Friday, 16 October 2009

River v Ocean Cruising

It's a question I hear time and time again - what's the difference between river cruising and it's Big Brother ocean variety?

It goes hand in hand with the alternative version (usually from die-hard big-ship cruisers), why would I want to down-size to a river-boat?

Both are valid queries, but both can be met with an equally emphatic response: river-cruising IS a very different animal to the ocean-going variety, but it also affords a rich and diverse experience that big-ship folk ignore at their peril!

To take the first issue, the difference between the two, requires a lengthier reply, though.

The differences between the two types of cruising are significant but well worth detailing. The obvious issue is one of size - river-boats rarely hold more than 150 people (although the new Victoria Jenna on the Yangtze in China will hold an amazing 378 passengers), and there are far fewer public rooms.

Fewer rooms means less space and fewer frills in terms of big-ship glamour and glitz. You won't find fancy casinos, high-tech Spas (although, again, the Jenna is an exception), elaborate theatres and multiple dining venues. If you're looking for expansive pool facilities, water-slides and rock-climbing walls, this isn't the right choice for you either.

But you will find plush, comfortable surroundings, well-fitted cabins, high-quality fittings and furnishings, and an overall commitment to service and attention to detail normally found only on the more deluxe, smaller-scale ocean vessels.

There is also a substantial difference in pace, both in terms of your actual travel and also of the onboard ambience. River-boats typically procede at a very leisurely speed, sometimes not much above walking pace, and the need for periodic negotiations of locks and other river traffic means you can't count on vast changes of scenery as you can in places like the Baltic and Alaska.

But this also lends itself to a more relaxing and comfortable vibe, with no discernable hustle and bustle, no need to go dashing from one show to another or requirement for lengthy daily activity programmes.

River-cruising really allows you to unwind, decompress from the real world and chill out, in a comfy environment that provides no great demands of time or choice.

Finally, and this is an important distinction as cruise ships get ever larger, it is an immensely personal experience, both in terms of your fellow passengers and the destinations you visit.

The slow pace affords plenty of time to get the know the people around you, with plenty of opportunity for conversation and social intercourse, while at the same time providing an almost slow-motion tableau of scenery and cities.

Cities are also the bread and butter of the typical river cruise, especially in Europe, with the river routes offering all manner of wonderful urban backdrops (as well as fabulous rural scenes).

In France, you can take in the likes of Lyon, Tournon, Viviers and Avignon ; in Germany, you can enjoy a cruise that includes Frankfurt, Mainz, Nuremberg and Heidelberg; further along the Danube, the routes takes in Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Bratislava; and in Russia you can cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg, and unveil some marvellous mysteries along the way.

And that's before you consider the alternative destinations of the Nile, China and Myanmar, all of which can add the a taste of the exotic to the river-cruise experience.

River-cruising is probably not ideal for families with younger children, but for those with children of senior school age (especially those learning a language), it can also be a wonderful opportunity, and for the river-cruise exec who recently stated that his product was not for "the 40-somethings," that is a shocking undervaluing of the possibilities.

Put simply, river-cruising is for those who really like to get under the skin of a destination, to take their time and savour a country, a city or a countryside. It is highly personable and often provides memorable dining. And it reconnects us with our fellow traveller.

There are other reasons why you might want to give river-cruising a try - notably the chance to avoid any vestige of seasickness! - but I'll save those for another day and another argument.