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A different type of cruising

By Dr. Rob Robertson

So you've done the Caribbean on a mega-ship like Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas along with over 5,000 other travelers, and you've been to Alaska on a Princess ship like the Royal Princess and seen whales bubble feeding, more bald eagles than you can count, and a moose or two.

You loved cruising but feel you've "been there and done that."

How about a totally different type of cruising that you may never have considered?

The great cities of Europe were built centuries ago along the multiple rivers that meander and cross the continent.

In the last 15 years, cruising on the European rivers has experienced explosive growth and become one of the fastest growing segments of the tourist industry.

There are multiple companies that offer itineraries on rivers such as the Seine, Rhone and Saone in France. The Rhine connects to the Main and then the Danube, providing an over 2,100-mile corridor from the North Sea at Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Constanta on the Black Sea in Romania.

You can cruise the Moselle and Elbe in Germany, the Douro and Garonne in Spain, and the Volga in Russia.

This article is going to concentrate on one cruise line because it's the one I'm most familiar with. My goal, however, is to simply acquaint you with this type of travel and then direct you to the internet to search for the trip that may most interest you.

You may also wish to visit Books-A-Million and pick up Douglas Ward's "River Cruising in Europe," which is a comprehensive review loaded with tips and insights from a man who has made a career of travel writing.

Grand Circle Travel (GCT) is a company based in Boston. It is owned by Harriet and Alan Lewis and currently has seven ships cruising on European rivers. It caters strictly to Canadian and American passengers.

The ships carry from 46 passengers (M/S Provence) to 164 on the M/S River Aria and M/S River Adagio.

The ships, except for the smallest, have three passenger decks and a sun deck.

Shipboard Features

â ¢ Dining room with single open seating. Enjoy fine cuisine in your ship's non-smoking dining room.

â ¢ Bar & lounge. Relax with friends old and new.

â ¢ Complimentary wireless internet access in the reception area, library, bar, and lounge.

â ¢ Sun deck. Sit outside and enjoy the views as your ship glides past legendary landmarks.

â ¢ Fitness equipment. Enjoy an onboard workout.

The ships range from a length of 292 to 418 feet. Their beams (width) are dictated by the size of the locks they have to traverse and are from 31 to 38 feet.

Cabin sizes are from 160 to 215 square feet.

Cabin Features

â ¢ Outside cabins with a river view.

â ¢ Serenade Deck cabins feature a private balcony with table and chairs, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, upper-deck views, and closer proximity to the ship's bar, restaurant, lounge and library.

â ¢ Cabin sizes are 160 square feet (includes a balcony of 16 square feet on the Serenade Deck).

â ¢ All cabins have a wardrobe and a drawer, and luggage storage space under the beds.

â ¢ Private bath with shower, including a hair dryer, shampoo, and soap.

â ¢ Individual heating & air-conditioning controls.

â ¢ Flat-screen color TV and radio, including CNN, movies, and a "view from the bow" camera looking out the front of your ship.

â ¢ Direct-dial telephone; emergency call buttons.

â ¢ In-room safe.

â ¢ Two twin beds that convert to sofas. During the day, you can sit and relax on a sofa. When you arrive back at your cabin in the evening, you'll find the couch has been converted to a bed.

â ¢ All non-smoking cabins.

Itineraries

You'll visit many of the great cities of Europe -- Amsterdam, Cologne, Würzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Vukovar, Belgrade, Constanta, and Bucharest.

River cruise companies offer pre- and post-extension possibilities, which are usually three or four days.

You may wish to do the pre-extension of three days in Amsterdam before boarding your ship, or the three-day post-extension in Bucharest. Or both!

The trip can be modified according to your preferences. You may only want to be gone 10 to 14 days.

You could travel from Amsterdam and disembark in Vienna and do a post-extension there for three days.

There is simply no better way to experience the cities of Europe than by boarding a river ship which becomes your floating hotel.

And a bonus is that you unpack once!

Who goes?

River trips appeal mainly to the more mature traveler. The pace is leisurely, and there are no water slides or rock climbing walls. It is rare to see a child aboard.

The age range is from around 50 to 90.

We took our first trip years ago and were on the lower age of the scale at that time. People actually called me "young man" and I held a lot of doors open and helped if someone had difficulty walking on the cobblestones.

Now, all I hear is "Watch your step!"

A typical day

River ships take great pride in the food offered and justly so. It is simply delicious and fabulously presented.

You will be divided into groups from the onset of the cruise and will be assigned a color.

If you're being bused, you look for your "Red" bus and settle in. You will have a local guide who will fill you in on the day's events, providing insight into landmarks and the culture of the area you are visiting.

It may be that you are going to tour the city-center where you docked. If this is the case, you put on your "whisper," which is a little cigarette package-sized device with an earplug so that your guide can be heard clearly.

After the tour, you may head back to the ship for lunch. Or your company may have arranged a meal in a pub, a castle, or even on an estate.

In the afternoon you may decide to go back into town to do some shopping. Another possibility may be to participate in an optional tour to a place of interest like a winery, or palace, or historic building like where the Nuremberg trials were held.

It's usually back on the ship by 4 to 5 p.m.

Your "Red" group will have a Program Director (PD) as will all of the other groups. Each group usually has fewer than 40 travelers.

At 5:30, you'll go to the lounge and one of the PDs will give a talk on the next day's events.

You may enjoy a libation during the port talk as the lounge also contains the ship's bar.

Then it's off to a sit-down dinner. There may be some post-dinner entertainment. There are no fancy shows like on the big cruise ships. The entertainment is often someone or group from the city where you are docked.

Then you head up to the sun deck and watch as the ship eases away from the pier and heads toward your next location.

Most of the time, the ship journeys while you sleep. However, if there is going to be a particular sight which you just can't miss, like the "Iron Gates" on the Danube, or the Lorelei on the Rhine, you may be traveling during the day and everyone will be on the sun deck.

What about the cost?

This is a toughie because there are so many variables. The month you are traveling can be a factor. Also, the level of the deck. The upper decks have a premium price as that's where the balconies are.

Does your cruise include airfare? Many do. If you live in a small town like Paducah, even if airfare is included in the price of your trip, you still have to get to Chicago.

Sometimes, "last minute deals" may not be an actual bargain. Why? Because often a discounted trip doesn't include the airfare that the full-priced trip included.

My advice is to simply get catalogues or get online and familiarize yourself with various itineraries and prices and study all of the many options for the unforgettable experience of a European river cruise.

Incidentally, many river cruise lines like GCT don't accept bookings from travel agents.

You must book directly.

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