The Cruise Director: river cruising Europe

This year 26 new river ships have been launched to cruise Europe's waterways - a pretty mind-boggling statistic. But wait, there's more. Next year we can expect another bumper collection, including at least another 14 Longships from Viking.

Although some older ships are retired as newer ones come on line, these big numbers tend to conjure up images of river traffic jams, picturesque villages being overwhelmed by shiploads of tourists and ships across the very breadth of the much-travelled Danube.

Should we be worried? Probably not, according to various reports, because no one wants to kill the golden goose by overcrowding and the problems that come with that.

Looking at the issue of ships docking alongside each other, it does happen in busier ports but usually no more than two or three are rafted up together, overnight. Avalon Waterways says the maximum number permitted to raft together is three.

Uniworld's website explains it as follows: "The assignment of the exact berthing is up to the harbour authorities of the port of call, and neither Uniworld nor the captain of the ship has any control or influence over this."

Busier ports also mean ships can't necessarily dock right in the centre of towns, in which case you're bussed to the destinations - but this can happen if there's a problem with water levels or locks and is the norm for shore excursions that are any distance from the city or town anyway.

However, cruise lines are looking at other places to dock, which would increase the tour opportunities for passengers - the only problem is that it takes a lot more time to build a new dock than a new ship, so existing docks in less-visited villages and towns that can be upgraded would be favoured. Staggered departures are more common, so similar itineraries now depart on different days of the week to avoid too many ships arriving at one place at the same time.

Another option, of course, is to choose a river cruise in France, Spain, Italy or Portugal, where fewer cruises operate, although the scene in France is definitely heating up. All the major cruise lines now have itineraries on the Seine, Rhone, Saone and the rivers that run through the Bordeaux wine districts - the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne.

Most lines offer cruises on the Douro in Portugal and Spain, and Uniworld and Croisi-Europe offer a few on Italy's Po river, focusing on Venice. All of which sound extremely attractive.

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sally.macmillan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Shipshape

COMPAGNIE DU PONANT: LE PONANT

LAUNCHED: 1991; the three-masted sail-cruise ship is the French cruise line's first vessel.

PASSENGERS & CREW: 64 passengers, 32 crew.

ACCOMMODATION: The ship's 32 cabins all have portholes, minibar, en suite bathrooms and twin beds that convert to doubles.

REGULAR HAUNTS: Mediterranean, Caribbean, Senegal (West Africa).

PERFECT FOR: Honeymooners, couples and singles 30-plus who enjoy French food and a relaxed lifestyle.

DINING: Continental breakfast is served in your cabin or at a buffet in the outdoor Panoramic restaurant; lunch is also served in the outdoor restaurant, buffet style; and dinner is served in the Karukera Restaurant. Wines are included at lunch and dinner and you can expect good coffee and excellent cheeses.

PARTYING: There is a full-service bar and cosy piano lounge but Le Ponant is more about enjoying life at sea and visiting small ports than bar-hopping and lavish entertainment.

DOING: The ship has an aft marina platform for swimming and equipment for various water sports, including windsurfing, waterskiing, scuba-diving and snorkelling. There is a small library and boutique on board.

DID YOU KNOW? Le Ponant has three sister ships that are virtually identical to each other (but not to Le Ponant) - L'Austral, Le Boreal and Le Soleal. The fourth ship in the series, Le Lyrial, is due to launch next April.

THE DETAILS: A seven-night round trip from Nice, France, visiting Calvi, Porto and Ajaccio in Corsica, and Portoferraio in Italy, departs on October 18; from $3226. For those who love being at sea a 10-night repositioning cruise (no stops) from Marseille to Cape Verde, departing November 15, starts at $2000. Phone 1300 737 178, see ponant.com.

Deals

OFFER OF THE WEEK

Save up to $3000 a couple on Cruise Express' new luxury 15-day fly/stay/cruise package to the three northern European "lands" of Finland, Iceland and Greenland. Leaving Australia on August 10, 2014, passengers stay overnight in Helsinki, Finland, fly to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a night then board Silversea's Silver Cloud for a 10-night round-trip taking in Iceland and Greenland. From $8999, for a limited period. To book, phone 1300 764 509 or see cruiseexpress.com.au.

OTHER DEALS

ACTIVE TRAVEL is offering a two- for-the-price-of-one deal on a five-night Mekong River cruise on the 14-cabin RV Toum Tiou II, departing Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for Saigon, Vietnam, on October 3, 2014. Fares start at $US1655, valid until sold out. Phone 1300 783 188, see activetravel.com.au

UNIWORLD has halved the price of its 29-Day Grand European River Voyage from Amsterdam to Istanbul, on selected departures in May, July, September and October 2015. The cruise on luxury vessel River Duchess includes 38 shore excursions, unlimited beverages and transfers. From $9249. Phone 02 9028 5199, see uniworldcruises.com.au.

Tip

When you are flying to the other side of the world to join a cruise, it is a sensible move to book at least one night's accommodation in the departure port city.

You will have a chance to recover from the flight and do a bit of sightseeing, and it also gives you some leeway if there are any delays (no one can foresee volcanic ash, floods and strikes) or luggage has gone astray.

Ask your travel agent for recommendations, or book accommodation through one of the many online sites: trivago.com.au, expedia.com or wotif.com.

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