DANUBE RIVER — It looked like a picture out of my high school German textbook: A perfect, suntanned family frolicking in the shallows of the Danube. They stopped their splashing and laughing to wave at our river boat as we sailed by.
A little further along the waterway, I jealously watched from the boat’s top deck as a stream of cyclists pedaled on the river banks, with the emerald grapevines of Austria’s Wachau Valley as a backdrop. In the fast-flowing water of Europe’s second longest river, a fly fisherman cast his line.
“There’s so much scenery, so much to look at,” said Joan Bell of west suburban River Forest. Bell and her husband, Ray, were on Viking River Cruises’ 15-day Grand European Tour, traveling from Budapest to Amsterdam via three rivers.
“If I was on a regular cruise,” Ray chimed in, “I’d be in the middle of the ocean surrounded by nothing but water.”
The Bells had cruised before, but this was their first experience with river cruising, that rare sector of the struggling travel industry that’s experiencing a growth spurt — at least on the international stage.
While the modest fleet of U.S. river boats continues to dwindle, major operators in Europe, Asia and Egypt keep churning out new ships and itineraries. (One exception is the German company Peter Deilmann Cruises, which is pulling out of the river cruise business next month.) Both Avalon and AMA Waterways launched a pair of new river boats this year. Uniworld recently debuted the newest member of its family, River Beatrice, on the Danube, and its all-suite River Tosca hits the Nile next week.
Viking, the world’s largest river cruise company, introduced the 189-passenger Viking Legend this summer. The Legend is the largest — and greenest — of Viking’s 21 vessel fleet. The diesel-electric hybrid engine uses about 20 percent less fuel than comparable diesel-only ships.
I got the chance last month to spend a few days aboard the Legend as it made its way along 1,100 miles of the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers, passing through 67 locks and under 260-plus bridges, some so low we had to duck our heads.
Time constraints meant I could only do the Danube portion of the Grand European Tour, which stopped in a total of five countries, four capitals and myriad smaller towns.
“This was the most efficient way to see a lot of countries I hadn’t seen before,” said Joan Prims, a retired stockbroker from west suburban Hinsdale. “You can avoid long drives and flights, and you don’t have to keep packing and unpacking.”
Prims is in her 70s. So were a lot of passengers on this trip, where the relaxed pace and length of the journey — a little over two weeks — seemed to appeal primarily to older retirees.
I knew going in (read: dreaded) that as a freshly minted 40-year-old, I’d be one of the youngest people on board. Sure enough, our daily walking tours ashore had more canes than a sugar plantation. But I soon eased into the slower rhythm of things.
Rather than visit every church in medieval Regensburg, I was content to spend a few hours strolling around the well-preserved German village and linger over a weissbier and plate of finger sausages in the shadow of one of Europe’s oldest stone bridges.
Instead of museum hopping in Vienna, I sat back in an air-conditioned motor coach and watched the stunning baroque buildings pass by, listening as our guide explained that many Viennese specialties actually came from other places. Wiener schnitzel? Thank Milan, Italy. Apple strudel? The dough hailed from the Turks. Ditto for Vienna’s famous coffee.
Over the years, I’ve cruised on ships with 10 times as many passengers and never got to know a one of them. River cruises are much more social. Most have a communal, open seating dining format (Legend’s smallest table seated six), so they’re ideal for meeting new people. I imagine that makes them not so ideal for a romantic getaway. Although one evening I did sit next to a couple of honeymooners from Lakeland, Florida. He was 92; his bride, 85.
“Zo you’re zee ones in zee cabin next door making zo much noise,” joked a Frenchman at our table. (The vast majority of Legend passengers came from the United States. All of the ship’s staff members — except the German captain — spoke English.)
The average riverboat holds roughly 100 to 200 passengers, making them far more intimate than your typical cruise ship. The tradeoff is you won’t get all the amenities, entertainment and dining options that come with a bigger boat.
I had a mini panic attack when I discovered the Legend didn’t have a gym — not even a tiny room with a couple pieces of exercise equipment. This ended up being more of a blessing, because we often docked steps away from jogging paths that led me through scenery I’d never see on a treadmill.
The relatively small size of river cruisers like the Legend are also their biggest asset. These boats are tiny enough to get prime parking spots alongside historic city centers, meaning you can walk off the ship and into town without waiting in long lines to be tendered ashore. Other pluses: Seasickness isn’t an issue and daily sightseeing excursions are included in the price.
“I had this grand life plan,” said Prims, the retired stockbroker from Hinsdale, as we sat in the Legend’s lounge. “I’d visit exotic Third World countries in my 50s, Europe in my 60s and finish the U.S. in my 70s.
“Well, I got very behind schedule,” the 77-year-old added, “and this has been a great way to catch up.”