25 April 2014

Why River Cruise? - The Ship Experience

American Star on the Hudson River in the USA.
Photo: American Cruise Lines
Captain Rivers often gets asked why he likes river cruising so much. There are plenty of answers, but he thought he'd share four that spring to mind almost immediately when thinking of the ship experience alone.
MORE INTIMACY River cruising is a much more intimate experience than ocean cruising. River-cruise ships commonly carry 150-300 passengers, compared to over 3,000 passengers on some of the larger ocean liners. The downside (if you like that kind of thing) is that on-board amenities and entertainment are limited. However, you’ll get to know fellow passengers and staff alike. Embarkation and disembarkation queues are non-existent. Crowds don’t invade ports of call in overwhelming numbers. The pace is slower, less frantic, more relaxed.
HOTELS AFLOAT River cruising provides the pleasure of staying in a comfortable floating hotel – with a conveniently attached restaurant – that takes you from one port to another without having to resort to public transport and unfamiliar roads. Your destinations simply turn up outside your cabin window. There’s also no endless packing and unpacking. And, unlike a coach tour, time spent travelling is part of the experience: you can relax, dine, read, listen to lectures or just admire the passing scenery with a drink in hand.
A deluxe cabin on Viking Surkov in Russia.
Photo: Viking River Cruises
GOOD VALUE River cruising might appear pricey until you tot up just what it covers. Most companies now offer all-inclusive packages that include not just food, meal-time beverages and accommodation but (unlike ocean cruises) shore excursions as well. It’s the perfect way to budget in advance and, should you need to, manage your expenses.
BETTER THAN EVER In the last few years, new cruise ships and an extraordinary range of new itineraries have emerged to cater for the surge in passenger numbers. River companies are also trying to attract a younger crowd by offering more interesting and flexible shore excursions in which river passengers can go ashore individually, rather than with escorts. Luxury is another big trend, with some ships offering the five-star amenities expected in a hotel on dry land, including beauty salons, hot tubs, internet access and flat-screen televisions. Cabins are larger and better, often rivalling guestrooms in four- and five-star hotels. In short, river cruising is more comfortable and varied than ever before: Captain Rivers reckons there’s never been a better time to float your boat.
We're sure you have many reasons of your own to recommend river cruising, so why not leave a comment and let us know what they are. Who knows, you could encourage a reader to head downstream for the first time


19 April 2014

RIVER-CRUISING MUSING: Doing Nothing

Relaxing in a cafe in Montmarte
in Paris, France.
Photo: Paris Tourist Office
There used to be a time when I travelled to do things. Now, to be honest, I travel to do nothing at all. There are only so many churches and temples, museums and ancient ruins anyone can see in a lifetime and still feel excited about. But I could while away lots of time dawdling on waterfronts, sitting in cafés and snoozing in public parks. Or, best of all, admiring up a sunset over some splendid landscape. To me, travel is increasingly about just meandering along, soaking up sights and sounds and the essence of a destination, without being too worried about doing all its must-sees. No wonder I’m a big fan of river cruising.
We’ve all been to places where we just rush around trying to pack in every sight and experience. If you’re a package tourist, it’s the “If it’s Thursday it must be Rome” kind of feeling. But these action-oriented travels can be rather ineffective. Our lives and travels seem to have become about aims and bucket lists and ticking things off. But I don’t know if anyone has ever explained to me how this is better than doing nothing at all. And I wonder whether we really enjoy this kind of hectic travel, or if we just do it so we can boast to our friends about all the places we’ve seen and things we’ve done. Wouldn’t it be better if we just slowed down?
Dolce far niente by John Waterhouse, 1880.
Photo: Wikicommons
Interestingly, tourism started with the premise that we should get away and do nothing. The whole concept of leisure was more of less invented (and made possible) in the twentieth century. Before that, the working classes worked all the time, and the aristocratic classes never worked at all as Jane Austen fans will know, so the concept of an individual life divided into work and leisure, as we see it, was rather meaningless. Leisure became one of the ways the newly emerging middle class aped their aristocratic “betters”. Leisure, like consumption, became a symbol of social standing, just like a good suntan in Western countries – proof that you could spend your time lounging by a pool or on the beach and not have to work.
These days, we see leisure as a public good, even a citizen’s right. And yet we seem to be losing the capacity for enjoying true leisure, filling our days with busyness – not to mention endless digital communication. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” said seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. And surely in the intervening centuries, it has only become worse. Even travel, the ultimate in leisure activities, has become a dizzying round of doing things.
Doing not very much on a Greek beach.
Photo: Wikicommons.
Of course, a rver cruise can sometimes seem like that too, with its frequent shore excursions and must-see sights. But river cruises also provide plenty of opportunity to do nothing at all. By this I don’t mean simple inertia, something I touched on in my previous post On Feeling Lazy. What I really mean is the appreciation of tranquillity and inaction for its own sake, because it brings its own particular pleasures. It couldn’t be further from ennui, or that kind of bored frustration at having nothing to do.
We so seldom appreciate the art of doing nothing these days. Maybe it’s something we all need to practice a little bit more. When I head off on a river cruise, I always make sure that doing nothing is part of the experience.

What do you think? Why not add your comment and join the conversation.

