Go with the flow

Date Posted: 11/06/2010

Whether an afternoon cruise or a full holiday, relax on the river, says Jeannine Williamson.

In Kenneth Grahame’s enchanting book The Wind in the Willows, water rat, Ratty famously commented that nothing was “half so much worth doing” as messing about in boats on the river. And there’s no doubt that a river cruise is a wonderful way to relax and watch the world float by at a leisurely pace.

On longer trips you only have to unpack once and closer to home a day trip or short break in the UK is a wonderful way to see sights, even familiar ones, from a totally new perspective.

With the weak pound resulting in rising costs of travel, excursions, entertainment and eating out in the ‘Eurozone’, a river cruise is a cost effective way of seeing Europe and its grand capital cities. With full-board accommodation and shore excursions included in the price, it makes it much easier for groups to budget for the trip without the worry of any added expense. All you need is money for those tempting souvenirs that you’ll find en route. Another bonus is that railcruise options are available for groups that prefer not to fly.

Welcome to Europe’s waterways

Flowing 776 miles through six countries - Switzerland, the principality of Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and The Netherlands - the Rhine is one of Europe’s most important rivers. Many major cities have occupied its banks for centuries and it has played a key role in shaping European history.

These days the Rhine is also Europe’s most popular river for cruising, making it an ideal choice for first-time cruise groups. Typical week-long itineraries usually start in cosmopolitan Amsterdam and end in Basel, Switzerland. During the festive season German Christmas market cruises are always popular with groups.

Shorter cruises, which can be combined with land-based stays, are available along the Rhine Valley, arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the river. Meandering through the lush valleys of Germany’s wine-growing regions, with fairytale castles perched along the banks, the stretch between Cologne and Mainz is particularly picturesque. Here your group will discover the enduring legend of the Lorelei rock, where a beautiful siren was said to lure passing sailors to their doom.

It was the inspiration behind the famous waltz by Johann Strauss and the Danube is another enchanting river. Running through four countries, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, most itineraries include the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley, a 24-mile stretch between the Austrian towns of Krem and Melk. City highlights along the Danube include the elegant Austrian capital of Vienna, the Hungarian capital Budapest, which is divided in half by the Danube, and Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, topped by an impressive castle.

Cruises that start or finish in Le Havre provide an opportunity for groups to explore Normandy and the famous sights of Paris. A cruise on the Seine also provides access to other famous sights such as Monet’s garden at Giverny and Rouen, once one of medieval Europe’s most prosperous cities.

The Elbe, flowing through Germany and the Czech Republic, is also lined with cultural cities. Many cruises include a stop in Berlin, with iconic sights such as the Brandenburg Gate. Cruise groups can also explore the baroque splendour of Dresden, dubbed ‘Florence on the Elbe’, and mountainous Saxon Switzerland, with options for castle and garden tours.

Whilst it may be less known than some of its European counterparts, the Douro in Portugal also has much to offer. Rising in Spain and flowing through the green north of Portugal until it reaches the ocean in Oporto, Portugal’s second city, what used to be a fast flowing river is now a tranquil waterway tamed by the construction of dams during the last three decades.

River cruise news and options

From 2011 Viking’s newest ship, Legend, will be switching from a 15-day European itinerary to shorter cruises on the Danube, enabling more groups to sample the vessel. Legend carries 189 passengers and has many modern design features to produce a very quiet and smooth passage. Next year Viking will also be introducing a new 11-day cruise, ‘Passage to Eastern Europe’, from Budapest to Bucharest. And for groups that book early there are attractive discounts across the entire fleet.

This year AMA Waterways has introduced an enhanced free ‘Infotainment System’ in each cabin on its European fleet, which includes internet access, current Hollywood films and classic movies on demand, English-language satellite stations and music channels. For 2011 the company will have more than 16 itineraries across the Danube, Rhine, Main and Mosel rivers.

