFOTEN (5) no elevator; VESTERALEN (7) elevator between all decks. SPITSBERGEN has an elevator between 5 of 6 decks, but not highest Sun Deck.

Price

$ – $$  Moderate to Expensive

Itineraries

As Hurtigruten operates a daily scheduled passenger and freight service, the itinerary remains fixed throughout the year, with the sole exception of a diversion into the gorgeous Geirangerfjord that begins in the spring and lasts into the fall. When in 2016 the SPITSBERGEN joined the fleet more as an expedition ship, including a staff to give talks and lead trips ashore. However, the ship calls only at daytime ports (as listed in the regular schedules), therefore, dwelling longer and skipping ports presently listed with nighttime arrivals and departures. Five detours into fjords are also included.

Several other Hurtigruten  ships will also join the more cruise-like itinerary with daylight calls – FINNMARKEN, MIDNATSOL and TROLLFJORD (550 to 570 passengers) will also follow this pattern as well as operate expeditions in Antarctica in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. In addition, purpose-built new expedition ships will join the fleet with ROALD AMUNDSEN in summer 2019 and FRIDTJOF NANSEN IN 2020, both taking 530 passengers, thus certainly worth mentioning but well beyond our 300 passenger limit to engage in a full review.

Hurtigruten

Ted at bow of Lofoten. * Photo: Greg Fitzgerald

Included Features

Tips are not expected though many passengers do give to the wait staff.

Why Go?

The number one reason people think of booking a cruise to Norway is for the fjord, coastal and island scenery. Another is Hurtigruten’s variety of port calls, from tiny towns where the ships provide an essential service, to the country’s most beautiful mid-size cities of Bergen, Alesund, Trondheim and Tromso. Cargo handling is another attraction with something being loaded or off-loaded at every port, and lastly to meet Norwegians who are traveling in their own country for a whole host of reasons.

Should you choose the Lofoten, you will be sailing on a much loved time machine, a passenger and cargo-carrying vessel from more than a half-century ago, a type that has all but disappeared from the seas.

Lofoten is a working ship with all cargo crane-loaded in and out of the hold. * Photo: Ted Scull

Lofoten is a working ship with all cargo crane-loaded in and out of the hold or placed on the open deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

That’s a complex question as Norway’s maritime weather is fickle in almost any season.

Spring and fall will show off the change of seasons as you travel over 1,000 miles from south to north or vice versa. Long daylight hours are part of late spring through midsummer sailings.

School holidays will see the most passengers aboard, including backpackers making short coastal trips and heading out to the well offshore Lofoten Islands.

Winter brings on vibrant displays of the Northern Lights, with the downside being long hours of darkness. My preference, after a half-dozen coastal voyages, is from April through the end of May when there are fewer tourists, lots of light and a noticeable change of seasons during the course of the voyage.

Cabins

LOFOTEN’s tiny cabin accommodations will be the biggest hurdle to face as the best cabins sell out early. Very few cabins have twin lower beds, and most are designed like an enlarged railway sleeping compartment with upper and lower berths. On the deck plans, categories N (3 cabins), J (3), A (20) and I (7) have private shower and toilet. The Ds have showers and toilets along the passageways. Total cabin berths number 154.

Note:  See https://www.hurtigruten.com/our-ships/ms-lofoten/ for useful cabin photos to help make your decision.

VESTERALEN’s cabins come with private shower and toilet, and range from two beds, with one converting from a sofa, to others with upper and lowers; the majority are outside, plus insides and a block of cabins having restricted views. SPITSBERGEN’s cabins all have private facilities with a mixture of configurations. With two berth cabins, one converts to a sofa, and some will have an extra upper berth. All cabins have private facilities, with some having limited or no outside views. Upper grades have TVs.

Dining

Tables are assigned for dinner which is a set, served meal, though special dietary requests are accommodated with advance notice. The cooking is straight forward continental fare that appeals to a wide mostly European market. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, and the choices should satisfy most tastes.

If you like marinated herring served a half-dozen ways, as I do, you will be in heaven. Interport passengers who are on just for a day or two have to pay for meals so most head to the LOFOTEN’S and VESTERALEN’s cafeterias located behind the main restaurant. SPITSBERGEN has an aft dining room and a Bistro for light meals and refreshments.

Vesteralen leaving port to continue the southbound voyage to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

Vesteralen leaving port to continue the southbound voyage to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

Public Rooms

LOFOTEN is one-of-a-kind and exudes the retro atmosphere of a small country hotel, comfy, beautifully wood-paneled and largely unchanged from the 1960s. Two lounges look forward, the top one affording the best views, while the lower lounge is quieter and better suited to reading and playing board games but with the view forward along the cargo deck. A third lounge, located aft and an extension of the cafeteria, is used for conversation and/or having a drink.

VESTERALEN is plainer inside and boasts a 360-degree top deck, glass-topped lounge for viewing the scenery, a second forward facing lounge, restaurant in the forward section of the deck below, café aft of that, small playroom, two conference rooms and a secluded lounge at the stern. SPITSBERGEN has two forward lounges, one with 270-degree views.

Dining room aboard the Lofoten. * Photo: Fellow Passenger.

Dining room aboard the Lofoten. * Photo: Fellow Passenger (Empty Chair).

Activities & Entertainment

Shore excursions abound from the active such as kayaking, snowmobiling and dog sledding (in season) to bird watching, sightseeing a town’s historic past, visiting a Sami camp in Lapland and a drive to the North Cape. The Northern Lights are at their brightest in winter. Nearly every call allows at least a quick look ashore before the ship’s whistle beckons you back, while Trondheim, a cathedral city, and Alesund, an Art Nouveau treasure, encourage several hours of exploring. On some summertime voyages, musicians will be aboard. SPITSBERGEN will have an expedition-style shore program.

Special Notes: Tax on alcohol is sky high in Norway, so beer and wine prices are amongst the most expensive in the world. Some bring aboard what they like to drink and enjoy it in their cabin before dinner — while private supplies are taboo in the public rooms.

Addendum

A description of the nine other ships follows including years delivered and berth capacities. Deck passengers are additional.

Kong Harald 1993 and 474 pass; Richard With 1993 and 464 pass; Nordlys 1994 and 469 pass; Polarlys 1996 and 473 pass; Nordkapp 1996 and 458 pass; Nordnorge 1997 and 451 pass; Finnmarken 2002 and 628 pass; Trollfjord 2002 and 640 pass; Midnatsol 2003 and 638 pass. Newly added, Spitsbergen 2009, rebuilt 2015 and 243 passengers, will replace Midnastol on the coastal route in winter when the latter goes off to Antarctica.

These 6- and 7-deck ships offer high up forward-facing panoramic lounges, additional public rooms and bars, conference rooms, children’s playroom, large restaurant aft with wraparound windows and cafeteria. At dinner, passengers will choose between the regular set 3-course meal and a 2- to 5-course a la carte menu with a supplemental charge starting at $19. Most cabins are outside with two beds, one a folding sofa bed, and private bathroom facilities with showers. Suites additionally come with TVs, sitting areas, minibar and some private balconies. All ships feature attractive Norwegian paintings, murals and sculptures. Cargo and vehicles roll-on, roll-off.

These larger ships have started a new thrust where an expedition team provides an enrichment program aboard and leads passengers ashore on hikes to look for wildlife and unusual geographical points of interest. Other new offerings on selected trips bring personnel aboard to provide a cultural emphasis with Norwegian art, music, history, music, legends & myths; voyages dedicated to astronomy during winter period when the Aurora Borealis is a dazzling sight; Norway’s conflicts through history from the Vikings to WWII and German occupation; and the all-important fishing industry. These are in addition to the classic style with 45 traditional shore excursions, some seasonal, offered over the course of a year.

The Nordlys passing southbound to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Nordlys passing southbound to Bergen. * Photo: Ted Scull

FRAM: Expedition Ship

Hurtigruten began operating summer cruises to Spitsbergen (Svalbard), located north of Norway many years ago, and then in 2007, the firm built a dedicated expedition ship, Fram, at Italy’s Fincantieri yard, to offer a year-round program of expedition cruises to a new wide range of itineraries, not just the Polar Regions only. Before and after the Antarctic season, the ship makes positioning trips from and back to Europe. Itineraries include Iceland, Greenland, Canada’s Maritime Provinces, New England, U.S. East Coast, and the West Coast of South America via Costa Rica and the Panama Canal.

