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Waterways to the world

After retiring from an evening spent on a sun deck drifting past Austria’s countryside, dotted with castles and cathedrals, you awake in Vienna. Life on a river cruise can be a beautiful thing. Whether traveling through Europe, China or Egypt, international river cruises marry the best of ocean cruises with motorcoach tours for an immersive destination experience on a floating hotel.

“Unlike ocean cruising, where you are miles offshore, with a riverboat cruise you are traveling through the heart of the destination,” said Tom Armstrong, corporate communications manager for Tauck World Discovery. “This facilitates more excursions. Even traveling through the area, you are more able to experience the destination than if you were five miles off shore.”

Tauck World Discovery and other tour operators have responded to the rise in popularity of international river cruises by launching new ships and new itineraries, such as Tauck’s two new riverboats constructed since 2008. The number of Americans taking a European river cruise increased by 143 percent between 2002 and 2006 as more travelers discovered the appealing nature of sitting back to see what lies just around the next river bend.

Carefree cruising

Vacationers on a river cruise can relax while the crew orchestrates all the details of the shore excursions, dining and travel logistics.

“People love the hassle-free approach that river cruises provide,” said Patrick Clark, managing director for Avalon Waterways. “You can hang up your clothes once, and for the rest of the cruise, you don’t have to worry about packing and unpacking.”

Avalon Waterways, a Globus brand that will unveil two new ships and more than 30 itineraries in 2010, develops river cruises in Europe, China, Egypt and the Galapagos Islands. Avalon and other river cruise tour operators try to ensure that most expenses are included in the initial price.

“In the current economic climate, what seems to be the biggest plus is the river cruises’ all-inclusiveness,” said Joost Ouendag, vice president of product marketing for Viking River Cruises, which launched an environmentally safe European ship in July. “You know how much you are going to spend in the planning phase of the trip, which is making it very successful.”

Left to right: Tauck River Cruising, Uniworld River Cruises, Viking River Cruises.

Shore excursions are also designed to be more intimate and convenient. Passengers see many of the same sights that they would on a motorcoach, but they are guided on walking tours by local experts who provide insight and commentary along the way.

“Another great thing about cruising is you can sail through the night, which is a plus, because we can cover the less interesting parts of the river at night,” said Ouendag. “We typically spend anywhere from a half-day to a full day in port. You walk off the ship and go on a guided walk or independent exploration.”

The world’s oldest cities often lie along the riverbanks, as these waterways were the main form of transportation for centuries. Many must-see cities, like Paris; Budapest, Hungary; and Cairo, Egypt, grew up around rivers.

“The cruises can often pull right into the heart of the city,” said Clark. “River cruising is a very visual experience. You get to see the culture and history of these cities.”

Even the onboard entertainment teaches more about the destination, with relevant lectures, local-cooking demonstrations and regional-craft-making sessions. For example, on a cruise through northern France, Viking River Cruises can arrange a lecture on impressionists inspired by the Seine River.

“We have much more low-key entertainment than you would find on a big ship,” said Ouendag. “When you go on a cruise of the Caribbean, the ship is the destination. We feel the destination should be the destination.”

See the Old World in a new way

On a typical day’s agenda, guests can pick from varied itineraries, with walks along castle ruins, tours of wineries or shopping excursions in picturesque villages.

“You’re eating dinner and seeing villages in France go by that are gorgeous,” said Arnelle Kendall, public relations director for the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, a tour operator with a new 2009 cruise in Egypt. “Swans float in the water, the hills are covered with lavender, and you see the different towns go by.”

Religion plays a significant role in European itineraries because of the many church steeples rising above the other buildings in many villages.

“There are a lot of religious elements in these tours,” said Kendall. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll visit a church in the town you go to. In Passau, Germany, they have an opportunity to hear a concert in one of the cathedrals. The music there is fantastic.”

Europe’s many navigable waterways allow visitors to choose their favorite scenery, such as the Rhine River’s medieval castles and terraced vineyards, the Seine River’s fine cuisine and famous art, and the Danube River’s diversity in Amsterdam and Budapest. Some river cruise operators offer extended trips across the Rhine and the Danube rivers for those wishing to explore both Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

“I think a lot of the differences between Western and Eastern Europe have to do with familiarity and cultural differences,” said Clark. “Western Europe is better known, because there has been a longer relationship and much more publicity. People find the Eastern European cultural differences much more dramatic, which makes exposures to these cultures more rewarding.”

Left to right: Avalon Waterways, Tauck River Cruising, Uniworld River Cruises.

Moving eastward on the water, the architecture and types of activities change; possible tours include the historic Dracula’s castle in Romania and belly-dancing demonstrations in Hungary. Viking River Cruises also offers Russian cruises to see not only the main tourist sites at Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also more rural communities that cannot easily be reached by road.

“Eastern Europe has more of a discovery element,” said Ouendag. “Western Europe has great infrastructure, and tourism is well developed. They are very international cities. People who are a little more adventurous might want to go on an Eastern European cruise, where less people speak English.”

Dragons and pyramids

Two other popular international river cruises travel in China and Egypt. Like those in other places in Eastern Europe, these cruises pass areas that are difficult to reach by any other mode of transportation. Cruisers will see some dramatic scenery along the way, like Egypt’s pyramids and deserts and China’s lush mountains and historic pagodas.

So visitors can experience China’s modern metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, most river cruises combine a three- to four-night cruise with a land-based portion. Along with seeing the most celebrated attractions, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the terra-cotta soldiers, passengers can also view the more mysterious rural side of China along the Yangtze River.

“The Yangtze has rising mountains surrounding it in Tibet,” said Kendall. “The Yangtze is the world’s third-longest river, almost 4,000 miles. It has very fertile land.”

Fishermen on bamboo rafts, mist-cloaked mountains and ancient temples built into steep cliffs are common sights for the Yangtze cruise as it passes through the sheer Three Gorges. The blend of remote countryside with bustling Beijing and Shanghai allows visitors to sample some of the old and some of the new China.

Egypt cruises also often combine a land-based portion along with a cruise of the Nile and sometimes Lake Nasser. Cruises often start out with Cairo’s iconic pyramids and end at Luxor’s temples, with intermittent stops at ancient architectural monuments led by Egyptologist guides. While passengers learn about mummies and pharaohs, the Nile’s scenery alternates between desert hills and the greener palm groves and plantations.

Remote scenery on river cruises through Egypt and other international destinations reveals a side of the destination not seen from the highway.
“The pace is much more leisurely than a motorcoach tour,” said Ouendag. “It is a beautiful way to travel. More than anything else though, you get to see places you would not be able to see any other way.”