The cruise scene is shifting from oceans to rivers, with more than 2,000 river ships now carrying vacationers on the exotic rivers in Europe.
Statistics show that cruising Europe’s rivers is expanding at a much faster rate than its counterpart on oceans.
Leading the flotilla is Viking River Cruises, both with number of ships and innovations.
The latest change is the Viking Longship, expanding the ship’s length to 135 meters, the maximum that Europe’s river locks can handle.The Longship’s length is the equivalent of one-and-a-half football fields, with luxuries to match the expansion. Viking’s Longships can accommodate up to 190 passengers. Many of the staterooms now are with balconies.
Viking put 12 of the new Longships in service in 2013, with another 14 coming on line in the spring of 2014.
I was on the final cruise of the 2013 season, Passage to Eastern Europe, which ended in early December.
We spent a week traveling the Danube from Bucharest to Budapest, with sightseeing in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary.
There also were pre-cruise and post-cruise stays in both Bucharest and Budapest.
Who takes a trip like this? The passengers were mainly experienced travelers, most of whom were converts from ocean cruising. Our trip had 146 passengers; almost 100 were Americans.
There also were Brits, Canadians and a handful from Malaysia, India, Denmark and Belgium. More than half of the passengers were repeaters who had cruised with Viking before. Following the cruise, the majority rated the trip as an experience that exceeded expectations.
The Viking Aegir concentrated on keeping the repeaters happy. “They know what to expect, and they look for things that represent improvement over their last cruise,” said George Sideov, the cruise program director. “Excellent wines have been added to the meals at no additional cost. The same is true for Wi-Fi connections. Clean environment enthusiasts are pleased to discover that 10 percent of the energy now is provided by solar power.
“The typical passenger seems well grounded on what to look for.
They have done their homework on the area, and they’re eager to learn more.
Viking port tours are included, yielding a wealth of additional knowledge by local tour guides. These tours are loaded with information and personal anecdotes on life in each of the individual locales. Also, experts come aboard to deliver informative lectures on a whole range of topics,” he said. A general description of the average passenger is upper middle class, 60-plus years of age. The group is small enough that by the cruise end, they are friends on a first-name basis. These aren’t gambling enthusiasts. There’s no casino. There are no big shows. Entertainment comes from cocktail piano music and musicians and dancers who come aboard with ethnic performances when the ship is docked.
Passenger interest centers mainly on the history of the many area sites visited. It’s a photographer’s dream. The Balkans have seen a century of wars and upheavals. War damage still is visible, and so are signs of remarkable recovery. New construction pays attention to the distinctive local customs and traditions. The shadow of the remains of the Iron Curtain still may be visible throughout the area, but Russian influences now are confined mainly to history books.
Overall, the river cruise is a restful and informative scenic adventure in comfortable luxury.
Flying Island Airways turbo-props after a scenic 30-minute ride to the caldera-top Lanai Airport from busy Honolulu, the instant appeal and sense of new beginnings is obvious on this untrammeled Hawaiian island. Of all the inhabited islands of this mid-Pacific group, Lanai is a destination meant to let you re-connect with the natural world but in a style and with service at the very highest of levels. We stayed for five days on Lanai and found the stay far too short.
Amazon – Brazil’s special region. The city of Manaus is the jumping off point for cruises taken in the local Amazon region and in our case, the starting point for our cruise down the Amazon and out to the Atlantic. Sea Dream II sailed from Iquitos prior to our boarding to present the Amazon in its Fitzcarraldo type activities/experiences such as jungle exploration, hikes and tribal encounters along with interactions with nature.
This part of the journey on the mighty flowing Amazon was a chance to see how humans have learned to interact, use and sometimes mis-use this extraordinary natural wonder — a huge flow of fresh water larger than any other in the world and extending from the smallest rivulets at the western Andean beginnings to the vast expanses where the river finally empties into the salt seas.
Manaus, a former rubber baron boom town of the 19th century has remainders of this rich heritage still found scattered throughout town although its 21st century energy comes from tax free business, technology and IT development and a variety of small industries. The somewhat older, slightly seedy feel of the original riverside settlement hearkens back to the past and with the moist hot weather year-round has a feel of a slowly distintegrating past refreshed in places with some modern touches. It was Easter weekend when I was there, so services were held in one of the older churches alongside the famed Theatro Amazonas built in elegant 19th century fashion.
Boarding the Sea Dream II we left for the first of many downriver adventures: experiencing the “Meeting of the Rivers” just about sunset –the black waters of the Rio Negro parallelling for several miles the café au lait brown of the Amazonas River (also known as Rio Solimôes). As we were crusing towards the end of the wet season, the waters moved at a rapid 9km an hour carrying an occasional upriver log, patches of lush green plants in little “islands” all moving inexorably downstream.
Sea Dream II is a small vessel: 4,500 tonnes and only a maximum of 100 guests with 95 crew. Not a bad ratio. What makes the Sea Dream experience so wonderful is the yacht-feel, the incredible personable level of service, the ecletic, diverse main meal menus, and an overall ‘light touch’ between staff and guests. One quickly feels ‘at home’ — staff recognizes you quite quickly and gets to know one’s personal preferences almost before one knows them oneself. Hot spicy sauce with your eggs and main dishes appeared magically at each meal much to the satisfaction of one of my fellow guests. The Chef is up on deck every breakfast ensuring all is well; the Restaurant Manager keeps his eye out for any possible mis-steps although the team’s impeccable service makes that a challenge. The shipboard spa is marvelous and the newly redesigned workout room faces forward so that you can see the riverscapes pass by at the same time as spending an hour treading water (in a manner of speaking)
This trip included as a bonus: five naturalists, all with extensive Amazon experience, who led us out almost daily, morning and afternoon, in zodiacs to visit smaller parts of the river taking in the natural habitat and its inhabitants (plant, animal and human animal). Their sharp eyes, knowledge of the ecology, their sense of what makes the river special, allowed us to properly value what we came so far to see. Evening debriefings highlighted the “finds of the day” so that all groups and those who did not go out could have the same enjoyment of the river. What made the trip more special were shoreside visits to smaller communities including Parintins which has an amazing annual festival where two sides compete in dances honoring an old Amazon mythic tale. Because our group was too small for a shoreside presentation, the ship team specially arranged for a dance troupe to perform on board to demonstrate for us the traditional competitive routines.
After leaving Belém (our last stop on the river), we headed out along the eastern side of South America up to French Guiana (visiting the islands which make up the triad of the Devil’s Island group), then to the smaller island of Tobago and into Mayreau (part of St Vincent-Grenadines group) and finally ended the voyage in Bridgetown, Barbados. Leaving the ship is always a bittersweet experience. The last full day on board ship, there is usually a Champagne-Caviar splash celebration on the beach. A surfboard is used to hold a huge tin of caviar, and the Chef, Restaurant Manager and Bar Manager stand waist deep in the water at beachside, dishing out dollops of caviar on mini-blinis or small toast points, while champagne is served much to all of our delights. It is a signature celebration of Sea Dream. Always a great hit!