The ship’s name refers to the original Fram, an early 20th-century exploratory vessel that made pioneering voyages above the Arctic Circle on surveys and carried Roald Amundsen to Antarctica to become the first person to reach the South Pole. Midnatsol, taken off the Norwegian coastal route in winter carries 500 passengers in Antarctica. Additional expedition ships have been ordered to expand the variety of itineraries in North Europe, the Arctic, Antarctica and South America but they exceed our 300-passenger limit. For example, Roald Amundsen (530p), was to enter service in May 2019 and will now begin carrying passengers on July 2, 2019, more than a year late due to shipyard delays. Fridtjof Nansen, a similar vessel will follow.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

FRAM: built 2007 & 276 passengers; 200 pass in Antarctica.

Passenger Profile

An older international passenger list is drawn from Europe, North America and Australia with the main languages aboard being Norwegian and English.

Passenger Decks

7 decks, and two elevators serve every level except top Observation Deck.

Price

$$$  Very Pricey

Included Features

Many itineraries include local flights (not from the U.S.) and perhaps an overnight hotel stay; all shore activities with an English-speaking expedition team; water-resistant winter jackets; tea and coffee. Suite passengers receive complimentary drinks with meals.

Steaming Iceland. * Photo: Shutterstock Hurtigruten

Itineraries
  • Iceland’s diverse landscapes, glaciers, volcanoes, hot and cold springs, birdlife, and historic settlements; Greenland’s glaciers, icebergs, fjords, Viking settlements and hiking and partial transits of the Northwest Passage; Spitsbergen (Svalbard)’s wildlife such as musk oxen, Arctic fox and wolf, and polar bear and whaling stations; and northern Norway and its islands and fjords.
  • En route to and from South America and Antarctica, voyages call in a small Canadian maritime ports and cruise along the U.S, East Coast from New England to Florida.
  • Central America (mostly the Gulf of Mexico side); varied Caribbean islands and south to the Panama Canal and a transit.
  • Some voyages head south from the Panama Canal along South America’s west coast calling in Ecuador, Peru (incas), Chile’s fjords and the southerly Patagonia region with its spectacular scenery. Other sail via the reast coast calling at Brazilian ports.
  • Antarctic expeditions leave mostly from from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula while longer trips include the Falklands and South Georgia to see polar landscapes, icebergs of varying colors, glaciers, wildlife and birdlife, and a former whaling station on South Georgia. Activities are via Polarcirkel boat and, kayaks, and on foot.

Penguins galore, Antarctica. * Photo: Hurtigruten

Why Go?

The FRAM is a highly professional operation, organized by Norwegians who have had a lot of experience operating expeditions that began in the early 20th century. The ship is purpose-built and not a conversion from some other use nor operated on standard cruises. As one of the larger such ships, she handles rough seas about as well as any of her ilk.

When to Go?

Itineraries are arranged to operate in the warmer seasons for both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguins having a noisy discussion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Antarctica: Chinstrap penguins having a noisy discussion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins

127 compact outside and inside cabins, with six cabins having shared balconies facing aft; one suite and standard cabins with one bed and one fold-up sofa bed or two sofa beds. Cabins are similar to the newer Hurtigruten coastal ships. Amenities are showers, TVs and mini-fridges. No dedicated singles.

Public Rooms

The décor reflects the culture of Norway and Greenland. Layout is also much like the newer Hurtigruten coastal ships with a large Deck 6 observation lounge, lobby lounge and arcade, two lecture rooms, fitness room, two Jacuzzis, and two saunas. There’s an open promenade deck, open Sun Deck and Observation Deck, plus an Internet Café and shop for clothing and souvenirs.

Dining

Restaurant is aft with both buffet breakfasts and lunches and served dinners. Local dishes will include fish and bison. Food is average to good. A Bistro serves food informally at an extra charge. Because of high taxes, alcohol is very expensive.

Activities & Entertainment

Landings are via Polarcirkel landing craft equipped with “step-bow and grab railings” for easier and safer disembarkations on land. Organized special interest talks take place during the days at sea and in the evenings.

Special Note: Smoking is allowed out on deck only.

*NORDSTJERNEN: Expedition Ship

While no longer in Hurtigruten’s coastal program, the entry remains as she undertakes summer cruises to the North of Norway and Spitsbergen.

Nordstjernen, built 1956, taken in an earlier guise in Hurtigruten service. * Photo: Ted Scull

Nordstjernen, built 1956, taken in an earlier guise in Hurtigruten service. * Photo: Ted Scull

Spitsbergen expedition cruises operated by the 1956-built NORDSTJERNEN operate separately from Hurtigruten’s programs and not always for the English-speaking market. See the website for details then contact the link below*. She is a gem of the classic mailship design that even predated the much-loved LOFOTEN. Within her classic lines are a forward observation lounge, bar, restaurant and small cabins, with and without private facilities, totaling 150 berths.

Her Spitsbergen  cruises  last six days and leave from Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen to look for wildlife – polar bears, walrus and varieties of birds, and with calls in a Barentsberg, a Russian mining community, Ny-Alesund, a former coal mining town and now a High Arctic Research Facility, and Magdalenfjord for the remains of a whaling community. The northern Norway itineraries leave from Tromso for the Lofoten Islands, the historically important port of Narvik, Vesteralen Region and several additional islands. It’s the rugged and wild landscapes that are the main attractions. On the Hurtigruten website, see Ships, then chose NORDSTJERNEN and have a look at The Handbook. *Then if interested go to usbooking@hurtigruten.com.

Along the Same Lines

The classic coastal ships are unique, while the expedition ships are equivalent to other high-end expedition lines.

Contact

Hurtigruten (Norwegian Coastal Voyages), 1505 Westlake Ave. N #125, Seattle WA 98109;  www.hurtigruten.com.us; 866-552-0371.

— TWS

 

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Hebridean Island Cruises

Hebridean Island Cruises

Based in Great Britain, the independently-owned British cruise line operates a single ship, HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS, a lovely floating country house hotel that has had no equal for three decades in atmosphere or price.

She is based largely in Scotland, with the most frequent base port being Oban, for the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles, occasional cruises that calls at Northern Ireland’s ports, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and in 2021, several summertime cruises to the Norwegian Fjords.

This line should not be confused with the pair of 10-passenger yachts operated by Hebrides Cruises.

Note: The rest 2020 season has been cancelled, and the 2021 and 2022 seasons’ itineraries have been announced.  See the website for details, and we will update the review soon.

Hebridean Island Cruises

The Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Addendum: Hebridean River Cruises charters the intimate 70-passenger ROYAL CROWN to ply the Belgian and Dutch waterways in the spring and later in the season cruise the Danube between on two cruise between Passau, Germany and Bucharest, Romania. Fares include transfers between Britain and the riverboat, shore excursions, wines and spirits, internet and WiFi, and gratuities. See the website for additional details.

Note: The shortened 2020 season is expected to resume on 7th October.

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS (Built 1964 as COLUMBA and rebuilt into a cruise ship in 1989 & 50 passengers)

Passenger Profile

Mainly British aged 50+ with many repeat passengers and occasionally Americans and other Europeans, Australians.

Passenger Decks

5, no elevator

Price

$$$  Very pricey, yet lots of included features.

Itineraries

Cruises operate from March to November to include lots of itineraries amongst Scotland’s Inner and Outer Hebrides, and depending on the year to Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Ireland, South of England, the Channel Islands, French coastal ports, and via the Shetlands and Orkney thence across the North Sea to Norway’s coast and fjords. In any one season, no cruise is repeated. Here are samplings of  itineraries and be sure to check the line’s website for all the wonderful options.

Scotland, Hebridean Island Princess

Eilean Donan, Scotland * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

  • Secret Gardens of the Western Seaboard (7 nights) round trip from Oban, Scotland visiting Plockton, Loch Ewe, Ullapool, Skye, Mull, and Ft. William.
  • St. Kilda and Islands on the Edge (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Colonsay, Tiree,  St. Kilda (the most western isle), Lewis (Callanish Stones), Shiant Islands, Eigg,  and return to Oban.
  • Pearls of the Irish Sea  (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Islay, Bangor, Isle of Man, Cockermouth, Larne, Jura, and return to Oban.
  • Sea Lochs of the Lower Clyde (6 nights) from Greenock ( near the mouth of the Clyde) to Rothesay, Troon, Port Ryan, Holy Isle, Holy Loch and a return to Greenock.
  • Two cruises, marked as Spring Surprise and Autumn Surprise, are seven-night Hebridean itineraries decided upon by the captain. They leave from and arrive back at Oban and are popular with repeat passengers who like the ship so much that they don’t mind where she goes. Footloose indicates a focus on walking and hiking outings.
  • 2021 will see a return to Norway, a North Sea crossing to and from little and will known fjords and inlets and island between Bergen and Stavanger and a pair of cruises based at Bergen.

