A vast network of ancient waterways winds through the heartland of Europe, navigated by a motley mix of riverboats and barges, ranging from the leisurely low-key to the over-the-top opulent. Travelers aboard these intimate vessels are presented with a prime perch for ogling old-world wonders: storied cities and historic hamlets, vineyard-strewn valleys and unspoiled countryside, and towering cathedral spires and fairytale castles. Here, we've got eight great river and canal cruises for 2012, each featuring buzzworthy new-debut vessels, or intriguing itineraries highlighting new terrain, exceptional European events, or themes (culinary, fine arts) tailored to special interests.
Ride the Rhine on a Stylish Suite Ship
Overview: Launched in 2004, the contemporary, design-savvy ships of Avalon Waterways tout cabins with hotel-style amenities (pillow-top beds, L'Occitane bath products), tech-friendly trimmings (complimentary ship-wide Wi-Fi and in-cabin iPads in Royal Suites), and floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies optimized for glimpsing European vistas en route. Kick off the day with champagne-fueled breakfasts, head out on guided sightseeing excursions, and round out the evening with four-course, open-seating dinners, featuring locally sourced wines and beers (all included in the price).
Top 2012 Itinerary: Come mid-May, cruisers can sail the castle-flanked Rhine River aboard one of the new Suite Ships, when the 128-passenger Avalon Visionary debuts. The Visionary—smaller sister ship to popular Avalon Panorama, which launched last year—offers two full decks of spacious 200- and 300-square-foot suites, with panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows that transform into open-air balconies. The 7-night Romantic Rhine itineraries from Amsterdam to Basel, or from Zurich to Amsterdam, and run from mid-May to November. Rates: from $2,589 per person.
Book It: Visit AvalonWaterways.com or call 877-797-8791.
Viking River Cruises
Enjoy the Holidays à la Europe aboard Lavish Longships
Overview: As part of its 15th anniversary milestone, the world's leading river cruise line, Viking River Cruises, is rolling out a bevy of enhancements in 2012, including the launch of six 190-passenger Viking Longships, and a fully refurbished Russian fleet. The line's new class of Longships will sail Viking's most popular European itineraries, offering some of the largest suites plying European rivers today, an indoor/outdoor dining area (with retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors), and several sustainability upgrades like hybrid engines, solar panels, and on-board herb gardens.
Top 2012 Itinerary: Sail Viking's Longships on holiday-themed itineraries in November and December for a New World-inspired Thanksgiving, or for holiday shopping jaunts at the storied European Christmas markets. Try the 7-night Romantic Danube itineraries, offered aboard a trio of Longship debuts (the Viking Freya, Viking Odin, and Viking Embla) between Budapest and Nuremberg. Cruises between October 27 and November 25 include a traditional Thanksgiving feast aboard, topped off with (included) wines. Rates: from $1,656/person include daily guided shore excursions, Wi-Fi, and select beverages.
Book It: Visit VikingRiverCruises.com or call 800-706-1483.
Russian River Newcomer Offers Revamped Ship
Overview: Australian-based Scenic Cruises lures Aussies, Brits, and Americans to their European Space-Ships fleet, touting spacious cabins with private balconies in more than 80 percent of the staterooms. Look, too, for lively onboard lounges that regularly showcase cultural performances. Scenic Cruises's all-inclusive rates comprise loaner bikes, guided sightseeing excursions, beer and wine with lunch and dinner, airport transfers, and gratuities.
Top 2012 Itinerary: The latest ship to enter the Russian cruise market, the completely revamped 112-passenger Scenic Tsar launches June 3—the refurbished riverboat emerged from such a thorough renovation that it's being billed as a new-build. Nearly all cabins tout private balconies; also look for a gym, sauna, small spa, and duo of bars. The class-of-its-own Tsar marks Scenic's first foray into the Russian cruise market with its own ship. Its 14-night Imperial Jewels of Russia River sails between St. Petersburg and Moscow from June through August. Rates: from $7,495/person.
Book It: Visit ScenicToursUS.com or call 888-824-2418.
Epicurean-Minded Program Dishes Out European Flavor
Overview: The mod, custom-designed vessels of AmaWaterways highlight dining rooms doling out indulgent regional cuisine, and spacious staterooms equipped with tricked-out flat-screen TVs (jigged for complimentary Internet access and first-run movies); most come with balconies. Cruise rates are inclusive of guided excursions, bicycle usage, and unlimited wine, beer, and soda (with dinner).
Top 2012 Itinerary: Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, AmaWaterways has launched a new foodie-friendly program for guests eager to sample local flavors. The "Culinary Delights—Bites & Sights in Europe" program is offered as a complimentary election on all European sailings. Guests who sign up can partake in cooking classes (focused on regional specialties); tastings; visits to local markets; and culinary walking tours. Try out the new tours aboard the cruise line's new 164-passenger AmaCerto, also outfitted with a heated pool with swim-up bar: The ship sails assorted 7- to 15-night itineraries, primarily on the Danube, throughout 2012. Rates: from $2,399/person.
Book It: Visit AMAWaterways.com or call 800-626-0126.
