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5 Hot River Cruises to Hop Aboard This Summer

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River cruising season is kicking off and all the major players are christening new ships on rivers around the world. TPG Contributor Lane Nieset has been testing out some of the top new ships to hit the water and despite her 20-something age, she’s been able to fit right in with the various age groups (and backgrounds) of river cruisers on board these boutique ships. Snag a stateroom (or suite) on one of these favorites setting sail this summer.

The river cruise scene has exploded over the past decade (if you watch “Downton Abbey,” you’ve surely seen the Viking River Cruises commercial), and as demand grows, river cruise companies are banging out ships faster than the captain can shout “All Aboard.” Adam Erace highlighted a few of the best new river cruises for 2015, but spring is bringing a whole new batch of beauties that are standing out from the rest thanks to size, style and sailing destinations. With the new ships, it’s ideal to book a year out to get the exact room category and excursions you want, but there’s still room on board for last-minute bookings.

So how do you decide which ship is perfect for you? We’ve got the who-what-where to help you make this decision.

MS Loire Princesse
The MS Loire Princesse is the first passenger ship to cruise the Loire River in France. (Photo courtesy of CroisiEurope/Bernard Biger)

Perfect For: Budget-Savvy Cruisers

Who: CroisiEurope – MS Loire Princesse

What: Most Americans aren’t familiar with the family-owned French brand, but CroisiEurope has been in the river cruising business for almost 40 years now. The company already has 43 ships in the market, cruising heavily in France, but they’re the first to make their way on to the Loire River with the latest ship, the paddlewheel MS Loire Princesse, which can navigate through the more shallow parts of the river at a minimum of three feet. This 48-cabin paddlewheeler is hardly like the ones you’d find on North American rivers, from its overall design with a modern propulsion system to the details on the inside, like chic Missoni Home textiles. A major bonus of these boats is that fares are mostly inclusive, covering everything on board except excursions. My favorite thing about the ship? The three-course French lunch and dinner crafted by chefs who’ve worked alongside Michelin-starred masters.

Where: The 6-day The Loire, a Royal Legacy trip heads roundtrip from Nantes, France along the Loire River. The short-but-sweet trip highlights one major asset of the region—the châteaux of the Loire Valley. You’ll have the chance to go château hopping stopping to see one of the most famous spots—Château de Villandry—which inspired Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Departures June through August.

Scenic Jasper Royal Panorama Suite
Take in picture-perfect views of the river from Scenic Jasper’s Royal Panorama Suite. (Photo courtesy of Scenic)

Perfect For: The Luxury Cruiser 

Who: Scenic Cruises Scenic Jasper 

What: Joining Scenic’s fleet in April, the new 85-cabin Scenic Jasper is truly a luxury ship where no cost was spared to make the cruise top-of-the-line. Every cabin from standard to suite has butler service, Egyptian linen, a pillow menu, and a complimentary in-room mini bar that’s refilled daily. There’s six dining options on board, including room service, which is best enjoyed from the Sun Lounge if you have a balcony suite. The enclosed balconies can open up to let a little air in at the push of a button, and you can also completely open the sliding doors so the balcony becomes more of a sun room (or lounge) making the already large staterooms seem even bigger. While the price point teeters on the high side, it’s all about value for money here. Scenic’s trips are all-inclusive from door-to-door, so you won’t have to think about dropping a cent on board since everything from food to gratuity and top-shelf liquor is included. This even goes for airport transfers and excursions. Departures from June through September.

Where: Scenic Jasper sails one of the line’s most popular itineraries, the 15-day Jewels of Europe from Amsterdam to Budapest, stopping in both small and large towns along the way, including Vienna, Nuremberg and Bratislava. One stand-out part of the trip is the sundowner held at a castle overlooking the Wachau Valley near Melk, Austria.

For more ideas on activities in Amsterdam, see Destination of the Week: Amsterdam.

Emerald Waterways
The heated pool doubles as a cinema on board Emerald Waterways’ new ships.

Who: Emerald Waterways – Emerald Sun & Emerald Dawn

What:  The sister brand to Scenic, Emerald Waterways specializes in four-star ships that boast five-star service, and the two new ships joining its fleet this year are no exception. However, they also bring the fun factor for which the Australian brand is known, featuring a heated swimming pool and bar under a retractable roof that doubles as a cinema (complete with popcorn) in the evenings. While not as inclusive as Scenic (sorry, no butler service here), fares still include a number of amenities like WiFi, meals, shore excursions in most ports, and transfers.

Where: Both the Emerald Sun and Emerald Dawn feature 92 cabins and cruise the 10-day Enchantment of Eastern Europe itinerary from Budapest to Bucharest. What makes this itinerary interesting is the historical element as you cruise through many war-torn villages, as well as popular Eastern European destinations like Belgrade, Serbia. Passengers even get the chance to hear more about the Croatian War and history of the region chatting with a local family in their home in Vukovar, Croatia over a traditional lunch. Departures in July.

For more ideas on what to do while visiting Hungary on this trip, see Best Value Destinations for 2015.

Uniworld SS Maria Theresa
An over-the-top suite on board the SS Maria Theresa. (Photo courtesy of Uniworld)

Perfect For: Those Who Want to Feel (And Be Treated Like) Royalty

Who: Uniworld – S.S. Maria Theresa

What: While Scenic’s luxury ships are more understated and sleek, Uniworld brings back Old World glamour to its six-star river ships. The 150-passenger S.S. Maria Theresa, named after the last Habsburg ruler, debuted this year, joining two sister ships on the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers. With a design that could give Versailles a run for its money, the boutique ship is not only opulent, but also has quite a few onboard attractions from a spa to heated pool, cinema and life-size chessboard up on the sun deck. The ship is also all-inclusive, but if you’re staying in a suite you have even more perks at your disposal. Think butlers unpacking your clothes, a free in-room spa treatment, and Hermès products in your marble-lined bathroom.

Where: S.S. Maria Theresa will set sail on the popular Christmas market cruises in December, but for summer the ship embarks on the 15-day European Jewels trip from Budapest to Amsterdam along the Danube, Main and Rhine. History and wine lovers will enjoy the mix of excursions from vineyard hikes and wine tasting above Weissenkirchen, Austria to a trip to the 18th-century palace, the Würzburg Residenz, in Northern Bavaria. Departures June through September. 

Avalon Siem Reap
The Panorama Suite on Avalon’s new Siem Reap on the Mekong River. (Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways)

Perfect For: Small Ship Cruisers

Who: Avalon Waterways – Siem Reap

What: Avalon’s new all-suite ship, the Siem Reap, is ideal for travelers who want a small ship experience, since there’s only 36 passengers on board at a time. Crafted by local artisans, the colonial-meets-modern ship design is fitting for its destination—the Mekong River cruising through Cambodia and Vietnam. Although it’s a smaller ship, suites are still on the large side, so you’ll have plenty of room to spread out, especially in the 245-square-foot suites complete with panoramic window opening up to the balcony.

Where: The 8-day Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River cruises southbound from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The trip blends culture and tradition into its excursions at each destination, with options including a visit to religious sites at Sam Mountain when stopping in Chau Doc, Vietnam or a tour through Phnom Penh by private cyclo. Departures July through September.

For more ideas on things to do in Siem Reap, see Destination of the Week: Siem Reap.

Have you taken a river cruise before? Which river would you like to cruise on?
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