 

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far Western Isles.

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far out Western Isles.* Photo: Ted Scull.

Special interest cruises include: hiking (marked Footloose), golf, gardens, wildlife and nature, world and highland heritage, architecture, art, classical music, Scottish food and drink; bicycles available. Look for designations.

Generally, the vessel either docks or anchors at night and travels during breakfast or lunch to the next location. Occasional overnight sails take place when the itinerary stretches south to and from English Channel ports.

Included Features

All drinks; tips; shore excursions; bicycles; speed boat rides; fishing trips; Internet; transfers between airports and railway stations; free parking.

Why Go?

If you crave an authentic upscale Scottish country hotel atmosphere and would like it to move about seeking the most wondrous and obscure locales in the northern British Isles, this is your conveyance, and it is limited to 50 like-minded souls. Additional cruises, depending on the year, head south to Ireland, Wales, Channel Islands, South of England, Channel Islands and French coastal ports and coastal Norway.

Most amazingly, the HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS was created from a hard-working, well-engineered ferry that plied the Western Isles for a quarter century before being transformed into something quite different, yet retaining much of its traditional profile. Ted slept aboard her in one of the tiny below deck cabins as a ferry and returned for two wonderful cruise voyages in island-studded Scotland and coastal Ireland.

Scotland. Hebridean Island Cruises

Some cruises specialize in hiking. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

When to Go?

The weather in the British Isles is notoriously fickle, so you take your chances. You won’t find a cozier ship to retreat into on a foul day.

Cabins

All accommodations are individually decorated in beautiful colors and fabrics and are named after Scottish isles, castles, lochs and sounds, with wildly varying layouts. Many are roomy for a small ship, and those without windows have portholes, while six are inside without natural light. Beds may be king-size or twins, double or single. Two cabins have private balconies and ten are singles. Cabins along with the bathrooms were refitted for the 2019 season.

Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Above: Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

Renovated cabin - Isle of bute

Renovated cabin – Isle of Bute – use of Scottish plaids and Harris tweed

Amenities include a dressing table, ample storage space, fridge stocked with soft drinks, milk, coffee/tea making facilities, TV, personal safe, hairdryer, trouser press, iron and ironing board, bathrobes and slippers.

Public Rooms

In the forward-facing Tiree Lounge, the ship excels in that special small country hotel feeling with a brick and timber fireplace, comfy sofas and chairs and a cozy bar in one corner. The snug library draws readers to its tartan upholstered and leather seating, and two sides lounges — the Look-Out and wicker-furnished Conservatory are venues for morning coffee and afternoon tea.

In fine weather, passengers gather on the open afterdeck for pre-dinner cocktail receptions with hot hors d’oeuvres. On the topmost Boat Deck, windbreaks protect partitioned sections furnished with sun loungers and chairs.

Hebbridean Island Cruises

A cozy light-filled lounge. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Dining

The restaurant, refurbished for the 2019 season, operates like a hotel dining room with tables for two or up to eight for those traveling together. Single passengers sit at an officer’s table. Presentation and service from a European staff are tops with the menu thoroughly British such as a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and sliced duckling , while Scottish specialties may be highland game, sautéed and smoked salmon, and fresh oysters. You might wish to, or not, sample haggis, a concoction of calf or lamb hearts, lungs and liver with onion, suet and seasonings and kedgeree made from rice and smoked fish. Dinner sees men in jackets and ties with women in equivalent attire; some are formal nights.

Hebridean Island Cruises

Restaurant. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Activities & Entertainment

Shore trips (included) visit near and remote islands, castles, stately homes, and gardens, fishing villages and for walks of varying difficulty on rugged islands. The ship is also equipped bicycles for touring and fishing tackle, so you can try your luck.  In Scotland and Ireland, be prepared for Scottish mists and uncertain weather. Entertainment aboard is geared toward individual musicians.

Activities: How about enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Staying aboard and enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes

Children under the age of nine not accepted. With a high rate of British repeaters, Anglophilia helps.

Along the Same Lines

Equally small and less pricey ships of Hebridean Cruises, Magna Carta Steamship Company, and The Majestic Line.

Contact

Hebridean Island Cruises, Kintail House, Carleton New Road, Skipton, Yorkshire BD23 2DE, www.hebridean.co.uk; from the US 011 44 (0)756 704 704, UK 01756 704 704; Also, contact a US rep. at 877-600-2648. Be sure to mention promo code HEB2020.

— TWS

 

Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

 

Special offer on barge cruises that include wine

Canal Cruising in France:
Drinking It All In Aboard the Grand Victoria.

Text by Christina Colon. Photos & wine picks by Peter Barnes.

After a few glorious days in Paris, my partner Peter and I were ready to embark upon our first barge cruise adventure. Leaving from the Gare de Lyon, second-class tickets on the national train line TGV (the French equivalent to Amtrak) entailed comfortable seats, a table, armrest and an outlet.

Traveling through the countryside at 168 mph was relaxing, and to see the rolling hills dotted with cows and rustic farms felt like speeding through a French impressionist painting.

Starting in Chagny

In Dijon we were greeted at the station by Lynn, tour guide extraordinaire, waiting for us in a shiny black Mercedes van. She is a fully-trained sommelier and knows everything there is to know about all things wine. Her California girl smile and friendly nature instantly put us at ease as she navigated expertly through 60km of wine country to the tiny port of Chagny.

Here our Burgundy canal cruise aboard the Grand Victoria would commence and cover nearly 100km (about 60 miles) over 6 days along the Canal du Centre and the Saône River; it would end in Auxonne.

QuirkyCruise readers can avail of 20% off full-boat charters booked by Jan 1, 2020, with code QC2020.

Grand Victoria Canal cruising in France

The elegant 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Immediately on arrival we were greeted by Edward, Cindy and Angus (a frisky Lhasa Apso), owners (and mascot) of the Grand Victoria.

Edward (also the captain) is a font of information about everything from the history of French winemaking to competitive skydiving. Their son Alex looks right at home swabbing the decks and pulling ropes, a job he takes quite seriously.

Grand Victoria crew

Grand Victoria’s passengers and crew say “cheese!” * Photo: Peter Barnes

Once across the miniature gang plank, we were introduced to the rest of the crew. Leticia, the French-speaking hostess who speaks impeccable English, greeted us with her signature broad smile, warm demeanor and glass of Moët & Chandon.

Moët & Chandon while Canal Cruising in France

Christina enjoying a glass of Moët & Chandon aboard the pretty Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

The chef, Phil wasted no time showing his culinary aplomb with some amuse-bouche (tasty treats) before we slowly started down the narrow verdant waterway. Canal cruising in France was definitely pleasing our palates already.

Canal Cruising in France: The Boat

The Grand Victoria feels more like a river yacht than a barge, though it has the typical dimensions and interior of other 5-star canal barges. Built in the 1980s, to the specifications of the heiress to the DeKuyper liquor fortune, it was designed for her private travel around Europe. The current owners redecorated after a gut renovation in 2015.

With amenities in abundance, it boasts a well-stocked bar, deck furniture, chic lounge, and elegant dining area. The eight original staterooms situated near the front of the vessel down a short but narrow half staircase were reduced in number to three. All of them were enhanced in size, allowing for a king-size bed (or two XL twins), double sinks, a full shower and ample storage room. Voila! Three couples can definitely travel in style.

As our cruise began, we settled in and  lapped up our posh surroundings, reclining on the plush outdoor furniture while Edward stood at the helm in the wheelhouse.

driving the Grand Victoria

Edward at the helm of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

We glided silently forward under a canopy of black locust trees festooned with fragrant white blossoms and the occasional mistletoe. Birds chirped on cue.

Extra thick insulation in the hull blocks out any external sounds, making for a quiet restful night’s sleep. Unlike regular cruises in open water, there is no rocking aboard this steady shallow-drafted canal boat since the vessel remains stationary at night, only cruising during the day.