Intimate Barge to Sail Quiet Corners of France
Overview: Embark on leisurely paced canal cruises throughout Europe (with offerings in nine countries) aboard European Waterways' intimate 4- to 20-passenger barges—transformed from former working barges to upscale passenger vessels. Onboard, expect traditional old-world decor (wood paneling, brass fittings, antiques) and cuisine inspired by regional specialties, while small-town European ports invite exploration via bicycle (on loan free for all guests).
Top 2012 Itinerary: European Waterways is launching its 21st barge vessel come June—the newly acquired, 12-passenger, Dutch barge-style Panache will sail along the scenic Canal de la Marne au Rhin in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, a quarter marked by German influences, storybook villages, and rolling vineyards. Six-night voyages from Mittersheim to Strasbourg embark from June to October. Rates: from $4,690 per person, including open bar, excursions, and transfers.
Book It: Visit Gobarging.com or call 877-879-8808.
Abercrombie & Kent
Discover Art on the Danube on a Klimt-Themed Itinerary
Overview: Luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has been delivering exclusive luxury adventure travel vacations for a half-century. The brand's stellar service and experiential travel model seamlessly translates to their fully-escorted cruise division, which operates select river and barge sailings in Europe. Note that A&K European cruise vacations are generally inclusive of transfers, shore excursions, and beverages (soft drinks, wine, beer).
Top 2012 Itinerary: Sail the Danube from Budapest to Passau (through Hungary, Austria, and Germany) for a special 7-night Gustav Klimt-focused art cruise. Enjoy top amenities—a cup of afternoon tea is accompanied by tunes played on a Steinway grand piano and Mediterranean-influenced cuisine is complemented by fine wines on the 88-guest River Cloud II (a Sea Cloud Cruises ship). The itinerary incorporates an in-depth look into the artwork of Austrian artist Klimt during his 150th anniversary celebrations, complete with lectures, painting courses, and exclusive museum visits. Cruise embarks July 19. Rates: from $3,595/person.
Book It: Visit AbercrombieKent.com or call 800 554 7094.
French Country Waterways
Set Out on a Slow-Paced Sail in the Loire Valley
Overview: For nearly three decades, American-owned French Country Waterways has provided leisurely luxury barge experiences on the extensive canal network of provincial France, with regular sailings in the Burgundy, Champagne, Upper Loire Valley, Côte d'Or, and Alsace-Loraine regions. Onboard, expect intimate English/French country house-style barges carrying no more than 12 passengers; ships devoid of modern-day distractions (no phone, TV, radios, or Internet); and meals developed with locally sourced ingredients and complemented by fine French wines.
Top 2012 Itinerary: The eight-passenger Princess barge is returning to the Upper Loire Valley after FCW's three-year hiatus in the region. Known as the "Garden of France" for its lush landscapes, the Upper Loire Valley is veritable château and wine country; expect private wine tastings, Michelin-starred dining, and guided château tours. The 6-night sailings, through October, include excursions, a Michelin-starred dinner ashore, top wines, local cheeses, open bar, private wine tastings, bicycle loans, and central Paris transfers. Rates: from $5,495/person.
Book It: Visit FCWL.com or call 800-222-1236.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
Head to Holland's Floriade Exposition on Boutique Riverboat
Overview: The epitome of luxury river sailing, upscale Uniworld offers a unique boutique-style cruise experience. In partnership with sister company Red Carnation Hotels, each ship exhibits a different design scheme with well-appointed guest rooms and public spaces showcasing elegant décor, including original artwork and hotel-worthy amenities. Most staterooms come with French balconies and marble bathrooms (stocked with L'Occitane products). Dining rooms highlight regionally inspired menus with ingredients sourced from local farmers markets, complemented by (included-in-your-rate) European wines and draft beers.
Top 2012 Itinerary: Uniworld has crafted two itineraries to coincide with the exquisite flowers, plants, trees (and more) of the 2012 Floriade Exposition (runs through October 7): the 7-night Gems of Germany, Belgium & the Netherlands with Floriade (from Brussels to Cologne) or the 16-night Grand Treasures of Europe with Floriade (from Brussels to Prague, including two nights' hotel in Prague). For both itineraries, the 120-passenger River Ambassador brings guests to the Dutch city of Venlo to take in one of the world's great horticultural shows (the Floriade is held only every 10 years). Fares are inclusive of select beverages, airport transfers, several guided excursion options, bike and Nordic walking sticks loans, Internet access, and an epicurean-minded program featuring cooking classes, food-and-wine pairings, and more. Rates: from $2,399/person on the 7-night voyage, or $5,499/person on the 16-night voyage.
Book It: Visit UniWorld.com or call 800-733-7820.
Photo Credits: Avalon Waterways: Courtesy of Avalon Waterways/Amatucci Photography; Viking River Cruises: Courtesy of Viking River Cruises; Scenic Cruises: Courtesy of Scenic Tours; Courtesy of AmaWaterways; Courtesy of European Waterways: Courtesy of European Waterways; Courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent; French Country Waterways: Courtesy of French Country Waterways; Courtesy of UniworldBoutique River Cruises