In June 2006, I cruised the Rhine River on the Avalon Tapestry, a new ship owned by Avalon Waterways, which is in turn owned by Globus Tours. I promised earlier to explain a bit more about travel by riverboat, for those who have not yet tried it.
On most river cruises, at least part of every day is spent docked in a town. In Basel, Switzerland and Kehl, Germany our ship docked in industrial areas where buses were necessary to reach the tourist areas. Everywhere else we docked -- the German towns of Speyer, Mainz, Rudesheim, Coblenz, and Cologne plus Amsterdam -- the main tourist areas were an easy stroll from the ship.
We started each day with an impressive breakfast buffet in the main dining room, followed by a guided excursion into town. We were delivered back to the ship in time for lunch, followed by another guided excursion or on-your-own sightseeing in the afternoon. Sometimes the ship cruised during lunch and docked at a new town in the afternoon.
Lunches were served buffet-style but at dinner we ordered from menus. I'm not a food critic, but I'd say that food quality and the service in the dining room was on par with that of a 4- to 5-star ocean-going cruise ship (on a 1-6 star scale).
The pace of travel seemed more relaxed to me than it is on ocean-going cruises, perhaps because ocean-going ships cover much greater distances between port calls. There was only a slight sensation of movement on our river cruise, and I would assume that motion sickness is never an issue.
Who will you meet on a river cruise? On our ship, we found a very friendly group of mostly well-traveled people. I'd estimate that 2/3 of the passengers on our sold-out departure were 60+ years of age, with most of the rest in their 40s and 50s. There were four teenagers on board, and no young children.
In his opening remarks, our captain asked how many passengers had already taken at least one river cruise, and about 25% raised their hands. About 75% indicated that they had taken an ocean-going cruise. He asked for a show of hands for different nationalities, and they were, in order of numbers: Americans, Canadians, Brits, New Zealanders and Aussies.
Every town we visited was pretty, but my favorite towns were Heidelberg, Germany and Strasbourg, France. Heidelberg is home to Germany's finest and oldest university and is located about an hour from the Rhine, on the Ille River. The spectacular Heidelberg Castle is perched on a hilltop overlooking the river and the red roofs of homes and shops below. The classic film, The Student Prince, was set here.
Strasbourg is also home to a university and to the parliament of the European Union. We walked through the scenic La Petite France district, with cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets and outdoor cafes, and floated the Strasbourg Canal on a glass-domed riverboat.
The highlight of scenic viewing from the ship was in the Rhine Gorge in the Rheingau region of Germany, where almost every bend in the river brings a view of a new castle chiseled into the steep rock or perched at the top of a hill. It was there that we passed the Rock of Lorelei, at one of the narrowest and deepest points of the river. According to legend, Lorelei sits high above the river and lures love-struck sailors onto the rocks, to their doom.
On a per-day basis, river cruises are somewhat more expensive than ocean-going cruises of the same quality, for several reasons. First, more things are included. On our cruise, wine was complimentary with dinner, and there was one complimentary daily excursion that would have cost $30 to $75 per person on most ocean-going ships. Also, riverboats do not have casinos and extensive onboard shops and additional-fee restaurants to generate revenues. Finally, riverboats are too small to relocate to different parts of the world seasonally, so most go into unproductive dry dock for a few months in the winter.
Of course, you can't take an ocean-going cruise ship down the Rhine, and when compared to the cost of independent land-based travel in the same region -- top lodging plus sightseeing, fine dining and transportation -- river cruises are not only more economical but infinitely easier.
If you're thinking about cruising a European river or the Nile in Egypt or the Yangtze in China, it's important to note that prices do not fall as departure approaches. In fact, the earlier you book, the better, as air discounts are generally at their peak when each year's brochures are first released, about 12 months in advance of departure. River-cruise operators contract with airlines for specific numbers of seats at good rates and when they are gone, prices can rise dramatically, especially for summer travel.
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Rhine River Cruise, Part 1: River Cruises vs. Oceangoing Cruises