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Today’s river cruise passengers would hardly recognize ships of the recent past. Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, who has been deeply involved in the transformation of river cruising, recalls that before the Main-Danube Canal, most vessels in Europe had 120-square-foot cabins with two bunk beds.
Design has come a long way since then, with spacious accommodations, more suites, alternative dining venues, quieter engines, elevators, improved Internet services, sophisticated in-room entertainment systems, heated tile floors in bathrooms, sumptuous bedding and pillow menus, walk-in closets, spas and fitness rooms, solar panels, herb gardens, swimming pools and indoor and outdoor theaters.
River cruise lines have spared no effort to reduce engine noise and vibration, to the point that passengers often don’t notice when their ship leaves the dock. This is not just a comfort issue; ships with near-silent engines can allocate more stateroom space in the rear of the vessel.
Ships now have variable generators that respond to usage levels and blackwater treatment systems that emit waste water of better quality than the actual river water.
Size matters, too: Most vessels in Europe — the most popular river cruise destination — fall into the 110-meter or 135-meter categories (the maximum size to fit through the locks), depending on the rivers they sail. Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, noted that one advantage of smaller ships is that they can sail into city centers that are otherwise inaccessible. For example, in Strasbourg, France, Avalon docks right by the central canal, while passengers from larger vessels are bussed in from Germany.
Step-out balconies were once a priority, as river cruise passengers often sailed on ocean ships and expected similar amenities; however, with size limitations, a balcony — which may not be usable in inclement weather — takes space away from the room or suite.
Different lines have found individual solutions to this issue. Avalon turned the entire stateroom into a sort of balcony with its Panorama Suites (which make up 80 percent of all accommodations), in which beds are positioned to face a wall of glass that opens. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has a switch that raises the glass in its balconies to open them up fully, and Scenic Cruises has a Sun Lounge, a balcony with a glass enclosure that retracts at the touch of a button. Ama created a Twin Balcony design for its suites, with a step-out balcony and a French balcony in each.
The lowest deck staterooms that are near the waterline and have fixed windows are another design issue. Tauck introduced a loft design for these accommodations. This, along with the company’s policy of eliminating the single supplement on all rooms at this level, has doubled the number of single people the line has carried in the past two years, according to Katherine Bonner, vice president for Tauck river and small-ship cruising.
Ceilings were raised to create a much taller window, the middle portion of which can be opened electronically. Additionally, a raised platform with a seating area with a table and chairs was added.
River cruise ship design has greatly evolved over the years, such as the case of Scenic Cruises. // © 2015 Scenic Cruises
A rendering of Viking Beyla // © 2015 Viking Cruise Lines
American Cruise Lines newbuilds // © 2015 American Cruise Lines
A Viking ship on the Elbe River // © 2015 Viking River Cruises
CroisiEurope’s new paddleboat, MS Loire Princesse // © 2015 CroisiEurope
The salon on MS Loire Princesse // © 2015 CroisiEurope
“In the very beginning, we showed renderings, but people didn’t understand it,” Bonner said. “Once the lofts were actually seen and experienced, there were no issues. It opened up a whole new level of business.”
Ama will be taking a different approach: In 2017, it will move the spa area and gym to the lower deck, reducing the number of staterooms there, and the company will add additional balcony staterooms where the spa was previously located.
Cruise line executives note that river cruising formerly sold from the bottom up but now tends to be booked from the highest-priced suites downward, so ships are being designed with more high-end accommodations.
For example, Haimark Ltd. will launch the new 24-passenger Mekong Princess in September with an all-suite spa concept, and Tauck introduced its Inspiration Class last year, with 22 suites and most staterooms in the 225-square-foot-plus realm. According to Bonner, Tauck had looked at the possibility of an all-suite ship in Europe, but decided against it. A prime reason was that multigenerational groups like to have a variety of accommodations from which to choose.
Multigenerational travel is becoming increasingly important to river cruising, and Ama is offering connecting cabins for this segment on its 2015 ships. Charles Robertson, president of American Cruise Lines, reported that the line always had a few connecting staterooms on its ships sailing the Mississippi, and it will now feature up to 20 on the new American Eagle.
River cruise lines are constantly developing innovations to make the product more luxurious and efficient and to deliver more value to the consumer.
Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking River Cruises, notes that the company put considerable work into its Longship design, moving the central corridor slightly to one side and pivoting the room plan. In addition, a design with three decks and a squared-off bow allowed Viking to add six staterooms on the bottom deck, reducing overall fares. It uses the bow space for crew cabins, cold storage and the al fresco Aquavit Terrace.
“Moving the corridor to one side enables Viking to offer two-room suites and full-size verandas,” Marnell said. “The economic advantage has been instrumental in our growth, as we pass savings on to customers.”
River cruising’s latest innovations are displayed on new ships. Uniworld’s Maria Theresa has features such as a cinema, a resistance pool and sunken treadmills in the gym to accommodate taller travelers. All staterooms have televisions embedded in the mirrors, while suites offer televisions that drop down from the ceiling; both options free up valuable space. The company also recently invested heavily in upgrading Wi-Fi networks, providing connectivity on many devices.
