One evening a few years ago, my wife, Fyllis, and I were savoring a sumptuous four-course gourmet dinner accompanied by wines that had been produced nearby. More recently, we listened raptly to lectures by knowledgeable experts about a variety of issues, some controversial, in several Eastern European countries.
The settings for these experiences could have been a five-star hotel or resort, and indeed in atmosphere and attractiveness they deserved that rating. What set them apart was that they took place on small ships plying some of the most famous and fabled rivers in the world.
At present, a number of oceangoing ships have been canceling sailings and, in some cases, dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus among passengers and crew members. That can be frustrating for the many people who love to take to sea. But there is an alternative that allows frustrated mariners to leave terra firma, enjoy a different way to play sailor, and enhance their waterborne travel in ways not available on the world’s oceans.
Inland waterways may lack some appeal for those who prefer the lure of the open sea, but they can more than make them up in other attributes. These include panoramic views of magnificent scenery, opportunities to explore the history and cultures of countries through which the ships pass, and onboard activities that often relate to those places.
While usually referred to as river cruises, they can traverse bays, lakes, fjords, and canals. That delicious dinner that Fyllis and I enjoyed was served aboard a French Country Waterways barge moving leisurely on canals that run through some of France’s most picturesque areas.
The vessels operated by the American-owned company give new meaning to the word “barge.” They offer the gracious ambiance of a fine country inn in an atmosphere of informal elegance. Meals often feature fresh ingredients purchased on land, including breakfast bread and croissants still bakery warm.
The philosophy of Grand Circle Cruise Line and its sister company, Overseas Adventure Travel, is summed up in the phrase “learning and discovery.” That often meant delving into topics such as the refugee situation in the four Eastern European countries through which our riverboat was traveling.
There’s also time for fun and games, what I call “down-home” entertainment that contrasts with the large, flashy reviews common on massive oceangoing vessels. Our crew members competed in a hilarious karaoke contest and presented a badly butchered performance of the “Swan Lake” ballet, which prompted the boat’s captain to join in by pleading with passengers, “Remember, what happens on the ship stays on the ship.”
Grand Circle’s offerings include sailing along the Seine River through France, a four-country Romantic Blue Danube jaunt, and a Grand European Cruise that covers eight countries over 29 days. Avalon Waterways covers some of the same European territory, offering land excursions ranging from classes in French cooking and Dutch painting to meeting an Austrian count in his castle.
Its Storyteller Series brings along well-known authors who discuss their books. The Suite Ships, which sail in Europe and Southeast Asia, feature floor-to-ceiling windows that provide spectacular views of the passing scenery.
The scenery is different for passengers aboard a Fred Olsen ship exploring the fjord land of Norway, a featured destination of that company. It’s a wonderland of towering mountains, deep valleys, and mighty waterfalls interspersed with charming villages. Norway’s Arctic north is an area of remote islands and unspoiled wilderness that at times is blanketed by the awe-inspiring Northern Lights.
On the other side of the planet, Lindblad Cruises, the self-styled adventure cruise specialists, take passengers along rivers that pass through Cambodia and Vietnam to see palaces, temples, and floating villages. Other Lindblad ships follow the Nile and Amazon rivers.
Of course, it’s not necessary to leave the United States in order to enjoy the pleasures and perks of vessels that ply non-ocean waters. During 2022, American Cruise Lines has 15 small ships and riverboats operating in 31 states. Nine itineraries follow the Mississippi, Ohio, and Cumberland rivers between New Orleans and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Along the way, passengers visit Civil War battlefields, enjoy the beat of traditional American music in Memphis and Nashville, and relive the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn where Mark Twain created them in Hannibal, Missouri.
From gourmet meals to the sounds of music, the pyramids of Egypt to floating villages in Asia, small ship cruises offer surprisingly diverse choices of places to explore, cultures to experience, and other attractions to enjoy. At this time, they may provide a welcome alternative for those who wish to set foot on a boat deck other than that of a mega-size oceangoing vessel.
When You Go
Because of their lower passenger capacity and coronavirus safety procedures, small ships generally are less likely to face the challenges impacting some ocean vessels. Even so, check in advance to make sure the trip you’d like to take is a go.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2022 Creators.com