In June 2006, I boarded the Avalon Tapestry for a 7-day cruise on the Rhine River, from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. Avalon Waterways is owned by Globus, one of the oldest and largest operators of escorted and hosted travel worldwide. I'd heard good things about river cruising and I wanted to see for myself how it compares to ocean-going cruising. Here's what I found.
The Avalon Tapestry is a beautiful new ship, well-appointed and immaculate throughout. There are three passenger decks, and on the upper two decks every stateroom has floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors opening to a rail but no balcony. This is a great feature and a rare one for riverboats, which generally have windows only. At night, we frequently floated with this sliding door open, and the soothing sounds and motion of the river lulled us to sleep.
Above the passenger decks, there is a sun deck that runs the full length (443 feet) and width (about 40 feet) of the ship, for viewing and picture-taking.
The lounge and dining room are spacious, modern and attractive. Complimentary wine is served with dinner every evening. Staterooms are comfortable and comparable in size to oceanview staterooms on cruise ships, with king-size beds that can be separated to make two doubles, mini-bars and televisions.
Unlike most riverboats, the lounge and dining room on the Tapestry are in the front of the boat, surrounded by glass on three sides, and the ship's bridge is at the back of the boat. This is a new innovation to enhance sightseeing and one that I expect will become the norm for other newbuilds.
The ocean-going cruise industry has been the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry over the past 20 years, with annualized growth in berths of 8-10%. The much-smaller river cruise industry has been the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry for the past five years, having doubled in size during that time.
The same features are driving the growth of both industries: high-quality food and accommodations, all-inclusive pricing, worry-free excursions with local experts, and the convenience of visiting multiple places while only unpacking once.
The reason for the sudden, explosive growth in river cruising? It was only in the past decade that companies began to design, build and schedule riverboats with North American passengers in mind.
Europeans tend to take cruises of 1-5 days in length, but Americans and Canadians prefer 7 days or longer. Riverboats geared toward Europeans still allow smoking in lounges and dining rooms, but most North Americans prefer smoke-free dining and sightseeing. Our ship was non-smoking throughout, except for the sun deck. Announcements, menus, signage, tour descriptions, shore excursions and all other forms of communication were in English.
Now that North Americans have embraced European river cruising, the primary growth in passengers for years to come is expected to come from this side of the pond, and new ships will continue to innovate. However, Rhine riverboats won't follow the example of ocean-going ships and be built to larger and larger specifications.
The Tapestry, holding 168 passengers, is close to the maximum width that can be accommodated by the smallest locks that were used to lower our ship from one section of the Rhine River to another (we were sailing downstream). She is as tall as a ship can be and still cross under low bridges at typical water levels. Perhaps there is some room to go longer before reaching the maximum length of the smallest lock, but not much.
That means we probably won't see riverboats with water slides and rock-climbing walls and paddle tennis courts, or any kind of kids' facilities. They won't have casinos or elaborate spas or Broadway shows, or much entertainment at all beyond a musician or two.
As our captain said, on a river cruise you are entertained by the places you visit. Several evenings we remained docked in scenic towns overnight or until quite late, to allow an after-dinner stroll or some local entertainment.
My bottom line: River cruises are an exceedingly easy and comfortable way to visit and learn about some of the most historic and scenic places in Europe. I'd like to go back someday to sample two other hot options--the Danube River and Russian Waterways.
Next time, I'll tell you a bit more about what it's like to travel by riverboat, and cover some of the lovely and historic cities and towns along the Rhine River.
Vacations To Go
Rhine River Cruise, Part 2: Sailing the Romantic Rhine