No engine hum, no sudden jolts, and the only sound in the morning are those chirping birds. Ahhh, the joys of canal cruising in France.

Canal cruising in France on the Grand Victoria

The peaceful canal view from bow of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

Locks & More Locks

After traveling a short distance we stopped at the first of many locks which allowed us to drop a vertical distance of approximately 20 feet with as little fuss as riding an elevator. The mechanism is quite fascinating; two dams create a chamber just big enough for the boat to fit inside, which is filled or drained to meet the water level of the next stretch of canal.

VIDEO:  The ups and downs of the Burgundy locks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BA3CtPECY0

These waterways, built to transport products, are something of a relic. Today they are used almost exclusively for recreational boating, including 50 similar floating hotels.

Canal Cruising in France: Delightful Dining

Dinner was a perfect balance of formal and casual with the dishes being served by Leticia, assisted at times by Cindy. For each course, Phil would appear and describe each course, all of which were amazing without being overly pretentious. Since we were cruising with two other couples, every dinner was a social event.

Grand Victoria dining on a Canal Cruising in France

Dinner on the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

On the first night, we were joined by Edward and Cindy, but on subsequent meals, dinner was set for just the guests, although Edward always presented and poured the daily vintages. Our appetizer of scallops pan seared in a brown butter sauce paired well with the local white, while the main course of fresh lamb over a puree of cauliflower was served with the local red.

Another night was a delicious pan roasted duck with Asian slaw and honey soy reduction.

Roasted duck aboard the Grand Victoria

A delicious pan roasted duck. * Photo: Christina Colon

Each meal was based on what Phil procured at the local market and what was fresh and in season.

VIDEO:  See Phil in action putting the final touches to a delicious gourmet dish of pork tenderloin, pork belly and potato croquettes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz1Ly8YKRoE

If watching Phil prepare the meals in the kitchen was like watching an artist at work, his fresh bread and selection of cheeses were like the mat and frame of his masterpiece.

French cheese on French barge cruises aboard the Grand Victoria

Chef Phil’s exquisite French fromage was out of this world! * Photo: Peter Barnes

French cheese on Grand Victoria

And more to-die-for French fromage! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Grand Victoria cheese board

Cheese is one of the many highlights of a Grand Victoria cruise, as you can see! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: The Glorious Wine

Since wine makes up the most important export of the Burgundy region it comes as no surprise that they take their wine tasting, drinking and winemaking very seriously. Perhaps needless to say, wine (and cheese!) is a major reason to choose canal cruising in France.

wine tasting while Canal Cruising in France

Peter tasting one of many excellent wines during the 6-night Grand Victoria barge cruise, this one at the Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Christina Colon

Edward explained that in this region there are only two varieties of wine produced. The red wines are pinot noir and the whites are chardonnay. There is no mixing of grapes or alchemy of these varietals. Nor is there any mechanization of the process that has been done by traditional means of hand harvesting for over 900 years.

Application of fertilizers, pesticides or any other enhancements is strictly prohibited by law, and even the number of grapes produced by each vine is limited to a maximum of seven bunches. While quantities are low, quality is king.

So even in years where frosts, draught other environmental factors can wipe out a significant portion of the harvest, these rules are strictly enforced. Surprise inspections are an everyday part of the process.

French vineyards

Burgundy’s legendary vineyards. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Stops Along the Way

Most days we left promptly after breakfast to do our tours and tastings, then either ate lunch in town or returned to the boat for a light meal. Afternoons were spent inching along the canal, getting to the next port. Thus activities involved lounging on the deck, watching the scenery go by or riding a bike to meet the boat at the next destination. The boat was always docked overnight.

Chagny to Auxonne map

The author’s itinerary, from Chagny via the Canal du Centre then along the Saône River to Auxonne. * Google Maps

The tiny town of Fragnes felt somewhat frozen in time, with sleepy lanes, quiet shops, tidy parks and colorful gardens in front of sturdy stone houses. The main industry appears to be local boat tourism as evidenced by several small rental or private boats occupied by family groups.

Almost as sleepy was the town of Chalon, the highlight of which was a visit to the weekly market with Phil to peruse the fresh produce (look no plastic!), cheeses and cured meats.

fresh produce in port in Chalon

The fresh produce of Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

the cheese of Chalon

Delectable cheeses in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

This revealed a decidedly elderly populace, all wielding baskets or pulling their little bubby carts filled with Tupperware and re-useable tote bags.

The local grocery store had a stunning variety of excellent wines at rock-bottom prices.

Chalon wine market

If only we had more space in our luggage! * Photo: Christina Colon

The other quiet spots where we tied up for the night were Seurre, which offered abundant and multilingual signage describing the sleepy stories of the sleepy architecture. And Auxonne (where the cruise would end), the site of an ancient waterside fort today used as a playground by local youths. We saw numerous defaced plaques and coats of arms that date back to the French Revolution.

Fortress wall Auxonne on a French barge cruise

The fortress wall of Auxonne. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Vineyard Visits

Chateau de Pommard, a short drive from Chagny, is a postcard perfect vineyard that offers in-depth narrated tours of the vines, soil types, wine presses, wine cellars and of, course wines. After learning about the process of growing, harvesting and producing the wines, a tasting took place inside the recently renovated chateau.

Chateau de Pommard on a French barge cruise

The lovely Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Chateau de Pommard wine barrel in France

A Chateau de Pommard wine barrel. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Afterwards, we were free to tour the walled fragrance garden and learn about some of the plants often associated with wines such as citrus, honeysuckle, hawthorn, lily and rose. Of course, none of these are in the wines, but are flavors and aromas commonly used to describe the various vintages.

Canal Cruising in France: Medieval Beaune

In Beaune, which was not far from Fragne where our boat tied up, the morning’s excursion had us going to the Hotel Dieu, built-in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy. Dubbed a “palace for the poor,” the hospital’s canopy beds are clad in starched white linens and draped in red velvet curtains. Patients were attended by nuns selected for their medical ability, compassion, and “character,” according to the founder’s charter.

Hotel dieu hospice

The hospital dubbed a “palace for the poor.” * Photo: Christina Colon

Private rooms helped offset the cost of caring for the poor even until the 1980s when a new hospital was built, and continues to be funded by the surrounding vineyards. In addition to an assortment of medical tools on display, an apothecary shows where cutting-edge medicines, many based on herbs and minerals, were prepared.

The large kitchens show the importance placed on good nutrition for patients, which was seen as equal to any other treatment. While water was considered dangerous, and fruits considered unhealthy, wine was freely available and thought to be curative.

After exiting through the gift shop, we emerged onto the square within the walled city, where tourist venues sell wine, postcards, wine, antiques, wine, and books (about wine). One antique vendor sold high-quality French furniture in a shop that itself was quite antique.

Perhaps because Peter knows an extraordinary amount about antique French furniture, we were permitted to explore the inner sanctum. Here, virtually priceless antiques were arranged in a room with carved wood panels and a low-beam ceiling that appears to not have changed for centuries.

15th-century Hotel Dieu in Burgundy

The 15th-century Hotel Dieu. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Lunch at a Michelin Star Restaurant

Also in the town of Beaune, is the Michelin star restaurant Le Jardin-de Remparts, where a lavish pre-fix lunch was pre-ordered as part of our cruise. We started with a kir royal (champagne and Chambord), then were served some baked amuse-bouche.

Canal Cruising in France includes lunches at Michelin star restaurants

Lunch at the Michelin star Le Jardin-de Remparts. * Photo: Christina Colon

My appetizer of burgundy snail croquet in a garlic butter sauce was followed by steamed cod with squid ink risotto. A palate cleanser of sheep yogurt and green tomato marmalade was a light prelude to a fluffy mango soufflé with passion fruit sorbet.

mango soufflé in France

Fluffy mango soufflé — oui oui! * Photo: Christina Colon

The wine pairings were “on point” of course (aka perfect) and the coffee and petit-fours were too good not to try.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau de Rully

Next on our voyage was a visit to Chateau de Rully with a fascinating history. The kindly gentleman who greeted us at the entrance to his home looked nothing like the descendant of over 25 generations of French aristocracy. With his warm smile and unassuming demeanor, the Count of Rully (Raoul) was genuinely enthusiastic to share the story of his family and the inner secrets of his estate.

