Take me to the river­boat

In­sider tips on how to choose the best op­tions for care­free Euro­pean voy­ages

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - PETER NEED­HAM

1. PLAN­NING: River cruis­ing is leisurely and book­ing it should be sim­i­larly stress-free. Com­pare al­ter­na­tives care­fully and ask ques­tions be­fore you com­mit. Book about eight to 12 months ahead and you may ob­tain so­called early­bird dis­counts, which can rep­re­sent sub­stan­tial sav­ings. 2. Where to go: The Danube and Rhine are the most pop­u­lar Euro­pean rivers and of­fer high value be­cause your ves­sel is likely to dock close to the ac­tion. Other op­tions in­clude the Moselle, Rhone, Saone and Seine rivers in France, the Neva and Volga in Rus­sia and the Douro in Por­tu­gal. Cruise itin­er­ar­ies are not con­fined to river­side des­ti­na­tions; some in­volve sec­tors by coach or train to stay in cities such as Prague, Barcelona or Paris. Oth­ers form part of a larger es­corted Euro­pean hol­i­day. 3. Price: Costs fluc­tu­ate sea­son­ally and ac­cord­ing to deck and cabin. The pub­lished fig­ure may not tell the whole story. In­clu­sions are para­mount, flights be­ing an ob­vi­ous one. All-in­clu­sive cruises (with price cov­er­ing all meals and ac­com­pa­ny­ing wines, shore ex­cur­sions and sight­see­ing) can prove to be the best value. Check to see what ex­tras the price in­cludes: re­fresh­ments, tea and cof­fee, laun­dry or press­ing, in-cabin din­ing, tips to crew or guides, re­turn air­port trans­fers, in­ter­net ac­cess, port taxes or fuel sur­charges.

Shore ex­cur­sions are gen­er­ally cov­ered by the cruise price but longer daytrips may be op­tional and a sep­a­rate ex­pense. 4. Sea­sons: High sea­son ex­tends from mid-May to the end of Septem­ber, with cheaper cruises avail­able be­fore or af­ter those pe­ri­ods. The fast-grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Euro­pean river cruis­ing means high sea­son can be busy, par­tic­u­larly on pop­u­lar rivers at north­ern sum­mer’s peak. Later cruises have their own magic, though the weather is chancier. 5. Ac­com­mo­da­tion cat­e­gories: River ves­sels are un­likely to of­fer win­dow­less ‘‘ in­side cab­ins’’ but lo­ca­tion of your ac­com­mo­da­tion is still im­por­tant. Up­per decks of­fer bet­ter views and can be qui­eter. To find the size of your cabin and what it con­tains, down­load a guide from the rel­e­vant web­site or re­quest a deck plan. It will show where cab­ins are sit­u­ated (in re­la­tion to lifts, for in­stance).

If you want a cabin bal­cony, a plan will show you whether it of­fers enough space to sit. You may pre­fer to have the ex­tra space within the cabin with slid­ing doors that look di­rectly out. Rhine and Danube pas­sen­ger ves­sels are re­stricted to a max­i­mum width of 11.6m to fit through the RhineMain-Danube Canal. Ship de­sign­ers place two cab­ins across the width, one on ei­ther side of the boat, with a cor­ri­dor be­tween.

It’s also worth check­ing how big your win­dows will be: not all are full length. For views and pho­tog­ra­phy, the best place is usu­ally in the open air on the top deck. 6. Sight­see­ing: Brochures may men­tion ‘‘in­cluded sight­see­ing’’. Find out what that means. Will you be taken to the venue and left to pay en­trance fees or will you be es­corted in ahead of the queue, with fees pre­paid? Does the trip have a ded­i­cated cruise di­rec­tor, are lo­cal guides used, or a com­bi­na­tion of the two?

If you pre­fer to do your own sight­see­ing ashore, a hand-held GPS de­vice (or GPS smart­phone app) can help pre­vent get­ting lost. River cruise ves­sels sail ex­actly when they say and get­ting lost ashore is not dif­fi­cult. Koblenz, a city at the north­ern end of the Rhine Gorge, stands on an el­bow­shaped cor­ner be­tween two rivers, the Rhine and the Moselle. If you emerge on the Moselle side of the city, you may think your Rhine cruiser is close at hand, only to re­alise you are be­side the wrong river with five min­utes to go be­fore your boat sails. 7. At­mos­phere, com­pan­ions and din­ing: If the na­tion­al­ity of your fel­low cruis­ers is of concern, check whether they are likely to hail mainly from Aus­tralia and New Zealand, or from North Amer­ica, France, Bri­tain, Ger­many, or rep­re­sent a mix of na­tion­al­i­ties. En­sure the cruise is at­tuned to your in­ter­ests. Some in­volve a theme — say, wine, mu­sic or sea­sonal el­e­ments such as pre-Christ­mas fes­tiv­i­ties — while oth­ers of­fer fun op­tions such as cy­cling.

Check that the type of food served will suit you and ask whether din­ner is served at one or two sit­tings, and whether you’ll be re­stricted to group ta­bles or if you can make up your own ta­ble of two or more. Look for pub­lic ar­eas that are spacious and light-filled, with good views. 8. Down­stream or up­stream: Down­stream cruises are slightly smoother and river travel time is re­duced. Sea­soned river cruise buffs check the cour­ses of rivers in ad­vance, find out which side of the boat the af­ter­noon sun will shine on, and book the other side. You can then leave your cur­tains open and take bet­ter pho­tos or videos, with the sun be­hind you as you look out of the win­dow.

Us­ing that for­mula on the Rhine, the star­board ( right) is prefer­able when sail­ing down­stream and the port side ( left) when head­ing up­stream. The ad­van­tage is less pro­nounced on the Danube, which fol­lows a more west-east course. 9. The big ques­tion: River and canal widths keep river cruise ves­sels small com­pared to their seago­ing cousins. Most ves­sels carry be­tween 120 and 200 pas­sen­gers; smaller ca­pac­ity boats of­fer a more in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence. Lux­u­ri­ous smaller ves­sels cruise through Nor­mandy, Bur­gundy and Provence, for in­stance. Pas­sen­ger barges are smaller still. Barg­ing along Euro­pean rivers de­liv­ers a per­sonal, be­spoke ex­pe­ri­ence and can suit fam­i­lies.

Nar­row­boats of dis­tinc­tive de­sign chug around the canals of Eng­land and Wales. Crewed pas­sen­ger barges, graded from mod­er­ate through to lux­u­ri­ous, carry any­thing from four to 22 pas­sen­gers. High pas­sen­ger-tocrew ra­tio can mean ex­cep­tional ser­vice. 10. Age counts: Newer or older? Ask when the boat was launched. Ma­jor river-cruise op­er­a­tors reg­u­larly add new ves­sels to their fleets and some are fab­u­lous. The very lat­est, Avalon Wa­ter­ways’ deluxe ves­sel Panorama, was launched in Mainz, Ger­many, last week­end.

APT IM­AGES

There are many rivers to choose from in Europe, but it’s wise to book well in ad­vance and to avoid the high sea­son

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