7 April 2014

PORT OF CALL: Basel

Rhine River, Switzerland
Basel's old town seen from the Rhine River, Switzerland.
Photo: Basel Tourism
It’s a fine day in Basel. The twin towers of the cathedral scratch a perfectly blue sky, and the Rhine winks and gurgles. A flamboyant town hall is cheerful in orange, the cathedral roof a zigzag of green and yellow, enough to make anyone smile. The cathedral’s medieval façade pops with statues of saints in ridiculous hats. Over the porch, little figures are being flung from a wheel of fortune into the fires of hell.
I don’t find much else that’s sombre in Basel. Morning markets tumble with plump tomatoes, joggers jiggle along riverside promenades, barges toot as they float off Germany. Basel doesn’t have the glamorous lakeside setting of other Swiss cities, but its river made it rich on trade, and still provides an agreeable bustle.
Leafy lunch in the old town in Basel, Switzerland.
Photo: Basel Tourism
I like Switzerland’s third-largest city. It soaks up the influences of France and Germany, which start just out in the suburbs, and is sophisticated and interesting. Now a centre for the pharmaceutical industry, it has Roman foundations and was one of Europe’s great humanist cities in the eighteenth century. Full of lively cafés and fine museums, it’s the sort of town you think you’ll see in an hour at the beginning or end of a Rhine River cruise. It always ends up seducing me into a longer stay.
Some people claim Basel is buttoned up. True, the old town has an elegant severity, apart from the mad riot of its town hall. Reformers scraped away most of the decoration inside the cathedral, leaving only the tomb of Erasmus behind. Its trams always run on time, sneaking up silently behind me and startling me with clanging bells.
Celebrating Fasnacht in Basel, Switzerland.
Photo: Basel Tourism
But Baslers seem rather fun to me. If you come in December, you’ll find Switzerland’s largest Christmas market, fragrant with mulled wine, where you can nibble on spiced biscuits and admire twinkling trees in old town streets. And a few years ago, when I was here for the start of Lent, I found amusement during Fasnacht, a three-day carnival of crazy costumed partyers singing and playing oompah music into the wee hours.
Giacometti sculptures at the Foundation
Beyerler, Basel, Switzerland.
Photo: Basel Tourism
This time around, I find fun too. At the quirky Museum Jean Tinguely I love the amusing concoctions of Switzerland’s greatest twentieth-century sculptor: mechanised pieces assembled from scrap metal that clang and turn and wobble. At the Café Atlantis, I’m serenaded by the strange sounds of avant-garde jazz. And in the evening, bars spill out onto cobblestones, sending a murmur of conversation down medieval streets.
 In the afternoon, I wander over to Kleinbasel (Little Basel), a Swiss enclave on the otherwise German side of the river. It has funky cafés and ethnic eateries and a youthful vibe, as well as great views across the Rhine to the old town. I’m really here, though, for the Foundation Beyeler, a superb private collection of modern art from the likes of Warhol, Pollock, Picasso and Rothko, as well as Swiss greats Klee and Giacometti. To me the building is just as wonderful, an avant-garde ship sailing across a pond-scattered garden.

If you’ve been to Basel and feel you have something to add, please do so. Our readers appreciate your tips and memories.

4 April 2014

Clever river-cruise ship designs enhance space

You might well be wondering how river-cruise ships seem to scarcely change in size, yet are managing to squeeze in larger cabins, more restaurants and accommodation for more staff – right down to private butlers on some lines.
Avalon Tapestry in Central Europe.
Photo: Avalon Waterways
The main preoccupation for naval tech-heads in river-ship design over the last few years has been to increase space on board ships to allow larger cabins and public areas, as well as an improvement in luxury features and service. But in Europe, space must result from clever design, since increases in size are limited by low, medieval bridges and the narrow river locks that passengers so enjoy transiting.
In 2006, Avalon Waterways took a novel approach and moved the navigational bridge of its new Avalon Tapestry behind the passenger section. The result was a more spacious interior and the relocation of lounge and dining areas to the front of the ship for open views of the river.
When Scenic Tours launched its new-generation Space-Ship in 2008, it became the longest river-cruise ship in Europe at 135 metres. A pioneering double-hull design gives it safety below the waterline. Above, more space means larger suites with full-size balconies (where once French balconies had been the limit) and an alternative fine-dining restaurant. More space also means more crew: top-deck cabins now offer butler service.
The spacious interior of Uniworld's Antoinette.
Photo: Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
Uniworld’s new Antoinette had another space-enhancing first. Stateroom balconies can now become entirely enclosed by lowering floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing a conservatory-type extension to the cabin. Avalon Panorama adopted a similar feature in some of its staterooms.
More recently, more flexibility has been added in the use of existing space. Thanks to retractable floor-to-ceiling windows, Viking’s lounges on its Longships now become outdoor decks. Scenic Cruises has spent $10 million on refurbishing its ships for 2014: cabins have sunrooms that can be transformed to open balconies at the buzz of a button.
Tauck's new Inspiration-class ship.
Photo: Tauck River Cruises
Cabins on some ships are becoming bigger simply by reducing passenger numbers. Tauck’s new Inspiration-class Inspire and Savor are 23 per cent longer than its existing ships but carry only 10 per cent more passengers. They’ll each have 130 guests aboard, where similar-sized ships might carry 190. There will also be 57 per cent more suites (instead of  smaller staterooms) than on its existing Jewel-class ships; the new suites have walk-in wardrobes, French balconies and marble bathrooms with double vanities.
Want to know more about the latest trends in river-cruising? If you’ve missed previous posts on the topic, click on TRENDS & UPDATES in the labels list on the right for more.


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