River cruising is undergoing an exciting renaissance that includes debuting of contemporary ship designs, upgrading food and service onboard, introducing more sophisticated entertainment and enrichment, and creating shore experiences that offer more than guided walking tours.
Viking River Cruises is leading the expansion boom by planning to introduce 14 brand-new ships to its fleet by 2013. Avalon Waterways and AmaWaterways both operate very young fleets, and Uniworld, with its blend of older vessels and new ones, is constantly refurbishing them (and recently announced plans for a pair of new-builds).
In all cases, the lines are focused on the continued evolution of river ship design, particularly on staterooms. Balconies used to be out of the question for ships plying the more narrow European rivers, with French balcony panoramic windows being the fashionable alternative. Not anymore. Viking's new Longship series of vessels features 205-square-foot verandah staterooms with full-size balconies, as well as Explorer Suites with private, wraparound verandahs.
Uniworld's S.S. Antoinette and ScenicTours' Scenic Crystal offer suites with alcoves that can be converted from glassed-in conservatories to open-air balconies by pushing a switch.
Avalon Waterways introduced the industry's first "all-suite ship" when it debuted Avalon Panorama in 2011; it followed up with the dual christening of Visionary and Vista in 2012.
River cruising has become more environmentally aware, as well. On Victoria's newest ship, the kitchen serves up grass-fed and hormone-free meats, and green technology allows it to have one of the best fuel-to-passenger ratios and reduce paper use onboard. Viking employs the latest engine technology to ensure a quiet ride and use 20 percent less fuel, and its new "Longboats" have organic gardens on their sun decks. Uniworld's S.S. Antoinette has three engine rooms, each with a separate propulsion system, which allows the vessel to operate efficiently -- and with double-resilient mounted frames that reduce vibration of engines and thrusters. It also employs a state-of-the-art waste management system.
As a way to attract a new generation of passengers, some companies have started to offer themed trips that go beyond the standard Christmas Markets or wine-themed cruises. For example, Avalon Waterways offers art-themed voyages, as well as those that focus on Jewish heritage and European history. To attract multigenerational families, Uniworld offers a handful of family-oriented cruises each summer, with special activities planned for younger passengers.
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief