The Rivers Run Deep – Along the world’s great wa­ter­ways, there are cur­rents of dis­cov­ery –history, life, maybe even your­self

Along the world’s great wa­ter­ways, there are cur­rents of dis­cov­ery – history, life, maybe even your­self

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Lark Gould

Gotta week? Have I got a river for you! Yes, you – who runs from meet­ing to meet­ing and city to city. You – who con­sid­ers din­ner at 8 to be an early night. And you – as you wake up at the early edge of dawn each day whether you have to or not. Rivers are their own mas­ters and when you are on a river cruise, you go where the river flows. Speed slows, time goes, and history blows by like a whis­per from an old friend. The phone is off, the show is on and you have noth­ing more to do than take it all in.

The world’s ap­petite for river cruis­ing is ris­ing rapidly: pas­sen­ger loads along the great rivers of the world jumped 25 per­cent from 2009 to 2014, ac­cord­ing to data from the Cruise Lines In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion.

And there is good rea­son for that. Un­like ocean cruis­ing, river cruis­ing is an easy hop-on-hop-off af­fair – a float­ing bou­tique ho­tel that docks each day in the cen­ter of a new city or along the banks of an ex­tremely scenic and his­toric spot. For pas­sen­gers, it’s like hub­bing in a well-lo­cated lux­ury res­i­dence where you can have all the free­doms of ur­ban wan­der­ings and all the ease of VIP tour­ing. You don’t have to make choices.You can have it all.

While river cruis­ing va­ca­tions are as wide and var­ied as the world’s great rivers: the Mekong and Ganges, the River Quai, the Yangtze in China to the Ama­zon in Brazil, Europe is par­tic­u­larly well suited to the task. Op­tions in­clude the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube, the Basel, the Loire, the Moselle, the Elbe, the Volga, the Garonne and the Seine.

The con­ti­nent was tamed along these leg­endary wa­ter­ways and visi­tors can take in the time lines – from fa­mous me­dieval cas­tles and to the great bat­tle spots of the last cen­tury’s world wars – in the time it takes to sip a sin­gle glass of Cham­pagne.

Wa­ter Un­der the Bridge

A re­cent river cruise through the wine re­gion of Bordeaux il­lus­trated just how easy it is to board a ves­sel and par­take in some of the finest no-has­sle din­ing and sip­ping to be had in all Europe.

I was tak­ing a seven-day cruise via Los An­ge­les-based Vik­ing River Cruises and its 190-pas­sen­ger lux­ury long­ship called the Forseti. Bordeaux, a com­pact city of some 250,000 peo­ple just three hours by TGV train from Paris, is easily ac­cessed through Bordeaux-Merignac Air­port – a mere 30 minute’s drive from city cen­ter.

The Forseti was docked on the Garonne River on the Quai des Chartrons where much Bordeaux life and leisure takes place. It’s a stone’s throw from there to the fab­u­lous shop­ping, din­ing and am­bling to be done along Rue St. Cather­ine and the Cathe­dral St. An­dré. In easy sight from our spot was the Pont de Pierre Bridge, built in 1819 by Napoleon (claim­ing 17 arches in cor­re­spon­dence with the num­ber of letters in his name) and now ablaze in the twi­light in a cer­tain glory rem­i­nis­cent of Paris’ Bridge of Alexan­der.

Be­cause of low wa­ter lev­els our ship had to spend an ex­tra day in Bordeaux, caus­ing no com­plaints from the pas­sen­gers. But such oc­cur­rences and prob­lems fac­ing the river cruise in­dus­try are not rare. Due to low wa­ter lev­els on some of Europe’s iconic rivers like the Danube and Elbe, a num­ber of cruise lines have had to al­ter and even can­cel their river cruises in the re­cent sum­mer weeks.

Vik­ing can­celed two Elbe River, Prague to Ber­lin cruises this sum­mer, and has al­tered the itin­er­ar­ies on a num­ber of oth­ers. Uni­world and Avalon Wa­ter­ways, too, have not been spared of these crit­i­cal de­ci­sions. Cli­mate change is a fact of life for river cruise com­pa­nies and the plagues of na­ture may in­crease the preva­lence of both droughts and flood­ing along these cur­rents in years to come.

For our trip, an added day in Bordeaux was the per­fect prob­lem – a day to catch up to our new en­vi­rons, see the city and pre­pare for the treats ahead. The next night we pushed on to Li­bourne and the monastery wine and mac­aron stead of Saint Emil­ion; from there it was the UNESCO World Her­itage town of Blaye and then the Mé­doc gate­way of Pouil­lac.

Each place proved to be a small trea­sure of Ro­man fortress ru­ins (and some dark Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion re­minders), 16th cen­tury cas­tles, stand­ing em­blems of the grand Belle Époche, or­nate town squares where lo­cal mar­kets con­tinue to bring life and cul­ture to sleepy river out­posts. And ev­ery­where, just be­yond the nouveau ur­ban spread, the ge­om­e­try of grape fields and the vi­sion of stately chateaux.

We sailed slowly, through re­gions of Sauternes, Caber­nets and the great grapes of Mar­gaux. We ex­plored ru­ins that were once the wan­der­ing grounds for Eleanor of Aquitaine. We passed es­tates with names like Roth­schild and Ca­mus. At a mod­est farm in Perig­ord, we dug freely in fer­tile grounds for the elu­sive black truf­fle. Here with the help of a truf­fle-sniff­ing dog named Farah, we un­earthed wal­nut-sized nuggets that would fetch some por­tion of the $1200 per pound these items get in US mar­kets.

We ended the hunt with fresh bread smeared with truf­fle but­ter, with bowls of risotto doused with the gleam­ing black flakes – and then farm-churned ice cream cov­ered with tu­ber bru­male. We downed foie gras by the bowl­ful, Ara­chon oys­ters by the bucket, es­car­got, mus­sels and per­fect cheeses by the plate­ful in a ver­i­ta­ble orgy of tex­tures and tastes.

We made our own co­gnac at a 17th-cen­tury chateau – in Co­gnac. We shucked oys­ters in Ara­chon Bay. We joined our French ship chef in cre­at­ing foie gras brulées and home made mac­arons.

And all the while, we drank wine – from lo­cal Bordeaux vine­yards to Grand Cru Mar­gaux es­tates in end­less pour­ings and pair­ings that showed no pa­tience for the word“non!”

Go with the Flow

This year, the North Amer­i­can river cruise mar­ket will reach some half mil­lion pas­sen­gers in Europe. Vik­ing is send­ing off 12 new ves­sels through the wa­ter­ways of Europe this year on top of the record-break­ing 18 ves­sels it launched last year, which fol­lowed 10 launched in 2013 and six in 2012.

Ama Wa­ter­ways will carry some 82,000 pas­sen­gers (51,000 of them from North Amer­ica) on its fleet of 17 ves­sels in Europe this year. Uni­world Bou­tique River Cruise Col­lec­tion has 13 ships in Europe; for Avalon Wa­ter­ways it is 15 ships sail­ing in Europe this year. Other cruise lines to watch are Tauck, Avalon, Grand Cir­cle and CroisiEurope, and some new­com­ers, such as renowned Van­tage Deluxe World Travel.

Then, there are the ocean cruise com­pa­nies edg­ing into the river cruis­ing mar­ket. Crys­tal Cruises, long at the top of the lux­ury pyra­mid in ocean-go­ing ven­tures, is about to launch Crys­tal River Cruises with a col­lec­tion of all-suite ‘RiverYacht Class’ ves­sels to de­ploy in Europe start­ing March 2017.

Scenic Cruises just launched the 169-pas­sen­ger Scenic Jasper for sail­ings be­tween Am­s­ter­dam and Bu­dapest. The all-in­clu­sive river cruise com­pany of­fers a va­ri­ety of din­ing op­tions and tour op­tions on its many itin­er­ar­ies through­out Europe that are part and par­cel of the one price paid, in­clud­ing gra­tu­ities as well. The tony river cruise ex­pe­ri­ence also in­cludes a chef’s ta­ble six-course, wine-paired de­gus­ta­tion in the mix.

“You have seen a lot of news about new ships be­ing launched and lots of talk about how there are too many ships. There is enough de­mand for this and you are also see­ing a gen­eral

pro­gres­sion from ocean cruis­ing to river cruis­ing as guests ac­cus­tomed to lux­ury cruis­ing find you can also have that ex­pe­ri­ence on a river,” says Anna Wolf­steiner, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for in­ter­na­tional sales and dis­tri­bu­tion at Scenic Cruises in Europe.

“There is a belief out there that river cruis­ing is re­ally for older cruis­ers. But that is fad­ing away with the new prod­uct avail­able. In the last five years alone river cruis­ing de­vel­oped more than it has in the past 30 years be­cause you have the ships de­signed for mul­ti­ple din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, the new GPS tour­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and the abil­ity to bring mo­tor­ized bi­cy­cles along on these itin­er­ar­ies. Ev­ery­thing you add cre­ates a dif­fer­ent look and feel. So you are not stuck with an old fash­ioned prod­uct or and old-fash­ioned ex­pe­ri­ence.”

