From a steep cliffside overlooking Luxembourg City’s historic quarters and fortifications in the valley below, a brave Flat Stanley posed at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not every day the fictional character (rendered in colorful laminated paper) gets to visit Europe — let alone a grand duchy — but it was made possible by a guest who brought him onboard our Tauck river cruise on the less frequented Moselle River.
For those not in the know, The Flat Stanley Project was started in 1995 by a schoolteacher. The educational endeavor encourages kids to learn about new cultures and people via the character. Elementary-school children color cutouts of Flat Stanley, then mail him to someone in another country to take photos with him and send back a letter recounting his adventures. And, as it happens, he was sailing onboard my Moselle river cruise.
Once upon a time, any river cruise would have been a distinctive departure from mainstream ocean sailings.
However, as the market has taken off in the last couple decades, river travel has become considerably more commonplace, turning waterways such as the Danube, Rhine and Seine rivers into household names.
So, how can veteran river cruise clients spice up their next trip? At Crystal River Cruises’ 2019 annual sales gala, vice president and managing director Walter Littlejohn offered his take.
“For those of you who are looking to take your repeat river cruisers and put them somewhere new, the new place to put them is the Moselle,” he said. “This river is a stunner.”
And I must agree. Along with Luxembourg City, I’ve fallen in love with other ports along the route, which branches off the Rhine at Koblenz, Germany, and eventually flows into France. A beautifully restored castle in Cochem regally crowns the river valley that meanders through locales such as charming Bernkastel-Kues and dramatic Trier, which is home to fascinating Roman ruins.
And the Moselle is just one example of many global rivers that are more exotic and appealing to repeaters. We’ve rounded up the best under-the-radar waterways for veteran river cruise clients seeking something new and exciting.
Douro River, Portugal
A newly popular alternative for repeat river cruisers is the Douro River, which is situated mostly in Portugal, and a bit in Spain. Along with the Spanish city of Salamanca, Douro itineraries are likely to include Portuguese locales such as Porto, known for its famous port wine; Regua, which offers access to the beautifully baroque Mateus Palace; and Pinhao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Douro Valley’s historic wine region.
In 2020, with its new Andorinha vessel, Tauck will join companies already in the region, such as AmaWaterways and Emerald Waterways. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will add S.S. Sao Gabriel to its Douro ships next year, as well.
Due to tighter clearances, vessels across all lines are uniformly smaller than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but each brand showcases its own signature comforts onboard, such as Tauck’s larger passenger space ratio.
Volga and Svir Rivers, Russia
The Volga and Svir rivers in Russia may seem somewhat distant from river cruising’s most popular waterways but, interestingly, they are where Viking began its operations. The line, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017, remains in the area with wholly owned ships that visit the heart of the former Soviet Union. In fact, a river cruise here is a perfect extension for any ocean cruiser who has already been to St. Petersburg and desires a deeper dive into Russian history and culture.
While a one-day shore excursion to Moscow from the Baltic Sea is possible via flights and high-speed trains, a journey to the capital city onboard a riverboat is far more relaxed. River itineraries usually spend several days in Moscow thanks to multiple overnights. CroisiEurope and Scenic are among other lines that sail into the country’s interior. Most Russian riverboats feature more traditional designs, but newbuilds coming soon from Mosturflot and Vodohod are decidedly more modern. And the next-generation designs might encourage other brands to follow suit.
Po River, Italy
Like Russia’s St. Petersburg, Italy’s Venice is another crossover point between ocean and river cruising, connecting the Venetian Lagoon and the Italian interior. Options for clients along the Po River are fewer, however: Only CroisiEurope and Uniworld sail there, along with barge company European Waterways. All lines include ample time in Venice, but venture off from there.
One of Uniworld’s featured excursions is a private after-hours look at St. Mark’s Basilica. Meanwhile, CroisiEurope visits Mantua and its architectural marvels, with bonus coach outings to gems such as Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.European Waterways also makes the extended journey from Venice to Mantua, with a guest maximum of 20 people.