Chateau Rully on a Grand Victoria barge cruise

A visit to the Chateau Rully. * Photo: Christina Colon

What started as a fortified castle, designed solely for protection from marauding neighbors, has over the centuries grown into an elegant chateau.

The original tower was expanded to include walls and three other towers surrounded by a moat and a draw bridge. An ancestral grandfather had the moat filled and the drawbridge removed after his carriage nearly toppled into the brink.

A visit to Chateau de Rully on a French barge cruise

The fascinating and beautiful Chateau de Rully. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Later extensions in the 1800s created elegant living quarters designed for comfort rather than protection (thus now a chateau).

Upon entering, we ascended a circular staircase whose right spiral makes it more difficult for an invader to attack. The design necessitated he must wield his sword in his left hand, allowing the defender above to defend with a sword held in his dominant right hand.

The original walls of this castle where nearly two feet thick and lacked windows. Small slits in the top walls allowed a sentry to watch the horizon while larger gaps permitted a rain of stones down on any intruders. At night, a leather dummy was propped up to create the silhouette of a watchful guard.

The family chapel retains beautiful wall paintings and a carved wooden altar both done by ancestral grandfathers. Written in gold paint are the names of every member of the lineage who was baptized, christened, married or had their first communion in the chapel including the current Duke’s young sons.

Family portraits abound throughout the luxurious well-appointed rooms and much of the furniture can be attributed directly to some of the 18th century’s finest craftsmen. Whereas most other homes of the aristocracy were looted or burned, this family escaped such a fate.

The Duke beams as he tells the tale of his ancestral grandmother who freed her serfs prior to the French Revolution. She was briefly arrested but immediately released when her workers who tended the vines vouched that they were treated generously and with compassion.

While the wines still produced to this day are reputedly good, it is the tour itself that merits the majority of one’s time.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau Clos de Vogueot

In the Cote d’Or lies the Chateau Clos de Vogueot, a massive vineyard that produces some of the best red wines in the world. Originally made for religious ceremonies by monks in the 12th century, wines from this ancient vineyard have different grades according to the slope, elevation, drainage and orientation of the plots.

The soil or terroire has complex structure and its mineral components also have a big impact, as does the age of the vine. Older vines are considered better. Wines from each plot are categorized into low, middle and high grades; the top being reserved for the king.

Chateau Clos de Vogueot on a French Barge cruise

A visit to Chateau Clos de Vogueot. * Photo: Christina Colon

A tour of this mecca of wine making included a walk past some massive and ancient grape presses, fermenting vats, barrels, and a deep well. Multiple owners now all belong to the cult-like “Brotherhood Knights of Wine Tasting,” who gather annually to don colorful regalia, taste wines, and make merry.

A wine tasting was not on order for us, but instead we made our way to the nearby Moillard Givrot (or negociant, a wine making company that buys grapes then makes bottles and sells wine) where we tasted seven (or was it eight?) excellent wines.

Canal Cruising in France is all about wine

The legendary wines of the ancient Château du Clos de Vougeot. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Peter’s Favorite Wine Picks for the Week
(all served onboard)
Red

Harmand-Geoffroy’s Gevrey-Chambertin, 2015. This great pinot offers up notes of red licorice, cherries and pomegranate in a complex, refreshing and irresistibly approachable package.

Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. From the northern part of the Cote d’Or, this wine has gorgeous red currant and bing cherry aromas. It’s a very concentrated, refined pinot noir with fine tannins and great complexity.

Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, 2011. Our final red of the week was a big, brooding and muscular premier cru. While discreet during the meal, it opened up to reveal almost Rhone-like aromas: first tar, cocoa, then blackcurrant and blueberry compote.

Fine wine while canal cruising in France

Peter fancied the fine Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. * Photo: Peter Barnes

White

Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. This amazing white burgundy bearing the Givry premier cru appellation shows off aromas of vanilla, lemon, orange, honey with light oakiness on the finish; balanced with a zippy acidity.

Pouilly-Fuisse Les Vines Blanches, 2017. Fruit forward and approachable, this white has aromas of tropical fruits, crème brulé and toasted almonds with a clean cool citrusy finish.

Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016 is one of the wines you may enjoy on a canal cruise in France

Peter was impressed by Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Slow & Meticulous

If we could change one thing on this trip, it would have been to spend more time exploring the historic city of Dijon.

Our limited time was split between a brisk walk through the famed covered market, designed by Gustav Eiffel and brimming with French delectables (cheeses, meats, pastries, and prepared food), lunch at a local eatery, and a whirlwind walking tour through the fairy tale streets, romantic squares and central church.

We recommend you stay a night in Dijon before the cruise if time permits.

A stop in Dijon on a French Canal Cruise

The historical riches of lovely Dijon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Otherwise, the pace of this journey was slow and intentional, reflecting the meticulous attitude of the people and the region. Tours were usually arranged before or after a leisurely lunch on board. Meals were not rushed, as quality food takes time to prepare and to enjoy.

While nearly impossible, restraint on over-eating and drinking at lunch is key to avoiding a post-lunch slump. Our daily tours combined with time to relax aboard the boat ultimately left us feeling enriched and well-steeped in the long complex history of the region.

Like the grapes budding on the short stout vines, we learned that the slow progress of the vessel allowed us time to absorb the character and flavor of the region and build an understanding of the complexity of this area’s history, geography and viticulture.

Breakfast of spectacular fresh local fruits, croissants, pain du chocolat, and an optional hot platter of eggs was served up around 8am.

A coffee pot and/or espresso machine, bowl of fruit and endless fresh macaroons were also available 24/7.

fresh macaroons on a canal cruise in France

Fresh macaroons always at your disposal aboard the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

All this food provided inspiration for an organized tour or a refreshing morning bicycle ride along the tow path adjacent to the river or canal. The comfortable well-appointed bikes handled both smooth surfaces and rough terrain.

Combine bicycling with canal cruising in France

Out for a lovely pedal along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

While a lack of Wi-Fi signal can impair ones use of Google Maps to navigate, the general route is fairly straightforward and aligned with the cans. That said, on several occasions we had to cross the river via a bridge when access on the tow path was blocked.

Riding along the flat dirt or paved path lead us past endless fields of winter wheat, sweet corn, and rapeseed that grow tall and flower in June. The incessant sound of chipping birds and the occasional banjo twang of frogs make canal cruising in France simply delightful.

Most of the sleepy communities are populated by retirees who seem to love fishing, many of whom return to a family-owned plot after raising their children in more urban areas.

Grand Victoria Canal Cruising in France

The peaceful French countryside along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

When weather permitted, the crew set up lunch alfresco on the deck while moored at a scenic location along the river bank.

Blissfully ensconced, swirling a crisp white, sated by yet another fantastic meal and watching a mute swan glide silently past, pretty much sums up the essence of this trip.

swans along the way on French canals

A swan appeared straight out of Central Casting in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Our week aboard the Grand Victoria was the absolute pinnacle of a relaxed, refined, riparian retreat.

So, if you get the chance to book a cabin or decide to charter the whole damn boat, know that the experience will profoundly change you.

You will develop character, you will become bolder, more complex, with hints of cherry and blackcurrant, and a crisp, oaky finish.

For booking details, here’s more info on the “Grand Victoria, The Queen of Burgundy.” 

