Five river cruise destinations we can’t wait to return to
By Sam Ballard
With its brightly coloured townhouses perched alongside the deep blue of the Douro River, it’s little wonder that interest in Porto has rocketed for cruise passengers.
According to statistics released by Clia, UK passenger numbers grew by 15 per cent on Douro cruises in 2018 alone, bolstered by a number of new ship launches.
To those who know the city, it will come as no surprise. Porto, which sits at the mouth of the Portuguese river, is a city of cobbled streets, pretty churches and tiled facades. It’s a place where you can eat very well for not very much money – try the pastéis de nata (custard tarts) or bifana (traditional pork sandwich), which can be picked up at little hole in the wall type joints. Wash it down with a glass of the city’s most famous export, port, in one of Porto’s many atmospheric wine cellars.
Fans of interiors should take a pilgrimage to the Church of St Ildefonso which shows off the talents of the city’s tilemakers. Although the city’s train station, São Bento, is arguably more impressive – with a vast wall of about 20,000 tiles really highlighting the incredible craftsmanship.
Clients who want Instagram-worthy photos won’t miss out, either. Send them to Livraria Lello – a bookshop that is said to have inspired JK Rowling, who lived in the city in the ’90s. Although popular with tourists, it really does feel like you’ve stepped into Hogwarts. Read more here.
By Anthony Pearce
With its plentiful art and culture, manicured parks, efficient public transport and mix of old and new architecture, Vienna is a one of Europe’s most remarkable cities: grand, elegant, clean and easy-going. Although Budapest, with its iconic Chain Bridge and elevated palace, is perhaps the highlight of any Danube cruise, the Austrian capital is a special place, home to monumental baroque masterpieces and striking examples of new architecture.
Either preceding or following Austria’s remarkable, sun-kissed Wachau Valley, depending on the direction of travel, Vienna is a city worth exploring in depth. As itineraries don’t tend to include overnights, many will plan to return – on eastbound itineraries it’s very easy to head back from Budapest, just two hours 40 minutes on the train, and clients can fly home from the well-connected Vienna International Airport, which is served by a number of direct flights from the UK and just 16 minutes from Wien Mitte (the city centre) by train. Vienna is a manageable size with an excellent public transport network, made up of the U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (local train), Straßenbahn (tram) and Autobus (bus).
Most cruise ships dock at Reichsbrücke. On a recent visit, rather than take a daytime excursion, we opted to explore the city alone and took the U-Bahn from here to Stephansplatz, next to St Stephen’s Cathedral, a towering Gothic wonder. The city still feels like the political and cultural centre of a mighty empire, a position it held for centuries. It is dominated by grand imperial palaces, strictly maintained royal gardens and statues of serious-looking men on horses.
The historic centre, a Unesco World Heritage site, covers three square kilometres, of which 82,000 square metres is pedestrianised, so it’s best enjoyed on foot: most cruise lines will include a walking tour of the city, which takes in most of its famous architecture. There are more than 50 preserved Baroque palaces, churches and landmarks in the city, such as the Schönbrunn and Belvedere palaces (two more popular excursions). The latter is breathtaking and houses one of Austria’s most valuable art collections, with works by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. Read more here.
By Anthony Pearce
Although best known for its bridge, there is plenty inside the city walls that make Avignon the biggest draw on any Rhône cruise – although Lyon, Arles, Viviers and, well, every call make this such a special itinerary. It’s telling that cruise lines mostly use Avignon on their marketing materials.
The city is actually much bigger than most realise, but of its 90,000 inhabitants, only 12,000 live in the ancient city centre, encircled by the medieval ramparts. During the Avignon Papacy, between 1309 and 1377, seven successive popes resided in Avignon. The influence is still apparent today – Papal control lasted until 1791 when, during the French Revolution, it became part of France – making the Palais des Papes and the cathedral the must-see sights for many visitors.
