28 January 2014

River-cruise shore excursions become ever more varied

Changes are afoot on established river-cruise routes, with many companies setting out to attract younger passengers with themed cruises, varied shore excursions and unescorted, individualised options that range from hot-air balloon rides to foreign language classes.
Fields of tulips in the Netherlands.
Photo: Viking River Cruises
VARIATIONS ON A THEME Many cruises are now themed on such topics as music, art, the Dutch tulip season and Christmas markets; this year, Avalon introduces cruises that focus on beer tasting, golf, wellness and World War II history. Scenic Tours’ themed cruises include Christmas markets in Germany, and the tulip season in Holland and Belgium.
FAMILY FUN Captain Rivers predicts that the next few years will see more multi-generational passengers and even families on river cruises, with all-inclusive packages and price reductions for children similar to those seen on ocean cruises. Uniworld and Tauck lead the way with itineraries suitable for children, unheard of five years ago. A couple of years ago, Uniworld launched a Paris and Normandy cruise, as well as a journey from Cologne to Prague, aimed squarely at the family market, with child-friendly programs that include bike excursions, visits to toy museums, dessert-making sessions and behind-the-scenes tours of the ship. Tauck River Cruises has a Danube cruise aimed at families that includes scavenger hunts in Bratislava, a visit to the Prater amusement park in Vienna and a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg. Its latest ships even have Nintendo Wii at the bar.
Burg Namedy castle on the Rhine in Germany.
Photo: APT
CHOICES, CHOICES Even on regular cruises, more discerning shore excursions are offered, reflecting river cruising’s increasingly younger and more adventurous clientele. For example, Uniworld’s ‘Exclusive Epicurean Adventurer’ option lets food lovers delve into local culinary traditions with cooking demonstrations and private wine tastings. Scenic’s ‘FreeChoice’ experiences might see you attend a Pustza horse show in Hungary or tour an underground lake near Vienna. And AmaWaterways (APT) is launching ‘Royal Experiences’ in 2014 with the promise of private opera recitals, palace cocktail receptions and Michelin-star dinners.
Passengers heading off on a cycle tour.
Photo: Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
GO YOUR OWN WAY Passengers are increasingly doing it for themselves, too. Uniworld’s ‘Go Active’ program provides bicycles and Nordic walking sticks to passengers keen to set their own pace. AmaWaterways’ (APT's) new AmaSonata and AmaReina carry electronic bicycles so the energetic can freewheel along riverside paths. Some of Scenic’s ships also carry bicycles, allowing guests to pedal riverside paths. Meanwhile, Scenic has just unveiled ‘Tailormade’ GPS guides allowing guests to conduct their own tours: a witch tour of Würzburg, Rembrandt walk through Amsterdam, or cycle through the lavender fields of Provence. In short, whatever floats your boat.

Have you noticed any changes in shore excursions, or care to add something of interest? If so, why not leave a comment. Our readers appreciate your feedback.

24 January 2014

What’s new in river cruising beyond Europe?

Early morning balloon ride over Bagan in Myanmar.
Photo: Orient-Express
Europe might be river-cruise central, but the trend is shifting worldwide. In Asia, the Ganges is the new frontier to watch: I reckon you can expect some interesting offers there shortly. The Yangtze is well established, the Irrawaddy and Mekong showing strong growth. Many leading companies already operate on these three rivers, and CroisiEurope has new vessels on the Mekong and Irrawaddy in 2014, its first foray into Asia. Orient-Express launched Orcaella on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar in last July, with seven- and 11-night cruises stopping at smaller towns not visited by its existing fleet. Pandaw launches another ship in Myanmar this year (it was to be two, but one sank off the Malaysian coast while being towed to Myanmar for deployment).
Uniworld is offering a new 12-day ‘Treasures of China’ itinerary which, in common with most Yangtze cruises, includes land tours to Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an.
Zambezi Queen on the Zambezi River, Botswana.
Photo: APT
The Americas has a relatively modest river-cruises presence, but it has many interesting itineraries on the Mississippi, Columbia and Snake rivers. AmaWaterways (APT) begins operations with the Queen of the Mississippi in 2014 with three itineraries, such as a 13-day cruise from New Orleans to Nashville.
Also new in 2014 is Avalon’s three-night Amazon cruise on board the 16-suite Aria, part of an 11-day Peruvian adventure that also takes in Cusco and Machu Picchu. And AmaWaterways (APT) has more than doubled departures in Botswana on Zambezi Queen, which sails through Chobe National Park on a three-day safari (part of longer land tour) that allows passengers to spot hippos, elephants and lions.
Stay tuned: we’ll be posting about what’s new in shore excursions very shortly.

