Take me to the river

Cruising the world’s waterways holds great potential for memorable group trips

By Sandra Eagle

An ever-changing landscape, a new city every day, inspired cuisine and a lot less people to deal with are just some of the reasons why river cruising has hit a high note with travellers. And for the right clients, meandering through European, South American and Asian waterways may be the latest take on group travel programs.

Hendrik Jan Dadema, cruise director for Avalon Waterways, says “A major part of the charm of river cruising is that you can see a lot more as you sail into a town and then you can walk back to your floating hotel at the end of the day after exploring beautiful cities along the river.” Kimberly Aamot, direc­tor reservations, services and groups for the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, based in California, says this past year has seen a nice increase in group numbers. While the Rhine and Rhone rivers continue to be popular, the Duoro River in Portugal is an up-and-coming region to be explored. Another plus for groups, says Aamot, “is that the pricing is all-inclusive on Uniworld.

There is no charge for meeting space and food and beverage and gratui­ties are all included, so once the price is negotiated, the planner knows just how much the program will cost.”

Harvey Strydhorst, president of Sea Courses, based in Vancouver, BC, has been organizing river cruise groups with Avalon for the past 18 years for doctors and dentists from Canada and the US. “We always charter the full ship as it gives us the flexibility we need to block out lecture or classroom time in the lounge area, as we usually do a three-hour workshop every day.” Strydhorst says the cruises are generally a week long and the intimate atmosphere of the boat (120–150 passengers) makes it easy for passengers to get to know one another, as they are often on excursions in the morn­ing and can all dine together as well. Strydhorst’s programs are mostly in Europe—“as that’s where first-time cruisers generally want to go,” he says, but he has also done a cruise on the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Saigon.

As with any program, there are some caveats to consider about river cruis­ing. High or low water levels on European rivers can play havoc with schedules or cause cruising itineraries to be changed to motor coaches. All river cruise ships are the same size in Europe (as they all have to fit in the same lock system) but all are not configured the same way. Some have balconies, some have more cabins, some have less, so do your homework to get the ship that’s right for your group.

All of the major cruise companies have been busy with new ship christenings this year and customer comfort is top of mind. “Our new ships are so quiet, if you have your windows open in the evening, you can hear the nightingales sing,” reports Dadema, a sound that should send one dreaming of the next adventure just waiting down the river.

Want to know more about river cruising? Here’s some intel to get you started.

Avalon Waterways
--Five new Suite Ships will launch in 2014-15, featuring two decks of wall-to-wall panoramic windows 23 river ships
--Avalon Waterways ranked in the top 10 among river cruises in Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards 2013 readers' survey
Destinations: Europe, Asia, South America, and the US

--The super ships SS Antoinette and SS Catherine will be joined by the SS Maria Theresa in 2015
--Average of 130 guests per ship
--Ranked as one of the world’s best cruise lines by Condé Nast Traveler
--Bills itself as a boutique cruise line
--21 river ships
--Sister company Red Carnation Hotel Collection
Destinations: Europe, Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

--MS Inspire and MS Savor have just been launched (130 guests per ship)
--Tauck has been named the “World’s Best River Cruise Line” twice in the past three years by the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine
--One cruise director and three trip directors per ship
--New loft cabins on lower deck have much larger window that opens elec­tronically for fresh air and more light
Destinations: Europe

Aqua Expeditions
--Three custom built ships
--Exclusive river travel in luxurious comfort: ships have only 12, 16 or 20 cabins
Destinations: Peru and The Amazon, Cambodia and Vietnam

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