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.
Adventures by Disney river cruises will be operated by AmaWaterways.
After announcing last month that it is launching river cruises through a partnership with AmaWaterways, Adventures by Disney has already added two more departures “due to popularity and mass interest in the program.”
Originally, Disney’s tour operator arm said it would offer four sailings along the Danube River during summer 2016, and one holiday-themed sailing in December 2016. There will now be five sailings in the summer, as well as two sailings in December of 2016. The itineraries will travel through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.
Adventures by Disney will charter the 170-passenger AmaViola, a ship that is launching in 2016 and is being custom-built to cater to families. Family-friendly features on the AmaViola will be six sets of connecting staterooms, as well as some rooms and suites that can accommodate families of three or four people.
There will be wine tastings, fine dining, music, dancing and an onboard fitness center geared toward adults, and movies, karaoke, relay games, chess lessons on an oversized board, video games and themed nights for young children and teens.
There will be eight Adventures by Disney guides on each sailing in addition to the AmaWaterways crew.
The Adventures by Disney sailings will take place July 7, 14, 21, 28, Aug. 4, Dec. 15 and 22.
Adventures by Disney, which launched in 2005, offers 30 guided vacations on six continents.
Many of the passengers I shared a voyage with recently on the new Viking Star ocean cruise ship were past passengers on Viking’s river cruise vessels.
I was surprised to hear from more than one of them that river cruises in general are too short.
Unlike on the ocean, where one can find world cruises of more than 100 days, river cruises are limited by the length of the river they sail on and rarely span more than two weeks.
One woman said that to justify the trouble of packing, taking an overseas flight with all of the security and customs procedures that involves, and adjusting to jet lag in Europe, she wanted to vacation for longer than a typical river cruise allows.
This woman had enjoyed a 15-day river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and said she wouldn’t mind doing the reverse cruise back-to-back in order to get more mileage from her overseas trip.
Mind you, nearly one third of the passengers on my cruise from Istanbul had signed on for a full 50-night, 33-port grand ocean tour of Europe that will finish in Stockholm at the end of May.
So clearly, while there is some overlap between ocean and river cruise customers, there’s a certain contingent that prefers a longer voyage than is possible on the average river itinerary.
One solution is to combine the two, a concept that first launched last fall when Celebrity Cruises linked up with river operator Amras Cruises to create ocean-and-river cruise packages.
Viking could take that idea to the next level by being one company that offers both types of cruises.
There is already a lot of conversation about the topic at Viking’s headquarters in Los Angeles, according to Sara Conley, Viking’s director of public relations and social media, who added that it is logistically more difficult than it might appear.
Ocean and river cruises do not share many homeports, so there might be land transfers involved between one ship and the other. And the schedules of the two sides of the cruise business were not designed with coordination in mind, so they don’t necessarily match up in convenient ways.
At this point, Viking has just one ocean ship, the 930-passenger Star. Next year it expects to have another delivered, with a third to follow either late in 2016 or early 2017.
By that time Viking may have figured out a solution to offering the combo cruise that would give some passengers both a river cruise and a more extended cruise vacation in Europe.