Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” On a vacation recently, I learned the same concept might be applied to riverboat cruising. While you are certainly traveling from one destination to another, the focus is on enjoying the view along the way.
On an ocean cruise, the opposite is often true. Big ship cruises that hug the coast of countries are exceptions because passengers spend a good amount of time on deck enjoying the scenery. Cabins with verandas on big ships have almost become standard for just that reason. Passengers can see the views without having to get dressed to go up on deck.
In general, large cruise ships focus on getting passengers from one port to the next. Depending on the particular voyage, this is often done at night while passengers sleep. When cruise ships travel during the day, the views many passengers experience include stage shows, bingo games, casinos, wine tastings, and endless parades of food. And that brings us to the number one difference between ocean and riverboat cruises.
#1 The View
Cruise ships sail on the ocean. Riverboats… you know the rest. But unless you’ve been a passenger on both types of vessels, it may not have occurred to you to compare what the view might be from the deck of each. For the most part, cruise ships sail in deep waters, which puts them at a distance from shorelines. Even with binoculars, what you see from the deck might look like a Monet painting. You can make out shapes but the details are very fuzzy.
Conversely, riverboats do just the opposite. They sail on rivers that may only measure a few hundred feet wide. This puts them close to the shore, providing excellent views of scenery. In Europe and on the Danube River in particular, this is even more advantageous as historically towns were often built close to the shore to minimize the need for transporting goods long distances from the delivering vessels. A riverboat cruise often puts you in spitting distance to century old cathedrals, palaces and other edifices, allowing you to take photos that would otherwise not be possible from land.
Before taking a riverboat cruise check out the itinerary thoroughly and ask questions about the towns on the banks of the rivers. We once booked a journey on the Po River in Italy where we would see Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliette and so much more. The destinations on the trip were wonderful but what we didn’t know was there was nothing to see from the boat. Flooding was problematic on the Po River and towns were built far from it. So sailing the Po didn’t offer much in the way of scenery but trees. Seeing our scheduled destinations by bus or train would have been a better choice for that vacation.
#2 All Aboard
Depending on where you sail in the world and the port destinations, a big cruise liner must deal with the issue of loading and unloading passengers at each stop. At some ports it’s possible for the ship to tie up to the dock. But at others, the ship may be too large to tie up. In that case they must use tenders to transport passengers from the ship to the shore. On a ship carrying 2,000 passengers or more, this can be very time consuming. It also minimizes the amount of time passengers get to spend on shore.
Because of their size, riverboats have an advantage over the large ships in this regard. They anchor to docks so tenders are never an issue. And because passenger count is small, they are able to clear the ship in a very short time allowing the group more time to tour.
#3 Ship Amenities
Have you heard about the cruise line with an ice skating rink? Or the one with a bowling alley? Cruise ships are adding to their vessels, every conceivable form of recreation they can think of in hopes of luring vacationers to sign on. But you have to wonder, if you don’t bowl at home, would you pay to do it on a cruise ship? Even if it’s not a separate charge, you know that fee is built somewhere into your total bill. And what must the food bill look like? Just when you think you can’t eat another bite, they lure you out of your pajamas with a decadent midnight chocolate buffet. Gambling casinos, spas, there’s nothing the big cruise companies haven’t thought of.
On most riverboats there are no casinos, no 24 hour food lines, and simply little else you’d find on a big ship. Although well appointed with ample storage space, cabin sizes are modest. Of course the luxury suites are another story. Common areas on the boat might consist of a lounge, one dining room, and a reception desk. Out on deck there’s generous space to accommodate everyone.
Throughout the interior of a riverboat low ceilings are standard because of height restrictions. Gotta get under those bridges! The ceiling height tends to make areas like the dining room much noisier than is reasonable. But all things considered, it’s a wonder really, how they manage to accommodate the wonderful amenities they do include with the height restrictions.
Cruise ships have ocean swells to contend with in their journeys but unless there’s a severe storm, they experience little else in the way of rising waters.
The Riverboat experience is very different. River depths rise and fall and a boat cruise can be cancelled due to either if the condition is extreme. In towns along the Danube, building exteriors are marked with water lines and dates of historic floods.
Contemporary bridge designers take into account the inevitability of rising rivers and the height of vessels travelling on the river. Decades ago the issue wasn't addressed because boats had smaller profiles. So, bridges were built lower to the water. Consequently, when rivers rise too much, todays riverboats cannot pass under some of the old bridges.
You’ll probably never look out your cabin window on a cruise ship and see a concrete wall.
But on riverboats sailing in and out of locks it is common. So is the cabin view in the above photo. River locks allow boats to move from a waterway of one depth to a waterway of another depth. Passenger boats as well as cargo boats share use of the locks and a Lock Master organizes the scheduling of it all.
The process of sailing in and out of locks is fascinating to experience and the topic of my article "Locks On The Danube River" listed below.
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