Chrissy & Peter enjoy Canal Cruising in France

Christina & Peter on board the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

 

QuirkyCruise Review

Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates! 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

Articles About Scenic Cruises

Crystal Endeavor is not sailing yet
Crystal Not Going Out Of Business By Anne Kalosh. With parent company Genting Hong Kong suspending payments to financial creditors ...
Read More
Small-ship Sea Cloud Spirit construction
Small-ship Construction & Delivery Updates By Anne Kalosh. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a lot of uncertainty on the cruise ...
Read More
Emerald Azzurra off Italy's Amalfi coast
Introducing Emerald Azzurra By Anne Kalosh Scenic, the luxury tour operator that made a big splash with the super-yacht Scenic ...
Read More
Biking & Beer on the Danube River
Articles About Scenic Cruises Reader Reviews About Scenic Cruises Submit Your Own Review Visit Our Reader Review Form QuirkyCruise Review ...
Read More
Asian-fusion restaurant Coocs aboard the new Scenic Eclipse
The New Scenic Eclipse By Anne Kalosh. Expedition cruising is getting glamorous. While the adventures outside may still be rugged, once ...
Read More

 

Reader Reviews About Scenic Cruises

Scenic Spirit Reader Review
Reader Review: Scenic Spirit. REVIEWER Walt Bruyns/Jan Hayes from Canada. CRUISE LINE Scenic. SHIP Scenic Spirit. DESTINATION Cambodia/Vietnam. # OF ...
Read More
Scenic Spirit on the Mekong (Scenic).
Scenic Spirit on the Mekong (Scenic). REVIEWER Julia Steinmetz from the USA. CRUISE LINE Scenic. SHIP Scenic Spirit. DESTINATION Mekong ...
Read More
Monastery visit on a Scenic Cruise
QuirkyCruise Reader Review Scenic Spirit on Mekong River REVIEWER Sheila Healey from the US. CRUISE LINE Scenic. SHIP Scenic Spirit ...
Read More
QuirkyCruise reader review
Reviewer: Debbie Dutton from the USA. Cruise Line: Scenic. Ship:  Scenic Jasper. Destination: Rhine River. # of Nights: 7. Departure Date & Ports: June ...
Read More

 

Submit Your Own Review

Visit Our Reader Review Form

 

QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review of Scenic Cruises

This luxury river cruise line was founded in Australia in 1986, expanded to the UK and Canada in 2007, and to the US in 2008. Most recently the line has broadened from its main focus in Europe, including Russia, to include Southeast Asia cruises. Expedition cruising began in autumn 2019.

Scenic includes lots of important features on its cruises and prides itself on not taking passenger credit card details at embarkation as there’s little chance of making additional purchases on board. A partnership with National Geographic sees an expert and photographer on board all European cruises.

The parent firm also operates the more moderately-priced Emerald Waterways.

Scenic

Scenic cruises the great rivers of Europe. * Photo: Scenic

COVID-19 UPDATE

Scenic is aiming to restart operations Oct 31, 2020.

Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

To encourage bookings, for a limited time, Scenic is offering discounts on their European River cruises, plus chauffeured transfers and free deposit payment protection coverage.

Fleet

Space-Ships

Scenic Crystal (built 2012 & 163 passengers) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Jewel (b 2013 & 163p) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Jade (b. 2014 & 163p) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Jasper (b. 2015/16 & 163p) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Opal (b. 2015/16 & 163p) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Amber (b. 2015/16 & 163p) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Ruby (rebuilt 2019 & 159p) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Pearl (rebuilt 2019 &159p) — Rhine, Main & Danube Rivers

Scenic Diamond (remodeled 2013, 149p) — Rhône & Saône Rivers & Bordeaux, France

Scenic Sapphire (remodeled 2013, 149p) — Rhône and Saône Rivers & Bordeaux, France

Scenic Azure (b. 2016 & 96p) — Douro River, Portugal

Scenic Gem (b. 2014 & 126p) — Seine River, France

Scenic

Embarking the Scenic Spirit in Cambodia. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Other River Boats 

Scenic Tsar (b. 2013 & 112 p) — Volga River, Russia

Scenic Spirit (b. 2016 & 68p) — Mekong River, Southeast Asia

Scenic Aura (b. 2016 & 44p) — Irrawaddy River, Myanmar

Expedition Ships

Scenic Eclipse (b. 2019 & 228p) — Oceangoing expedition ship 

Future Plans

Second expedition ship scheduled to debut TK.

Scenic Spirit seen in the early evening on the Mekong River. * Photo: Gillies and Zeiser

Scenic Spirit seen in the early evening on the Mekong River. * Photo: Gillies and Zaiser

Passenger Profile

Seniors from 60s on up hailing from Australia and Britain primarily, followed by US and Canada.

Passenger Decks

Most of the riverboats have elevators that serve the two principal cabin and public room decks, and none reach the Sun Deck. SCENIC TSAR’s elevator connects the three cabin and public room decks.

Price

$$ Expensive

Note: Emerald (partner company) is less expensive than Scenic.

For selected off-peak itineraries, the single passenger supplement is reduced by 50% or eliminated entirely.

Included Features
  • Shore excursions, divided into active, moderate and relaxed pace activity level
  • Scenic “Tailormade” app for self-guided tours
  • Unlimited beverages including stocked mini-bar
  • Picnics and bottled water for shore excursions
  • All meals in multiple dining venues
  • Wellness facilities
  • Tips
  • Wi-Fi
  • Use of e-bicycles (in Europe)
  • 24-hour cabin service including butler service
  • Laundry service
  • Airport transfers
Itineraries

With so many riverboats in operation, Scenic offers many itineraries to choose from.

In Europe, itineraries from 7 nights explore the Seine, Danube, Rhine and Moselle, Rhône and Saône rivers, the rivers of Bordeaux and Portugal’s Douro River. Many itineraries combine destinations and can last as long as a month exploring France or throughout Europe. Christmas-themed cruises at the end of the year are always popular.

Scenic

Eiffel Tower from Pont Alexandre III, Paris. * Photo: Gillies and Zaiser

In Russia, cruises tour the Volga River on 14- to 28-night itineraries.

Southeast Asia river cruises comprise 10 to 17 nights along the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, 7 to 12 nights on the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam, or a 25-night combination of both rivers.

Scenic Eclipse sails to every region of the world, for excursion cruises that last anywhere from one week to one month.

Scenic also offers several land-and-river packages in China, South Korea, South India, Egypt and Jordan.

Sample Itineraries

In Europe, the 7-night Gems of the Danube begins in Budapest, cruising to Vienna, Dürnstein (with a relaxing cycling tour to visit Melk), either Salzburg or Cesky Krumlov, Regensburg and ending in Nuremburg before transferring to Munich for departure.

In Southeast Asia, along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, the Mystical Irrawaddy cruise begins in the capital city of Yangon for a few days of sightseeing before flying to Bagan, where passengers will embark on their cruise, with stops at Magwe, Minhla, Salay, Pakkoku, Yandabo, Mingun, Sagaing and Mandalay, where passengers disembark for a flight back to Yangon.

Scenic

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, a pre- or post-Mekong River cruise stopover. * Photo: Gillies and Zaiser

Aboard the Scenic Eclipse, the 15-day Arctic Islands cruise begins at Reykjavik in Iceland, sailing to Greenland’s east coast to cruise along the coast and visit the fjords, to north-east Greenland to tour Greenland National Park, sailing on to the Svalbard Archipelago in Norway for arctic wildlife spotting and disembarking at Longyearbyen before flying to Oslo.

Why Go?

The passengers are truly an English-speaking union coming as they do primarily from Australia, Britain, Canada and the U.S.

When to Go?

The departures coincide with the better expected weather conditions with the busiest tourist season mid-June to September. Off-season allows you to share the trips ashore with fewer people  descending on the main attractions, and some of these sailings may be less expensive and/or offer single rates without a supplement.

 SHIPS
  •  Space-Ships
  • Scenic Crystal
  • Scenic Jewel
  • Scenic Jade
  • Scenic Jasper
  • Scenic Opal
  • Scenic Amber
  • Scenic Ruby
  • Scenic Pearl
  • Scenic Sapphire
  • Scenic Diamond

The fleet’s 15 “Space-Ships” are similar across the board, with some slight variations that are identified in the write-ups below. For the most part, however, these luxury boats are similar in length and have four decks, three of which house cabins, connected by elevator except to the uppermost sun deck.

Passengers can take their meals in any of four fine dining rooms or in the casual café, with cuisines taking inspiration and seasonal ingredients from the surrounding locales. Special dining events can include high tea, al fresco barbecue and seafood galas. Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Diamond also hold small cooking classes on board. Drinks are served in the lounge and bar areas.

For down time, the “Space-Ships” have a sun deck, wellness area with massage services, fitness center, walking track, salon and gift shop. Scenic Crystal, Scenic Jewel and Scenic Jade have an additional salt therapy lounge while Scenic Jasper, Scenic Opal and Scenic Amber each have a Vitality Pool on the sun deck; Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Diamond have no salon.

While most carry up to 163 passengers in 82 cabins, Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Diamond have 75 each for up to 149 passengers. Cabins are proportioned similarly on each ship, the average sizes measuring between 215 – 430 ft2. All are outward-facing with large picture windows; most have a balcony, created with the top of the window lowered to open the space to the great outdoors. Cabins are nicely appointed and include butler service.

