|The Rhine River bisects Germany's fourth largest city—Cologne or Köln with spectacular views of the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
In July, Berlitz announced the US release of "River Cruising in Europe" by veteran cruiser Douglas Ward who's been sailing the rivers and the seven seas for the last 49 years. When Insight Guides aka Berlitz contacted me with the news, I jumped at the chance when they asked me to review the book. As you well know, I am a HUGE fan of European river cruising so I couldn't wait to get started. To make it even more interesting, I requested an interview with Ward to find out the inside scoop about his new-to-the-US release.
|"River Cruising in Europe" debuts in US for first time. Photo: ©Berlitz. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
As soon as I received the book, I read it cover to cover and handsdown, this is the most comprehensive volume I have ever read about river cruising. Honestly, I don't think a question would be left unanswered by the time you reach the end. It's everything you've ever wanted and needed to know about European river cruising. So before we get to the interview, here's a quick synopsis of "River Cruising in Europe."
Ward's book opens with all the reasons why you should take a river cruise: the pros and cons, life onboard, cultural immersion, the intimate settings, the convienience of having to unpack only once while you explore multiple destinations, scrumptious bites about dining, excursions, booking logistics, and a list of leading river cruise companies.
|Friends and I enjoy the views of Austria's Wachau Valley aboard the "Viking Skadi" longship. Photo: Kathy Hall. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
The following section features the most popular river-cruise itineraries and the ports of call along the way. Each river is reviewed; mapped out with details about each of the ports and highlights therein. Also presented in this section is an overview on barging, albeit a different experience than river cruising, but equally sublime!
|Viking River Cruises' "Viking Skadi" docked in Budapest. Photo: EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
The balance of the book, actually more than 50 percent, is dedicated to Ward's thorough, leave-no-stone-unturned approach to his evaluation of 280+ river cruise vessels. In this section, he introduces each vessel, evaluates them and scores them based on his 5-star rating system comprised of five criteria: Hardware (ship, layouts, cleanliness, quality of décor, etc.); Accommodations (stateroom and suite layouts, furniture and amenities); Cuisine (buffets to gourmet); Service (dining, bars and lounges, cabins); and Miscellaneous (the catch-all category such as brochure and website accuracy, transfers, excursions, onboard entertainment including in-room technology). Without a doubt, he covers EVERYTHING!
|Behind the scenes tour onboard the "Viking Skadi." Photo: EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
|Learning to make gingerbread with Viking on our Christmas Market River Cruise last December. Photo: EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
The world's foremost authority on cruising had this to say about his book:
“Despite the river cruise boom, booking one has too often been a bit hit and miss, and that shouldn’t be.”
EuroTravelogue (ET): You've been cruising for 49 years so you have seen much in how this industry has evolved from its meager beginnings on the Russian rivers to its recent surge in growth with new lines and record-breaking introductions of newbuilds every year. Can you tell me what is was it like in the beginning? When did you board your first ship? Do you recall the vessel's name and the line for which it sailed? How would you rate that experience today in your Berlitz Rating System?
Douglas Ward (DW): Before the Russian riverships, there were vessels on the Nile. My Berlitz River Cruising in Europe, however, is about Europe. My first ocean-going ship was in 1965. My first river cruise was in 1985, but the vessel doesn't exist now (it was more like a water-taxi to take you to various destinations). It was, as you imply, quite basic compared to the riverships we have now (and, on certain rivers, they have increased in length to a maximum permitted size (due to the size of the locks) of 135 meters (about 442 feet). Naturally, the larger the rivership, the more space can be assigned to suites/cabins, the galley, and public rooms. In other words, a lot of things have changed for the better.
ET: I noticed that AmaWaterways was the only river cruise line to "sail" past 4 stars. What makes their product so superior?
|AmaWaterways' "AmaVida" debuted on the Douro River in Portugal in 2013. Photo: Property of AmaWaterways. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
DW: It's all in the scores. When the book was completed, and the scoring was done, it was the food that stood out more than anything else. It's about high-quality ingredients, creativity, suppliers, professionalism and passion. But the quality of service, and the other aspects that gave AMAWaterways the edge over the competition. However, if you look closely, you'll see that Viking River Cruises, Scenic Cruises, Uniworld and some others are not that far behind. So watch this space!