“Situated on the Canal Bianco that runs alongside the Po River, Mantua is much farther inland than many of the larger riverboats can go, making our cruise one of the few to reach the city directly,” said John Wood-Dow, director of European Waterways. “Our cruise is also unique because by joining the canal, guests enjoy raised vistas of the stunning surrounding countryside, instead of sitting behind the high levees of the river. In addition, our clients experience the wildlife haven of the Po Delta before an intimate hosted dinner in the breathtaking 17th-century Villa Ca’Zen.”
Irrawaddy, Mekong and Yangtze Rivers, Asia
Asia’s Irrawaddy, Mekong and Yangtze rivers offer plenty of intrigue for veteran cruisers, as well. On the Irrawaddy, clients can sail to Mandalay, Myanmar, and explore the former royal capital’s fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary. Bangkok is often the gateway to Irrawaddy cruises, making flying to and from the region convenient.
Mainstream cruise lines such as Scenic sail the Irrawaddy, but some customers may prefer boutique players like Belmond, Pandaw River Cruises or The Strand Cruise. The Strand boasts a handsomely modern vessel built in 2015 that combines rustic motifs and high style.
Similarly, Southeast Asia’s Mekong River also calls to clients, as does the breathtaking Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next year, Uniworld’s all-suite Mekong Jewel will sail through both Cambodia and Vietnam, with a capacity of just 68 guests. (The vessel will replace the existing Mekong Navigator.)
On China’s Yangtze River, meanwhile, travelers can gaze upon the massive Three Gorges Dam and even extend their journey to see Xian’s storied, UNESCO-designated terra-cotta army. Clients can also add flights to visit the Great Wall of China near Beijing, or the booming metropolis of Shanghai. Brand choices for the Yangtze include regionally dedicated Victoria Cruises, as well as Viking, Grand Circle Cruise Line and Sanctuary Retreats (owned by Abercrombie & Kent).
Chobe and Nile Rivers, Africa
Botswana’s Chobe River is about as wild as they come, given its proximity to Chobe National Park. A river cruise here combines the best of a sailing and a safari. AmaWaterways charters the chic 28-passenger Zambezi Queen, which is ideal for fauna viewing. Sailings can be combined with shoreside extensions in Tanzania and the South African cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg.
If Egypt is on a client’s radar, the Nile River is another great choice in Africa, and new ships will launch on the waterway in 2020. Viking is constructing Viking Osiris to follow its retrofitted Viking Ra, and Uniworld is building S.S. Sphinx.
“Sphinx will sail from the capital city of Cairo, allowing advisors to offer their clients a seamless and one-of-a-kind Egyptian vacation filled with culture, adventure and luxury,” said Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld. “The ship boasts gourmet dining venues, a swimming pool, a massage room and luxe design finishes, including locally sourced Egyptian artwork, fabrics and hand-carved furnishings to bring the region to life onboard.”
Along with visiting sites such as the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx, Nile river itineraries usually include Luxor, Esna, Aswan and Edfu. One of Uniworld’s featured excursions is a trip to see the dramatic Karnak Temple Complex. Sanctuary Retreats also operates on the Nile.
Amazon River, South America
South America’s iconic Amazon River will have a new vessel floating down its waters in 2020: Aqua Expeditions’ Aqua Nera. Inspired by Peruvian blackwater lagoons, the 40-guest riverboat will be architecturally augmented with dark-wood panels. Cruisers will have the opportunity to explore Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve and its rainforest inhabitants, which include pink river dolphins and saddleback tamarin monkeys.
Other operators in the destination include International Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions in partnership with Delfin — showcasing that these itineraries are equal parts river cruise and expedition cruise. In fact, along with launch boats and kayaks, these lines feature an expedition team. River cruises on the Amazon can also be extended to add a trip to Peru’s Machu Picchu.
No matter where clients decide to go next, these river alternatives will take them on an enriching international journey that will provide incredible memories to share with friends and family.