Our safety drill – pretty standard procedure that is required by law to be conducted by cruise ship crew before every sailing – had begun somewhat unconventionally. “You know what,” our captain cheerfully said, “we don’t have any safety equipment on this ship. We actually have one boat, but it shouldn’t be counted on as there is only room for me and the cook there”. He enjoyed the uncertain expression of our faces for a moment and continued: “Should something happened to the ship though, you can just walk to the shore.”
It took us a couple days into our Holland and Belgium Rivers cruise to understand it fully and to find our captain’s jokes funny, but he was right. When you are sailing along the European rivers and canals, the shores are so close, at times it seems like you can touch them. So, if you ever felt a bit nervous on the big cruise ship because all you see around is the ocean (or because you watched “Titanic” too many times), the river cruising is for you. Let me reassure any edgy soul: if the river cruise ship hit the ground, you would not even get your feet wet.
This feeling of safety is the first in my list of reasons why river cruising is the best way to explore Europe. The list is pretty impressive: modern ships, personal service made possible by having only 200 or so guests aboard, fresh food (there isn’t much space on the ship, so the chef has to shop in the local market almost every day), but, among the multitude, these are a few of my personal favorites. Here they are – in no particular order.
Let me start with comfort and I mean the level of comfort you would expect from a 5 star hotel, where all rooms and suites are equipped with a flat screen TV, luxury bedding, generously sized modern bathrooms and where you are always a few steps away from the piano bar, fitness center and beauty salon. Prefer a cabin with a river view? Almost all of them have French Door balconies. Looking for the best state room location – pick any. Even though the breathtaking scenery that slowly goes by your window is changing every minute, your hotel room – and level of comfort – never does.
The second one I defined as convenience, but you might have your own name for it. If you have ever traveled in coach with a tour company you remember how eager you were to start packing late in the evening after the long day on foot. But with the couch tour you have no choice – you have to be in the bus at 6:00 am for the next day of sightseeing. Here, on the river cruise ship you need to only unpack once and your luxury hotel will go with you every day. And if you would like to sleep a few more hours in the morning – you’re entitled to it, it’s your vacation, you can. When you are refreshed, re-energized and finally ready for the next day of adventure, you can just have breakfast and step out of the ship – no rush, no tenderizing, no waiting. Everything is on your own terms – whenever you feel like it. You might even come back to the ship for a lunch and a short nap.
The next reason is accessibility of small cities and ports and opportunities to reach deep into the heart of the Continent, exploring some of its more remote regions. The wealth of European history and culture almost literally floats its rivers. Rivers, and later canals, were for a long time the best mode of transportation, so for centuries people built the castles and villages along the waterways. Certainly there are some glorious cities you can explore while on the ocean cruise. But if you wish to see beyond the coast line and really get up close and personal to those most charming villages that do not have big docking facilities then a river boat is your best friend: small ships can pull up, almost literally tie to the tree, and let you walk into the main town square.
And the last, but nevertheless very important, one: I like how the river cruise lines interpret the “all-inclusive” concept. Once you’ve stepped on board, you can relax and enjoy so many things that are included free of charge: all shore excursions, all meals, wines from Europe’s most famous wine regions with every dinner, bicycles on board to rent, even Internet access in every cabin. So, now I have my favorite way to travel in Europe. Try it – unless the packing and unpacking your luggage or sitting in the rush hour traffic jams on the autobahns is your idea of a good time, it’ll become your favorite too. Or, if you’ve done it already (I know some of you did), play the video. It might bring back very fond memories.