One of the joys of a Rhône cruise – particularly when paired with a Seine sailing as many, particularly Americans, are wont to do – is taking in the shifting culture and geography of France, a country that is more than twice as large as the UK but with the same population. Avignon is distinctly Mediterranean in feel, due to the Roman architecture, hot weather and fresh food. Provençal cuisine is simple and full of flavour, making good use of fresh ingredients such as tomatoes, garlic, saffron, peppers and olives, with herb-crusted fish often on the menu. This being Provence, it’s rude not to enjoy it all with a glass of rosé.
If your guests are there in July, the Avignon Festival, founded in 1947, is a cultural highlight (this years is set to go ahead between July 5 and 25), featuring theatre, dance, music and cinema. About 100,000 people attend the festival each year, dividing their attention between the Festival In, which presents plays inside the Palais des Papes, and the Festival Off, made up of as-yet undiscovered plays and street performances. Read more here.
By Sam Ballard
Russia is a land of mystery. Those who have never been know little about it beyond political stories that talk of its bare-chested leader and geopolitical shadow-play. Those who have been, however, know the truth behind the headlines. Russia is a country of beautiful landscapes, fascinating history and some of the friendliest people in the world.
As a cruise destination, Moscow can be found at either the beginning or end of a Russian Waterways sailing, bookended with St Petersburg. These itineraries give passengers an incredible insight into Russian life – with some of the most beautiful churches you will ever see (just Google Kizhi to see what we mean) as well as world famous cultural institutions (St Petersburg’s Hermitage is hard to beat).
A number of river cruise lines have Russian Waterway itineraries, including the likes of Viking, Vodohod, Uniworld, Scenic, Riviera and CroisiEurope operating between Russia’s two biggest cities. Vodohod, the Russian line, runs cruises beyond the Volga, where most Western companies operate, including a Siberian Wilderness itinerary.
Naturally, St Petersburg and Moscow are the two standout ports of call on the most well-known Russian river cruises. The two cities are incredibly different – St Petersburg’s palaces and waterways have the grandeur of Vienna – while Moscow is far more identifiable as Russian. Whether that’s because of Red Square, which contains Lenin’s Mausoleum, Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, or because of the ever-present military presence you will find there. There is a changing of the guard every hour by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Kremlin itself is actually a fortress which contains an entire complex of buildings, you’ll find a number of palaces, an armoury and cathedrals inside. The Assumption Cathedral, the most famous, is where tsars of old were crowned since the 15th century. The Grand Kremlin Palace is the official residence of Vladimir Putin, although he actually lives elsewhere within the fortress’s walls. Read more here.
By Jane Archer
Chances are no one outside Cambodia would ever have heard of the town of Siem Reap were it not for one thing: that it is the gateway to Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire some 1,200 years ago and home to a complex of iconic temples – some part-reclaimed by the jungle.
Some 2.5 million people a year visit the temples, making them the biggest visitor attraction in Cambodia and, by default, making Siem Reap the country’s largest tourist destination. As a result, it is well served by local flights feeding from international hubs such as Bangkok and Singapore and has a plentiful supply of hotels to suit all budgets.
Several thousand visitors each year are cruise passengers who are in town as part of a package pairing a few nights in Siem Reap with a voyage along the Mekong River through Cambodia and Vietnam. A handful will even have come from ocean ships, on overnight tours from port calls in Sihanoukville and Ho Chi Minh City with lines including Silversea and Holland America Line.
Siem Reap is in northwest Cambodia, at the western end of the Tonlé Sap Lake, a large body of water that is home to floating villages and which feeds into the Tonlé Sap River, which then flows into the Mekong near Phnom Penh, the country’s capital.
It means river ships sailing the Mekong could, in theory, cruise all the way to Siem Reap; in practice, CroisiEurope is one of very few companies to do so because, in the dry season, from November to May, the lake is so shallow that even local sightseeing boats can get stuck in the mud (CroisiEurope transfers passengers by either speedboat or coach when the water is too low).