Music fans can enjoy sampling local venues. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Wine-themed cruises are popular // © 2017 iStock
Who knew? There's not just beer, there's hefeweizen and witbier (wheat
beer), dunkel and dubbel (dark beer), lambic (wild yeast beer) and krystal
(filtered beer). Stuck in a Coors or Budweiser rut? Try brands such as Beer
Hawk, Beach Beer, Magic Hat, Left Hand Milk Stout and Pop's Porter.
There's nothing like a beer-themed cruise to introduce you to a whole new
Special-interest cruises abound: wine cruises, chocolate cruises, health
and fitness cruises, photography cruises, golf cruises and, of course, beer
cruises. Simply put, if there's a special interest, there's probably a
cruise for it.
In the early days of modern river cruising, themed cruises were so common
that it seemed as though every second departure was built around a special
interest. These cruises have been used as an incentive to bring
first-timers to river cruising, as a way to package a group cruise and as a
value-added enhancement to a booking. Today, the best-known choices mostly
concentrate on wine, food and seasonal markets. But, there is a broad range
of special-interest sailings scheduled this year and next, with far more
choices than most agents realize.
Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises, a travel agency based in
Los Angeles, says there is a disconnect between cruise lines and the
distribution system when it comes to selling themed river cruises.
"Agents are mostly unaware of themed cruises," Kaplan said. "Few agencies
specialize in river cruises, and for them to stay current on all the themes
is expecting a lot. There's a training issue here."
Kaplan says that, in general, he sees themed cruises as an added value for
his cruise clients.
"They are an extra tool in my sales belt," he said.
Some agents say the themed aspect produces high guest ratings and adds a
reason to sail, but that scheduling can be a problem. For instance, Kaplan
notes that Avalon Waterways, which has an exceptionally rich assortment of
themed cruises, offers golf as a theme, but there is only one departure
On the other hand, Beth Schulberg, owner of Cruise & Travel Specialists
in Lake Oswego, Ore., observes that, because cruise lines set up the
majority of themed cruises during periods of lower demand, the cruise fares
and air are generally less expensive, so the theme coupled with the low
pricing can be even more appealing to the consumer.
There are several ways themed cruises are organized: In addition to the
ones set up by cruise lines, agents and/or "pied pipers" build themes
around existing groups and either block out space or set up a full-ship
charter to accommodate clients. Some agents - especially those who normally
offer custom shore excursions for their customers with private cars and
specialized guides - are providing clients with experiences such as Jewish
heritage guides, golf reservations, concert tickets and more. Festivals and
performances that take place in destinations close to a river ship port can
be used to add special-interest features to a cruise. For example, the
Prague Spring Festival (one of the best in Europe's classical music scene),
the Chopin Festival in Paris and the Montreaux Jazz Festival, as well as a
Shakespeare performance at London's Globe Theatre, are all opportunities to
entice fans to book a cruise.
But there are some clear benefits to using a cruise line's dedicated themed
cruises: Many of the passengers will share a common interest, and the mix
of more general sightseeing along with a specific focus works for all the
guests - so the spouse of a music aficionado, for instance, will find
plenty to enjoy, too. In the case of active cruising or family sailings,
special equipment and facilities may be provided onboard, and lecturers and
shore excursions are already coordinated.
The following themes are just a sampling of what cruise lines are offering
Wine cruises are the most popular and numerous themed sailings, with
individual cruise lines offering as many as 50 departures this year and
Viking River Cruises' weeklong Chateaux, Rivers and Wine sailings in France
- available June through October on Viking Longship Forseti, roundtrip from
Bordeaux - are a prime example. In the vineyards, farms and towns of
Aquitaine, Viking's guests enjoy experiences such as creating a personal
blend of cognac at the Camus distillery and tasting the wines in medieval
Saint-Emilion. In Pauillac, they explore three of the five famous "first
growth" wine names: Chateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Mouton
Rothschild. Travelers sip Sauternes in Cadillac, where the finest bottles
are produced; hunt for truffles in Perigord; and taste the superlative
oysters fresh from the bay at Arcachon. To top it off, guests dock
overnight in Bordeaux.
AmaWaterways continues its relationship with Adventures by Disney in 2017
with the new family-friendly design of AmaViola and AmaKristina. Each has
six sets of connecting staterooms that can sleep up to five, and others
accommodate three or four people. The company offers seven-night family
cruises on the Rhine and Danube rivers, with excursions such as bike tours
and folk dancing. The line is going further in 2018, with special "Beauty
and the Beast"-themed experiences on six Rhine departures, which will
include a themed dinner, onboard screenings of both the live-action and
animated versions of the film and a tour of Riquewihr in France, considered
a match for Belle's home village in the movie.
