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In spite of huge recent investments in thought and money to create innovative new ships, river cruise executives are unanimous on one issue: It is the destination experience that drives river cruising. This isn’t as contradictory as it might seem, since many of the features of the new vessels are designed to bring the passenger more deeply into the heart of the destination.
Scenic Cruises’ new Jewel is a prime example of blending the destination and the ship. The company has come up with a variety of creative features that effectively link the ship to its surroundings, using a combination of ship design, new technology and a choice of ways for guests to come in contact with local culture and history.
I fell totally in love with Scenic’s proprietary Tailormade GPS devices, which are like having a personal relationship with a very articulate insider when you sightsee. Most river cruise lines have wireless personal handheld listening devices to take on shore that pick up the guide’s discussion, so you don’t have to cluster around like sheep to hear what is being said, and Tailormade does that, too, but it goes far beyond.
Scenic offers GPS-activated enrichment on more than 100 sightseeing features along the rivers. With these devices, you activate impressive talks, complete with music, that tell you about whatever interests you, right at the moment when you want to hear it. And it works on the moving ship, too. You just have to be sure to recharge the device, because once you have used it, you certainly won’t want to be without it.
My first experience with Tailormade hooked me completely, and I wandered through the towns on our cruise, listening to everything from the music and poetry of Hildegard Van Bingen to the history of a local power plant and a tiny church, all so beautifully done that I went back to a couple of sites twice to hear the talk again.
Attention to life on shore is encouraged everywhere. There is not only al fresco dining onboard the Jewel, but the indoor restaurants are wrapped in glass, from the Crystal Dining Room to the Italian specialty restaurant, Portobello. The Observation Lounge’s open-air teak deck is right at the bow of the ship, the perfect place to see the hills, castles, vineyards and towns in time to get your camera ready.
But it was in my stateroom that I really connected with the dramatic scenery rolling by. For hours on end, through rain, sunshine, dusk and morning light, I sat in my Sun Lounge, watching the world around me. Scenic’s solution to the problem of providing a step-out balcony without losing precious living space when the weather is wet or chilly is a glassed-in relaxation area found in more than 80 percent of accommodations. At the touch of a switch, the glass rolls away to let in the breezes, the lap of the river on the hull, the sounds of voices on shore and scents of grass or flowers. Since you are so close to the shore on a river cruise, these Sun Lounges add even more to the cruise experience than the private balconies on seagoing ships.
Off the ship, Scenic offers a very wide choice of shore excursions, all included, and Scenic Enrich experiences take guests to places such as the 12th-century Marksburg Castle for a dinner of traditional dishes and a very amusing show. Local groups come onboard to perform and answer questions about their art, their lives and families as well.
Another complimentary shore experience that drew top reviews from guests is the electric assist bicycles. They are great for independent exploring and provide extra oomph on steep hills, but my fellow passengers were most gleeful about blasting by local cyclists.
There really is no wasted time on the Jewel; if you aren’t sleeping, you have every opportunity to connect with the world around you with all of your senses. And that’s what river cruising is about.