The river cruise market got a bit more crowded this week with the entrance of a new boutique-luxury river cruise line. Jewel River Cruises, one of three sub-brands of Jewel River Cruise Line (which will also charter ships for "contemporary" and "premium" voyages), will begin operations in April 2008 with a fleet of one -- Jewel Imperial Blue.
Though the initial announcement brought forth only basic details, we recently caught up with President and COO Jacques Wulffaert to find out what separates it from the pack, and for some behind-the-scenes scoop:
Who exactly is the Jewel River cruiser? The Jewel River Cruises brand is being targeted primarily to "wealthy clientele," Wulffaert says, comparing the demographic to that of Silversea, Seabourn and Crystal. However: "They're busy people with limited time for vacation ... [so] itineraries are 10 to 12 days maximum."
Where are they going? Though specific itineraries will, as previously reported, be released next month, Wulffaert did share some vital information: the ship, Jewel Imperial Blue, will be sailing voyages on the Seine roundtrip from Paris (Rouen). There will be 27 voyages, all between 10 and 12 days in length, from April 5 through November 20. Ports of call are still being determined, and prices will be in line with "luxury standards."
What's the ship like? The vessel is currently sailing its second-to-last cruise as the ms Hispania, carrying mostly British passengers on river journeys throughout Europe. After the early 2008 refit, the ship, which currently accommodates 150 guests, will hold only 90. With a crew count of 45, that's a generous 2:1 passenger-to-staffer ratio.
The ship will be outfitted with 45 suites. There are no balconies on this ship and none will be added. However, Wulffaert tells us they're "very close" to inking a deal with an as yet unnamed shipyard for two new-builds -- and that those will have French balconies (sliding glass doors that sometimes lead to a very small landing with a railing).
How will life onboard differ from that of other river ships? First of all, there will be several dining options, including a main open-seating restaurant serving traditional international cuisine -- and an alternative restaurant, which are more commonly found on larger ships. Though Wulffaert couldn't tell us exactly what the theme or cuisine will be, he said it will be an a la carte menu provided by a roster of guest chefs (being finalized now). Jewel Imperial Blue will also be the first river ship to boast a full-service spa, salon and fitness center, according to Wulffaert.
What about life off the ship? Jewel River plans to take the luxury lifestyle ashore with special activities and enrichment opportunities. For example, a vintage car theme cruise is being planned during which passengers can visit and even test drive period automobiles while in port. Expect to see unique, personalized shore excursions, too. Wulffaert cites as an example a private tour of the Louvre in Paris -- after hours.
What can we look forward to beyond 2007? Expect Northern Europe river cruises sometime in the future; Wulffaert revealed that Russia's on the drawing board as is an excursion to St. Petersburg's Hermitage similar to the private Louvre visit.
In other river cruise news, Scenic Tours River Cruising -- a player in the European market -- has announced that it will launch four "space ships." Intrigued? Well, they won't be zooming into the stratosphere. The clever moniker was chosen because they will be 20 percent larger (i.e. more spacious) on average than traditional river cruise ships. The first of four planned will launch in early 2008 and sail on the Rhine and Danube.
Stay tuned to Cruise Critic for the latest river (and mainstream!) cruise news.
--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor