A rendering of one of Crystal’s forthcoming river yachts, which will feature excursions such as “flightseeing” tours on helicopters.
They may not be evolving into all-out expedition cruises, but just like their oceangoing cousins, river cruises are being infused with a greater sense of adventure.
From more demanding activities in Europe, to more exotic destinations farther afield, it appears that river cruisers are ready to be taken a bit further out of their comfort zone.
In Europe, combining biking tours with river cruise itineraries has been gaining in popularity for several years. But now river cruise lines are taking the off-boat activities a step further and incorporating more innovative ways to see and experience the people and places that line the banks.
For example, Avalon Waterways has added a nine-day Active Discovery on the Danube cruise that will give cruisers the opportunity to bike, hike and canoe along the river. It will also include options to explore an ice cave, take an archery lesson, descend into an underground salt mine or ascend a mountain on a guided climb.
When Crystal Cruises unveils its first river cruise vessel, the Crystal Mozart, on the Danube this July, the itineraries will be chock full of adventurous extras for an added price. Standard sightseeing excursions as well as plenty of included hiking and e-biking tours will be complimentary, but those in need of a bit more of an adrenaline rush can splurge for helicopter and small-plane “flightseeing” tours or opt for river rafting experiences.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection recently expanded a partnership with Butterfield & Robinson to add several biking cruises along the Danube this year and next. Uniworld also has a kayaking excursion on the Gardon River on its Burgundy and Provence itinerary.
Similarly, AmaWaterways has a partnership for more active river cruises with hike-and-bike specialist Backroads.
For those seeking even more adventure, there continues to be more options for river cruising in exotic destinations.
For example, French river cruise company CroisiEurope this spring said it is building a river vessel that will sail the Chobe and Zambezi rivers in southern Africa in 2017. The 16-passenger boat will operate six-day cruises on the Chobe and Zambezi, which wind through and along several countries, including Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, followed by a four-day land tour that includes safaris and a day at Victoria Falls.
Pandaw River Expeditions has been continuously pushing river cruise boundaries in Southeast Asia, where earlier this year the company introduced an itinerary on the Kapuas River system in western Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.
The seven-day Into the True Heart of Borneo expedition is being offered on the company’s 32-passenger Katha Pandaw. It will sail more than 300 miles along the upper part of the Kapuas, and will traverse the Danau Sentarum system of lakes, a national park that connects to the river.
The Borneo rain forest is home to numerous species of flowering plants and animals, including the Bornean orangutan, the Bornean elephant, the Eastern Sumatran rhinoceros, the Bornean clouded leopard and the Dayak fruit bat.
Pandaw is also building a ship for the upper Mekong River, the 28-passenger Yunnan, which is set to launch in September with a 14-night itinerary from Vientiane in Laos to Jinghong in China, a product that Pandaw introduced last year on the Laos Pandaw.
It’s been 20 years since Scotsman Paul Strachan started taking people up and down the Irrawaddy River on a single chartered vessel in Myanmar. Since 1995, the founder of Singapore-based Pandaw River Expeditions has grown his enterprise in Southeast Asia into a fleet of 12 ships (and counting) and is now once again looking for that next unexplored stretch of river.
“In the last year, I thought, ‘We’d better do some more pioneering,'” said Strachan, who has in recent years been joined by a rapidly growing number of river cruise lines in Southeast Asia. “So, it’s exciting times. We’re opening up Laos, we’re building a ship there … and then we’ve got the Red River, up in the north of Vietnam … and we’re looking at possibly putting a couple Pandaw ships in India.”
As competition heats up in Southeast Asia with a flood of new river cruise vessels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, Pandaw is hoping to separate itself from the pack by introducing ever more remote and exotic river cruise destinations, while at the same time remaining true to its original vision.
“The ships we build today are much the same as the ships we built 20 years ago,” Strachan said. “They are the same style, which is something we believe in passionately. Something that is fundamental about Pandaw ships is that they are exactly how ships were 100 years ago on the Irrawaddy, and they were designed like that for a reason.”
Pandaw emerged from the ashes of the Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., which in its 1920s heyday consisted of a fleet of more than 600 passenger and cargo vessels. In 1998, Strachan acquired the Pandaw, a steamboat built in Scotland in 1947 that he renovated and operated for several years. That vessel is now operated by Myanmar-based Ayravata Cruises. Strachan’s company built its first ship in 2001 to be almost a replica of the original Pandaw.
The look and feel of those Irrawaddy Flotilla vessels — colonial-style, three-deck ships with wraparound balconies — remain the unifying design of Pandaw vessels today even as newcomers such as AmaWaterways, Sanctuary Retreats, Haimark Travel and Aqua Expeditions have emerged on the Southeast Asia river cruise scene with larger vessels, indoor hallways, sprawling suites, spas and swimming pools.
“I know we sound very old-fashioned,” Strachan said. “But really, our clients, who tend to be very adventurous, very seasoned travelers, they’re not coming for the pool or the Jacuzzi. They do not want these things. And I’m afraid we’re very stick-in-the-mud about this.”
Instead, Strachan is focused on building river cruise vessels that foster a more social atmosphere with ample public spaces. The wraparound balconies, for instance, encourage guests to mingle and also facilitate the movement of fresh air as the vessels sail, something Strachan says is both a comfort and safety issue, offering stability to vessels that have more shallow drafts.
The simplicity and practicality of the design as well as the smaller size of the vessels is what the Pandaw founder says enables the company to explore further along various rivers in Southeast Asia and ultimately bring clients to more off-the-beaten-track destinations.
Pandaw’s new cruises
While the design of the Pandaw vessels hasn’t changed much in 20 years, more recently the company is pushing the envelope with new river cruise routes. This November, Pandaw is introducing a Mekong River sailing through Laos on the newly constructed, 20-passenger Laos Pandaw.
The vessel will sail an 11-day itinerary that will begin in the French colonial city of Vientiane and continue north to Ban Paklay, Pak Lai, Tha Deua and the Unesco World Heritage site of Luang Prabang. There will be a stop at the Pak Ou Caves, and the itinerary will end in Chiang Khong, Thailand.
The Laos Pandaw is being custom-built with a shallow draft to sail the Upper Mekong. The staterooms will measure 180 square feet each, and there will also be an open-air lounge; a bistro-style dining room with outside seating and air conditioning inside; and a bar that will be open around the clock. The cruise-only price starts at $3,250 per person, based on double occupancy. Pandaw pricing includes all excursions, crew gratuities, meals, nonpremium drinks and airport transfers.
Additionally, Pandaw has introduced an 11-day Halong Bay and the Red River itinerary that will initiate a new route along Vietnam’s Red River. The sailing will take place on the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, which will reposition from the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia at the end of June.
The itinerary will begin in Halong Bay. From there, the river cruise will head up the Kinh Thay River and on to the Duong River. There will be two days of sightseeing in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, before continuing on to the Upper and Lower Red River.
The Angkor Pandaw was built in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. It features 16 staterooms at 170 square feet each, and the public spaces consist of a main dining room, bar, lounge, shop and library. The cruise-only price starts at $2,340 per person, based on double occupancy.
Pandaw is testing the waters beyond Southeast Asia, as well. The company is chartering some vessels in India this year, with the hopes of perhaps introducing its own vessels there in the coming year. For 2015, Pandaw offered a single, 16-day departure on India’s Ganges and Hooghly rivers on the 40-passenger Rajmahal, which has already sold out.
There is also a new eight-day cruise on the Brahmaputra River in northeastern India onboard the 46-passenger Mahabaahu, with departures starting next month.
The cruise will visit the largest river island in the world and will include an encounter with the Mishing people who inhabit India’s Assam region. Pandaw guests will also learn more about the aromatic tea the region is known for. Included will be an excursion to Kaziranga National Park and areas known for their single-horned rhinos, buffalos, Indian tigers and river dolphins. The snow-covered Himalayan Mountain range can be seen from the Brahmaputra River. The cruise-only price starts at $2,430 per person, based on double occupancy.
The company also added four departures of a new seven-day itinerary in southern India’s Kerala region starting in December, which includes a three-night land program in Cochin and a three-night cruise aboard the 18-passenger Vaikundam from Thottapally through Kanjipada and on to the Champakkulam village. The Backwaters of Kerala trip is priced from $1,530, based on double occupancy.
“We’re constantly trying to go further and further up these rivers into remoter areas. That’s our ambition,” said Strachan, adding that Pandaw is hoping to ultimately introduce an itinerary that will include all six countries through which the Mekong River flows: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China.
