by Sue Bryant
River cruising can have a certain mystique and if you’ve never cruised before, you probably have a lot of questions. Once you’re on board though, you’ll quickly realise why people become hooked. A river cruise is friendly, fun and educational. You’ll see beautiful scenery and get under the skin of the places you visit. The food is fantastic – and best of all, pretty well everything is included in the price. Here’s what to expect from your maiden voyage.
The atmosphere on board is friendly and sociable
River cruise boats are small and intimate; the ships in Riviera Travel’s European fleet take between 126 and 169 passengers, tiny in comparison to their ocean-going cousins, so you won’t feel lost. In Asia, the ships are even smaller, the two Mekong vessels taking 64 each. You’ll quickly get to know your fellow travellers, as you’re on tour together during the day and inevitably, socialising in the lounge before dinner over a cocktail or two. Meals are open seating, so you can choose who you dine with, or ask the Maitre d’ to seat you. Friendships are quickly struck up, although, of course, if you prefer to use your cruise as a time for quiet contemplation, that’s fine as well. Remember, too, that Riviera Travel offers special departures for singles.
You’ll travel in comfort
Banish any thought of fold-down bunks or cramped conditions – the cabins on today’s river cruisers are very smart indeed, like chic hotel rooms. The majority have floor-to-ceiling windows which slide back to let the river breezes in. Some even have a private balcony. Expect crisp Egyptian cotton, a choice of pillows and a marble-lined bathroom with power shower, fluffy towels and luxurious bath goodies. There’s a TV and hairdryer and, on the European ships, a tea tray and kettle, a luxury usually overlooked by many other cruise lines. On the Asian riverboats, the décor blends in with the local style, so you’ll find plenty of rich, colourful textiles and panelled teak. Best of all, every cabin on Riviera Travel’s two Mekong ships has either a Juliet balcony or a full veranda on which you can sit and watch life on the river.
The food is spectacular
Mealtimes are very special on a river voyage and, the convivial atmosphere aside, are a chance to sample delicious regional cuisine. The day begins with an early risers’ breakfast, should you fancy a stroll on deck with a steaming cup of coffee and a croissant as the sun rises. The full breakfast is a lavish affair, with freshly baked pastries, fruits, cereals, hot dishes and eggs made to order, or you could laze in bed and have continental breakfast delivered to your cabin. Lunch is a spectacular buffet, often featuring local specialities, from boeuf bourguignon in France to apple strudel in Austria or fresh spring rolls in Vietnam. More tempting pastries appear for afternoon tea, followed by a four-course extravaganza for dinner, featuring international classics and delicious local dishes. Special diet? Just let Riviera Travel know when you book.
You can leave the ball gown at home
Unlike some ocean cruise lines, riverboats have a very relaxed dress code. You should pack comfortable, casual clothing and walking shoes for the day and perhaps something a little bit smarter for the evenings. On every cruise, there’s a Captain’s welcome drink and farewell dinner, when some passengers prefer to dress up a bit more, but no need at all for black tie and ball gowns; these would be quite out of place.
You’ll be docked right in the middle of towns
One of the great joys of river cruising is that your ship is a floating hotel that moves you from one beautiful location to another. Almost always, ships tie up right at the town centre. In Avignon, on the Rhône, it’s no distance from the dock to the magnificent Palais des Papes, while in Porto, you’re moored in the middle of the city, with stunning views in every direction. Along the Moselle, arguably one of Europe’s prettiest rivers, ships dock on the waterfront in medieval Cochem, guarded by a craggy castle that dates back to the 11th century. Budapest, meanwhile, is built on both sides of the Danube and by night, you’ll have wonderful views from the ship of the floodlit Castle Hill. From almost every mooring, you can easily walk into town to explore independently.
There’s plenty of freedom
On a Riviera Travel voyage, excursions are included in every port so that you can make the most of your cruise but there’s plenty of free time, too. If you already know a port, for example, or fancy a stroll at your own pace, or even a lazy day on deck, there’s no obligation to join in. Often, the ship stays in port late into the evening or even overnight, should you want to stroll ashore for a digestif after dinner.
Life along the river is fascinating
One of the best aspects of river cruising is that the view is always changing. Every river is different. On the Rhine, you’ll be fascinated by the barges that steam past, laden with cargo, some of them sailing right across Europe to the Black Sea, while along the Douro in Portugal, the steeply terraced vineyards either side of the river are the main attraction and deeper into the valley, sheer cliffs and groves of wild olives and almond trees. In Vietnam and Cambodia, the Mekong is bustling with floating markets and stilted villages, while along the Nile, between temple visits, you’ll see lush fields along the fertile floor plain, water buffalo cooling themselves in the shallows.
River cruising is anything but sedentary
First-timers are often surprised to discover how busy they are on a river cruise. This isn’t to say the pace is frantic; in fact, Riviera Travel’s itineraries are carefully planned to suit the tastes of British travellers, who are familiar with many of the destinations rather than racing through Europe and checking off a bucket list. But you’re walking in every port, and if that’s not enough, the European ships have a gym and wellness area for burning off the rest of that sneaky second dessert. In Asia, you could be exploring temples or zooming around Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk – and wherever you are, if you want to do something more active, like hire a bicycle for the day, simply ask your cruise director to help make arrangements.
Almost everything is included
You can put away the wallet when you’re on board, as riverboats operate a cashless system, so you settle up for bar drinks at the end of the cruise. For 2018, Riviera Travel is offering optional drinks packages, should you prefer to have drinks with meals included. All food and almost all excursions are covered, though, so budgeting for your holiday is easy.
Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist specialising in (and addicted to) cruising. She is cruise editor of The Sunday Times and also contributes to magazines and websites worldwide, including Sunday Times Travel Magazine, World of Cruising, Cruise Passenger (Australia), Porthole (USA) and www.cruisecritic.co.uk. Sue lives in London but is often travelling, exploring the world’s rivers and oceans. She has sailed on more than 100 ships over the last 15 years.