With more than 50 under her lifebelt, Pat can tell you
Let me start with the question I’m most often asked: “How different is it from ocean cruising?” The answer is very different. In fact, they really have only two things in common: you’re on water, and there’s a captain in charge. So, if you’ve only done ocean cruising before, you’ll find river cruising is nothing like it. And of course, the reverse is also true.
A river cruise is an intimate and immersive experience because it won’t just take you to a port on the coast of country; it will take you right into the heart of a country, and let you get under its skin. That, to me, is rather like the difference between peeking through a window or having a chat on someone’s step, being invited into their home and spending time with them, compared to just having a chat on their doorstep.
As well as that, river-cruise ports of call aren’t like coastal ports, where the docks are often far from the city itself. Most begin right at the river’s edge – I call them ‘step-ashore ports’, because when you step off your ship, you’re right there. And the history of most ports starts right there, too, so you see and feel it straight away. Usually, to learn more, you can choose between a guided tour (some, but by no means all river cruise lines include these in the up-front price) and exploring on your own. Sometimes there are excursions further afield, by coach, again with an expert local guide to ensure that you get the most from each destination.
Even when you’re not docked, there will always be a view. Think wallpaper! When you’re on the move, that view is ever-changing, and there’ll be panoramic windows in your ship’s public rooms, so you can enjoy it. Venture up top onto the sun deck, and you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree vista. It’s worth mentioning that, for every mile you sail on a river, there’ll be two miles of scenic delights and sights to see. What a bonus!
River cruising is supremely convenient: when you move on, your floating hotel moves with you. And all the staff come, too! And the facilities you need – a lounge with a well-stocked bar and resident musician, and a restaurant (plus, perhaps, a second, alternative venue) serving up deliciously appetising meals are but a short walk from your bedroom. What bliss!
Life on board is good, too. An attentive crew and the convivial company of like-minded fellow-travellers are givens. On-board events – which can include port talks, cooking and or craft demonstrations, itinerary-linked lectures from local experts, and performances by local artists – will enhance and enrich your travels.
For me, there are numerous little pleasures linked to river cruising: I love waking up in time to see the sunrise, and all the more so if I can do so from the cosy comfort of my bed! Early mornings are a beautiful sight on a river: there’s often a light mist weaving a faint air of mystery as it dissolves; there are always comic turns to watch when ducks, geese and other waterfowl greet the new day; and if you’re very lucky, you may catch a glimpse of local wildlife drinking at the water’s edge. As well, in villages, towns and cities, the never-ending pageant of daily life unfolds. I like to fit in 30 brisk circuits of the sundeck before breakfast, so I can enjoy a grandstand view of all this.
There’s also a wonderful travelling experience to enjoy. Gliding under bridges, along canals and through locks adds variety to most routes; arriving somewhere new, and getting off to explore is exciting, and returning to your ship is especially pleasant when you’re greeted by smiling faces, hot towels and a tray of welcome-back drinks.
You may be surprised to know just where in the world you can travel, by river. In Europe, you can sail on the Rhine, the Main, the Danube, the Elbe, the Rhône and the Saône, the Seine, the Dordogne, the Garonne and the Douro – to name but a few. Much further afield, you can sail on some of the world’s greatest waterways: the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy, the Mississippi.
For me, each river is a destination in itself – not just the means by which I visit other countriess. And every river is different, ribboning through a different landscape with a different climate and supporting different cultures. Each river has its own distinctive character; and if, as you sail, you take time to observe it, at dawn, during the day, at dusk and after dark; to see where it goes; to watch how it flows; to feel its rhythms; to sense its moods; and to listen, each river will tell you its story. Study it from ashore – up close and from afar – and you will see how it has written the story of its surroundings, too.
I hope that I have answered most, if not all, of your questions about river cruising. Now, I have one for you: What are you waiting for?
More about Pat
Pat Richardson is an award-winning UK-based freelance travel writer who, after 18 years as Travel Editor on a weekly publication, now writes most frequently for The Telegraph – mainly on cruises. As well, she writes as for a number of UK magazines including Cruise International; and also for the USA-based World Ocean & Cruise Liner Society’s monthly newsletter Ocean & Cruise News. She regularly serves as a judge for the British Guild of Travel Writers annual awards; and also gives talks on travel and travel writing; appearing twice as a guest panelist at last year’s Society of American Travel Writers convention in Reykjavik. Pat is also the founder of HotelsThatWereNot.com, a website showcasing hotels which were not originally hotels.
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