Since cruising returned in summer 2021 after the long pandemic pause, Cruise Critic's editors have been all over the world, telling the stories of cruising as, one by one, ships return to sailing. It's been an incredible experience, being part of a careful return that has been more than a year in the making.
While much attention has been paid to ocean ships, we had yet to find ourselves on a European river cruise. Most lines resumed sailing in early summer, but it's seemed like a more complicated process, as different countries within the European Union have developed different rules surrounding COVID-19 and international travel.
Our wait has been worth it. There's just something special about being back on a European river cruise -- even after sailing a number of times this year on ocean cruise ships. I recently finished our first European river cruise since 2019, on Emerald Cruises' Emerald Destiny down the Danube.
Here's why we still love river cruising – and why it's worth jumping through various travel hoops to return.
1. The Intimacy is Unmatched.
On Emerald Destiny, I sailed with about 125 fellow passengers. The ship can hold 182 guests, so percentagewise (69 percent), it's the "fullest" ship we've sailed on since the cruising restart. Yet, it's a totally intimate experience.
River ships are small -- most 443 feet long and fairly narrow -- and they generally offer only one or two restaurants and bars. So, by their very nature, they are intimate.
This trip, though, I felt it even more. Even though all passengers were vaccinated and wearing masks in public spaces, we had the opportunity to connect with our cruise companions, meet new people and really get to know the crew. Maybe it was the shared longing for human connection after such a long period away, or perhaps it was simply the excitement of a pleasant voyage through Europe, visiting some of the most historic cities along this majestic waterway.
Regardless of the why, I found this sailing afforded us the opportunity to make new friends with fellow cruisers, invest in great conversations over cocktail hours and laugh hard at jokes and interactions with our Cruise Director Darren Collins and Activities Manager Drazen Drazic.
(Never taken a river cruise? Read about our eight essential reasons you should book one.)
2. An Active Cruise Got Our Hearts Beating While Exploring.
One of the things I really loved about sailing Emerald Destiny is its approach to wellness and activities. This has become somewhat of a trend on river cruises in Europe, but each cruise line puts its own spin on it.
On Emerald Destiny, that meant we had several opportunities every day to be more active, focus a bit more on our overall wellness. It's all part of the line's Emerald Active program, started in 2019.
I took full advantage, but I wasn't the only ones. Our daily early-morning yoga sessions with Jelena were well attended, with anywhere from about six to 12 guests participating every day. We also had fun with the aqua aerobics, something unique to Emerald Cruises, thanks to its indoor pool, a rarity on river ships. The pool also features a swim against current for lap-swimmers.
Off the ship, Drazen led daily active excursion options, like a hike to Durnstein Castle or a walk around Regensburg, which concluded with beers at a beer garden. For those looking for something even more active, there was a 30-kilometer bike ride from Melk to Durnstein, led by local guides who pile up the mileage daily and can point out the sights (like vineyards and ancient castle ruins) along the ride.
(If you're interested in an active river cruise, read our article about the best active options.)
3. They Made My Special Day Special.
I've been fortunate enough to travel plenty over the years, but for the first time, I celebrated my birthday on a cruise ship. I've sung "happy birthday" dozens of times for other passengers, but this was my first time hearing it for me onboard. My husband bought me flowers, and the crew spoiled me, with special cocktails and a birthday cake, as well as singing and general celebrations and congratulations throughout the day.
Here's the thing: It was my special day, but the crew consistently treated everyone like they were special. This is simply what they do. Two days into the cruise, drink orders had been memorized, preferences were noted and jokes were free-flowing, as crew felt like old friends, and guests basked in the glow and relief of being back traveling again.
I was impressed overall by the crew, which showed no signs of rust but instead emanated genuine enthusiasm to welcome their guests back onboard. Unprompted, we heard several crewmembers talk about how their favorite part of working on a cruise ship is making people happy and seeing them truly enjoying themselves. It wasn't said to earn an additional tip or to schmooze; it came when they seemed so overwhelmed by emotion to be back onboard, seeing people have the time of their lives. (This was the third cruise back for Emerald Destiny.)
(If you're cruising on your birthday, check out our story on how to celebrate onboard.)
4. Traveling with Likeminded Guests is Just What We Needed
One of the things passengers adore about river cruising is meeting new people and sharing new experiences. It happens on ocean cruises, too, but on the rivers, the small ships just lend themselves to socializing.
In the pandemic-era, I fully expected that this might not be the same as usual. Boy, were we wrong. If anything, guests were more eager to meet new people, talk about their days' adventures and share laughs over drinks.
Our sailing even had three large charter groups, which, in our experience, tends to keep people from talking with "outsiders." Not so on this one. The 25-plus cruisers from Wisconsin chatted up everyone (and shared in late-night dances to House of Pain's "Jump Around"), while the Mayflower Cruises and Tours leader was the last one to bed on jukebox night. Even the hearty VBT cycling tour group chatted up others at mealtime, though they often were asleep soon after dinner, recovering from and preparing for the miles they were putting on their legs. (Find out more about the best cruises for bicyclists.)
After spending so much time away from others, it was a breath of fresh air to sail with fully vaccinated passengers and crew, and engaging in great conversations and fun activities like trivia and dancing. Even the masks worn in public spaces couldn't hide the excitement.
5. Emerald Cruises Does Fun with a Twist
I've taken a number of European river cruises over the years, and we've seen cruise lines really evolve, finding out what perfectly defines their brand and sets it apart from the others. It's a win for the industry and passengers seeking just the right fit.
Emerald Cruises has done a solid job of blending a casual vibe with moments of sheer fun. Each night, after dinner, the lounge was packed with people participating games or dancing, often till around midnight. The consistent late-night action is a bit unusual on the rivers, where passengers often hit the hay early to be sharp for the next day's tours, which often start around 8 a.m. On our sailing, though, it seemed like people reluctantly said goodnight, hating to stop the party but knowing a good night's sleep would make the next day more enjoyable.
The biggest events: A competitive (REALLY competitive) multi-round game of Name that Tune and a Jukebox contest that packed the dance floor as guests voted for their favorite dance songs using their boogie shoes. Our activities manager, who doubled as our DJ, seamlessly read the crowd, adjusting songs to the tastes of the crowd (Pitbull's "Fireball" was a nightly favorite) and taking requests.
I talked to guests who were taking their first river cruise -- delayed several times over by the pandemic -- who said they picked Emerald because the itinerary and price suited their needs. (Emerald Cruises is a perennial winner of Cruise Critics' Editors Picks for Best Value for Money.) Others were Emerald loyalists who talked of their love for the onboard experience as well as the active offerings.
For me, being back on Europe's rivers came at the perfect time. The cruise finished in Budapest, one of our favorite cities and the port where our last pre-pandemic cruise began. Our captain, Vasile Mariceanu, even did a 360 spin in front of the famous parliament building as we arrived to the European capital. With this cruise, it felt like everything was coming full circle, and it has me feeling optimistic once again for the future of river cruising.