My wife and I have taken two European river cruises, to date. One was on the Rhône River in France. The other was on the Douro River in Portugal. Both were on AMAWaterways ships. And we hope for a third on the Garonne River in the Bordeaux region of France. And a fourth on the Rhine River for the Christmas Markets. Needless to say, we have enjoyed each immensely and are looking forward to new adventures. River cruises are fun, educational, and easy on the soul. They are also easy on the body. Here are 11 reasons why we enjoy them.
1. Welcome Aboard
River cruise ships are mobile hotels. While they come in various sizes, most range between about 260 feet to 443 feet in length and accommodate from around 100 to nearly 200 passengers. These specially designed ships all have low profiles in order to pass under bridges, many of which are notoriously low to the water in Europe. (We passed under one bridge near Lyon with a clearance of two inches.) Being hotels, mobile though they are, they have comfortable staterooms. Not large but well appointed. And there is a common lounge large enough to accommodate all passengers. There are one or two dining areas, as well. One thing we really appreciated: There was no need to haul luggage or pack and unpack on a daily basis. Get on board and put your feet up for the duration of your cruise.
2. Intimate Settings
Given the relatively small sizes of these ships, they are able to provide more informal, intimate settings compared to ocean-going cruise ships, which are usually much, much larger. It’s impossible to get lost on these river ships. They are cozy without being cramped. Unfortunately, despite having elevators, these ships are usually not really wheelchair accessible. Check with the cruise line before you reserve.
3. Cast Off All Lines
One of the best parts of these cruises is being underway, rolling on the river, so to speak. Whether in your stateroom gazing out the window or sitting on your (smallish) balcony, in the lounge, or grabbing fresh air on the top deck, it is fun to watch the world passing by — the changing sky, land, and river textures as well as other boats and ships on voyages of their own. River cruises offer a superb opportunity for relaxation, watching the sights and hearing the sounds as you “pass on by,” which is reason enough for taking them.
4. Something For Everyone
It is easy to meet people through the many organized activities both onboard and ashore. At the same time, it is easy to find quiet spaces in public, shared areas, most notably on the open-air top decks where there are walking/exercise tracks and canopied sitting areas. I ran into very few folks up there. (Of course, that might have been related to the brisk November weather on both of our cruises as well as the Mistrals, cold north or northwestern winds, on the Rhône.) But I found it lovely, especially at night taking in the stars and lights onshore and on passing boats and barges.
5. Up And At ’Em
One of my favorite times on river cruises is early morning. I’d often get up around 6 a.m., grab a cup of coffee, and go upstairs to the sun deck to meet the new day. There are lots of things to do: Check out the weather, watch the river, then take some laps around the walking track, all the while enjoying the quiet, the solitude, and my coffee. At 7 a.m. sharp I’d go to the dining area to be one of the first in line. Tables are first come first serve, so I’d grab one by the windows and read while waiting for my wife. She would usually show up a few minutes later and we’d plan the day over breakfast. This is a simple, pleasurable start to the day.
6. Rest Or Recreation
Each day brings a new port and a new, optional day trip. We found these day trips to be both fun and educational. Skipping an excursion is not a bad idea if you need a break from the routine. Being on a quiet ship docked at the landing is a great way to spend a day. However, most passengers join in the day trips. These land excursions are led by knowledgeable, personable guides. They are invariably well curated, well planned, and, in our experience, well executed.
Pro Tip: Occasionally, an excursion may have difficult walks for those with ambulation issues. Additionally, getting on the transport bus may be difficult. Ask your guide for alternative activities. They are often available.
7. Does The Size Of The River Matter?
Most definitely not. The Rhône River, in terms of cubic feet of discharge, is nearly three times as massive as the Douro River. And while the Rhône is impressively wide in many parts, affording distant vistas, the Douro River is substantially more narrow, compressed by steep cliffs or vineyard-covered hills on each bank. Our experience on each was exceptional, which surprised us. We thought the smaller river would be less exciting. Less attractive. Less appealing. We were incorrect on all accounts. Larger rivers can provide more expansive vistas. Perhaps more drama. But smaller rivers are more available. The banks are closer. The views are more detailed. We loved both. And we hope to return for cruises on each type of river in the future.
8. Day Tripper
One of our favorite activities on these cruises were the day trips. As noted, the excursions are interesting, well planned, and well executed. Venues we visited included notable nearby towns and villages, museums, wineries, restaurants, historic and culturally significant buildings, churches, and structures, even a truffle farm with a truffle hunt demonstration and truffle sampling to follow! All at no additional expense. The length of each outing varies. Some are a couple of hours. Others are full-day affairs. But in all cases, you will be back on board the ship in time for dinner and the evening’s entertainment.
9. Speaking Of Entertainment…
On most evenings there is entertainment of one sort or another. It is usually local music groups or singers but also might include a disco night, photo contest, trivia competition, or just an old-fashion happy hour. All were fun and were an added bonus to our overall experience.
10. The Crew!
Crew members were the sine qua non of our enjoyment. Across the board, on both cruises, the crews were difference makers. Split between the ship’s operations staff (captain, navigation, engineering) and hotel staff (cruise manager, excursion guides, food services, housekeeping), we had exceptional experiences. They were, first and foremost, professional. Additionally, they were friendly, fun, attentive, honestly caring, and available when needed. Humorous, too! Had it not been for the excellence of the crew and staff, our cruises would have been lesser experiences.
11. Adding To The Fun
If you want to prolong your trip you, might inquire about pre- and post-cruise extensions. A number of cruise lines offer them. They arrange for transportation, food, and lodging to interesting nearby destinations accompanied by outings of one sort or another. As long as you are there, you might as well see all that you possibly can. It’s like the proverbial cherry on top!
For more river cruise inspiration, see all our river cruise content here, plus