ET: Not one of the 280 ships you reviewed earned a 5-Star rating. Why not? What would it take? In your opinion, who is on their way to achieving a 5-Star award?
DW: There are some aspects of cuisine, cabin design, and the quality of fit and finish (construction) that river cruise companies, designers and outfitters will need to pay attention to. The river cruise business is a few years behind the ocean-going cruise ship experience. However, to be fair, riverships have constraints (such as accommodation for crew, storage space, galley and food preparation and storage space) that ocean-going cruise ships don't have to the same degree.
ET: I heard that you spend a lot of time, employing an array of measurements to assess the river vessels in your scoring process. Can you elaborate?
DW: The rating system has been devised and refined over the past 30 years. There are many component parts to scoring and rating riverships, just as ocean-going cruise ships, and my ratings have to be objective and not subjective. So, it has nothing to do with what I like or dislike. I do it in a professional objective manner.
ET: Is there one itinerary that you like best? Why?
DW: No, it really depends on what passengers are looking for. For example, the Rhine is good for seeing castles, and Amsterdam. The Danube for visiting major cities like Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. Then there are the French rivers (Garrone, Gironde, Rhône, Seine, Saône), the Douro (think port wine) in Portugal, and the Po (Venice and the Lagoon). And that's just in Europe! Personally, I enjoy river cruising, period!
ET: As a travel writer who is focused on cultural connections, what river cruise line in your opinion offers the best product in terms of immersing their guests into the destination, connecting with its culture and people, and delivers upon their promise of total immersion unlike the experience most tourists receive as they pass through with their checklists? Having sailed only on Viking myself, I am somewhat biased but I would like your independent opinion.
DW: This is difficult to answer, but for English-speaking passengers, the companies that focus on the cultural aspects include (but are not limited to), in alphabetical order: AMAWaterways, SAGA Holidays, Scenic cruises, Tauck Tours, Viking River Cruises and Uniworld.
ET: When do you think the river cruise market will reach saturation? When will there be enough vessels to satisfy today's increasing demand? Some cruise critics claim the rivers are already too jammed with river vessels. What are your thoughts?
|Viking River Cruises shattered Guiness Book of World Records in 2013 and 2014 with the introduction of 10 and 16 new Viking Longships respectively. Photo: Property of Viking. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
DW: Although the European rivers and waterways can be very busy in the high season (summer), the most challenging thing is to find docking space, but most passengers want the latest in terms of rivership design, accommodations and food; and that means that riverships need to keep evolving. This means that the older vessels are moved into the charter market for low-cost operators. You can see this in pricing differentials. At present, there are not enough riverships to cope with the demand, so we need more, of the latest type and configuration, to satisfy the expected growth over the next few years.
ET: Is there anything else you would like to share about the river cruise product or your guide book?
DW: The Berlitz River Cruising in Europe guidebook is useful not only for first-time river cruise passengers, but also for seasoned travelers (rarely do passengers repeat the same itinerary). Berlitz is a trusted name, and the guidebook provides insights and rivership comparisons not available elsewhere. Also the book is not supported by advertising or sponsorship. But it is only the first edition. So, watch this space!
Getting to know Douglas Ward
|World's foremost authority on cruising, Douglas Ward hard at work on the rivers of Europe. Photo: ©Berlitz. Unauthorized use is prohibited.|
Douglas Ward spends nine months of each year at sea or on the rivers, a veteran who is committed to setting and maintaining the high standards of the cruising, both ocean and river. Of utmost importance to Ward as I found out during this interview is his dedication to his independence, judging fairly all river cruise lines based on his 5-star rating system. He takes great pride in his work emphasizing he maintains no commercial ties with any of the river cruise companies. Ward has appeared on "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "NBC Nightly News" and CNN. When he's not cruising, he is a composer and musician specializing in the accordian, and judges many musical competitions throughout Great Britain!
More about European river cruising:
- Making Friends onboard a river cruise
- Life on Board
- Christmas Market River Cruising with Viking River Cruises
- My Viking River Cruises "Danube Waltz" as seen on Insight Guides.com