River of Dreams

River Cruises

River of Dreams

Experience relaxation on Europe’s quaint waterways.

From a mathematical standpoint, it makes perfect sense that the cruise industry would appear to focus its attention on oceans, which account for 98 percent of the water on this planet. Don’t get us wrong. We love those floating resorts and their ocean-blue views as far as the eye can see, but it takes different strokes to make the world go round.

River cruising is by no means a new cruising pursuit, but in an industry where “big, bigger, biggest” has become the norm, river cruising offers a compelling, wonderful option: Get up-close and personal to a corner of the world in an environment conducive to intimacy. In Europe, a number of luxury lines provide access to towns and cultures that no megaship could offer, on breathtaking, scenic waterways that no megaship has ever experienced.

It may be hard to envision a cruise without waterslides and thousands of cruise-cohabitants, but once you take in a river cruise — as three Porthole writers did, all for the first time — it’s hard to imagine ever going back.

River in Your Room

A panoramic tale from Avalon Waterways — with pretty pictures on every page.

By Jeffrey Laign

Once upon a time, in a town along the Rhine, a cruel archbishop punished delinquent taxpayers by locking them in a barn and setting it on fire. “Hear the mice squeak!” the greedy despot quipped as anguished cries poured from the blazing shed.

Exhausted after a day of peasant burning, Hatto II retired to his castle. No sooner had he crossed the moat than an inexplicable army of mice attacked him. Hatto took refuge in a tower but the mice gnawed through the door and devoured the quaking cleric.

Fairy tale or fact? Along Germany’s storied Rhine River, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. Flanked by rolling vineyards and castle-crowned cliffs, the Rhineland serves up vistas straight from the Brothers Grimm. And with its wall-to-wall window suites, Avalon Panorama makes a feast of that fabled scenery.

“It’s up to us to tell these stories and bring these places to life,” says Steve Born, marketing vice president for Group Voyages, which sells the Globus family of brands, including Avalon Waterways.

It is with Born’s assurance that you will find no mice aboard Avalon Panorama, christened in Germany last year by Australian TV personality Lisa Wilkinson. What you will find is a comfortable, captivating means of cruising through the heart of Europe on the winding Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers.

Adjust your wall o’ windows and transform your stateroom into an open-air balcony. Why, you needn’t leave your comfy bed to enjoy the panoramic views. But it would be a shame if you were slothful enough to try something like that, given the “proximity of attractions,” says Patrick Clark, Avalon’s U.S. managing director. “You can walk from the vessel to the heart of town.”

And quaint, colorful towns they are, with streets cobbled by Romans and Celts, timbered walls, Gothic spires, and names that yodel up from the back of your throat:

• Cochem, a 9th-century, wine-rich settlement watched over by the towering,  millennium-old Reichsburg Castle, which is packed to the max with Renaissance and Baroque furniture, crockery, medieval weaponry, and priceless paintings.

• Rudesheim, just south of a cliff whose wind-whipped “murmurings” gave rise to the legend of the Lorelei, a golden-haired siren whose melancholic melodies so enchanted sailors that they wrecked their boats upon the rocks. Name more tunes at Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum, which features an odd array of amazing instruments that play themselves.

• Mainz, where Johannes Gutenberg dreamed up the concept of moveable type in 1439, enabling printers to mass-produce books filled with every sort of tale, tall and otherwise. At the Gutenberg Museum you can learn all about the history of printing and admire a Bible printed by Gutenberg himself.

• Cologne, where they make … cologne. Once storytellers here regaled youngsters with tales of a gnomish race said to have inhabited the region in the Long, Long Ago. Today you’re as likely to encounter tiny Heinzelmännchen in city streets as mice on Avalon river ships. But you can’t miss the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, which took 600 years to build and houses the remains of the Three Wise Men.

Even if you don’t believe that story’s true, aren’t you glad you left your stateroom? If you did, you probably ran into a fellow passenger. In fact, you did. That’s because, “River cruising is intimate,” as Clark says. “You have an opportunity to meet people and really get to know them.”

Along with close-up views of postcard-perfect scenery, camaraderie seems to be a big draw on river ships. “Our guests are composed largely of people who have tried ocean cruising and are looking for a different experience,” Clark says. “River cruising is still a relatively small segment of the market, but it’s the fastest-growing segment.” Witness the arrival this year of Panorama sister ships Avalon Vista and Avalon Visionary. Like Avalon Panorama, they’ll offer guests plenty of reasons to pull on their shoes and leave their staterooms:

• Shipboard Wi-Fi and a dedicated Internet station

• A fitness center and a sky deck with premium lounge chairs

• Headsets on shore excursions

• First-rate food and fine wines

• Onboard lecturers and nightly entertainment

As if you needed nightly entertainment. Simply open up your window wall, lie back, and dream of a magical land rolling by. Forget about that rodent-ravaged bishop. Avalon tells you a bedtime story with a happy ending.