Avalon Waterways has a generous roster of themed cruises ranging from golf
to music, including its new Active Discovery tours, which are expanding
next year from the Danube into the Rhine. "Active" is interpreted as
physically and mentally active, so hands-on cooking classes in Vienna and a
walk along a World War II smugglers' route are coupled with canoeing and
biking, a guided mountain climb or archery lessons. There are eight Active
Discovery cruises offered between July and October this year, and in 2018,
they will be scheduled in June, July and September.
To complement the active approach on its cruises, Avalon is launching the
Avalon Fresh dining option this year. Noted Austrian chefs Karl and Leo
Wrenkh have developed the menu, which will offer cruisers healthful
vegetarian dishes that utilize local, seasonal ingredients from regional
As a part of its cross-cultural Bridges of Understanding program, Uniworld
Boutique River Cruise Collection is launching a new set of Jewish heritage
cruises on River Ambassador this year. The cruises will discuss WWII
history in general but also focus on the 2,000 years of Jewish history in
the Rhineland, the resiliency of the Jewish people and their hope for the
future. The 10-day Rhine-Main Discovery & Munich itinerary sails from
Munich to Cologne, Germany, calling in Dachau, Nuremberg, Frankfurt and
Wertheim - ports that include synagogues, cemeteries and Holocaust
memorials, in addition to museums, historic Jewish districts and other
sites significant to WWII. Guides specializing in WWII history lead shore
excursions, and Jewish-themed Signature Lectures present topics ranging
from "Jewish Intellectuals, Writers and Musicians" to "The History of Jews
Talk about tying the theme to the region: American Queen Steamboat
Company's nine-day Inside the Bourbon Experience, which departs July 2
onboard American Queen, helps guests dive into the centuries-old tradition
of Kentucky bourbon. Distillery tours, onboard lectures, tastings and
bourbon-infused delicacies show passengers where the spirit comes from, how
it is made and how to distinguish bourbons from different distilleries.
Bill Samuels Jr., son of the founder of Maker's Mark, will lead a
presentation and tasting, and Don Flinn, a representative of 200-year-old
distillery Buffalo Trace, will give enrichment talks. Michael Veach, a
bourbon historian and member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, will
offer tastings of some of the world's most famous and unique bourbons. In
addition, topics such as local music, the Civil War and the history of the
region will be discussed.
Jazz and Blues
American Cruise Lines will feature jazz and blues cruises onboard the
paddlewheeler Queen of the Mississippi that focus on the region's grand
tradition of music. There are special onboard performances, guided tours
and exclusive behind-the-scenes visits to museums and recording studios
that showcase the great talent along the Mississippi River. Departures are
scheduled for April 1 and 8, May 20 and Nov. 11 for the seven-night cruises
sailing between two iconic music cities: New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn.
Port calls include Oak Alley, Baton Rouge and St. Francisville, La., and
Natchez, Miss., where guests enjoy a special concert in the music room of
the historic J.N. Stone House.
Christmas market cruises, which start in November and run through
Christmas, combine a stress-free approach to the holidays with visits to
beautiful outdoor markets filled with crafts, delicacies and music.
Scenic's 16-day Christmas Wonderland departure on Dec. 14, from Amsterdam
to Budapest, Hungary, onboard Scenic Amber offers handmade craft shopping
and Christmas spirit in the iconic markets of Cologne, Regensburg and
Nuremberg, Germany; Salzburg and Vienna, Austria; and Budapest. This is
followed by a festive onboard Christmas celebration.
Tauck's A Taste of France sailing is an ideal option for foodies that
combines a seven-night Rhone River cruise onboard Emerald with two nights
in Paris. Guests can participate in pastry and cooking classes, gourmet
dinners and a tasting tour of Lyon, France's culinary capital. Offered in
April, June, August and October this year, these cruises through southern
France start in Paris on the Champs Elysees with a reception and dinner at
Fouquet's; a chocolate demonstration; and a pastry class designed
especially for Tauck guests at the famous Ecole Lenotre. In Lyon, guests
sample the wares of the historic covered food market Les Halles and dine at
Paul Bocuse's L'Abbaye de Collonges. The cruise takes them wine tasting in
Beaujolais; to a lunch showcasing Provencal specialties at a private ranch
in La Camargue; and to a cooking demonstration at a prominent cooking
school in Valence.
"Themed cruises offer a lot of potential," said Kaplan of Premier River
Cruises. "When you qualify clients and ask all the questions that give you
a clear picture of their interests and experiences, whether they are
foodies or dedicated to fitness, some topics will come up that can be
translated into special-interest themes. The burden is on the agent to use
this information to close the deal."