You find yourself in a new state of mind aboard a riverboat. Far away from the bustle of the city, you float past green expanses adorned with crenelated relics, with a chorus of birds chirping as they roll and dip into the silvery waters. It’s perfect peace.

River cruises offer all the luxuries of a boutique hotel with the benefit of experiencing multiple countries and the ease of only having to unpack once. Counting the Rhine, the Rhône, the Moselle, the Danube and the Douro amongst its winding waterways, Europe offers some of the most magnificent itineraries for discerning travellers: in one trip, guests could traverse the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland; in another, they could visit Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. “As we know, civilisation was built around the river, so it’s really wonderful to have all of these monuments facing the river,” says Janet Bava, the chief marketing officer at AmaWaterways. “It presents a great opportunity for passengers to visit places that they usually have not been to in Europe.”

Like a duck to water

Since the post-pandemic easing of entry requirements in Europe, river cruise operators have seen a flurry of reservations with passengers eager to embark on a new bucket-list-level adventure. However, Bava notes that there had been a notable rise in the popularity of river cruises between 2018 to 2020, which she attributes to a broader awareness of what a river cruise entails and the options that are available. “From the moment that Covid hit, there was a huge decline in bookings,” Bava reflects. “We scaled back on our marketing because we had a huge revenue loss; but, as we began to sail again in the summer of 2021, we started to see so much organic demand.”

Nichola Absalom, the director of global brand at Scenic, adds: “As confidence has returned, we have seen a dramatic increase in demand for our European itineraries – that pent-up demand is feeding through to the market. This year’s sales have been very strong, with customers keen to use the money saved in lockdown to experience our larger, higher value suites.” Absalom continues, adding that Scenic has also chosen to release its 2023 programme early, because people are intent on securing next year’s cruises now.

Part of the appeal is the one-stop shop nature of the booking: all the planning is taken care of and everything is included, from the land and air travel to the meals and onshore excursions. “Once guests get on board the ship, they’re so happy that they came and took the initiative to sail,” says Bava. “The news can become very cumbersome and confusing, but then they realise that it can be really easy,” Absalom concurs. “With a river cruise you just turn up, have your private butler unpack and then explore beautiful and fascinating towns and cities,” she says. “There is no pressure to rush or join tours, the fine dining can be relaxed and casual or a la carte and our high staff-to- guest ratio means your every whim is catered for.”

Experiencing in your own way

Indeed, river cruises offer the thrill of travel without the stress of handling multiple forms and facing large, crowded spaces. Plus, a riverboat offers a scale that, in the pandemic era, feels far more comfortable than a 3,000-person mega ship. With an average of fewer than 150 guests on board, an abundance of personal space and a personalised way of experiencing some of the world’s most fascinating destinations, both AmaWaterways and Scenic are experiencing a growth in bookings from both returning guests and travellers new to river cruising.

“River-cruise ships have a restriction on size because the rivers have various locks to control the water level,” explains Bava. “All our ships are about 135m-long, and we don’t want to cram guests in. I think that is enticing more and more people.” The AmaSiena, for example, has 78 cabins that hold a maximum of 156 passengers, all of whom must be vaccinated. The only one of AmaWaterways’ boats that has a slightly higher capacity – of 190 people – is the AmaMagna on the Danube River, because it’s double the width of the standard ships.

When it comes to embarking on land for daily excursions, AmaWaterways tries to keep group sizes small, so that Covid-conscious travellers are comfortable. “When we arrive in a port of call, our guests have three or four choices,” says Bava. “We have a variety of activities, from slower-paced tours to active hikes. AmaWaterways was also the first river-cruise line to put bicycles on board, so the more adventurous guests can do eight-to-twenty-mile guided cycling tours.”

Scenic runs a five-day Tastes of Imperial Europe trip, which involves a host of outdoor activities, such as explorations of Budapest’s Hospital in the Rock nuclear bunker and hikes up the Unesco World Heritage site Buda Hill. Its 16-day trip along the Danube Delta provides kayaking excursions in Belgrade and treks to a Serbian fortress; while in Bordeaux, guests can take on the 100m-tall Dune du Pilat at Arcachon Bay, which offers extraordinary panoramic views across the Atlantic Ocean to one side and a vast pine forest at the other.

Nevertheless, it’s the cultural experiences that set river cruises apart for Absalom. “Sail the Danube and you’ve got the architectural majesty of Budapest, the incredible musical legacy of Vienna and Salzburg, and modern history in Nuremburg. On the Rhine you can enjoy a medieval experience, taking in ancient German castles and classic gingerbread towns such as Cochem and the Black Forest.” With this in mind, Scenic aims to create memorable experiences in every port – those that aren’t easily replicated and won’t be soon forgotten. “Cultural highlights have included private performances of the music of Strauss and Mozart in Vienna’s Palais Liechtenstein, a behind-the-scenes tour of the stunning baroque Rastatt Palace, and a banquet in Marksburg Castle,” describes Absalom. Scenic’s French itineraries also include interactive cooking classes, for which guests go shopping for fresh, local ingredients with the chefs, and then create local dishes under their guidance.

Water way to explore

On board, Scenic and AmaWaterways both create an atmosphere that is reminiscent of a top-tier European hotel. Hospitality is attentive and professional and cabins are well-lit and spacious, with balconies and colourful, modern furnishings. Every morning starts with a hearty breakfast and wellness classes up on the deck, setting guests up for the day’s activity, which could involve wine-tasting, city tours or invigorating trails. AmaWaterways hosts a cocktail hour at six o’clock (called the ‘sip and sail’), where a pianist provides background music and guests can mingle with one another; Scenic has sundowners delivered direct to their guests’ loungers. Restaurants source seasonal, authentic ingredients from each of the towns visited and meals are presented alongside local wines – “So, if we’re in Lyon,” says Bava, “we could be having escargot or fresh oysters that day.”

Absalom notes that for Scenic, French itineraries are currently its most popular, which she credits to its new culinary itineraries. “People want to do rather than just see – and enjoying destinations through their food and drink is a fantastic way to do this,” she says. At AmaWaterways, the Danube – rambling from Germany to Romania – is leading the charge. “The beautiful thing about the Danube is that you have these grand capitals, like Vienna and Budapest, and then you have these smaller, lesser-known towns and vineyards along the way,” Bava states. As it is connected to the Rhine, there is the option to extend the trip to include one of its 12 additional journeys, where guests could also see Basel, Amsterdam and France – and then there’s the Douro River in Portugal, which has a season that stretches into December. (The most avid travellers are able to sign down for 45 or 46-night itineraries covering the spectrum of Europe.)

These kinds of trips have a very high return rate, which Bava credits to the cultural immersion of the experiences. “You come back fulfilled and enriched,” she explains. “There is a part of the Rhine where you see over 40 castles, beautiful wildlife, sheep farms and vineyards. You’re sitting up on the deck, having a drink or just relaxing by the pool, and you’re seeing these beautiful sceneries just pass you by.”

Indeed, the ease of cultural immersion combined with the luxury of space makes for the ideal post-pandemic trip – and expanding fleets coupled with uncharted waters indicate the ever-broadening options available to travellers. Both AmaWaterways and Scenic foresee an exciting future for river travel, as cruising’s best-kept secret gets out. As Bava notes, “We’re continuously looking for we can explore the world through the rivers, one river at a time.”