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Discover the Pleasures of River Cruising

Attractive new ships and well-crafted itineraries
lure travelers to fabled waterways

By Alexis Hilts

Vacations Magazine: Discover the Pleasures of River Cruising
Avalon Waterways

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

"It was awesome. They were all awesome. I'm ready to go again." Ginger Williams is talking about her river cruise experiences -- you could call her somewhat of a devotee. In the last two years, she has been on four sailings. But she wasn't always so enthusiastic. Before she went on her first river vacation, Williams wasn't convinced she'd enjoy it.

"I'm a beach girl, I never even wanted to go to Europe," she explains. As a master travel counselor at Vacations To Go -- a Houston-based agency specializing in discounted cruises, resort stays and escorted tours -- Williams was offered a Danube River trip as a work incentive in 2008. "Then I got hooked," she says.

From a travel agent's perspective, Williams says that her customers turn to river cruising for "the ease of travel" -- only unpacking once and having comfortable accommodations, shore excursions and meals, including wine with dinner, packaged into one price that's paid up front. And for experienced cruisers looking for something different from the oceangoing mega-ships, river vessels typically carry less than 300 passengers, allowing for a more intimate experience and anchoring within walking distance of the sights.

River cruising is relatively new and, Williams says, it keeps getting better. As its popularity as a low-maintenance way to travel continues to increase, river cruise companies are expanding their fleets and tweaking their perks. Just in the last two years, several lines have added new ships, including four for Avalon Waterways, three for AMA Waterways and two each for Uniworld River Cruises, Viking River Cruises and Scenic Tours.

"They're finding out what people want, and they're building the new ships to suit," Williams says.

And 2011 will be no different. River cruise passengers vacationing in Europe can look forward to the Avalon Panorama, where 66 suites have floor-to-ceiling windows that open, and the Viking Prestige, designed to up its eco-friendliness by using less fuel (its equally green sister ship, Viking Legend, debuted in 2009). Uniworld will launch the River Antoinette on the Rhine River and the Douro Spirit on Portugal's Douro River. And, the new Scenic Pearl will join the four other vessels of Scenic's European fleet.

Additional riverboats making their inaugural sailings in 2011 include the Viking Emerald on the Yangtze River in China and the Amalotus on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Dining alternatives are evolving as well. Many river cruise lines are adding lower-calorie and organic options and focusing on cuisine that is local to each destination. Next year, Avalon will add mimosas at breakfast, a preprandial cocktail hour and "Night Fare" at 10:30 p.m. for guests wanting a late snack.

Early-bird specials offer another good reason to choose a river vacation. For example, at press time, customers of Vacations To Go could save up to $1,200 per couple when booking­­ suites on select 2011 Uniworld itineraries of 15 or more days in Europe (or save up to $2,400 per couple on monthlong trips). The promotion expires Oct. 31.

For more information regarding current deals on river cruise itineraries, visit Vacations To Go or call the specialists at (800) 510-4002.

Civil War enthusiasts, Mark Twain fans and others eager to see America from a unique perspective can cruise the Mississippi and other heartland rivers. Blount Small Ship Adventures, formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line, is featuring Civil War authors aboard some departures of its three "Historic Rivers of America" itineraries next year. James I. Robertson Jr. will accompany passengers on journeys from New Orleans to Chattanooga, TN (departing June 5), and from Nashville to Chicago (June 29). Richard M. McMurry will join guests on two Chattanooga to Nashville sailings (April 29 and May 10). Entertainment on Blount's Niagara Prince includes a bluegrass band and a Mark Twain impersonator.

River cruises also make it easy to discover Europe, either for the first time or all over again. With all the details taken care of, passengers can immerse themselves in famed cities and rural towns without distractions.

One such tour allows guests to welcome the spring season with a celebration of color. "Tulip time" river cruises make their way through the Dutch countryside during March and April, when the region bursts with the bounty of its latest flower-planting season. More than 3 billion tulips are grown in the Netherlands each year, so travelers receive a brightly hued introduction to spring while gliding down rivers and canals.

Trips begin in Amsterdam, Holland's capital, providing opportunities to soak up the ambience of the centuries-old city in charming cafes, shops or museums such as the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh. A highlight is Keukenhof gardens near Lisse, where flora fans are treated to vibrant designs created from thousands of flowers, as well as sculptures and other art pieces sprinkled throughout the roughly 70-acre park. Landscapers presented a flower mosaic of the Statue of Liberty for a New York motif in 2009 and Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral in 2010. Visitors can expect equally inventive bloom displays for next year's theme, "Germany: Land of Poets and Philosophers."

Tulip time trips also venture into Belgium, often visiting Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world. Stroll 16th-century Grote Market, pausing for a picture of the statue that depicts heroic monster slayer Silvius Brabo. Legend has it that Brabo killed the area's menace -- giant Druon Antigoon -- and flung his hand into the nearby River Scheldt. Hence the name Antwerp, from the Dutch "hand werpen," meaning "hand throwing."

Other likely stopovers include Dordrecht to see the country's largest group of original windmills at Kinderdijk; Edam for a taste of provincial cheeses; and Delta Works, a complex engineering enterprise constructed over 30 years to protect the land from disastrous floods.

Rhine River cruises are an alluring choice for those who want to see Europe's romantic side. These journeys take passengers past medieval landscapes filled with magnificent castles, Gothic cathedrals, historic villages and lush vineyards. Most itineraries along the Rhine -- which flows from Switzerland through Germany and the Netherlands to the North Sea -- spend the majority of time in Germany.

Sail through the Middle Rhine Valley, a rocky region brimming with remnants of past sagas, such as a 12th-century hilltop fortress, Marksburg Castle, and Lorelei Rock, named for the fabled beauty whose siren songs lured mariners to their deaths.

