While still much smaller than ocean cruising in terms of passengers carried, river cruising and other specialty cruise options are among the travel industry’s fastest-growing and highest-profile sectors. There are river cruises offered all over the world, on a diverse array of vessels including steamboats, barges and Chinese junks. Mainstream river cruise ships are long, lean wonders, carrying far fewer passengers than ocean-going cruise ships.
The newest models floating down the rivers of Europe, China and Egypt offer spacious staterooms, expanded facilities and often balconies offering ever-changing views as the banks slide by. River cruise ships can often dock downtown in riverside cities, so guests can easily explore on foot or ship-supplied bicycle. River cruising is generally sold on a more inclusive basis than mainstream ocean cruising, with most shore excursions included in the fare, and often wine with meals.
Specialty cruising covers a broad range of smaller-ship cruise choices from casual Caribbean sailing to adventures from the Arctic to the Antarctic, the Galapagos islands to the Great Lakes. The ships you’ll sail on are almost as interesting as the destinations, from tall sailing ships to converted icebreakers. We’ll look at a few examples to give you an idea of the wonderful experiences available –you can take it from there.
River Cruise Lines: A Breakdown
It calls itself the world’s leading river cruise line, operating a fleet of more than 20 ships in diverse destinations including Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, Egypt and China. With river cruising, there’s always something to see on both sides of the ship, so panoramic windows, sun decks and promenades are prominent design features. As with most major river cruise operators, guided shore excursions in each port are part of the cruise fare.
- 21 ships, averaging 150 passenger capacity
- New Viking Legend is state-of-the-art
- Viking Century Sun is a river giant – six decks and 300+ passenger capacity, sails in China
- Most ships cater to English-speaking market, 55+ is average age
- In China, cruise tours combine land and water stays
Uniworld River Cruises
Uniworld was one of the first river cruise lines to cater to North American tastes, with its cuisine, ambience and English-speaking crew. It features eight ships in Europe, jointly owns another in China and charters ships in Egypt. This month, Uniworld aims to raise the bar on Nile cruising with the brand-new River Tosca, featuring 42 suites all with French balconies.
- All outside staterooms, 132-140 passenger ships
- Dining focuses on the products of local ports, wine with dinner
- Fully hosted shore excursions included in fare
- Epicurean Adventurer Program targets food and wine lovers on specific itineraries
- 500 annual sailings with stops in 20 different countries
Founded just five years ago, Avalon has grown quickly and now boasts a fleet of eight ships. They are adding two more next year. The line’s newest ships feature an innovative design that puts the bridge at the stern of the ship, making for a quieter ride for passengers and enabling the lounge and restaurant to offer panoramic views on both sides of the river.
- Main focus is Europe; also charters ships in Egypt, China, Galapagos
- Geared toward North Americans, many 50+ passengers
- Relaxed, intimate, hassle-free environment
- European fleet carries between 138 and 178 passengers
- Fare includes shore excursions and wine with dinner
Another recent entrant to the fast-growing river cruise segment, Scenic features four new vessels described as ‘space-ships,’ because at 135 yards, they offer about 25% more public space than most European river ships. Private balcony suites are another distinguishing feature (the stateroom is a little smaller to make room for the balconies) . Scenic guests can begin or end their trip with a multi-night hotel stay including sightseeing, before the ship is even boarded.
- Private butler service in some suite categories
- European wines served with lunch or dinner
- All sightseeing, onboard activities, gratuities included
- Docking in heart of towns & cities, free use of bicycles
- Restaurant can accommodate all passengers, open seating
Founded by a veteran of other European river cruise operators, AMAWaterways has grown quickly and earn a solid reputation for fun, casual, yet upscale cruising. Regional cuisine using local ingredients is a specialty, accompanied by local wines. Passengers tend to be English-speaking North Americans, Australians and Europeans.
- Four European rivers form base of most itineraries: Rhine, Danube, Moselle and Main
- Strong cultural focus, unique shore excursions
- Founded in 2002, will boast eight ships by end of next year
- Leases ships in France, Spain, Portugal, Russia & Vietnam
- Cabins feature flat-screen TVs with Internet access
Specialty Cruise Lines: A Breakdown
Windstar Cruises stands out because it offers something unique: an ultra-casual yet pampered experience aboard sleek masted sailing ships with computer-controlled sails. On a Windstar ship you can do what you want, when you want, with no line-ups, few organized activities and little focus on entertainment. The fleet is among the oldest at sea, but millions have been spent to keep facilities up to date.
- Three sailing ships carrying 148-312 guests
- No charge for alternative dining
- Water sports platform on each ship offering complimentary snorkeling, paddleboats, windsurfing, even water-skiing
- Unique itineraries featuring intimate ports of call in the Mediterranean, Greek Isles, Caribbean and Costa Rica/Panama Canal
- Appeals to active, well-educated travellers of all ages
- Liquor and gratuities not included
Lindblad doesn’t offer cruises, it takes passengers on expeditions. With a fleet of seven ships carrying as few as 48 passengers, the line travels the world in search of the wonders of nature. Lindblad teamed with National Geographic five years ago, and now each of its ships carries the National Geographic name. The relationship results in an enriching onboard experienced led by National Geographic’s scientists, naturalists and oceanographers.
- Lindblad name is synonymous with adventure travel
- Guests get close to nature on Zodiacs and kayaks
Photo credits: vikingrivercruises.com, uniworld.com, avalonwaterways.com, scenictours.com, amawaterways.com, windstarcruises.com, expeditions.com