“More effort than the norm is spent providing memorable meals in a variety of settings. Multiple venues include the Crystal Dining Room, the main restaurant with tables for parties of two to eight and views through picture windows; River Café, casual dining for breakfast and a light lunch; Portobello, 5-course Italian fare for 32 passengers; and Table La Rive, a 6-course degustation menu for 10 diners at a time, reserved for Diamond Deck passengers.” — Ted Scull

Scenic Azure

This smaller 96-passenger “Space-Ship” still maintains the same overall design and quality of the group (see longer review above), complete with four fine dining venues, casual café, lounge and bar, sun deck, wellness area, fitness center, walking track and gift shop.

Cabins are still as large as those on sister ships, but here there are only 48.

Scenic Gem

This 126-passenger Scenic Gem offers the same facilities as the rest of the fleet, with the addition of L’Amour fine dining.

The 63 cabins measure, for the most part, between 160 – 305 ft2.

Scenic Aura

Carrying a maximum of 44 passengers, Scenic Aura is the smallest river boat in the fleet, with five decks instead of four. It has the signature features of the “Space-Ships” with the inclusion of Vitality pool and bar, library and guest laundry.

All 22 cabins have balconies, most measuring between 258 – 430 ft2.

Scenic Spirit

This 68-passenger riverboat comprises five decks connected by an elevator. It also has an almost 1:1 crew-to-passenger ratio. Facilities include a dining room, café, sun deck, pool and pool bar, steam sauna, open-air cinema, library, wellness center, gym, library, and gift shop.

All 34 cabins have a balcony, with most between 344 – 430 ft2.

Scenic

The sitting room of suite #211. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Scenic Tsar

At its debut, the 112-passenger Tsar was Scenic’s first new-build ship to launch onto Russia’s waterways for over 25 years.

Expedition ship

Scenic Eclipse

A 6-star luxury experience, the Scenic Eclipse expedition ship offers facilities and cabins located on 10 decks, serviced by an elevator. For dining, there are nine intimate venues plus 24-hour cabin service and eight bars and lounges.

Recreational facilities include a sun terrace, indoor and outdoor pools, Jacuzzis, yoga and pilates rooms, gym and fitness area, spa with Jaccuzzi, plunge pool, sauna, steam room and salon, library, boutique, theater, medical center, self-service laundry and Discovery Center.

Guided journeys are led by “Discovery Leaders,” field experts, regional specialists and local guides, with tours via Zodiac, kayak, e-bike, plus two Airbus H130-T2 helicopters and a U-Boat Worx “Cruise Submarine 7” for underwater exploration.

The 114 cabins have a balcony, with most cabins measuring between 344 and 430 ft2.

RELATED: Peter Knego Cruises on the New Scenic Eclipse.

Christmas markets cruises are popular on Rhine and Danube river itineraries. * Photo: Gillies and Zaiser.

Christmas markets cruises are popular on Rhine and Danube river itineraries. * Photo: Gillies and Zaiser.

Activities & Entertainment

There are three types of shore excursions: Enrich, Freechoice, and Tailormade.

Tailormade excursions are designed for independent exploration at your own pace by foot or bicycle using a app providing the commentary and an interactive map. Subjects covered may be art, architecture, and history, and they are available in 140 locations. You can also use these tools on board.

Freechoice allows you to concentrate on your interests and whether you want an active, moderate or relaxed pace. Active might involve a hike or cycling outing; moderate, a city walking tour, and relaxed a museum visit or a canal cruise. Favorite hiking routes are the Danube Path through Austria’s Wachau Valley and a coastal path near Bordeaux along Arcachon Bay.

Enrich excursions are led by an expert in history or local culture to get beneath the surface. On board cooking school, Scenic Culinaire, operates on the French waterways and that includes going to local markets to buy the ingredients for the onboard cooking component.

For a number of its European cruises, Scenic partners with National Geographic to offer National Geographic Expeditions, cruises with presentations from the magazine’s acclaimed experts, photography lessons from its award-winning photographers and behind-the-scenes access during sightseeing excursions.

Scenic riverboats in Europe carry a fleet of e-bikes that help you propel your way into villages and vineyards so you become part of life ashore and not just a spectator. A handful of departures between May and September will come under the titles “Gems of the Danube,” sailing between Budapest and Nuremburg, and “Rhine Highlights” between Amsterdam and Basel.

During the former, specialists in guiding bicycle tours of 15 to 60 miles will take passengers to breweries for beer tasting, along paths in the Wachau Valley, to Austrian grape wine-growing country, into Vienna Woods and through the hills of Buda in Budapest. The latter will visit the Alsace Wine Route, the Rhine Gorge, Cologne’s network of cycling paths, and the outskirts of Amsterdam for cheese tasting. Non-cycling activities will also be offered.

Biking & Beer on the Danube River

The boat’s bikers stop to see the ship. * Photo: John Roberts

Special Notes

Single travelers pay no single supplements on selected departures in March, April and October to December. 50% of the single supplement is available on selected sailings May to September.

Along the Same Lines

Scenic is among the top lines to offer in-depth river cruising with lots of choices for sightseeing and enjoying meals aboard.

Contacts

USA —  One Financial Center, Suite 400, Boston, MA 02111; scenicusa.com. 855-517-1200; scenicusa.com

CANADA — Suite 1025, 401 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 5A1; Scenic.ca, 866-689-8611; scenic.ca

UK — 13th Floor, 111 Piccadilly, Manchester M1 2HY; Scenic.co.uk,  0161 236 2444; scenic.co.uk

AUSTRALIA — Level 15, 56 Pitt Street, Sydney, NSW 2000; Scenic.co.au, info@scenic.com.au; scenic.com.au

Pont du Gard, South of France

Pont du Gard, a Roman masterpiece built in the first half of the 1st century, South of France

 

Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

French Barge Cruise - Esperance on the Canal du Midi

French Barge Cruising:
My French Love Affair (Part 1)

The Canal, The Boat, The Weather, The Locks, The Food & The Wine

By Elysa Leonard.

To be completely honest, I had mixed feelings about this quirky cruise as we planned it. It was not my norm. I am a scuba girl and love my trips to be sun-kissed and salty. On this French barge cruising adventure, the focus would be on wining and dining, not diving and regulating.

I would be bringing my daughter, Samantha, a budding chef who is halfway through her studies at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA). A French barge cruise would be a great experience for her to learn some cooking skills from a seasoned French chef and it would of course be a super memorable mother-daughter holiday as well.

But what would I really think about a slow crawl through southern France on a luxury barge?

The truth is, I fell in love with French barge cruising!

French Barge Cruise - Esperance on the Canal du Midi

Elysa and her daughter Sam aboard the 6-passenger Esperance! * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi … or

Le Canal Charmant Mais Etonnant (The lovely and Remarkable Canal)

The Canal du Midi is set in the lovely region of Languedoc in southern France. It’s a step back in time to motor through this idyllic pastoral countryside. You quickly realize why artists are drawn to this area after seeing firsthand the inspiration surrounding you. From small quaint villages with stone churches and narrow cobblestone streets to vineyards and small farms, this cruise was all about the journey.

A slow-moving barge is a perfect vessel — and speed — to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

French barge cruising aboard Experance

A barge cruise along the Canal du Midi is an excellent to soak up the French countryside. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

What’s not to love!

When you realize this canal was built centuries ago, in a very rural part of the country with no modern equipment, it truly is a remarkable accomplishment. The project began in 1667 and was managed by Pierre-Paul Riquet, taking 14 years to complete. It was built as a working canal to transport goods between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. Sadly, Riquet would never see the completed project, he died one year before it was finished.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the Canal du Midi is considered one of the major civil engineering achievements of the modern age.

Esperance — Love at First Sight

The luxury hotel barge, Esperance, has a capacity for six passengers and three crew members. The word Esperance means hope or promise and this barge delivered on all of her promises.

French Barge Cruising on the Esperance

The 6-passenger Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Not only that but the barge fits perfectly in some very tight spaces.

As seen here:

The three bedrooms were spacious and charming; ours had a reading area with a sofa and a large closet. Each room has an ensuite bathroom.

Esperance cabin

A charming cabin aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

On the top open deck was a dining table, lounge chairs, and a hot tub. The salon was lined with windows and there was a lovely area for lounging, reading or just enjoying one of the freshly prepared snacks made by our on-board chef, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea.