Many cruises will coincide with the spectacular Koblenz Flower Show that takes place from 15th April to 16th October. New for 2011 is a sweeping ‘From the North Sea to the Black Sea’ itinerary. Also available will be new variations of the popular ‘Romantic Danube and Black Sea Voyage’ itineraries. Danube passengers can choose land stays in either Munich or Prague, while the Black Sea voyage offers extensions in either Vienna or Budapest.

Saga has introduced five new scenic itineraries for 2010, including the ‘River Royal’ journey through Provence, Paris and the Seine, which offers plenty of time to explore the French capital and historic Rouen, and the ‘Castles of the Rhine’ cruise, which includes visits to Cologne and its magnificent cathedral, and a wine tasting session in Rudesheim.

Page & Moy offers European river cruises aboard Serenade I, chartered exclusively for the holiday company, and new for 2011 is a useful luggage transfer service for groups travelling by Eurostar. Passengers will be able to check in their luggage at London St Pancras and forget all about it until they arrive at the vessel, and do the same on return.

GTOs can also take a look at up to 34 river cruising itineraries aboard 14 ships with Shearings, many of which are exclusive to the tour operator. Destinations on offer include Paris and the Normandy coast, the Rhine Valley as well as Venice, including the Lagoon and the River Po.

The River Cruise Line, as the name suggests, is a dedicated specialist operator that has years of experience looking after leisure groups. The company has also introduced three new ships this summer and offers cruises in Germany, France, The Netherlands and Switzerland to name just a few. Free places, free excursions and more convenient departure points can be arranged depending on the number of people in your party.

Float your boat in the UK

If you choose to stay on UK waters you can also expect to see many beautiful sights without having to stray too far from home.

The revamped Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company opened for business in April with a number of new excursions. Groups can board the steam train at Paignton and travel along the spectacular south Devon coast to the banks of the River Dart. From here there are boat trips to the historic town of Totnes, regular services to the picturesque villages of Dittisham and Stoke Gabriel - past the home of Agatha Christie - and Dartmouth harbour cruises.

New for this year is a visit to Sharpham Vineyard, and one of the most popular excursions is the award-winning ‘Round Robin’, combining a nostalgic train trip, river cruise and bus ride.

Heading to the capital, City Cruises provides groups with a great way to see the sights of London and enjoy a trip on the Thames. A frequent sightseeing service, with live commentary, operates between the piers at Westminster, the London Eye, Tower and Greenwich, and each stop is on the doorstep of many leading attractions. Alternative options are leisurely lunch cruises or packages combining a sightseeing cruise with a visit to attractions that include the Sea Life London Aquarium, Tower of London, Madame Tussauds or a trip on the London Eye. Dedicated coach parks and drop-off and pick-up points are available near all the piers.

Guildford Boat House offers a variety of itineraries for groups on the river Wey, a tributary of the Thames flowing through some of Surrey’s most attractive scenery between Guildford and Godalming. The Harry Stevens carries up to 60 passengers and excursions typically range from 45 to 90 minutes. Another attractive option is the dining boat Alfred Leroy, which can be hired for groups of up to 49 to enjoy longer voyages with a cream tea or three-course meal.

For groups that want to explore Britain’s longest river, Gloucester-based English Holiday Cruises offers fully inclusive holidays for groups of up to 22, plus lunch and day cruises for up to 36 on the river Severn. Weekend breaks and cruises of up to six nights are available on the luxury barge Edward Elgar, with some dates set aside exclusively for groups. The price includes all meals, entertainment and excursions. Lunch outings are also available at Christmas and Easter, and groups can also charter the boat.

A wonderful way to experience NewcastleGateshead’s famous riverside is a cruise along the river Tyne. River Escapes is based in the heart of the city centre, next to Gateshead Millennium Bridge, and a sightseeing cruise is a wonderful way to see the local landmarks. Groups can also set sail on the Quay to Sea cruise to the mouth of the river Tyne, or head upriver on the Quayside to Countryside cruise, taking in the best town and country views.

Finally, groups visiting Shropshire’s popular Ironbridge Gorge Museums can add an extra dimension to their visit. New 45-minute passenger cruises along the Severn started this season, with convenient boarding at the Ironbridge car park. Discounts are available for groups of 20 or more.

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