A flotilla of river-cruise vessels will set sail next year with new itineraries to meet record demand, writes Brian Johnston.
Fancy floating through the birch forests of Russia, the misty Yangtze gorges or the lavender-scented hills of southern France? Though far from home, the fellow passengers are likely to be familiar. Australians are filling river-cruise ships to their ever more luxurious gunwales; nearly 40,000 of us bobbed along a river on holiday last year, a 12 per cent rise on the year before. When US-based Avalon Waterways launched the 166-passenger Avalon Panorama in 2011 for service on the Danube, Rhine and Main rivers, half its cabins were snapped up by Australians.
Since 2007, in fact, the market among Australians has more than tripled and it remains the fastest growing form of cruising. Demand is so high, river-cruise companies are scrambling to build or buy new ships for next season's sailings, pressing them into fresh itineraries and arranging new shore excursions.
An entire flotilla sets sail on European rivers in 2014. Uniworld's new 159-passenger Catherine will ply the rivers of Burgundy and Provence, and APT's new AmaSonata and AmaReina will be seen on the Rhine and Danube. Avalon launches three ships; Evergreen Tours and Tauck two each. Scenic Tours adds Scenic Gem and Scenic Jade to the riverine jostle, while the line also floats two new ships under its freshly minted subsidiary Emerald Waterways, which is aimed at a younger, more value-oriented market.
The world's biggest river-cruise company, Viking River Cruises, meanwhile, launches 14 ships next year with a collective capacity for about 2,380 passengers, bringing the number of new ships Viking has introduced in the past three years to 30.
Operators say passengers appreciate the convenience of river cruises - essentially trips on floating hotels from which cities and regions can be explored without daily packing, food-finding or monotonous days at sea.
A move to all-inclusive packages has provided extra encouragement, and recent advances in ship design that maximise limited space have produced more on-board facilities.
APT and Uniworld's new ships have heated swimming pools, for example. Viking's Longships have all-weather indoor-outdoor lounges and dining areas with retractable walls of glass. Scenic Tours has spent $10 million on refurbishing its ships; cabins have sunrooms that can be transformed to open balconies at the buzz of a button.
And staterooms are generally getting bigger. Tauck's new vessells Inspire and Savor are said to have more than double the number of suites (instead of smaller staterooms) than its existing ships; the new suites have walk-in wardrobes, French balconies and marble bathrooms with double vanities.
Since luxury often equates with space, river ships are constrained by their boutique dimensions, especially in low-bridged, narrow-locked Europe. Attention has turned instead to adding details such as espresso machines, quality bathroom products and a finer dining experience. Next year, APT introduces intimate, private dining at a chef's table, with a six-course dégustation and free-flowing wine. Its new "Royal Experience" in Europe-wide cruises includes dinner with Princess Heide von Hohenzollern in a castle in Andernach, Germany, visits to Michelin-starred restaurants and truffle hunting.
Onshore excursions are becoming increasingly varied, reflecting the younger more adventurous clientele of river cruising. Uniworld and Tauck have itineraries suitable for children and families, unheard of five years ago. Options for unescorted shore excursions are also common. APT's Freedom of Choice sightseeing offers flexibility; some ships carry bicycles, allowing guests to pedal on riverside paths. And Scenic Tours has launched GPS-guided tours enabling passengers to walk in the steps of Mozart through Vienna, or channel van Gogh on an art trail in Arles.
There's more good news for river cruisers. New itineraries in 2014 include Scenic Tours' 20-day journey on the Danube from Passau in Germany to the Black Sea, and APT's 35-day land, river and Trans-Siberian train expedition that takes in Finland, the Baltic states, Russia and Mongolia. CroisiEurope is launching six- and eight-day cruises from Frankfurt, as well as a nine-day Amsterdam to Avignon cross-continent odyssey that links the North Sea with the Mediterranean.
France, however, is seeing the most river-cruise action. A few years ago, Tauck didn't operate there; in 2014 it will offer seven itineraries, including cruises themed for art and food lovers. Scenic Tours will introduce an 11-day Gems of the Seine round trip from Paris, with highlights including Monet's gardens at Giverny and the local castles, and the D-Day beaches of Normandy. Uniworld is sending the River Royale along the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers on an eight-day Bordeaux cruise. And Viking has a new eight-day program in Bordeaux and Aquitaine that covers wine regions such as Médoc, Sauternes and Margaux on the Viking Forseti, the first of its Longships deployed in France.
Europe is river-cruise central, but the trend is shifting worldwide. Uniworld has a new luxury 12-day Treasures of China cruise on the Yangtze. Orient-Express launched Orcaella on the Irrawaddy River in Burma in July, with seven- and 11-night cruises stopping at small towns not visited by its existing fleet. Pandaw launches two ships in Burma next year, while APT will operate Queen of the Mississippi through America's Deep South in 2014 for the first time, and has doubled departures on Zambezi Queen on Botswana's hippo-heavy Chobe River. There's never been a better time to go with the flow.