Have we missed something new beyond Europe? If so, why not leave a comment and let us know. Our readers appreciate your feedback, and we strive to be up-to-date and accurate.

19 January 2014


Walking in the snow on Mt Rigi
in Switzerland.
Photo:Zentralschweiz Tourismus
It could well be that the sound of creaking snow means nothing to you. To me it’s one of the most delightful of travel sounds: the squeaky, creaky noise produced when walking in boots along a path of relatively compact snow. (God knows, the Inuit probably have a word for it.) I was quite delighted when I read Memory to discover that Nabokov had a similar fondness for this sound when he recalled his childhood in Russia.
I’m sure everyone has their own favourite travel sounds, and I’d be glad to hear them, so please add your comments below. So it mystifies me when I see passengers on river cruises with their earplugs in, listening to music on their iPods. Why would they cut themselves off from the foreignness of sounds? They wouldn’t wander about with blindfolds on, yet are quite prepared to deny themselves another of the five senses.
Music, as everyone has experienced, can transport us instantly back to a certain time and place, demonstrating a remarkable connection between the ear and memory. Talking of Russia, the composer Stravinsky recalled the sounds of his youth in St Petersburg: the calls of street vendors, church bells, cartwheels on cobblestones and even that susurration of sound just before the curtain goes up in a theatre.
A giraffe munching on acacia leaves.
Photo: South African Tourism
Different people have different brains, of course: some are visual, some factual, some auditory. The English poet Alfred Tennyson obviously had a good ear. One of my favourite sound descriptions might be from a Tennyson poem: “The moan of doves in immemorial elms / And murmuring of innumerable bees”, which sounds like just the thing it describes.
For ordinary travellers, it’s just about pinning back our ears and having a good listen. I’ll never forget the street cries of the ice-cream sellers in the towns along the Yangtze River in China: “Wa! Wa! Bingjilin!Or the ding-ding and rattle of trams in cities from Vienna to Prague that seems so quinessentially central European. Or that ripping noise as giraffes yank acacia leaves from a tree with their big blue tongues, something I heard while in Botswana (where yes, you can do a river cruise).
A flock of cockatoos
in the Australian outback.
Photo: Destination NSW
Another rather unusual river-cruise destination is the Murray in Australia – incidentally, the world’s second-longest navigable river after the Mississippi. Nothing is more wonderfully Australian to me than a screech of cockatoos against a blue country sky.
Sounds are everywhere and just as culturally diverse – and as specific to a place – as sights or food or language. So when I’m on a river cruise or a shore excursion, my ears are always flapping in the breeze, waiting for the crunch of boots in snow.

We’d love to hear what your favourite travel sounds are, so why not leave a comment and join the conversation?

15 January 2014

CRUISE NEWS: New Scenic itineraries for 2014

Scenic Tours isn’t only launching new ships and investing $10 million in overhauling existing ones in 2014, but is also unrolling three new itineraries this year.
Honfleur in northern France.
Photo: Scenic Tours
Gems of the Seine The Seine’s river-banks are lined by the landscapes familiar from impressionist paintings, as well as medieval towns and picturesque ports. This new 11-day round trip cruise from Paris includes the port of Honfleur, Les Andelys, Rouen, Caudebec-en-Caux, Vernon and Conflans. Guests will visit the D-day beaches, Monet’s gardens at Giverny and the ruins of Richard the Lionheart’s château; and experience a Scenic Enrich event at the sixteenth-century Château-de-Champlâtreux.
Treasures of Europe’s Waterways This 19-day river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam extends the ‘Jewels of Europe’ river cruise. Guests visit the historic Slovakian capital, Bratislava and witness a traditional wedding presentation, and also visit Hoorn, Edam and Düsseldorf. Experiences include discovering the Vienna Woods and the Seegrotte underground cave museum, and a guided hike to twelfth-century Wertheim Castle.

Bran Castle in Romania, once home to Count Dracula.
Photo: Scenic Tours
Munich and Passau to the Danube Delta A 20-day cruise from Passau to the shores of the Black Sea, which includes Mile Zero, the point where the Danube empties into the Black Sea. It also passes through the passage of Saint George and the World Heritage-listed Danube Delta. It includes Belgrade, Pecs, Osijek, Arbanassi, Tulcea and Bucharest. Guests experience dinner with a Croatian family, and choices ranging from visiting the Dachau concentration camps to cycling through Osijek and discovering the home of Count Dracula.

For more: Scenic Cruises (or Scenic Tours in Australia).

Have you been to these areas, or experience a Scenic cruise already? Why not leave your comments and impressions for other readers.