My first river cruise, in 1993, was on the Donau Prinzessin, a seven-night voyage stopping at all the famous sites along the Danube. River cruising was a travel experience not well-known in North America at that time, while for Europeans a river has long been a natural choice for travel. Rivers have been the lifeblood of Europe since early days, an interconnecting passage where one culture could flow right into another.
Other than the hotel manager and one or two of the wait staff, we were the only English-speaking people on board the Prinzessin. The cabins were small and basic, with two twin berths and a tiny porthole. The ship itself was more utilitarian than graceful, but the river was lovely and there was a good cup of tea and local beer available any time. There was only one excursion in each port, usually conducted in German, with one guide assigned to us as an interpreter. While much got lost in translation, places such as the Benedictine Abbey at Melk, Austria, needed no commentary and I fell in love with this elegant way to travel through Europe without having to unpack more than once.
Fast-forward to September, 2017, and I've just disembarked from my latest river excursion, a Rhine cruise on Avalon Waterways' Expression. The transformation of all facets of the experience in 25 years is astounding and explains why the popularity of river cruising has soared.
Approximately 5.7 million people took a river cruise in the past three years, a number that has more than doubled since 2009, according to data from Cruise Lines International Association. The overall appeal remains the same – the lazy pleasure of putting yourself completely in the hands of someone who will coddle you while steering you through new adventures. But river cruising is no longer a passive or unrefined experience.
My shore excursions included a food tour of the Jordaan neighbourhood in Amsterdam, a walking tour of the trendy Belgian Quarter of Cologne, Germany, a bike tour of Bamberg, Germany and a hike through wine country. My cabin – sorry, "stateroom" – featured a marble-clad bathroom scented with L'Occitane infusers, generously supplied with thick towels. The king-sized bed was so comfy I looked into buying one for my own bedroom and the French balconies for which Avalon is famous have floor-to-ceiling windows that open to provide gorgeous views of the passing scenery. The passenger roster included many North Americans, the atmosphere was friendly and dining-room seating was open.
Ship design has undergone a metamorphosis since my days on the Donau Prinzessin. The Expression is a pretty ship, boasting a classically contemporary design and featuring all of the luxuries passengers have come to expect – a small but well-equipped fitness room, a broad upper deck for viewing, free WiFi, a cappuccino machine in the back-deck lounge and an inviting plunge pool.
Such amenities – and focus on passenger comfort – are now the standard in the industry. Lisa McCaskill, vice-president of sales and marketing for Scenic and Emerald Waterways in Canada, explains that Scenic has just done a refit on its three ships that sail in France. "We reduced the number and enlarged the size of staterooms, added a vitality pool and a salt therapy room and redesigned the gym." The result is a reduction in the number of passengers to 151 and increased luxury.
Pools and gyms point to the increased interest in health and wellness by today's cruise passenger – a trend to which companies are increasingly responding. AmaWaterways' wellness program will roll out on its European ships in 2019, with group exercises that will include morning stretches, yoga, cardio/core strengthening, resistance-band workouts and circuit training – matched with healthy dining menus and on-board classes teaching relaxation techniques.
The new variety of shore excursions is also part of this movement. According to Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, the new tours give travellers a platform to be active, engaged and adventurous. She says that "2017 debuted our Active Discovery on the Danube and 2018 will see the introduction of three options of included excursions, Classic, Active and Discovery, on all river cruises. Passengers can paint in the style of van Gogh in Amsterdam, or visit an abbey to taste the beer and cheeses produced by Trappist monks in Engelhartszell."
So what will the next decades bring in the evolution of river cruising?
Ships will never get bigger, Hoffee explains. They can't – the restrictions of narrow locks and low bridges means they can be a maximum of 11.4 metres wide and 135 metres long. So physical changes will be innovations in design features, increased tech-savvy enhancements to cabins and maybe an increased diversity in things such as the culinary fare offered on board, emphasizing freshness and locality. McCaskill predicts an increase in programs such as her company's scenic culinaire, which includes cooking lessons, market visits and tasting experiences, an innovation that speaks to the continued appeal of food and wine.
The daily hard-copy paper program, till now left on the bed after turndown, will inevitably disappear, industry insiders say, replaced by notices on in-room flat screens or on personal devices. Avalon's new AvalonGo app allows passengers to independently explore each destination with a detailed, daily schedule of their itinerary, a list of nearby attractions (featuring hours of operation, historical facts and more), maps and directions as well as local cafés, restaurants, bars and entertainment options for further exploration. "We'll even provide a picnic," says Stephanie Bishop, of Avalon's Canadian office.
Themed cruises will attract new niche audiences. Avalon's Legendary Danube Author Cruise, from Prague to Budapest, hosted by Diana Gabaldon, bestselling author of the Outlander novels, is a big attraction for lovers of historical romance. And wine cruises are growing in number: Scenic, Viking and AmaWaterways have added Bordeaux cruises along the Gironde, the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers for vineyard tours and tastings.
Travellers can also expect longer and more overnight stays in ports. This will allow passengers, particularly younger cruisers, to explore the local music scene or partake of the nightlife on their own schedule. It's part of a move to attract a fresh demographic as brands reach out to the next generation.
The U by Uniworld brand's two ships, The A and The B, which will begin sailing in April, 2018, are geared toward millennials (all guests must be between the ages of 21 and 45). The ships are being pitched as affordable, funky and fun, with vegan and vegetarian dining choices, Bluetooth speakers in the rooms and lots of outlets for passengers' devices. Shore tours are unconventional and would have been unheard of 25 years ago: a rooftop tour of Paris, rock climbing in Switzerland, cocktail classes in Amsterdam.
"A river cruise can deliver intimate and individual experiences," McCaskill says – and continued refinement of that approach is where the future lies.
The writer travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways. It did not review or approve this article.