And while it is ro­man­tic enough to be float­ing from Lyon to Avi­gnon sam­pling French wines and imag­in­ing the light and shad­ows seen by Cezanne along the banks, win­ter can be a par­tic­u­larly poignant time to dock along the Main River in Ger­many or the Danube through Aus­tria and drink hot mulled wines at fa­mous Christ­mas mar­kets along the way, all aglow in the snow.

Themed cruises, too, such as trips fo­cused on wine or Mozart or the food of South­ern Italy, crop up con­tin­u­ously and of­fer good rea­sons to book with friends or fam­ily.

Cur­rent Af­fairs

River cruises, like their ocean-go­ing coun­ter­parts, can be pricey, how­ever. And though some are all-in­clu­sive or semi-in­clu­sive, not all lines are alike in what they do in­clude. Some com­pa­nies, such as Scenic, will in­clude 24/7 spir­its, land ex­cur­sions – even gra­tu­ities (fares also in­clude six din­ing venues, WiFi, air­port trans­fers), while oth­ers might charge ex­tra for those ser­vices. Some will charge for a spe­cial Chef’s Ta­ble de­gus­ta­tion while oth­ers will in­clude it as a pre­mium part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Some lines will charge for cof­fee and Coke.

At Vik­ing, wine is served with lunch and din­ner but for those who like their cock­tails at 4:00 p.m., a sep­a­rate li­ba­tion pack­age can be pur­chased. Com­pli­men­tary cof­fee, tea and min­eral wa­ter are avail­able at all hours on a Vik­ing cruise (as are in­cred­i­ble white cho­co­late chip cook­ies). City tours come with the tar­iff; how­ever, spe­cial­ized tour ex­pe­ri­ences do not and range from $70 to $180 per per­son in­clud­ing great guides – usu­ally Amer­i­can ex­pats well-stud­ied in the his­to­ries of their adopted homes.

Most of the long­boats used for these rivers of­fer small cab­ins of 250 square feet (grand suites run around 500 square feet). Rooms with bal­conies are given a slid­ing glass win­dow or, as is the case with Scenic, a spe­cial glassed-in so­lar­ium that can be opened to the wind or re­main a sunny, but en­closed, ad­di­tion to the room. The top deck brings great vis­tas, of­ten a run­ning or walk­ing course, maybe a puny putting green or even a small pool (as pro­moted on the Scenic Jasper). The tier is open for din­ing, loung­ing and smok­ing as well. The in­te­ri­ors of these ships and their cabin spa­ces are gen­er­ally non-smok­ing.

A sec­ond tier of­fers cabin cor­ri­dors, a small li­brary (and some­times free com­put­ers and WiFi), and a cock­tail-en­ter­tain­ment an­nounce­ment lounge with a for­ward al fresco din­ing deck where pas­sen­gers can swap sto­ries about their on­shore for­ays.

A lower tier has a room cor­ri­dor lead­ing to the lobby and then the grand din­ing hall be­yond.

Wel­comed cabin ameni­ties high­lighted on the re­cent Vik­ing cruise in­cluded Aveda bath prod­ucts, twice daily towel changes and cabin ser­vice, sparkling wine, daily treats from the kitchen, a room-based cli­mate con­trol panel and heated bath­room floors. A tele­vi­sion brought streams from the BBC plus a rea­son­able se­lec­tion of name films. For­get Net­flix, how­ever. WiFi, though com­pli­men­tary, is weak at all hours.

Most river cruise com­pa­nies run last minute spe­cials. Ama Wa­ter­ways, for in­stance, is drop­ping state­room rates on wine tours in Novem­ber on sev­eral routes in Europe. Avalon Wa­ter­ways, a Globus com­pany, is run­ning deals slash­ing up to $3000 per cou­ple off “soon-sail­ing” itin­er­ar­ies.

For busi­ness trav­el­ers who may need to be able to take ad­van­tage of lo­ca­tions with quick-hit­ting va­ca­tion de­ci­sions, tak­ing a river cruise through Europe may be the quick­est way of get­ting on that slow boat back to self and mind­ful re­ju­ve­na­tion – and re­dis­cov­er­ing the joy of travel. BT

Im­ages: Vik­ing River Cruises

Op­po­site page: Uni­world Bou­tique River Cruise, Ama Wa­ter­ways

This page: Crys­tal River Cruises (artist con­cept), Avalon Wa­ter­ways, Scenic Cruises

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