20 March 2014

Cruise News: Viking launches new ships

Viking staff at the christening of
three new Viking ships in
Avignon, France
Captain Rivers and his merry crew were invited to the launch of three of Viking River Cruises’ new ships yesterday in Avignon in the south of France. After a misty, cool morning, the sun broke out just in time for the official launch ceremony on the sundeck of the ships Viking Heimdal, Viking Hermod and Viking Buri, all of which are in Viking’s Longship class.

The godmothers were mostly connected to the company’s bankers and shipbuilders, but French chanteuse Mireille Mathieu and noted British wine expert and TV personality Susie Barrie also splashed champagne across the bows after reciting the traditional ship’s blessing.

Viking's chairman Torstein Hagen
(centre)  accepts a plaque from
Guinness World Records
A video link allowed us to see the simultaneous launch of four news ships in Rostock in northern Germany. With nine others hitting the water in Amsterdam, that makes 16 new ships launched in a day. Viking broke its own Guinness World Record from last year (10 ships), a fact acknowledged later in the evening with the presentation of a plaque from a Guinness adjudicator, who was rather brilliantly named Fortuna.

Viking staff with a ready welcome
at the Pont du Gard, France
After the on board launch, we set off to the Pont du Gard, a World Heritage site about a 30-minute drive outside Avignon. The famous Roman-era three-tiered aqueduct was the perfect backdrop for a very impressive celebration that started from the moment we were greeted by Viking staff lining a red carpet and bearing trays of champagne flutes and canapés.

Legendary French singer
Mireille Mathieu performing
at Viking's gala celebration
After strolling onto the aqueduct – which looked rather fine in the setting sun, as its limestone glowed orange – we sat down to an extravagant five-course meal and between-course entertainment. Captain Rivers admits he was somewhat overcome when Mireille Mathieu took the stage to perform. While the fabled chanteuse is now getting on a bit and her voice isn’t quite as sensational as it used to be, to hear La vie en rose and Je ne regrette rien sung by this French legend almost brought a tear to our rugged Captain’s eye.

Spectacular closing light-and-sound
show at the Pont du Gard
Quite an amazing night from an amazing company that started just 17 years ago and is now the world’s largest river-cruise company. And it ended in equally sensational fashion with a brilliant sound-and-light show on the Pont du Gard worthy of the Romans themselves.

14 March 2014

RIVER REVIEW: Douro, Portugal

A ship cruises through the wine country of the mid-Douro.
Photo: Turismo de Portugal
The ancient Romans knew a lovely location when they saw one. Two thousand years ago they found a delightful spot on the Douro River, founded Porto and planted vines. Their town eventually gave its name to the wine produced here (port) and a new country, Portugal. Today, Portugal’s second-largest city isn’t just the starting point for a river cruise along the Douro, but a worthy destination itself.
Porto’s gabled houses perch on a rocky gorge above the river mouth, creating a World Heritage, medieval old town. Ocean and river trade funded many a fine library, museum and art treasure over the centuries, and Porto’s churches are overflowing with gold from the Americas. Today, locals sit in ancient squares licking ice cream, old ladies water geraniums in blue-tiled patios, and young people congregate in cafés along the waterfront. Stay for a couple of days prior to cruising; Porto has an excellent range of hotels.
View over Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia
Photo: Small Luxury Hotels of the World
Passengers board their cruise vessels at Vila Nova de Gaia just across the river from Porto. The impressive iron bridge across the water was designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel, and is one of six impressive bridges. It’s on this far bank that city’s famous wine lodges are located, many of which are open for tastings and tours. Port has arrived here from all along the Douro Valley, to be aged and blended, since the seventeenth century.
Because of the Douro’s short navigable length – just 200 kilometres to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border – cruises make a return journey to Porto, stopping at some sights on the outward leg, others on the return. Despite its petite size, the river packs in natural beauty and cultural attractions. Castles brood from the heights, and ancient farms cling to the steep slopes as if about to tumble into the valley. Framing the river, an endless series of stone terraces supports vines, almond trees and silvery olives.
View from the Sanctuary of Our Lady
 of Remedies in Lamego. Photo: Turismo de Portugal
Among the shore excursions, Lamego is an old bishopric with a splendid array of baroque buildings and an eleventh-century castle. Streets are crammed with bell towers and dripping fountains, while leering gargoyles hold balconies up on their shoulders. The town, topped by the ornate Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies, is an important place of pilgrimage.
Another of the river’s highlights is Mateus Palace, whose impressive baroque façade is reflected in ponds. The palace gardens are shaded by giant cypress trees, and surrounding vineyards produce Mateus wine, one of Portugal’s most famous labels.
View over the Douro Valley near Lamego.
Photo: Turismo de Portugal
As you glide past Pinhão, you’re in the heart of winemaking country on a stretch of riverbank generally considered to have the best of soil and climate conditions in the region. The riversides look particularly wonderful in September, when the leaves of the vines turn orange and gold. River cruises stop off at the Vintage House Wine Academy so that passengers can learn more about the history of port and taste a drop or two.
Nearby is the medieval hilltop village of Castelo Rodrigo, surrounded by almond trees, and with truly splendid views over the river. This is a quiet little town, although behind shuttered windows, as you stroll the streets, you hear the sounds of lunch being prepared and children doing their homework.

