All Aboard: Riverboat cruises are ‘the next big thing’ for travelers from Wilmington

As opposed to typical ocean cruise ships, which usually have long buffet lines and jam-packed pool decks, riverboat cruises offer a more intimate experience. Which is something desired by the older crowd.

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“Riverboats are more inclusive and more of a luxury line, so naturally, it attracts more older and accomplished travelers,” said Jessica Rendall, owner of AnyCruise Travel in Wilmington. (Photo courtesy Pat Kirkman)
“Riverboats are more inclusive and more of a luxury line, so naturally, it attracts more older and accomplished travelers,” said Jessica Rendall, owner of AnyCruise Travel in Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Pat Kirkman)

With exciting international itineraries, high-tech amenities provided onboard and extra time to explore, riverboat cruises are catching on among the travelers from Wilmington.

This is not a new phenomenon — river cruises have been in business for decades — but more modern ships are now visiting more locations around the world that ocean-going vessels cannot get close to.

And as opposed to the typical ocean cruise ships, which usually have long buffet lines and jam-packed pool decks, riverboat cruises offer a more intimate experience. Which leaves something to be desired for the older crowd.

“Riverboats are more inclusive and more of a luxury line, so naturally, it attracts more of the older and accomplished travelers,” said Jessica Rendall, owner of AnyCruise Travel in Wilmington.

“It’s all relative, really,” she said. “A lot of people are tired of the ships getting so big. So more people are finding out about riverboat cruises because they just don’t want to settle for the mainstream.”

Rubbing elbows with thousands of other cruisers while onboard has been a turnoff for years. As ships keep getting larger in size, a steady backlash from veteran cruisers has been felt in the industry.

“I think a lot of people from Hampton Roads are now looking beyond those crowded 5,000-person ships,” said Marta Corbitt, who opened Concierge Travel in Virginia Beach two years ago and serves clients from all over the country.

“I have definitely sold more riverboat cruises over the past two years compared to the large ocean cruiseliners,” Corbitt said. “If you are looking for a relaxing time and want to add some culture, not just sit on a beach somewhere, then riverboats are the way to go.”

See if this sounds familiar: Corbitt’s parents used to take one large cruise ship vacation every year. But right around the time they hit age 60, the initial allure started to wear off. They were over the noisy crowds and large families. They started to crave a more intimate experience.

“These riverboat cruises in Europe pull right up to these coastal towns. You take one or two steps off the boat and you’re right on a cobblestone street in a storied town,” Corbitt said.

“It doesn’t get any more intimate than that.”

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Imagine cruising down the famous Danube River, soaking up the sun while experiencing all the different cultures in central and eastern Europe. Sounds like the trip of a lifetime. Many others are starting to agree.

And it’s not just local travel agencies that are selling these packages.

The Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance is sponsoring a 7-night, 4-country riverboat cruise along the Danube that can be booked online within minutes. They will take care of all the logistics and fly guests out of Dulles International Airport as their featured riverboat cruise departs Sept. 28.

“We really listen to our travelers and where they want to go,” said Victoria Schumacher, the member relations manager at GWCTA, which sponsors two international trips a year and usually attracts travelers from the Historic Triangle and Hampton Roads.

“Riverboat cruises are the next big thing,” Schumacher said. “This particular one on the Danube is a top destination trip for 2017.”

The Danube is Europe’s second-longest river, after the Volga River, and is also the longest river in the European Union region. It stretches 1,777 miles and flows past scenic coastal cities such as Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava, Belgrade, Ulm, Linz and more.

“We have chartered the entire five-star Amadeus Royal and this ship is amazing,” said Schumacher, who is hoping to come along for the trip, which would be her first visit to Europe.

“Guests will get all their meals and wine taken care of. There’s also a welcome dinner, a captain’s gala, music performances onboard and different city tours.”

An all-inclusive approach is pretty typical with riverboat cruises.

On most ocean cruises, however, guests usually have to open up their wallets for different tours while the ship is in port. These ‘town excursions’ are included at no extra charge on riverboats. Tours are escorted by local guides and, depending on what season it is, they take advantage of special events or European holiday markets.

“The staff on these riverboats is very knowledgeable and the level of service sets them apart,” said Corbitt, who has her eyes set on a riverboat wine cruise later this year in southern France.

“The passenger-to-staff ratio is small so you have a tour guide in every person you meet.”

View of a Viking Longship Aquavit Terrace. (Photo courtesy VikingCruises.com)
View of a Viking Longship Aquavit Terrace. (Photo courtesy VikingCruises.com)

The more popular riverboat cruising companies – Viking, Tauck, Avalon Waterways, Uniworld, and AMA Waterways – are updating and modernizing their fleet in worldwide river waters every year. The ships are designed to be intimate, can hold as few as 150 passengers, and have been sculpted to negotiate difficult water crossings in cities.

“For a lot of these ships, the top will fold down so they can negotiate low bridges,” said Corbitt, who uses Viking River Cruises as one of her top vendors.

“It’s a pretty awesome sight to see the technology at work. These modern ships will transform so they can maneuver under these historic landmarks that have been around for centuries.”

Corbitt said the long ships for Viking debuted in 2012 and offer plenty of the ocean cruise ship-amenities like verandas, sun decks, and different cabin options. Their 450-foot long ships include four sun decks, 95 state rooms and can host 190 guests with 50 crew members onboard.

“It really comes down to a client’s financial budget,” said Rendall, who has been selling cruises all over the world for the last 26 years. She started in Miami, Fla. and moved her operation to Wilmington 13 years ago.

“Some of these Viking riverboats, for example, are very upscale and people get what they pay for. It’s a luxurious experience. But for some people who have been taking ocean cruises for the last 20 or 30 years, maybe they are ready to see something different.”

Riverboat itineraries have been developed to satisfy travelers who appreciate vineyards, architecture, UNESCO heritage sites, history and unique shopping experiences so a traveler’s options are not just limited to Europe.

China, Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia offer plenty of riverboat trips along their waterways while Viking has recently opened up a cruise route in western Russia that will take passengers from St. Petersburg to Moscow along the Volga or Svir Rivers.

The riverboat scene in America is also surging with different routes starting along the mighty Mississippi River from New Orleans all the way up to St. Paul, Minn. Other options are also available in New England, the Southeast, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

“It’s a great way to see America,” said Chelsea Drier, a Newport News native, who has vacationed on riverboat cruises in the States and abroad. “People in Hampton Roads live close to the water. We know the water. It’s a safe and relaxing way to travel.”

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our travel section, email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com.