As anyone who has been on at least two or three river cruises may know, river cruise ships are confined by length and width dimensions that are dictated by the locks and bridges along Europe’s inland waterways; in essence river cruise ships are all very similar in size and can only include so many onboard features and amenities.
Well, sort of. If the ships were so totally the same, travel media and travel sellers wouldn’t bother to make our annual pilgrimages across the pond to see what’s new and different among all the new European river inventory. We are heading over there to scope out whatever tweaks and adjustments river cruise lines are making. And while I don’t know what all the possible surprises that await this spring may be, I can tell you what I’ll be looking for in terms of fresh takes on river cruise ships so that you, too, can be on the lookout.
Always high on the list is food, of course. Despite the limited amount of space on river cruise ships, lines have increasingly been making efforts to amplify and expand their culinary offerings. So, this christening season I’ll be taking a close look at new and different takes on dining venues. Crystal in particular has ambitious plans for multiple dining venues on its forthcoming “river yachts”, slated to launch this summer. And Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has teased us with some serious new dining ventures, as well, on its latest creation, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, launching later this month in Paris; think a Bistro resto; special al fresco dinners; chef’s table, farm-to-table dining; and something it’s calling a “progressive dinner” involving a tour of the vessel.
Next up is public spaces. As I tour these freshly christened vessels, I’m always looking for new and unique features in the lounge and bar areas, perhaps in the spa and fitness room or on the sun deck. Lately, river cruise lines have been breaking up these spaces to offer more diverse options. So maybe in the entryway to the lounge, there might be a new library or sitting room (something AmaWaterways has implemented on its newer vessels). Is there a new pool or whirlpool element? Not a lot of vessels in Europe have pools because of the unpredictable weather, so if there’s a pool, that’s noteworthy.
And then, of course, there’s always the up-close-and-personal inspection of the staterooms and suites. Are there balconies off of the cabins? Are they full, step-out balconies or French balconies? Are the staterooms relatively roomy or pretty petite? What about the furnishing and decor: pretty standard or rather distinct? What kind of toiletries are stocked in the bathroom? How comfy are the beds? These are some of the questions I’ll be arming myself with.
Off the ship, the excursions are key and often are what truly make the river cruise memorable. River cruise lines have been working to offer more active and interesting shore experiences, so I’ll be looking for those “wow” activities, meals hosted in charming venues, fun hiking or biking trips that raise passengers’ heart rates or more interactive outings, such as cooking classes or encounters with locals.
Lastly, there is, of course, the service the people element. I will be looking out for whether there are new policies or service enhancements available, such as a concierge or butler service, another area where river cruise companies have been upping the ante.
All told, when christening season is through, we should have a better sense of some of the new trends emerging on and off the vessels and a reaffirmation of the fact that even within a relatively confined space there is always room for progress and innovation.