A beginners’ guide to river cruising

12 November 2019

It’s a lovely idea, genius in fact: cruising beautiful locations like the Danube, The Rhine, The Rhône, or even the Mekong River on a luxury river boat – gently watching the world drift by from your ridiculously comfortable cabin, disembarking daily at ports to explore charming towns, historic buildings, vineyards, local restaurants and other attractions. Unpack that suitcase once and don’t worry about taxis or transfers or lugging bags around places bags shouldn’t be lugged. In theory it’s the perfect, most relaxed, way to holiday.

Provence views. Photos: Alexia Santamaria

Here's the good news: on a recent Active & Discovery Cruise with Avalon Waterways I discovered it is actually almost as perfect as it sounds. Marketing material always makes travel look shiny and gorgeous but I did have reservations at how it might play out minus the smiling models, seductive descriptions and photoshop-perfect weather. I was very pleasantly surprised and would absolutely travel this way again, preferably as soon as I can. Here’s the low-down if you’re sitting on the fence about taking your first river cruise.

Cabins

If the ship you are on is cleverly designed – and Avalon’s Poetry II definitely was – there is plenty of space, so don’t worry about being ‘sardined’ in. My floor to ceiling windows opened fully to create an amazing open air balcony effect without me losing any floor space; there was a decent sized desk, wardrobe small sofa and table and chairs and nothing felt cramped like I thought it might. Beds on this ship (they face the window – it’s magnificent waking up to a new view every morning) were designed so your suitcase fits underneath once it’s unpacked and the bathrooms were surprisingly roomy, and spotlessly clean.

The view from Alexia's stateroom. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

Destinations and Itineraries

Of course the destination depends entirely on where in the world you want to visit, but I would suggest looking in-depth at the details of the itinerary once you’ve chosen a region. The cruise I did was from Arles to Lyon in France and the way the sailings were timed we ended up with five out of seven nights in port. This was such a bonus as we could do guided excursions in the day, then explore independently in the afternoon and evening. It became a bit of a tradition with our group to head into the town we were docked in for an Aperol Spritz or even dessert. Spending more nights in port is an advantage of most river cruises, but the balance will of course vary from company to company, and from cruise to cruise within each brand.

A restaurant in Lyon. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

Food

Choose a ship where different food options have been considered – remember you will be eating there two to three times a day. On the cruise I went on, there were excellent buffets (rigorously manned and monitored for food safety reasons) for breakfast and lunch, and five-course seated dinners with wine every night. The clever touches I loved included the option of a lighter dinner upstairs if you wanted to eat something quickly and get ashore, and healthy options on all menus if you didn’t want to over indulge every single day – the house-made pastries, local cheeses and opulent French desserts were almost impossible to resist so the odd salad didn’t go amiss from time to time!

Breakfast includes local honeycomb. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

Activities

Look for a cruise that suit your interests. As someone who likes to explore, the Avalon Active & Discovery one suited me down to the ground. Options included wine tasting in an underground cave, hiking in the Alpilles, e-biking through French villages, kayaking in the stunning Gorges de l'Ardèche, exploring massive moving art projections in a disused limestone quarry, climbing to the top of the city’s Basilica to get views of Lyon from the very top, and so much more. There were also gentler options like painting classes, guided city explorations and a tour of the amazing Valrhona Chocolate factory, so everyone was covered.


Make sure you look into included and optional excursions before choosing a cruise as they will vary and some will suit your style and personality more than others. We don’t all want to go on holiday to sweat it out every day and there are plenty of itineraries for those who are more about the relaxed eating and drinking scene than the hiking, biking and exploring vibe. I enjoyed having the option of both, the only problem was trying to choose from all the incredible options.

Kayaking in the Gorges de l'Ardèchee, Provence. Photo: Alexia Santamaria

So if you’re contemplating river cruising for your next holiday, my thoughts are you’ll love it – if you do your research first. We met all kinds of people from all over the world with such diverse backgrounds, and with only a maximum of 128 passengers on board there were enough faces to make it interesting, but not so many as to be overwhelming. There was always a spot somewhere if you wanted to be alone (mine was the room out the back of the boat which had chairs in the sun, an excellent coffee machine and cookies and pastries available all day). By the end of the eight days I was pretty sad to be leaving the easy breezy routine of delicious breakfasts, fascinating morning excursions in beautiful French towns, relaxed afternoons on board, five course dinners with wonderful wine and fun in a different port every evening. Believe the shiny brochures and websites – it’s a great way to see some wonderful parts of the world.

The the 128-passenger Avalon Poetry II cruising the Rhône (supplied)

Alexia Santamaria

Alexia Santamaria is a freelance writer for the NZ Herald, Metro, Next and others, focusing primarily on food and travel. Her past includes two years living in Narita, Japan, one year in London and another in Glasgow. She now calls Auckland home.