It seems people have strong feelings about cruises. For some, a cruise is a wonderfully relaxing way to travel and for others, well, it just isn't their cup of tea. As for me, I was never drawn to big cruise ships. The whole idea of a floating city and traveling with several thousand people (all from my own country and speaking my own language) just didn’t seem like an "authentic" travel experience. I also didn’t like the idea of formal nights and captain’s dinners – my usual travel style doesn’t include heels and formal wear! And then one day I came across an article about a river cruise, something altogether different than an ocean cruise. The author described a small boat (fewer than 200 passengers) that could pull right up to towns and villages along European rivers. The places sounded enchanting and the dress code was casual. I was intrigued.
At this time I was in the planning stage of a European trip for a group of 10 ranging in age from 40s to 80s. Avoiding the need to change hotels, pack and unpack, or lift luggage on and off trains seemed like a smart plan. Plus, there was a variety of cruise activities that would appeal to everyone in the group. The cost was all inclusive, meaning all meals (with wine) and a walking tour or excursion in each town were included in the price of the cruise. The only drawback I could see was that, because Italy’s rivers are not amenable to navigation by ships of this size, there wasn't an option for a cruise through Italy. Luckily, the rest of Europe has an abundance of wide, sufficiently deep and slow-moving rivers so there were several appealing itineraries. After considering all the options, we settled on a Viking* river cruise through southern France.
As a novice cruiser, I had some concerns before the trip (even beyond the stress of being chief planner for my group of 10). I worried that the days would be too scripted with not enough free time. Would I enjoy the on-board hours of sailing when moving between cities? Would eating three meals a day in the one restaurant on board get boring? Would it be a "snooze" experience, without enough activity to interest me? Looking back, I laugh at all these concerns. I loved every minute of that trip, so much so that I have followed up with two more river cruises over the past several years.
There are many things to like about river cruises, beginning with the chance to visit charming villages and grand cities, learning about culture, history, and local traditions along the way. I found the walks in each town, led by local guides, fun and informative. Each trip provides an introduction to places that might not be discovered on one's own and helps choose places to visit in more depth on future trips. That first cruise in southern France started in Avignon and included a few hours on market day in the nearby town of Uzes. I knew immediately I wanted to return to this area, and that became the focus of an independent trip a few years later. It's fun to gather ideas for future travel!
River cruises provide unique guided experiences – traditional Christmas markets in Germany and France, Dutch windmills, exploration of French vineyards and wineries, and stops at places where history was made. These are an important part of the experience, especially in places where a language barrier would mean missing a lot of nuance if traveling without a guide. It's also fun to have a chef who cooks regional foods with supplies bought at markets along the way. If you get the opportunity to tag along with the chef to a local market, I recommend you go! Doing this in Lyon with our fabulous French chef was a highlight of that trip for me.
I usually make all my own travel plans and arrangements, so embarking on a tour was a new experience. I found that it’s sometimes fun to let someone else do the planning and organizing, allowing me to just relax and enjoy things like standing at the ship’s railing, on a crisp fall morning, coffee in hand, watching the Wachau Valley, with its colorful fall trees and beautiful small villages, slide past, or sailing through Budapest at night with its bridges and impressive buildings all lit up. I loved the December Rhine River cruise with its Christmas markets and the sounds and scents of the holiday in the air. I marveled at the windmills in Kinderdijk and learned not only how they work, but how the angle of the blades were used to send signals during World War II. Along the way there were markets and museums, castles and monuments, and everywhere beautiful views. If you'd like to experience these things, while slowly cruising along Europe's waterways, then a river cruise might be just the thing for you. -post by JMB
contacts: Viking River Cruises
* I am not affiliated with Viking Cruises in any way. I traveled as a paying passenger on all three cruises.