The river cruise industry is trying hard to shrug off its old and staid image with exciting new itineraries and tours for would-be adventurers, says Jane Archer
I’m balancing gingerly on a wooden plank on a floating fish farm in Halong Bay, wondering just what the Vietnamese have against handrails. One false step and at best I’m fish food, at worst my pride will have taken a severe battering.
It’s probably not how most people would expect to spend day one of a river cruise, which most think to be rather staid. Maybe it’s the names of some of the cruises – Castles on the Rhine doesn’t even hint at adventure – or because most river cruisers are retired.
Whatever the reason, the simple fact is that people who think that are so wrong. River cruise might have been an old person’s pastime a decade or so ago, but not any more.
I was in Halong Bay with Pandaw, an Asian river cruise specialist that lives and breathes adventure, at the start of a cruise along the Red River in Northern Vietnam that would see me testing my nerves crossing streets in Hanoi that were swarming with motorbikes (just keep walking, they say, but it is a real leap of faith) and dodging scooters and lorries on a cycle ride along dusty roads as the thermometer soared past 30.
More excitement is promised on Pandaw’s cruise on the Upper Mekong in Laos and China, which visits hill tribes and sails through gushing gorges. The website even warns would-be explorers that this is an expedition and only for travellers who are “up for
a real adventure”.
Or maybe clients would like to head to Northeast India, for a cruise with Saga on the Brahmaputra River, where they’ll find themselves looking for tigers on an elephant-back safari at dawn in Kaziranga National Park.
Going west, budding adventurers can sail the Mississippi and the Amazon – not the unexciting bit that the ocean cruise ships can navigate, but the upper reaches, where the river narrows and passengers can walk through the rainforest, getting up close to the wildlife.
Not that river cruisers have to go a long way to find adventure. In Europe, river cruise lines are reinventing their excursions, adding more exciting options to cater for the new generation of retirees who want more from their holidays than a sightseeing tick-box and also to persuade younger people that you do not have to be old to go on a river cruise.
Leading the way is U by Uniworld, a sister brand to Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection that was initially designed for millennials, but opened to all ages in a surprise decision in early March, just weeks before the first cruise had set off.
It seems that people aged 46 and over were actually most attracted by the idea of a river cruise with a difference and, understandably, Uniworld did not want to turn down their business. Realistically, they are probably also the only ones who can actually afford the cruises, which cost from £1,329 per person. That is for half-board (no lunches provided) and excludes flights and most excursions.
U really is very different. Not only are its two river ships black (no jokes about U boats, please) but the excursions on offer would get Ben Fogle champing at the bit. There’s paragliding, kayaking and a walk over the rooftops of Paris for those sailing the Seine. On the Rhine and Main, passengers can go blokarting, rock-climbing, canoeing and climb into a disused coal mine; on the Danube there’s white-water rafting and ice skating (the latter in winter only).
AmaWaterways, Scenic, CroisiEurope and Emerald Waterways have all pepped up their tours with hiking, biking and canoeing. Even Viking, which generally only offered walking tours, has noticed that river cruisers are more adventurous these days and broadened its excursion offerings accordingly.
Passengers cruising the Rhine can now cycle around the Kinderdijk windmills in Holland and through Germany’s Black Forest. There’s cycling in the Wachau Valley on the Danube, canoeing on the Seine in France and even a trip to a sauna in Russia where they can get beaten with birch leaves.
Crystal River Cruises has helicopter tours over the Wachau Valley and canoeing in Strasbourg, while Avalon Waterways has themed Active Discovery cruises on the Rhine and Danube (and the Rhône starting 2019) with lots of cycling, hiking and canoeing, and even running tours in Amsterdam and Vienna.
So what next? Canyoning in the Ardèche? Zip-wiring in the Black Forest? Who knows. One thing is for sure, though, alongside the guided walking tours and wine-tasting that many river cruisers still want, there is a growing thirst for adventure. It is now up to ground operators and river cruise lines to work together
to satisfy that demand.