River cruises are a great way to take in the sights of Europe. Caroline Gladstone looks at some of the year's best.
Australians have taken to European river cruising like ducks to water, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors in the travel industry. Passenger numbers have almost tripled, increasing from 11,760 river cruisers in 2007 to 27,645 in 2008. The 2009 figures, due out in March, will show another big jump, according to Brett Jardine of the International Cruise Council Australasia.
While the statistics represent all rivers in the world, Europe is the most popular destination, accounting for 90 per cent of travel. More than 50 sleek boats ply eight of Europe's rivers, cruising into the heart of cities and villages and past famous castles and cathedrals. By far the most popular itinerary is the 14-day Amsterdam to Budapest journey along the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers.
Fares include all meals, wine with dinner, daily shore excursions, transfers, port taxes and gratuities. This is what's happening this year.
A bigger fleet
The cruise and touring experts APT joined forces with European line AMA Waterways a few years ago, giving APT total control of product delivery.
It will launch the new 162-passenger Amabella in May, bringing the fleet to seven. Amabella has a sun deck with retractable roof, swimming pool and three lounges. Cabins have "indoor balconies" that can be closed off in bad weather, while twin-balcony cabins have an indoor balcony and a french one.
A greater choice of dining options will be offered - fine dining in the restaurant, casual dining in the rear lounge and alfresco dining on the sun deck, all with complimentary wines. Cabins have flat-screen televisions, computers with free internet, free room service and each passenger receives $100 to spend on board.
A trip to the famous Oberammergau Passion Play is included in a 19-day Magnificent Europe trip from Budapest to Amsterdam departing on September 22. Priced at $11,255 a person, twin share, it includes a 14-day cruise and three nights in Munich.
Free international air fares are offered for March departures of a 15-day Magnificent Europe cruise and the 21-day version of the same cruise (the latter has two nights in Asia and three nights in both Paris and Prague). See aptouring.com.au.
Avalon Waterways will launch two new 138-passenger ships this year, bringing its European fleet to 10. Avalon Felicity will make its debut in March; Avalon Luminary in July. Both vessels will cruise the Rhine on seven-day trips between Amsterdam and Basel, with prices from $2963 a person, twin share.
Also new this year is an eight-day Paris to the Normandy landings beaches cruise along the Seine. Highlights include the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent van Gogh spent the last months of his life, and seeing the Claude Monet garden at Giverny. The Normandy tour will depart from Rouen. Steve Liebmann will accompany the May 4 departure. Fares are from $3173 a person, twin share. Other deals include free flights to Europe when booking select 15-day Magnificent Europe cruises from Amsterdam to Budapest and free four-day city packages in London, Paris, Rome, Venice or Sorrento. See avalonwaterways.com.au.
The space race
Scenic Tours will launch a fifth ship next year. Known as "space ships", the vessels are roomy and have "real" balconies, rather than traditional french balconies. Free return flights to Europe are available when booking the October 11 sailing on the new 13-day Amsterdam to Basel cruise (until sold out). Priced at $5787 a person, twin share, the cruise includes a visit to Reichsburg Castle near Cochem, a walking tour of Luxembourg City and a tour of Baden-Baden.
Free air fares are also available (passengers pay taxes only) to join a March 8 departure of a 15-day Jewels of Europe cruise, from Amsterdam to Budapest, which features a private concert at the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna. The cruise starts at $8445 a person, twin share. See scenictours.com.au.
Rhine in springtime
Part of the stable of companies that includes Trafalgar Tours, Uniworld Cruises has 10 European riverboats. A new itinerary is the eight-day Springtime along the Rhine, exploring the canals and waterways of Holland and Germany. Priced from $2226 a person, twin share, the cruise includes a visit to Anne Frank's house and the Keukenhof Gardens, timed to coincide with the tulip season.
Uniworld has added new epicurean features to its popular Castles along the Rhine cruise, including wine tasting at the 14th-century Castle Vollrads, a black forest gateau cooking demonstration and a food and wine-matching dinner. The eight-day cruise starts from $2202 a person, twin share.
Uniworld has also extended its early booking discounts, ranging from $650 to $800 a couple, until the end of February. See uniworldcruises.com.au.
Sailing to Salzburg
Established by Torstein Hagen, who also founded the Royal Viking Line ocean cruise company, Viking River Cruises has 14 riverboats cruising this year. The new eight-day Danube Waltz, from Passau to Budapest (or reverse), includes a free side trip to the beautiful town of Salzburg, Austria.
Passengers booking any cruise by March 1 receive a $1250 discount each. Viking serves complimentary wines at dinner and allows passengers to bring their own wine on board. See vikingrivercruises.com.au.
Travel agency Cruise Express will escort two cruises in May that include tickets to an Andre Rieu concert in Vienna. The Heart of Europe package includes international flights, cruising from Amsterdam to Vienna, coach touring, hotels and the concert and is priced from $10,309 a person, twin share. Two-night packages to the Oberammergau Passion Play are priced from $1200 a person, twin share. See cruiseexpress.com.au.