A record 23 million passengers are expected to take cruises around the globe in 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which recently made the projection in its annual State of the Cruise Industry Report.
Admittedly, I have never been a fan of ocean cruising. As a long-term, independent traveler who immerses in the culture of the countries I visit, the idea of being trapped on a ship that visits ports of call for a few brief hours is more than a little off-putting. To that, add the issue of seasickness. During the two specialty ocean cruises I have taken, seas were so rough that I spent more time curled up in my bunk than I did enjoying the voyage. And then I discovered river cruising.
A record 23 million passengers are expected to take cruises around the globe in 2015, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)
My first experience, in 2011, was the Luang Say Cruise down the Mekong river from Houei Say to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Within minutes of departure, razor-sharp rocks protruding from the chocolate river had forced us into narrow channels topped by frothy rapids. Our captain so expertly navigated the turbulence that the gentle motion of the ship lulled me to sleep on the sun deck. Each day offered opportunities to visit hill tribe villages, where I learned about traditional fishing, weaving and whiskey distilling. Because we were sailing a river, there were no long, boring days at sea, and our gourmet meals often featured fresh fish, purchased from fishermen who paddled up to the side of the ship. I was in heaven.
A few weeks later, I stepped aboard the Vat Phou Cruise in the Thousand Islands area of the Mekong. It was hard to believe I was on the same river. The southern Mekong was placid, sapphire blue and dotted with thousands of tiny green islets. In addition to traditional village visits and gourmet meals, this river cruise featured a day long visit to the spectacular pre-Khmer Vat Phou ruins. I was hooked.
I am not alone in my passion. For CLIA North American brands, river cruising has been growing by more than 25% per annum in recent years, as opposed to an average annual growth rate of 4.83% in the ocean cruise category. To meet the increasing demand, 39 new river ships will come on line this year. Viking River Cruises is building and launching river ships at twice the rate of its competitors. Over the past four years, they have launched 40 new Longships, which recently topped Condé Nast Traveler’s annual readers’ Cruise Poll for best river cruise ships. The Longship design includes a revolutionary all-weather indoor/outdoor terrace that has retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors, allowing guests to fully enjoy the views and dine al fresco, as well as green upgrades that include on-board solar panels, organic herb gardens, and energy-efficient hybrid engines. Viking will launch 12 more new river vessels in 2015, ten of which will be Longships.
This past fall, I sailed from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Russia on Viking River’s Waterway of the Tsars cruise. Though my ship was fully booked, the small capacity of 204 passengers and a 2-to-1 guest to staff ratio made for a very personalized experience. Tours, on-board activities, and a full program of lectures ensured there was something to do most every waking minute, but most impressive was Viking’s commitment to on-shore cultural programs. Activities such as riding the Moscow metro, attending a performance of traditional Russian folkloric music, sharing tea in the home of a family in rural Russia, and visiting a Kommunalka to experience a Communist-era communal form of living still practiced by many St. Petersburg residents provided me with unexpected insight into Russian culture. This focus on cultural programming is one of the reasons that Cruise Critic named Viking the “Best River Cruise Line” in the U.S. for the fourth year running in 2014.
“In an expanding river market, Viking continues to reign, thanks in part to exceptional excursions that include exciting and unusual options like truffle hunting and cognac blending,” said the editors of Cruise Critic.
Along with new ships, river cruise operators continue to develop itineraries in exotic destinations around the world. Sanctuary Retreats’ 10-day cruise on the Nile from Aswan Dam to Cairo includes visits to the Valley of the Kings, where magnificent tombs were carved into the desert rocks, as well as to the Rock-tombs of Beni Hassan. In cooperation with National Geographic, Lindblad Expeditions sails the upper Amazon for ten days where, between visits to indigenous villages, guests are treated to pink dolphin, parrot, and piranha sightings. The newest jewel in the river cruise crown is Myanmar, a recently opened country still shrouded in mystery and spirituality. Viking offers a choice of two cruises down the verdant Irrawaddy, passing through Mandalay, Yangon, and Bagan, where 2,200 ancient temples unfurl along the river’s shores.
Despite the move to open new territories, European river cruises remain the mainstay of the industry. With no need to change hotels and historic city centers just footsteps away from the dock, river cruising may be the world’s most convenient and comfortable way to experience the great European capitals of the world. From cruises that explore the tulips and windmills of Amsterdam and Belgium to those that focus on the Christmas Markets of Austria and Germany in November and December, the choices are endless. As for me, I can hardly wait for my next river cruise. The only difficult part may be deciding where to go.
When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside – she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter (@holeinthedonut).