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The thought of a river cruise might bring to mind grandparents gathering portside for backgammon and sundowners—and to an extent, that stereotype still exists. But the industry has come a long way, and 2015 looks to be the most exciting year yet, with exotic itineraries focused on local culture and ships stacked with amenities rivaling those at luxury resorts. TPG Contributor Adam Erace invites you to grab your Sperrys and meet him on the lido deck as he introduces the best new river cruises for the year ahead.
Uniworld – Jewels of Spain, Portugal & the Douro River
Two nights in Lisbon kicks off Jewels of Spain, Portugal & the Douro River, the new voyage on Uniworld’s regal Queen Isabel. After traveling up Portugal’s rugged Atlantic coast, embark in Porto for seven nights of cruising the Duoro River, calling at towns to meet winemakers, exploring UNESCO heritage sites and strolling through vineyards with river views. The Isabel disembarks at the Spanish border for excursions to Salamanca and on to Madrid. Departures each month from April through October.
Avalon Waterways – Golden Myanmar & the Alluring Irrawaddy
Myanmar is the “it” destination of 2015 (look for it on this year’s TPG Hot List), and Avalon’s new Golden Myanmar & the Alluring Irrawaddy itinerary is a terrific way to explore the mysterious former Burma. Cruisers arrive in Yangon and stay overnight before flying on to Bagan, a port town hugging the Irrawaddy River, to embark on a seven-night northbound route that makes daily stops at villages along the banks, including the historic colonial capital of Mandalay. For this new itinerary, the cruise line has debuted a new ship: built by local craftsmen, the spacious suites aboard the 36-passenger Avalon Myanmar feature carved teak art and fabric in Burmese motifs, as well as Avalon’s signature Comfort Collection Beds. Departures each month from September through December.
Pandaw River Expeditions – Holy Ganges & the Hooghly
An offshoot of the 150-year-old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company revived by Burma historian Paul Strachan, Pandaw made its name cruising navigable passes of the Irrawaddy and Mekong with its shallow-draft paddle steamers. New on deck for 2015 is the 16-night Holy Ganges & the Hooghly cruise in India, which journeys from Varanasi to Kolkata. The RV Rajmahal isn’t the most luxurious craft—it’s a partner ship, rather than one of Pandaw’s brass-and-teak beauties—but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a ship docking at more off-the-beaten-path villages along this sacred river. Departures in October.
Pack your ball-gown and tux: dinner with Winston Churchill’s granddaughter at London’s esteemed Savoy hotel sets the upper-crust tone for Belle Epoch: London to Monte Carlo, Tauck’s new three-week itinerary on the Swiss Sapphire. After Chunnel-ing to France and embarking at La Havre, the Sapphire cruises the Seine toward Paris, stopping to visit Benedictine abbeys, Norman cider presses and Monet’s gardens. After overnighting in Paris, cruisers the catch high-speed train over to Lyon to board the Swiss Emerald for ten nights on the Rhône to Arles, where the trip continues with a transfer to Monte Carlo and two nights at the coast-hugging Fairmont hotel. Departures in April, May, July, August and September.
Aqua Expeditions – Aqua Mekong
Founder/CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro changed the river cruise game when he launched Aqua Expeditions in 2007 with a handsome, starchitect-designed vessel and nature-focused Peruvian Amazon itinerary. At the end of last year, he launched his third ship, Aqua Mekong, with three-to-seven-day routes along the Southeast Asian river of the same name. Led by expert guides and naturalists, Aqua’s jungle hikes, bike expeditions and launch-boat excursions through Vietnam and Cambodia are among the industry’s best. However, with Aqua Mekong’s alluring plunge pool, Eastern-influenced treatments at the onboard spa, and cuisine designed by famed Bangkok chef David Thompson, nobody would blame you for never disembarking. Departures year-round.
Viking – Elegant Elbe
This year, river-cruise stalwart Viking takes its order for a dozen brand-new ships. Featuring onboard herb gardens, airy atrium lobbies and energy-efficient engines, the Astrild and Beyla will be added to the fleet, cruising Germany and the Czech Republic on the fan-fave Elegant Elbe itinerary that begins in Berlin and ends in Prague. Admire the passing countryside from each ship’s indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace, one of Viking’s most popular amenities. Departures each month from April through November.
Oberoi – MV Vrinada
The last word in luxurious Indian hospitality since 1934, Oberoi has been cruising the palm-fringed lagoons of Kerala in the southern part of the country since 2003. The MV Vrinada is not a new vessel, but the cabins are certainly up to Oberoi standards with lustrous wood detailing, big mirrored wardrobes and plush linens. What’s new for U.S. travelers in 2015 is the option to book out the entire ship for a private two- or three-night voyage through Kerala’s magical backwaters (cost: about $5,500 per night). With occupancy for 16 of your entourage, that’s a bargain at $344 per person, per night. Departures year-round.
Grand Circle – Bordeaux: Vineyards, Vintages & Chateaux
This 13-day, wine-soaked land and sea route is a new itinerary for 2015 from Grand Circle, which was originally an arm of AARP (read: the crowd trends a bit older). Bordeaux: Vineyards, Vintages & Chateaux begins with an overnight in Paris, followed by two nights each in the Amboise, La Rochelle and Bordeaux before embarking on the new M/S River Chanson for a seven-night cruise down the scenic Garonne River. Highlights include visiting an oyster farm and Sauternes tastings with a local vintner, and the Chanson’s posh public areas lend the ship the dignified air of a tiny Titanic—minus any icebergs. Departures each month from March through November.
AmaWaterways – Christmas on the Rhine
From swim-up bars to twin-balcony suites, the list of amenities on AmaWaterways’ two new Swiss-registered vessels, AmaSerena and AmaVista, read like a five-star resort’s; this pair of long, slender, 164-passenger ships will start sailing the Rhine and Danube in 2015. Late in the year, bookmark the Christmas on the Rhine itinerary, a festive Basel-to-Amsterdam route that makes stops at famous Christmas markets in Germany and France. Departures in November and December.
Most ocean-going cruise lines offer co-branded credit cards, but that’s definitely not the case with river cruise lines. If you want to use points for a river cruise, your best bet is to find a card whose points you can redeem for statement credits against any travel-category purchase like car rentals, flights and yes, cruises. The Capital One Venture Card and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard are two examples. If you’re spending enough on these cards, you can package your airfare with the cruise for statement credit, but redeeming miles typically offers a much better value. For airfare to Europe, for example, consider the US Airways Premier World MasterCard; off-peak economy flights to cities such as Lisbon, Brussels and Munich go for as little as 30,000 miles round-trip.
Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard®