Doing more onshore

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The Palace at Versailles
For all the fuss river cruise lines make about their pretty ships (and don’t get me wrong, most are a visual delight), the truth is that many of the most memorable river cruising moments don’t take place on the water – they take place on land.

Yes, images of boats sell cruises. And yes, we all love to get a sneak peak of and visually approve of our sleek vacation accommodations before we journey out into the world. But in theory, those accommodations are just a means to an end, a literal vessel to bring us to the places we battle through long flights and jetlag to get to: the destination itself.

In recognizing that, river cruise lines are steadily highlighting and enhancing experiences that go beyond the hardware with ever more intriguing onshore programs. For instance, Crystal River Cruises has said that in addition to its onboard culinary program, its guests will have access to dining experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants. In fact, each 2017 Crystal river itinerary will feature at least one Michelin-starred dining opportunity, the first of which will be complimentary, the company has promised.

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Tauck, a tour operator first and foremost, has repeatedly touted its emphasis on and investment in onshore experiences. The company recently announced that it would continue along that path by adding more and enhanced shore excursions for 2018.

Along those lines, Tauck has secured exclusive pre-opening visits to Versailles and after-hours tours of the Louvre (both of which have been piloted on select departures in 2017 and will be expanded for next year). In 2018, some river cruise passengers will also be invited to a private Tauck dinner inside the German Parliament building, and there will be an included lunch at Alain Ducasse’s newest restaurant, Ore, in Versailles.

Hotel barge company European Waterways said that it has also noticed that passengers are asking for more immersive and experiential encounters ashore. In response, the company is adding excursions such as an exclusive tour of a castle garden in Scotland led by the head gardener, and the opportunity to try some fresh oysters after a private tour of an oyster farm. 

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Castle at Loch Ness, Scotland

In recent years, European Waterways said that it has also worked to better curate its wine tastings excursions to passengers’ tastes and to enhance the culinary experience by including more private cooking demonstrations with regional chefs.

You see, while it’s definitely a close cousin of ocean cruising, river cruising is by nature of the restricted size of the vessels never going to be able to bank on the “ship as the destination” appeal that many blue-water behemoths benefit from. Thus, while the promise of a fetching ship and a comfortable mode of travel may lure many travelers to river cruising, it will ultimately be the “wow” moments onshore that are likely keep them hooked.

Viking, Crystal and navigating new waters

Less than one year after Viking launched into ocean cruising with the delivery of the Viking Star in March, Crystal Cruises announced that it would go from ocean to rivers, with the launch of its first river cruise ship slated for 2016.

So what are some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of each approach? Of bringing your past river cruisers onto new ocean ships and of introducing your ocean cruisers to your new river program?

The key to success in these ventures is likely the fact that ocean and river cruising are just similar and different enough to offer something both distinct and yet familiar to the other. They are products that complement each other perhaps more than they compete with each other. Yes, they’re both a form of cruising. But that’s just about where the similarities end.

And yet, it’s still a bit of a risk, right? If you’re Viking and you introduce your past river cruise passengers to ocean cruising and they realize they like ocean cruising more — maybe you’ve just lost some river cruise customers. Ditto Crystal introducing ocean cruisers to the rivers with the chance of converting some customers away from the company’s core product.

It’s hard to say whether that risk is higher in one direction or the other: Avid river cruisers might say ocean cruisers are bound to be courted by the central docking locations and intimate environments on river cruise vessels, and ocean cruisers might feel that once river cruisers come onboard they’ll never go back to smaller vessels with fewer amenities and shorter itineraries.

But clearly for Viking and Crystal, the benefits outweigh any potential drawbacks. Perhaps rather than lose their customers to other companies, they’d rather keep them within their fold by offering river cruisers ocean vessels and by offering ocean cruisers river vessels — keeping them in the family, so to speak.

Crystal opens reservation books for river cruises

Crystal’s luxury ships will sail the Danube and Rhine rivers plus several waterways in France.

Crystal Cruises on Monday unveiled details of its five river cruise itineraries and opened bookings.

Inaugural voyages for the five vessels will be exclusively available for booking to members of Crystal Society, the line’s loyalty program, from Nov. 30 through Dec. 15, 2015.

The newly acquired Crystal Mozart, a former Peter Deilmann vessel, will sail its maiden voyage on the Danube River on July 13 after an extensive redesign. Crystal will reduce the number of suites and increase suite sizes, transforming a 203-passenger vessel into a 160-passenger one.

It will sail the 10-night “Danube’s Capital & Wachau Valley,” visiting Austria’s Wachau Valley as well as Dürnstein, Melk, Linz and Vienna in Austria; Passau, Germany; and Bratislava, Slovakia. It will also sail the 11-night “Countries of Eastern Danube” that will call in Vienna; Esztergorm, Kalocsa, Budapest, and Mohacs, Hungary; Vukovar, Croatia; Romania’s Iron Gates; Belgrade and Novi Sad, Serbia; and Bratislava, Slovakia. The Crystal Mozart will also sail several Christmas market and holiday cruises through Austria, Germany and Slovakia.

Additionally, Crystal has ordered the construction of four yacht-style river vessels at the Lloyd Werft shipyard in Germany — the 110-passenger Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler, and the 84-passenger Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy.

The Crystal Debussy will make its maiden voyage on the Seine River on June 4, 2017, after which it will sail five-, seven- and 10-night voyages along the Seine. The ship’s smaller size will allow it to dock near the Eiffel Tower and guests can extend their stay in Paris, according to Crystal.

The Crystal Bach will have it first departure on the Rhine and Moselle rivers on June 18, 2017, and will sail a 14-night itinerary with stops in Amsterdam and Antwerp, Netherlands; Basel, Switzerland; and Rudesheim, Nijmegen, Cologne, Cochem, Koblenz, Mainz, Speyer, Kehl, and Breisach, Germany. It will also sail a 10-night Christmas markets trip in the region.

The Crystal Ravel will sail the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France’s Bordeaux region beginning Aug. 8, 2017. There will be a seven-night Bordeaux, the Wine Region & Beyond itinerary that will begin with two nights in Bordeaux, before cruising to Cadillac, Pauillac, Blaye and Libourne, France, before heading back to Bordeaux.

The Crystal Mahler will make its maiden voyage on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers on  Aug. 29, 2017, after which it will sail the 16-night “Grand Europe” itinerary, the longest offered by Crystal. It will include overnights in Budapest, Vienna, Passau and Amsterdam.