Getting permission to sail across the border into China has proven the biggest challenge and is what the company is working toward in order to be able to eventually offer a complete Mekong sailing.
Strachan said that he also isn’t opposed to looking at opportunities beyond Asia in places like the Amazon, for instance, if he were to find the right partners.
Courting more Americans
Pandaw’s largest customer base consists of Australians, followed by Brits and then Americans. But that’s something the company is hoping to change.
“We’re trying to grow our direct-sales market in America,” Strachan said, referring to Pandaw’s desire to sell more of its product directly to agents and consumers in the U.S., rather than predominantly through partner river cruise lines and operators. “That’s very important to us. We’re working on that.”
Pandaw doesn’t currently have a U.S. office, but San Francisco-based Sayang Holidays is the company’s preferred agent in the U.S. for booking Pandaw vacations.
As U.S. river cruise lines have been expanding beyond Europe into Southeast Asia over the past five years, many of them have partnered with Pandaw on various charters on the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers, including Viking Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Avalon Waterways.
But as demand for Southeast Asia picked up, so has shipbuilding competition. Pandaw isn’t the only game in town anymore. Some companies, such as AmaWaterways, forged their own shipbuilding partnerships in the region to develop ships they partially own, while others, such as Haimark Travel, are working to build vessels and partner with U.S. companies on charters, similar to what Pandaw has done.
In fact, Haimark was formed in 2012 by a group of three former Pandaw employees who struck out on their own. The Breckenridge, Colo.-based company has come on very strong in the last two years, building luxury vessels in Southeast Asia and India, which many U.S. companies, including Uniworld and Abercrombie & Kent, are now chartering.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to them. It’s amazing how they’ve grown so quickly,” Strachan said of Haimark. “It’s a completely different style from us, it’s a different market they’re going for.”
As for Pandaw’s market, the company continues to operate charters for several U.S. operators.
Last year, Pandaw hired Hugh Clayson to serve in the newly created role of commercial director. Clayson oversaw the opening of a global sales and marketing office for Pandaw in West London.
Paul Strachan, who started taking passengers up and down Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River exactly 20 years ago, is still building ships much in the same way they were constructed back then.
After interviewing Strachan, the founder of Pandaw River Expeditions, this week (look for the story in Monday’s Travel Weekly), it occurred to me that he is one of the few entrepreneurs in the constantly evolving river cruising segment that has opted for simplicity over swimming pools and sprawling suites.
There was a time when Viking Chairman Tor Hagen was equally skeptical about amenities. Balconies? Nope, Hagen used to say. A spa on board? Not worth the space, he would claim.
Obviously Hagen has changed his tune on balconies, having since rolled out dozens of newbuilds with a variety of balcony configurations. And he isn’t alone. The race to have more and splashier amenities onboard river cruise vessels has heated up in step with the competition within the category.
And it’s true, sexy new amenities look good in brochures. I don’t know how many times river cruise executives have told me that not that many passengers actually use their balconies, but that balconies sell cabins.
But I have to say, as a member of the media who covers river cruising, I’m often just as guilty as those amenity-loving brochure oglers. In an attempt to differentiate one river cruise ship from the next or to find a new angle to write about, I often inadvertently applaud new and innovative onboard features whether or not they are actually all that useful.
Which isn’t to say that all the new amenities aren’t useful. I have personally taken advantage of them plenty, whether it’s taking a dip in an onboard swimming pool or bringing my laptop out onto my stateroom balcony while I write or opting for a more casual lunch in the alternative dining venue.
A lot of these new amenities are about buzz, right? Buzz is fun. Buzz keeps things interesting, and for river cruise lines and travel sellers, it can attract the attention of new and repeat passengers. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with buzz — it actually serves an important purpose.
But perhaps in all the buzz, fun and hoopla surrounding river cruising, we kind of forgot why river cruising was so great to begin with. That is what Strachan inadvertently reminded me of when he talked about his practical approach to river cruising, about building simple ships that are meant to sail into ever-more exotic river destinations. Perhaps what’s so amazing about river cruising has very little to do with onboard cinemas and balconies and swimming pools. Maybe what’s so great about it is that original, simple concept of gliding down the river, stopping in curious cities along the way, discovering sights both known and unknown, and meeting interesting travel companions onboard in between sips of wine and bites of local cuisine.
I’m not sure how well that message sells, but it’s a good one to remember every once in awhile.