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Rollin' on the river

Fastest-growing vacation option lets you drift along

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The fastest growing mode of travel moves pretty slowly, actually.

On a recent cruise up the Rhine, I started my morning with breakfast on the boat. Then, while some passengers stayed on board to read, snooze or watch the world go by, I disembarked along with several dozen others for a guided walking tour of Cologne. We strolled through cobblestone courtyards past caf©s famous for their Klsch beer and by the ruins of a former Jewish ghetto, where we saw an astonishingly intact mosaic floor installed by the Romans about AD 220.

After the walking tour, I still had plenty of time on my own to view the largest gothic church in northern Europe, to browse in one of Cologne's 100 or so art galleries, to visit the city's famed 4711 cologne shop, to wander beyond the tourist-heavy shopping strip into a neighbourhood of independent designer shops, then to return to a central square where I sat in the sun and munched on the most exquisite dark-chocolate-bottomed Florentine cookie I've tasted, before boarding the bus that would take us to Dºsseldorf.

And what had our ship done in all that time? It had travelled just 40 kilometres up the Rhine to Dºsseldorf, where it was awaiting us with lunch ready.

Is it any wonder that leisurely, luxurious, river cruising is the hottest new way to travel?

"The increase -- 10-per-cent growth in each of the past five years -- is phenomenal," says Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, which was launching its newest ship, the Expression, on that trip. "We're adding one to two new ships every year and doing all we can to meet that demand."

Clark offers at least a half-dozen explanations for the boom in riverboats. Among them: passengers appreciate being able to see the sights while unpacking just once; they like the intimacy of the small ships; they love docking in the heart of cities; they've tried big-ship ocean cruises and are ready for something new; and they like having all their meals, excursions, entertainment and accommodation included in the package.

But the upswing also has a lot to do with the baby boomers.

"The crowd that did all those crazy things in the '60s and the '70s value independence," says Clark. "They want the freedom to sit with a book or to decide to explore."

In fact, Clark can offer a concise history of the baby boomer as traveller. "In the '60s and '70s, coach touring" -- travelling by bus with a backpack -- "was the way to go for this demographic," says Clark. "As youth, the baby boomers explored on trips such as Contiki tours.

"Then ocean cruising started gaining momentum when it became mass-market. Once ocean cruising got established in the '80s and '90s, it just exploded."

 

Now, says Clark, many of the 15 million people who have tried ocean cruises are eyeing the smaller riverboats, and companies can't build boats fast enough to meet the demand.

"Four-fifths of our passengers are ocean cruisers who have discovered river cruising."

That would include people like Jim and Linda Jenkins, of Fort Wayne, Ind.

"We've probably done 10 big-ship cruises," says Linda, vice-president of leisure sales for a travel company. "But the last one I did, with my daughter, it felt like a forced march, with all the ports and getting on and off."

Linda and Jim, who are fit grandparents, have now taken four river cruises and are converts.

"We much prefer the river cruises," says Linda. "You see these beautiful cities when you dock. You don't have to get on a bus or get a cab into the town."

Jim, who works in sales and marketing, says he travels a lot for work, staying in different hotels each night on a trip.

"It's so relaxing not to have to pack and unpack your bags, and the food has been wonderful. I also really like the smaller environment. You know everyone on the cruise by the time you leave. We've met the most wonderful people on these trips. The people I've felt closest to are the Canadians."

(Jim may have been saying that for my benefit, but Clark confirms that 12 to 15 per cent of the river cruise market comes from Canada. "Canadians have been a very robust part of our growth," he notes.)

While so many ocean cruise ships are behemoths, dazzling with their size and shiny features, river cruise ships are just a couple of storeys tall, since they have to fit under bridges, many of which, were built centuries ago. On board, they feel almost like trains -- they're long and narrow enough to fit into locks, with just a couple of inches to spare on either side. They usually carry fewer than 200 passengers, compared with 3,000 to 6,000 on ocean cruise ships.

The boats themselves are also a relatively new phenomenon. While day trips have been offered on European rivers for decades, it was only in the early 1990s, Clark says, that tour companies like Globus, which owns Avalon, started thinking about adding multi-night itineraries on river boats.

"We said, 'Why don't we make a river ship with more amenities?'" says Clark.

By the late 1990s river cruising was starting to gain momentum, with maybe 80,000 overnight passengers per season. Now about 500,000 people take a river cruise each year and the growth shows no sign of slowing.

Since the boats can only be so big, the dozen or so companies that offer river cruises attempt to differentiate themselves based on decor, itineraries, price, languages spoken on board and those all-important amenities Clark talks about.

Some advertise being elegant and having a "club-like atmosphere." Others boast about their balconies.

Avalon claims its eight new "all-suite" ships offer more space in passengers' rooms than boats with balconies, since the sliding glass doors give the feel of having balconies, while adding one-third more space on the inside.

I've experienced just the Avalon Expression, on a sample voyage set up to introduce the ship to journalists and travel agents, so I can't compare, but I can't imagine a lovelier experience. Among my favourite things was waking up in the morning to a view of the Rhine, a pair of swans bobbing just outside my room (the beds are angled to give you a view from your Egyptian-cotton-encased pillows.)

Or, after showering in the gorgeous, marble-countered bathroom, meandering down to the lounge at the back of the boat, where there's a cappuccino machine and cookies. Or lounging on the top deck, in the sun, listening to the commentary while sailing past more than two dozen castles over the course of an afternoon.

Patricia Schultz, the author of the bestselling book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, was on that christening cruise, chosen as the "godmother" who would crack the champagne bottle over the bow in a naming ceremony.

The next day, she gave a slide show and talk about some of her favourite places in the world. In passing, talking about a train trip, she said, "I like to travel closer to Earth, rather than fly over it."

I thought about her words when my plane home took 40 minutes to travel the same route it took five days to leisurely boat on the river.

On a river cruise, you travel very close to Earth, almost at eye level with the water. The sights are above you, gliding by. It's a wonderfully relaxing, accessible and, at times, almost reverent way to go. That angle on the world might be the biggest reason this slow mode of travel is taking off so fast.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A1

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