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story & photos by Maggie Zeibak
Choosing a river cruise is a lot like cooking. We have to choose the ingredients, make sure the recipe appeals to everyone, weigh and measure the quantities, and then select seasonings and temperature. Mixing in some optional choices and stirring around some magic, we can pick the right container and serve up an interesting foreign dish with a side portion of safe homeland tastes, well within our budget.
The appeal of a river cruise is spreading like wildfire and bookings are hot, so a little advance planning is in order. First … decide where you want to go; is it Europe, Asia or the United States? Then, do you want to see architecture, vineyards or enjoy bluegrass music? Naturally, you’d like to consider a complete cultural experience, but how ‘foreign’ do you want to get? Let’s explore some options.
Spring: March - May
April in Paris is a dream in most people’s minds and although there are week-long trips on the Seine to Normandy, wine aficionados might gravitate to the Burgundy countryside on the Rhone River. Many of the included tours in Europe are to wine-tastings, but one of the perks on board most boats is complimentary wine with dinner, which makes for a very convivial trip. After all, you’re going to meet lots of new people, not as many as on a huge cruise ship, but up to 200 new best friends.
The appeal of unpacking just once seals the deal for many people, plus you don’t have to take formal attire – “resort casual” is just fine. After a walking tour around the museums and city centers of the Netherlands, glowing from the spectacle of Keukenhof Garden’s magnificent display of tulips, no-one wants to get gussied up and get to bed late. There is entertainment, of course, but it is low key, besides the cabins are comfortable and not reminiscent of the tiny rooms offered back in the ‘90s.
Summer: June - August
The grand cities you can see from your window along the Danube are just a cobblestone walk from your dock as you leisurely make your way from Budapest, stopping in Vienna for some chocolate and ending in Nuremberg for some WWII history, all the while listening to the stirring music of Strauss and Mozart.
Depending on the cruise line, many tours are included with optional excursions offered so that you can pick and choose your activities. Classical concerts aren’t for everyone, neither are castles, but perhaps a glass-blowing, clock-making or cooking demonstration is more to your taste. One of the best innovations these past few years is that the group is offered individual earpieces so that they can hear the guide explain without having to push to the front to hear the narrative. This is most welcome in places such as cathedrals when there are many other groups and the noise level escalates.
Staying closer to home, American Steamboat Paddlewheelers can help you follow the Lewis and Clark Expedition on the Columbia River, or if the Mississippi draws you with the idea of sitting on the porch in a rocking chair and exploring Southern Culture, then a multitude of itineraries are available including themes of Baseball Legends, Music of ‘50s or ‘60s and Gardens of the River.
Autumn: September - November
Early Fall appeals to those who want to avoid the summer crush of tourists and the appeal of Eastern Europe (think Dracula country) brings lower airfares and less crowded attractions. The Douro River yields the activity of the grape harvest while the Dnieper River discovers the life of the Cossacks. This season might be a good time to combine a land tour to China incorporating a 4-day cruise on the Yangtze River to view the Three Gorges Dam, plus the added bonus of seeing Beijing, the Terra-Cotta Warriors in Xian, Shanghai or Hong Kong.
Drifting down the Amazon from Manaus, Brazil might awaken your inner-piranha, but if not, take the jungle survival course on the riverbank and don’t step on anything suspicious.
Winter: December - February
There’s a lot of excitement brewing about the Christmas Market cruises, a magical experience that sets the stage for the Holiday Season. With each town setting up stalls European-style there are plenty of opportunities to buy gifts and sample wine and freshly-baked pastries, while admiring the twinkling lights and listening to the festive carolers. Dress warmly for this memorable trip.
You won’t have to wear your Uggs for a cruise along the Irawaddy River, but you will need sturdy footwear. Burma/Myanmar has opened up for tourism and the highlight is following in the footsteps of Kipling’s poem “On the Road to Mandalay” stopping in small villages and being dazzled by the opulence of the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Small upscale boats made of teak hold 34 passengers and provide every amenity, including an attentive crew who clean your shoes when you return on board. True to their reputation, the Burmese are the happiest and nicest people you can visit.
An unprecedented number of new river boats are being launched this year so all you have to do is find one that fits your needs. Choosing your destination and when you want to go should narrow the field considerably. New boats, new experiences and they are there for you to taste appreciatively from Germany to Cambodia or wherever a quiet waterway will take you.
Viking Cruises, Uniworld, AMA Waterways, Avalon, Road Scholar and Grand Circle Travel all offer unique itineraries.