Sightseers might relax in a brauhaus, or traditional beer hall, in 2,000-year-old Cologne or stop by the city's famous towering cathedral, built over a span of more than 600 years, beginning in the 13th century. Or awaken your mind on a tour of Heidelberg, the historic college town where philosophers, composers, writers and Nobel laureates have been inspired for centuries.

France's Strasbourg is a well-loved port along the Rhine; it's a town known for its hearty Alsatian cuisine and picturesque Petit France quarter, where canals are lined with half-timbered, black-and-white buildings. Stops might also include Swiss cultural center Basel and Holland's capital, Amsterdam.

More Old World sights are featured on cruises along the roughly 1,770-mile Danube River through Central Europe. Ports on this enchanting waterway include cities in Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. Streaming all the way to the Black Sea, this famed river provides a variety of itineraries.

Split by the Danube, Budapest's two sides boast a stunning collection of architecture, from the medieval palace, Buda Castle, to the green-and-gold-roofed Museum of Applied Arts, a prime example of Hungarian Art Nouveau style. It's known as the City of Spas, and visitors can pamper themselves at several thermal pools, like the Szechenyi Baths, one of the largest bathing complexes in Europe.

Austria's capital, Vienna, delights the senses. Travelers might enjoy an afternoon at a coffeehouse -- a cultural institution here -- or take in a concert in this "City of Waltzes." Or, feast your eyes on the many royal structures in the area, including more than 150 castles and palaces. Austria's countryside is dotted with charming towns such as Melk, home to one of Europe's oldest Benedictine abbeys. Riverboats stop here so passengers can see the abbey's beautiful ceiling frescoes and impressive library of nearly 16,000 books.

At the foot of the Small Carpathian hills in Slovakia's Bratislava -- the only national capital that borders two other countries, Austria and Hungary -- Danube River cruisers visit Primatial Palace, where the Pressburg Peace Treaty was signed in 1805. German cities on Danube itineraries include 2,000-year-old Regensburg and medieval, fortified Nuremberg, formerly Nazi rallying grounds.

Travelers desiring something a bit more exotic can look to the Yangtze River in China, the Mekong in Southeast Asia and the Nile in northeast Africa. Itineraries in these faraway destinations combine river cruises with several days of touring on land, typically by motor coach.

From western China's Tanggula Mountains to the East China Sea, the Yangtze's course is nearly 4,000 miles long through the country's diverse attractions. A river vacation allows tourists to experience distinct facets of Chinese culture and landscapes, from majestic peaks and deep valleys to the 12-story wooden pagoda of Shibaozhai to the ultra-modern metropolis of Shanghai. Tours typically travel between Shanghai and Beijing, where passengers spend a few nights in hotels.

Once a stylish playground for the affluent, with Art Deco buildings lining the waterfront, Shanghai has spent the last two decades revamping its cityscape, adding state-of-the-art skyscrapers. Day trips take sightseers to landmarks new and old -- scope panoramic views from the observation deck in the flashy Oriental Pearl Tower or stroll through the tranquil landscapes of Yuyuan Garden, which dates to the Ming Dynasty.

The Forbidden City and its lavish Imperial Palace awaits in Beijing, as does the ceremonial Temple of Heaven, adorned with sacred symbolism. Virtually all Yangtze River tour groups visit the unrivaled Great Wall, constructed beginning in 221 B.C. On the waterway, coast past forested summits en route to the Three Gorges Dam -- the largest in the world at almost a mile and a half across and more than 600 feet tall. Guests often are treated to a performance of the Peking Opera in Beijing and an acrobatics show in Shanghai.

Farther south on the continent, voyage along the less-traveled Mekong River, which starts in the Tibetan Highlands and winds its way 2,600 miles to the South China Sea. Mekong riverboats sail through the colorful cities and fishing villages of Cambodia and Vietnam; overnights in Laos and Thailand are included on some itineraries.

Deep in the Cambodian jungle is the Angkor temple complex, built between the ninth and 13th centuries in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu. In January 2010, the top level of the best-preserved structure here -- Angkor Wat -- was reopened after restoration, allowing access to hundreds of stone carvings of Khmer goddesses. Guests also visit Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, to see its French colonial architecture and ornate Royal Palace.

In Vietnam, tours of Ho Chi Minh City include the Cu Chi Tunnels -- underground Viet Cong hideouts -- and the War Remnants Museum. Board a small wooden boat, or sampan, for traversing the Tien River toward the port of Cai Be and its market on the water, where local merchants sell goods directly from their vessels.

Cutting through the African desert, the Nile has been a source of life for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians based their calendar on its cycles, and the river's fertile valley is central to the country, inhabited by an estimated 80.5 million people. Excursions along this waterway, which flows more than 4,100 miles, are part of extended land-based itineraries that generally travel round-trip from Cairo.

Impressive archaeological sites are the focus of Nile River trips, and passengers delve into the region's mythological and historical past on jaunts to see some of the world's most treasured relics. The massive Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are just the beginning. You can marvel at Tutankhamun's golden death mask and other priceless artifacts in Cairo's Egyptian Museum. In Luxor, stand in the shadows of the 3,000-year-old Luxor Temple, and contemplate the Valley of the Kings, where pharaohs were buried for nearly 500 years. Also here is the Mortuary Temple of a female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, set against the backdrop of the cliffs at Deir el Bahari.

Beyond the remains of long-ago kingdoms, Nile travelers can browse the wares of the Khan El Khalili bazaar and tour the medieval Citadel in Cairo, and view the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970 to harness the waters of a formidable river.

Information: For more information on river cruises around the world, visit travel discounter Vacations To Go, or call (800) 510-4002.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2010.

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