All of the river cruise offerings in Europe are good- very good in fact. They occupy a niche akin to the likes of Azamara or Oceania, if one wanted to reference ocean-going ship experiences.
The components are straight forward, as the dictates of rivers and locks pretty much constrain the hardware.
Ships are all virtually the same size. So the Viking Longships are the same as those of Uniworld or AMA or Avalon or Scenic or Tauck or A-Rosa. The layouts do differ, and stateroom sizes/attributes as well.
They mostly ply the same waters, though Uniworld has a unique offering on the Po River in Italy, and Viking sails the Elbe alone.
But choosing the right river cruise vacation is much like choosing a new upscale car- they all have four wheels and a lot more, but there is an intangible personality attached to each.
This is not the place to go into a deep comparison between brands. Suffice to say that A-Rosa, a German company that got into river cruising over a decade ago, has enough experience and moxie to compete with the well know brands.
My brother and I had the recent opportunity to cruise Lyon-Lyon on a 7 night voyage that took us downstream as far as Arles and back.
The ship was the "Stella", and my view is that the whole trip was stellar!
Arosa has only this year stepped into the North American market. We were on the first of their N.A. oriented cruises, with English announcements, all- inclusive fares (cruise, taxes and port fees,excursions, beverages, tips, meals, entertainment, bicycles), with an emphasis on incredible a la minute fine dining. The North American promoter of Arosa, David Morris, was also onboard for the duration, and 'Mario', the food and beverage manager for all of Arosa presided over the daily culinary offerings. So, this was a pretty special week, but I am pretty confident they keep the quality up all the time.
Due to extremely high water levels, we were unable to head upstream to Chalon and Macon as planned; we remained docked in Lyon (hardly a hardship!), and took coach trips to the intended destinations in Beaujolais, Burgundy- as far as Dijon. We visited exalted wineries, ate 'family style' at an auberge in Beaune, and saw a lot of the pretty countryside. The local guides were charming and unflappable, in addition to being extremely well versed in the local history and attractions.
Compared to the many that saw their vacations cancelled or markedly abridged due to the flooding on the Rhine and Danube, we were lucky indeed.
The itinerary, beginning and ending in Lyon, meant more steaming time than the usual one-way trips of other companies. Sometimes, we would disembark, go on a tour, and rejoin the ship a ways up or down the river. Even at night, there was lots to see if underway. The Rhone has lots of lit up towns, industry and farms adjoining. Even the two nuclear facilities we passed had an eerie beauty to them.
Now the details. Stella was launched in 2007, so is already middle aged by river ship standards. The newer ones have a bit more refinement, and the standard stateroom size, at 156 square feet, is on the small side. But there is a pool, which was a huge plus, and a much larger spa and exercise area than on the Avalon Scenery and AMA Amadagio, which we viewed while alongside at dock.
What sets the line apart is the service and food quality. Quite frankly, I have not seen much else come close. Certainly on a par with Silversea- the food and wine, better. The staff ratio, though not as high as Tauck, is more than adequate to ensure everyone was well attended.
Breakfast and lunch were buffet style, with an omelet station and lots of European local specialties. When was the last time you saw red mullet or quail on offer?
Dinners were a 2 hour leisurely affair with fixed menu gastronomic wonders arriving in succession, each paired with outstanding premier and grand cru wines, auslese dessert wines, then grappa or port or whatever afterwards in the lounge. From Tartar of King Crab, to Rack of Lamb with eggplant caviar to Chocolate Canache with Passion Fruit Sorbet, the food was truly spectacular. Top notch cheese selections were there each night (with chutneys and figs in addition to the usual fruit and cracker accompaniments)
Cocktails flowed freely all day (included), and the bartenders were quite excited to be making North American concoctions including excellent martinis and a creditable Mai Tai. Champagne- will that be Pommery for you, sir?... was pretty well always available, though there were also offerings of Prosecco and methode champenoise sparkling wines.
A foodie's delight? Without reservations! And in the midst of the glorious wine districts, nothing could exceed. To top things off, both a wine and chocolate tasting were conducted, with exquisite offerings.
The tours were a range of fairly prosaic walking excursions to a, get this- lunch at Michelin 3 star Paul Bocuse's eponymous restaurant outside of Lyon. Included without fanfare, lunch for two would likely set you back $400 if you walked in the door, but was a free inclusion aboard A-Rosa.
So too a tour of the Southern Ardeche, a lavender museum visit, an onboard performance by genuine French chanteur Luc Brian, who sang Piaf an octave lower, as well as talks by preeminent author and journalist, Kati Marton.
A very personable young historian, Silvia Sonntag, gave talks in German, but also led an impromptu tour of Arles for a group of the English speaking coterie. She acted as a sort of cultural attache, translating and demystifying the 'French experience' for German and Anglo alike. This kind of versatility and 'beyond the call' attitude balanced the somewhat more formal approach of the cruise director.
There was an on-deck barbecue one day, fresh shucked oysters another. I missed Les Gitans- musician dancers who performed one evening when we had chosen to simply walk the streets of Avignon.
Maybe the other river cruise lines come close or are on par in some departments, but the extravagances onboard are clearly unequalled. Their food costs are about triple the industry standard, yet the pricing, once all is considered, is more than competitive, perhaps because they are 'new kids' in the USA/Canada markets.
I enjoyed the German ambience and mixed passengers. The demographic was younger than some of the other river cruise lines. A contingent of Arboretum and Botanical Garden members from Dallas added energy and knowledge with their calling out of shrub and tree names on bus tours, in Latin of course, and their ability to keep the bar open until one am. There was little in the way of language barriers, though some crew, from Hungary, were a bit deficient in both German AND English. A bit of French certainly helped out ashore, but cocooned as one is on a cruise, it is easy to get by without.
A-Rosa is offering terrific deals in the short run on the Rhone and Rhine, including a waiving of single supplements, and upgrades to french balcony staterooms, from around $2600 for the Rhine and $3100 for the Rhone/Saone. Sweet Dreams pastry chef Gale Gand will be aboard August 17th and 24th, 2013 Lyon departures. The 'Hearty Boys'- also part of the culinary celebrity aristocracy, will be aboard a week earlier.
My only complaint was having to go home, but at least I can savour and cherish my memories.
Gastronomic capital of France, with lovely architecture, a Sunday market by the quay, the Old City, great galleries- what more to say? Worth an extended visit.
Avignon- spectacular walled city- again with great restaurants, galleries, walking streets and of course the Palace of the Popes and somewhat anti-climactic Pont D'Avignon.
Arles- An ancient Roman City, yet again replete with walking attractions, this time the best being the coliseum.