Cruising By Design

For Uniworld, the intimacy of river cruising is in the details.

By Phillip Crandall

In 1999, I purchased a larger-than-life, five-foot-seven Cookie Monster statue from Goodwill that I’ve had to somehow make room for in nearly every apartment and house I’ve moved into since. (Editor’s note: This writer is, just as he was in 1999, without child. Just Monster.) So I totally get Antoinette Tollman’s plight.

“Two or three years ago, my parents bought this amazing chandelier that used to hang in (New York City’s) Tavern on the Green under the main table where Dad used to sit,” says Antoinette “Toni” Tollman, the godmother, principal designer, and name-inspiration for Uniworld Boutique River Cruise’s new S.S. Antoinette. “He didn’t know where he was going to use it, so I built a ship for it. It was my muse. But it’s 2.5 meters tall, and most ceiling heights on these ships are 2.1, so it was a bit of a problem.”

Today, as the blue Strauss Baccarat chandelier hangs from the top of the two-deck atrium between two grand, winding staircases, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect centerpiece for such a stunning river cruise ship. It may have taken a few years to find the chandelier a proper home — and four days to reassemble it here — but from the moment you come aboard this 443-foot-long ship and see it in all its dazzling glory, the rest of the ship seemingly takes form naturally around it.

Still waiting for Cookie Monster to inspire that sort of effect …

“It all began with this chandelier, and then these pieces would find us along the way that were inspiring,” Tollman recalls during this ship’s inaugural cruise, her voice still raw and raspy from giving last-minute instructions. “When we were planning this ship, it was just so exciting to think about ways we could change an industry.”

Tollman’s design vision — that is, the look of nearly every fine detail and decoration around the ship — is 18th-century France. Revolutionizing river cruising doesn’t begin and end with bringing in elements from the reign of Marie Antoinette (the other possible inspiration for the ship’s name), but it does come from taste.

“Most people don’t know if it’s 17th-, 18th-, or 19th-century French decorations,” admits Tollman. “Most people just have a feeling of ‘Is it comfortable?’ or ‘Is it beautiful?’ It’s not so much that I think we need 18th-century French design on a river cruise; it’s that I think people want to have the best experience they could possibly have on something that’s memorable. Everybody’s gone in that streamlined, cold modern look, and I don’t want to be like that. I don’t know how to do that.”

With the Salon du Grand Trianon, the ship’s main lounge, inspiration came from the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. As the layman unfamiliar with any-century French design, I can only sit in awe of the incredible attention to detail, such as the hundreds of daisy nail-heads that line the ultra-comfortable chairs by the bow windows.

“My lampshades are so perfect,” Tollman says as I’m still counting daisies. “They give me pleasure, even if nobody else realizes they are special antique lamps. But it’s the only way I know how to do an 18th-century French room. History is much more beautiful than today.”

Just one deck lower, the Restaurant de Versailles takes inspiration from those ornamental gardens. Just walking into the expansive room instantly reminds me of the Roast Back Loin of Limousin Lamb I was introduced to the night before. And in every room we tour — the top-deck Bar du Leopard, with its intimate feel and leopard-print designs; the industry-first movie theater, with its gorgeous oversized posters; the heated swimming pool, lapping quietly under an impressive tile mural; my luxurious stateroom, with a floor-to-ceiling window that can be lowered with a touch of a button for optimum river viewing — there are tiny details, French and otherwise, that stand out long after leaving.

“Cruise ships can do surfing and have big elevators and have 7,000 people in one area, and I can’t think of anything scarier,” says Tollman. “It’s all about a wild, Vegas experience rather than the essential experience of what you want to experience, which is your destination.”

My cruise aboard S.S. Antoinette happened to call out of Amsterdam, where the river cruise experience complemented the Netherlands perfectly. Along with our tour of the city during a twilight canal cruise, it’s hard to imagine seeing such intimate parts of Europe any other way. Currently, the 164-guest S.S. Antoinette is showcasing the castles along the Rhine between Basel and Amsterdam. Her fellow boutique ships make stops all over Europe, Russia, Egypt, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. So whether S.S. Antoinette stays on the Rhine down the line or not, she’ll always be purely Antoinette.

“I think she’ll stand the test of time,” Tollman says. “When I look at her in five years, she won’t have dated. I might have changed the fabric on the sofas, but that will just give her more zing.”

First Time’s a Charm

Sailing with AmaWaterways makes a lasting impression.

By Marcia Levin

It was pitch dark when we arrived at the ship. The brisk late-November wind blowing off the fabled Danube River was numbing. Several layers of heavy clothing seemed woefully insufficient. Spring, summer, and early-fall cruises must be delightful, I had thought to myself. Now I quietly wondered what I’d gotten into. But then I walked through the glass doors into the lobby of the charming Amadolce and thawed considerably.

The personal touch of Amadolce’s officers and crew, their friendliness and warmth, alleviated my concern. I knew I was going to enjoy the week sailing up the Danube to Vilshofen, Germany. A veteran of many ocean sailings, this was my first river cruise.

Amadolce is one of 12 premium river boats flying the colors of California-based AmaWaterways. The line celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, adding to its traditional European itineraries one in the Mekong River, visiting Cambodia and Vietnam, along with a new sailing on the Zambezi off the coast of Africa scheduled later this year. In Europe, the 148-passenger vessels sail the Rhine, Rhone, Mosel, Main, and Danube rivers with a continental charm and grace. The lush countryside on the Budapest to Vilshofen run is totally magnificent. (Vilshofen is a bus ride from the beautiful Czech Republic capital of Prague, where I spent three sightseeing days post-cruise.)

Amadolce’s cabins offer a panoramic view through paned windows on the French balcony. I could see charming farmhouses, church steeples, rolling hills, and, in the distance, a variety of castle ruins and old fortresses. Visits to medieval towns, abbeys, and wineries are on the itinerary and land tours offer a variety of walking expeditions at different activity levels (gentle walkers, those who choose a regular speed, and an advanced pace). An alternative is to opt for a bicycle — offered on a complimentary basis — and ride along select scenic roads.

The attractive cabin décor on Amadolce features lovely red-trimmed accents. Each cabin offers plenty of storage space and a marble bathroom with premium amenities. AmaWaterways features complimentary Internet and Wi-Fi service, bottled water replaced daily in each room, and fine wines, beer, and soft drinks with dinner. In-room televisions offer first-run films and the ubiquitous CNN International.

The Lounge is the core of the ship, and features tea and gourmet coffee all day and night, a variety of snacks, and light lunches or dinners. It is also an entertainment venue, where lectures take place or a pianist tickles the ivories until the late hours. There’s a full-service bar, and the ambiance is a lovely setting where new friendships are made.

Deck Four, the Sun Deck (a misnomer in 20 degree weather and no sun in sight), must be a lovely place from which to view the amazing scenery or to watch as the ship sails through the 10 locks on the 195-mile itinerary. On my sailing we wrapped ourselves in heavy blankets to listen to the narration and see the countryside. A hot tub offers a look into the wheelhouse, and a variety of bright blue deck chairs are placed across the deck.

AmaWaterways’ president Rudi Schreiner, a native of Austria, studied architecture and anthropology in Europe and earned an MBA at Loyola University in New Orleans. While completing his studies on a research scholarship, Schreiner traveled extensively, trading and studying in the tribal region of the Himalayas in Eastern Nepal and with the fierce Amazonian Jivaro Indians in Peru. He says his student work focused largely on how societal changes impact architecture.

He later worked as a tour guide for American students; in 1990, he parlayed all his education and experience into the river cruise business. His background includes management of both Viking and Uniworld cruises as well as Avalon Waterways.

Since 2002, Schreiner has concentrated largely on ship design and operation of the river vessels. He says 35 to 40 percent of all river cruise travelers are repeat passengers and most come from the United States and Canada with a smattering of passengers from Australia. The most popular itinerary, he adds, is Budapest to Nuremberg.

Food on river cruises is widely acclaimed, and Amadolce didn’t disappoint. Breakfast is either a well-stocked buffet or from-the-menu offerings. Lunch is a lavish buffet and dinners are awesome; consider entrées that include beef strip loin with horseradish crust, Vienna-style goulash, great fish dishes, and varied regional specialties. Breads and desserts are amazing, and the wine selections superb.

River cruises provide a much more intimate experience due to the vessels size, destinations, and friendly atmosphere. Just some of the reasons that my first river cruise experience certainly won’t be my last.