Scenic Cruises has two new ships in Europe this year: the 169-passenger Scenic Opal and Scenic Jasper. Both feature a combined relaxation and resistance pool; a redesigned bar and lounge area; an indoor-outdoor extension of Portobello restaurant with a retractable glass enclosure; an extended buffet; and new cabin layouts and furniture. Scenic has been a leader in retrofitting previous ships with new features; in 2013, it spent more than $12 million bringing all vessels (the oldest is 5 years old) to matching levels.
Decor and DesignShip decor is impacted by the region in which a vessel is cruising, but each company has its own aesthetic, as well. Uniworld features a boutique hotel concept created by sister company Red Carnation Hotels, with each ship highly individual and far from generic, while Viking ships are all similar and share a light, airy, Scandinavian design created by the firm Yran & Storbraaten.
Decor and design become more complicated when a company wants to preserve a historic design and still use the newest technology.
“We need to keep American Queen true to its historical roots,” said Ted Sykes, president and COO of American Queen Steamboat Company. “As one of only two vessels entered with Historic Hotels of America, it has a pilothouse packed with the latest high-tech electronics in lieu of the old-fashioned ship’s wheel, and it has a combination of two redundant propulsion systems — one a steam power plant from the last century that will likely never be built again, and the other a more traditional electro-diesel power plant, married very nicely in the engine room. The steam plant maintains a tradition begun over 200 years ago by pioneering rivermen, who threw logs into copper boilers to move steamboats upriver. It is a historic aspect, and one many of our guests are fascinated to see. So, yes, we don’t mess with that.”
American Queen has kept the nostalgia alive in the Mark Twain Gallery, the Ladies’ Tea Parlor and the Gentlemen’s Card Room by reupholstering the furniture in fabrics reminiscent of the era and using wallpaper that harkens back to that time. The ship’s Grand Saloon is a scale replica of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., but the boxes for luxury and AAA suite guests open with modern magnetic swipe keys.
Meanwhile, American Cruise Lines, which has a fleet of Victorian-style ships, is building more of those, but it has also announced that it will launch several nontraditional vessels, which are currently being designed. Its new paddlewheel ship, American Eagle, just launched, and a larger traditional ship will debut next year with space for 190 passengers.
According to Robertson, the increasing numbers of international travelers booking cruises prefer the traditional Victorian style, while the alternative design is more of an experiment.
Staterooms and balconies of the future will be bigger as ships are built wider, and they will have more glass and public areas, Robertson says.
“Customers want little lounges where they can congregate in small groups, in addition to the large lounge that holds everyone,” he said.
Viking, which has announced ships for the Mississippi, will adapt its Longship design from Europe rather than using the Victorian style.
River RestrictionsNew itineraries also force design change as designers look for solutions on rivers with less-than-ideal conditions.
The Loire and Elbe rivers are prime examples: They have a strong attraction for travelers but have shallow, fluctuating water levels. CroisiEurope constructed its first low-water paddlewheeler this year for the Loire Valley. It has another in the pipeline for the Elbe, which is expected to have a banner year in 2017 with the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther launching the Protestant Reformation.
According to Schreiner, Ama, which is close to a decision about going into the Elbe in 2017, is looking at a different solution. So is Viking, which launched two ships on the Elbe this year. Viking Astrid and Viking Beyla each have two decks, carry 98 guests and use pump jets for propulsion, allowing them to sail in very shallow water.
According to Marnell, by using lighter materials and innovative design and construction, the draft is just 2.7 feet. Viking used lighter glass, aluminum rather than steel and, in some cases, a composite material, which removed 300 tons of weight and brought each ship to 870 tons. In addition to shallow draft, the lighter weight has resulted in 20 to 30 percent fuel reduction, and the economic advantage is being passed along to the customers, Marnell says.
Among the unexpected elements that affect ship design is competition, according to Tom Markwell, managing partner of sales and marketing for Haimark.
For example, on the Mekong, Haimark had to make a decision between building a ship that could pass under a low bridge just outside Ho Chi Minh City and bussing guests an hour and a half to a port beyond the bridge to sail on a larger vessel. The company chose the latter option for Navigator, which has higher ceilings, more deck space and can better compete with other lines there, while the 24-guest Mekong Princess is designed to sail from Ho Chi Minh City.
“The Princess is a small, all-suite ship, and it works with just two decks,” Markwell said. “Agents may not realize all the thought that goes into creating a consistent product in emerging destinations.”
Schreiner agrees that the technical side is different in developing countries, and not just because of the characteristics of the rivers.
“I would not dare install elevators on these ships in Southeast Asia,” he said. “When there are problems, you need technicians to fix them immediately. It’s the same issue with central air. On the Mekong, we have individual air-conditioning units placed in the staterooms, so they can be replaced if there is a problem. If we had central air and lost it, people would melt.”
The need for ships to sail in low water has generated larger accommodations, Schreiner says.
“AmaPura sails on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and has big cabins to spread the weight over a larger area,” he said. “The smallest is 285 square feet.”
As river cruising adjusts to conditions on a greater variety of rivers, overall design is being dramatically refined, both to enhance passenger enjoyment and operating efficiency. It’s clear that as long as innovations in river cruise ship design continue, the industry will keep expanding on waterways all over the world.