The upper Douro is more fjord than valley, with plunging granite cliffs where eagles drift. Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border is the last stop, but passengers make a land excursion to Salamanca, across the border in Spain, before gliding down the river again in the opposite direction. Just another chance to enjoy this river full of pleasures.

Have you cruised the Douro River? If so, please leave a comment and join the conversation!

10 March 2014

Cruise News: AmaWaterways/APT's new Myanmar cruises

Artist's impression of the new AmaPura in Myanmar.
Photo: AmaWaterways/APT
It’s all happening in Myanmar these days when it comes to river cruising, and now AmaWaterways (or APT as its known in Australia and New Zealand) is sailing a new ship, AmaPura, on three itineraries along the Irrawaddy  that range from 14 to 20 days.
The 14-day ‘Golden Treasures of Burma’ itinerary takes guests between Pyay (Prome) and Mandalay, while on the 16- and 20-day ‘Hidden Wonders of Burma’ guests sail from Mandalay to Yangon, with an extension to Inle Lake on the longer itinerary.
Luxury suite on board AmaPura in Myanmar.
Photo: AmaWaterways/APT
AmaPura is a luxury boutique ship with only 28 suites, all of which have a balcony (though some are just French balconies). The staff ratio is two to every guest, so Captain Rivers is guessing service levels will be impeccable. The ship’s elegant public areas include a restaurant, main lounge and bar, gift shop, spa, refreshing pool and a Sun Deck.
AmaPura hits all the highlight of Myanmar, which AmaWaterways / APT still insists on calling Burma. Among its signature experiences are a visit to Mahamuni Buddha Temple, one of Myanmar’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites; a tour by horse-drawn cart to see local monasteries and the Leaning Tower of Inwa; and two days soaking up the wonders of Bagan’s 2,200 Buddhist temples, stupas and pagodas. But we reckon the most entertaining sight might be the chance to observe the the one-legged rowing technique of the fishermen at Inle Lake.

More: AmaWaterways (APT in Australia and New Zealand)

Have you travelled on an AmaWaterways (APT) ship in the past? Why not leave your comments about your experience to share with fellow readers.

6 March 2014

River cruising becomes more luxurious

While the number of new ships being launched is ever increasing on the world’s rivers, so too is the luxury on board, with nearly every newly launched ship created squarely for the demands of well-heeled customers.
Lounge on board River Cloud.
Photo: Sea Cloud Cruises
SPACE AGE Luxury often equates with space, and more on-board space has been partly achieved by adroit design changes that coax more room out of ships limited in size by locks and low bridges, especially in Europe. Hair salons, 20-seat cinemas and (in Uniworld's and AmaWaterways' new ships) heated rooftop swimming pools have been added. River Cloud (which has 36 crew for just 90 passengers) fits in a putting green, fitness zone and library. Tauck’s new Inspiration-class Inspire and Savor now offer suites with walk-in wardrobes and marble bathrooms with double vanities.
Table La Rive dining on Scenic Space-Ships.
Photo: Scenic Tours
EYE TO DETAIL With size ultimately limited, however, luxury increasingly expresses itself in the detail (in-cabin espresso machines, mini-bars, branded toiletries) and the dining experience. Scenic’s Space-Ships feature degustation dining at separate Table La Rive restaurant, and AmaWaterways (APT) is introducing a chef’s table on its new ‘Royal Experience’ cruises in 2014, during which 24 guests watch the chef prepare a six-course degustation menu, accompanied by fine wines. The new ‘Royal Experience’ in Europe-wide cruises include visits to Michelin-star restaurants, truffle hunting and the chance to dine with a real princess, Heide von Hohenzollern, in a castle in Andernach in Germany.
PEACE AND QUIET In luxury of another sort, the river journey is becoming more tranquil, with new Viking River Cruises ships built with innovative designed engines and four propellers (instead of the usual two) to reduce vibration and noise. As an added bonus, one engine can be taken off use for maintenance while the others take up the slack.

Have something to add about the increase in on-board luxury? If so, why not leave a comment. Our readers appreciate your feedback.