River cruises: the relaxing deck of a river cruise boat

I always figured cruising wasn’t for me.

The idea of boarding a massive ship crammed with thousands of people destined for busy European or Caribbean ports has never been appealing to me. I have visited many cities that are popular cruise ship destinations and have seen the crowds descend from their boats. I’ve seen those same crowds, forced to rush through a city with merely a glance at a few attractions, before hurrying back to the boat before it departs in the evening.

It never seemed relaxing. It never seemed that much, to be completely honest, fun.

In the last few years though, I’ve talked to a lot of fellow travelers and friends who speak enthusiastically about one particular type of cruise: European river cruises. It got me thinking. Maybe, instead of dismissing an entire segment of travel, I should embrace that there may be an option under the cruising umbrella that would suit even me.

River cruises are a vastly different approach to traditional cruising. The ships are smaller and sleeker than those monstrosities that waddle clumsily around harbors. There are rarely more than 200 passengers. You can glide along some of Europe’s most beautiful and scenic rivers, never more than quick swim from the shoreline.

Thanks to the small size and shallow hull, you can dock alongside the Chain Bridge in Budapest or the Cologne Cathedral, not in some industrial port, miles from where you actually want to spend your time.

Most river cruises avoid the traditional cruise business model which sell low priced packages, but tempt travelers to add on shore excursions, drinks, special meals, and gratuities, meaning that the final cost is significantly higher than expected.

There are no hidden charges with river cruises, which typically include things like airport transfers, all food and beverages, and even daily excursions at each destination for no additional cost. The initial cost may be high, but you can relax and enjoy your cruise, rather than worry about how much to tip or how much the next excursion will inflate the final bill.

After some research, here are three itineraries that pique my interest and would definitely get the Drew stamp of approval. I may even be inspired to book one myself.

Portugal

The river Duoro runs through the heart of Portugal, and is one of the most beautiful stretches of the Portuguese countryside. The terraced slopes of the surrounding hillsides are littered with vineyards, providing an idyllic backdrop.

The 10-night cruise on The Spirit of Chartwell includes 2 nights in Lisbon, an underrated European city in my opinion. Before setting off on the cruise, there is a short side journey up to the historic town of Porto, at the mouth of the river Duoro. From there, you sail east, along the snaking river through the heart of the Portuguese wine country.

The cruise eventually crosses into Spain and the town of Salamanca, home of the one of the world’s oldest universities and a UNESCO city.

Burgundy and Provence

I’m already a massive fan of the Burgundy region of France, home to some of the world’s most prized wines and rarefied foods. Exploring Burgundy and Provence, from the comfort of a boat? I expect it would be simply spectacular, a thrill for a food lover like me.

This 8-night cruise starts from the city of Avignon, a gorgeous city along the banks of the Rhône, with its outdoor markets and quaint streets. The route goes through Arles, the inspiration for much of Van Gogh’s work, and Tournon, next to Côtes du Rhône and in the heart of the Rhône Valley, a wine lover’s dream.

The cruise ends in Burgundy, with stops in Lyon and Beaune. Lyon is arguably the gastronomic capital of France, and home of the famous Les Halles food market. Beaune is in the middle of the famous Burgundy wine region, and this tiny village is the perfect place to explore many famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines in the surrounding wineries.

Danube River

The Danube River is one of the gems of Europe, but the section that winds through Austria is one of the most beautiful sections. Running from Munich to Budapest, this river cruise is packed with tons of natural beauty and fantastic city breaks.

The 7-night river cruise begins in Budapest, one of my favorite cities in Europe. It travels west along the Danube, stopping in fun cities like Bratislava, with its historic Old Town, and Vienna, one of the more postcard-perfect cities in the world.

After stops in the Austrian countryside, where you can spend a day biking or hiking along the river, the river cruise eventually sails through Passau, Germany, home of the world’s largest pipe organ at St. Stephan’s Cathedral, before finishing in Munich. Munich is also worth a look around, before heading out of town.

After shlepping awkward luggage and overpacked backpacks all over Europe, the idea of sitting on my own private balcony watching the world pass by does have its appeal. Add in the benefits of an all-inclusive holiday, docking in the center of fantastic European capitals and being lulled to sleep at night by gentle waves?

Well, let’s just say I think I’m coming around to river cruises. Well, at least one version of it!

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