Elegant lounge aboard French Barge Esperance

The elegant salon aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

The salon’s high-top table is where we would enjoy most of our meals. It was perfectly sized for six and was always impeccably adorned with a colorful themed tablescape and fresh flowers.

The kitchen was tiny and we were amazed by the dishes that Chef, Jean-Luc, prepared from such a small space.

Dining aboard a French Barge cruise.

The lovely “tablescape” at dinner on the Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

There was a lot to love about the Esperance. The rooms were big and it felt like a moving luxury hotel; we never felt cramped.

The One Thing Not to Love — The Weather

We were not blessed with perfect weather and much of the time, it was colder than I expected and a bit windy. In fact, there were several days/nights where they had to heat the cabin — we were cruising in early April, so the temperatures were fairly typical.

French Barge Cruise aboard Esperance

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Sadly, that meant that all of our meals except for one were inside in the salon. It also meant that we didn’t do as much walking and biking as I think we would have if the weather gods had cooperated. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying our time and thankfully, we didn’t get much rain to dampen our excursions.

It was easy to imagine what it would be like to have more meals and happy hours on the deck, and maybe a few more dips in the hot tub, but we will save that dream for future trips. The foliage and flowers were just about to pop and we could only imagine how lush and green things would be in just a few short weeks. It was just on the cusp of gorgeousness during our week and about to get even more so in a few short weeks.

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. But you can’t control the weather, so we chose to enjoy the journey and sat out on the deck with layers, including some blankets, so we wouldn’t miss the scenery and especially the passage through the locks.

Esperance barge cruises run from April through October.

The ideal time for a Canal du Midi barge cruise is the spring months of May and June; and for a touch of fall, September and October.

French Barge Cruising: Lovely Locks

When traveling on the Canal du Midi you can’t help but love the locks. They are a marvel of engineering and yet appear to seamlessly work to raise or lower boats.

French Barge cruising on Canal du Midi

Passing through the locks was a highlight. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi locks

Up close and personal with the locks of the Canal du Midi. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canals are flat bodies of water, but sometimes where you want to build a canal is hilly, so what do you do? You construct a lock to raise or lower the boats to the next stretch of canal at the higher or lower elevation.

The barge enters the lock, the doors close, it fills with water (or the water lowers) and you have now risen (or sunk) to the next level to continue on your journey.

There are 63 working locks on the Canal du Midi. The locks are maintained by a permanent lock keeper. The lock keeper cottages in many cases have been transformed into art galleries, displaying sculptures and paintings. Some of the lock keepers were the artists themselves and they displayed their art for sale.

Canal du Midi lock - Ecluse de Jouarres

Elcuse de Jouarres on the Canal du Midi – Esperance crew would pick up fresh fruits, vegetables, and, wine at this lock. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canal du Midi French barge cruising

The arty “lawn” of a lock keeper. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My favorite was Ecluse de L’aiguille or the Aiguille Lock. The lock keeper is a sculptor who has created really interesting art from wood and metal. One group of sculptures are connected to a motion sensor so when you walk by they all move, from a naked biker to a man sticking out his tongue and another that looks like Humpty Dumpty. It was one of my favorite stops and we had time to take a close-up look while the barge went through the lock.

Ecluse de L'aiguille on the Canal du Midi

Strange yet captivating art at the Ecluse de L’aiguille. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I also witnessed a few replenishments of wine handed over from the lock keeper to our crew, so we would always have a glass (or two!) from the local vineyards.

French Cuisine: A Life-Long Crush

When you think of French food, it conjures thoughts of heavy dishes covered in creamy rich sauces. And although we enjoy dishes with luxurious sauces, our Chef, Jean Luc, who had been cooking for 50 years, kept things elegant while also surprisingly light.

A memorable lunch consisted of a bowl of black shelled mussels with bright apricot-colored flesh, plucked from the Mediterranean Sea that morning. The chef knew with shellfish as fresh as this, less was more. He steamed them in olive oil, white wine, and garlic and served them with a crusty French baguette and a salad tossed in a simple but divine dressing that we found out was made with his own black walnut oil.

When we asked about the dressing through a few translations (Chef Luc doesn’t speak English), we discovered the origin of the oil was a black walnut tree in his backyard. He had crushed the black walnuts and made this oil himself, giving new meaning to the phrase, “from scratch.”

Fresh Mussels - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fresh Mussels in white wine and garlic broth, plucked that morning from the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Green Salad - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Simple Green Salad with a Black Walnut Vinaigrette. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Memorable dinner entrees included a delicious roast duck breast, steak au poivre, stuffed guinea fowl, tender beef roast with root vegetables, and pork tenderloin topped with an onion and mushroom compote.

Roast Duck Breast - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Roast Duck Breast with ratatouille, cauliflower and popovers. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Steak au poivre - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Steak au poivre with whipped potatoes, glazed sugar snap peas, and baby carrots. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Unforgettable appetizers included an asparagus soup served with a straw, a rainbow of caviar on toast, and my favorite, baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto that was sautéed in butter until crispy on the outside with a tender inside.

Rainbow Caviar Canape - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A rainbow of caviar canapes served with Champagne on our first night. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Baked leeks wrapped in crispy prosciutto. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Cheese courses were a part of all dinners, and I would try to save room to at least sample them. From creamy herbed goat cheese to ripe camembert, they were a perfect pairing with the white, rosé and red wines served with dinner. Yes we did of course drink a lot of good French wine on this trip!

French Cheese Plate with caraway seeds and apples - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with caraway seeds and apples. Photo: Elysa Leonard

A selection of French cheese with honey and rosemary - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with pears, local figs, honey, and rosemary. Photo: Elysa Leonard

French cheese plate from Narbonne - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese from the Narbonne Market. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I was inspired to create cheese plates on my own after this trip. I have been treating my neighbors to French cheese and wine all summer long, as I try to hold on to the pleasant memories of my barge cruise.

Desserts were elegant but simple.

They comprised fresh fruit served with a cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth, gold-dusted strawberries with fresh mint, smooth and creamy vanilla bean ice cream, and a show stopper, puff pastry with a sweet mango filling.

Fruit salad with cinnamon cookie - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fruit salad with a crispy cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Gold dusted Strawberries - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Gold dusted fresh strawberries with mint. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Puff pastry with mango filling - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Puff pastry with mango filling. Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Wine: My Romantic Rendezvous with Rosé

I love wine, that was true long before my visit to France. But, I am very particular in what kinds of wine I drink. I have always been a fan of California whites. I like a buttery Chardonnay from an oak barrel or a crisp Pinot Grigio with a hint of apple and pear, but don’t ever offer me something pink. Pink wines, or so I thought, are sweet and I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. Sweet wine is not for me.

French rose - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

French rose, crisp, dry, and divine. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Pink French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Another French rose that became one of my favorites. Photo: Elysa Leonard

So on the barge cruise, when our cruise manager Helen began offering us rosé in the afternoon, I would put my hand over my glass and tell her I would pass. After the first few days, she asked me why I wouldn’t try the rosé.

“Please don’t be offended, I just don’t like pink wines, they are much too sweet for me,” I confided in her.

Helen said, “But they are not all sweet, some are very dry, like this one, you may like it, give it a try.”

And then several of my new passenger friends including my daughter encouraged me to give it a try as well. Suddenly, I was in a real-life version of “Green Eggs and Ham.” And just like Sam, I thought well, one sip won’t hurt me and after that, they will leave me alone and then I can say I tried it and didn’t like it. However, like Sam, that first sip was not my last.

I took a taste and realized that this French rosé was positively pink perfection!

Drinking French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Drinking French rosé in the South of France, perfection! Photo: Elysa Leonard

The temperature of this wine is important. Rosé is better when it is well chilled, and of course, Helen took great care to make sure that was always the case on Esperance. I have added rosé to my wine list. But of course, it must be French and it must be from Languedoc or Provence!

Please stay tuned for French Barging Cruising Part 2 — “The Love Affair Continues.” I will discuss the crew, my daughter’s French cooking lessons, the daily excursions and our extended trip to Paris after our barge cruise.

À bientôt! (See you soon!)

➢➢ Are you a barge newbie? Here are some BARGE CRUISE TIPS to get you up to speed!

➢➢ And here’s more info on Barge Lady Cruises, the barge brokers who introduced us to Esperance!

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

Don’t miss a post, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates!  

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.