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Now that most of the major river cruise lines have settled on their hardware, with signature features addressing the question of indoor/outdoor space, the competitive focus seems to be shifting to the onshore experience. We’re seeing more creative offerings for both excursions that are included in the fare and for premium experiences offered at an additional cost.
Increasingly, the cruise lines are offering options for independent exploration along with traditional guided tours, such as hop-on, hop-off tours with commentary on points of interest that is triggered by a GPS system.
Companies also layer complimentary experiences. For instance, in addition to the city tour offered in every European port of call, AmaWaterways offers alternative Limited Edition Tours — also free of charge — designed for guests who have already visited a certain destination or simply want something different from the regular tour. Culinary-themed guided walking tours are provided on most itineraries in Europe, where guests can sample regional specialties at the Les Halles market in Lyon, visit a 200-year-old mustard mill or try their hand at knotting a pretzel at a German bakery. During hands-on tours, guests might learn how to paint a ceramic tile or make Beemster cheese.
In Vietnam/Cambodia, AmaWaterways offers an overnight stay on a traditional junk in Ha Long Bay. In Africa, guests can enjoy a traditional boma (outdoor) dinner on shore during their Chobe River wildlife cruise, or a private picnic in Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Africa’s Garden of Eden.
Victoria Cruises is adding new tours on the Yangtze River in China, as well. This year, they introduced a new scenic cruise on a traditional sampan through Goddess Stream, surrounded by beautiful peaks and teeming with local wildlife, such as monkeys and mountain goats.
Scenic Cruises offers European Village Day, where guests visit a village and choose from activities that include baking a traditional German cake and exploring private castles and family wineries. Scenic also has its proprietary Scenic Tailormade offering, which offers GPS-activated commentary that can be accessed on Apple technology or used on a preloaded device from the cruise line. Not only does this allow passengers to wander on their own and still learn about notable sights on shore, but it provides commentary on places of interest along the cruise that can be accessed while sailing.In Vienna, Scenic guests feel a special connection to the famous Spanish Riding School, since the company sponsors one of the white Lipizzaner stallions.
Also in Vienna, the new Emerald Waterways provides passengers with a chance to join the locals with preferred seating arrangements for an evening at the opera or symphony.
Tauck guests will discover something special in Vienna as well when they spend an evening at the Palais Pallavicini, a private palace, enjoying cocktails, dinner, dancing, opera and classical music performances by performers in period dress. The company’s Seine, Versailles, Paris and London itinerary begins with a two-night stay in London and a lecture by Celia Sandys on the life and times of her grandfather, Winston Churchill.
Just outside London is the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, where Viking Cruises’ guests can visit with the owners after hours and see their extraordinary collection of Egyptian art, acquired when the former Lord Carnarvon financed Howard Carter in his discovery of the Tomb of King Tutankhamun. In Cognac, guests can create a personal blend of Cognac that is preserved on record for further orders. Viking emphasizes that it provides special access for its guests, which, according to Karine Hagen, daughter of chairman and CEO Torstein Hagen, means “access to people as much as places.”
In the same spirit, on summer cruises on the Danube, the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection features performances by Elisabeth von Trapp, granddaughter of Maria and Baron von Trapp whose story inspired “The Sound of Music.” The entertainment continues in Salzburg with a Mirabellgarten performance of highlights from “The Sound of Music.” The tour includes a sing-along on the steps and a reenactment of “Do-Re-Mi” in the garden where the original scene was filmed in 1964.
For active travelers, Avalon Waterways partners with bicycle tour specialists in Amsterdam, Lyon, Durnstein, Vienna and Breisach for optional, guided excursions. Among the list of optional excursions is an evening at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
Avalon takes travelers to Frisia, a region in the northern Netherlands with a very distinct culture. Guests can enjoy authentic folk dances dating back to the 1850s and, on sailings between Budapest and the Black Sea, an onboard Bulgarian icon-painting demonstration connects guests to the 18th-century struggle for an independent Bulgarian church and national independence.
Closer to home, American Cruise Lines has a complimentary Bald Eagle-viewing cruise out of Red Wing, Minn., which offers a look at the birds’ 1,500-pound nest. Another option is an exclusive behind-the-scenes walking tour of Louisville’s Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby, with an insider’s view of the jockeys’ quarters, Millionaires’ Row and the press box.
American Queen Steamboat Company’s coaches operate hop-on, hop-off tours in many ports for independent travelers who enjoy commentary but want to choose what they see and in what order they visit the sights. Passengers sign up very quickly for premium tour options such as a visit to Twin Oaks in Natchez, Miss., the private home of celebrity chef and restaurateur Regina Charboneau, whose table full of goodies for guests demonstrates her Southern hospitality.
In the Pacific Northwest, those who want to fly back in history can book a ride on a restored historic plane or glider to Mt. Hood, Ore., at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum from the Dalles port of call on the Columbia River.
Passengers onboard Un-Cruise in the Pacific Northwest can compare notes as they split into two groups for private tours and tastings at different Washington wineries. And from the Dalles port, they go to the extraordinary Stonehenge War Memorial, created by pacifist Sam Hill, who had been told that Stonehenge was a place of sacrifice and wanted to commemorate the soldiers who died in World War I.
As river cruise lines strive to give their passengers unique and authentic experiences, it’s clear that relationships — along with the ability to offer exclusive access — will be as big on the rivers as they have become for seagoing cruises. And as the companies compete to make interesting alliances, the customer can only benefit.