On a roll, river cruise lines launch new vessels in Europe, China

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River cruising has quietly grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, with many of the popular lines rolling out about one new ship a year. In contrast to ocean cruising, however, on river cruises its the destination, not the ship, thats the destination, so these new river vessels dont come equipped with rock-climbing walls or six different restaurant options.

River cruise ships are very different from their ocean-going cousins. In Europe, the ships tend to be low, long and barge-like, the better to squeeze under low-slung bridges. Onboard activities are muted, since the vessels are only big enough to accommodate cabins, a restaurant, a lounge or two, a beauty salon and an additional room for a library or an Internet cafe. Ships on Chinas Yangtze, on the other hand, tend to be taller and ringed with private balconies.

Wherever the location, river cruise ships typically share one main feature: a sun deck or roof deck with chairs. River cruisings greatest pastime is sitting out on the top deck and watching the countryside, or cityscape, glide by.

Heres a look at some of the river ships introduced in 2005 and others ready to debut this spring.

Amadeus Waterways

This new line will increase Europe capacity by nearly 50% with the Amadagio.

" Amadagio (146 passengers)

Amenities: Suites are 255 square feet. The ship has a fleet of bicycles for passengers who want to explore the countryside on wheels. Part of the sundeck can remain open even when passing under low bridges.

Itinerary: The ship will sail nine- to 16-day cruises in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and the Netherlands.

Extras: Hotel stays bookend many Amadeus offerings. Cruises include daily sightseeing, as well as onboard cultural events such as folk dances and lectures.

Uniworld

In 2005, the line inaugurated the Douro Queen in Portugal; this year, its new offering is the River Royale, on French rivers.

" River Royale (132 passengers)

Amenities: French-style balcony doors on its Category 1 cabins. The ship includes a library, Internet cafe, massage room and, on the aft end of the ship, a whirlpool tub.

Itinerary: Provence, France -- sailing between Lyon and Arles.

Extras: Uniworld touts included highlights such as wine and chocolate tastings, an epicurean feast at a Lyon restaurant and visits to the towns of Viviers and Arles.

" Douro Queen (128 passengers)

Amenities: Upper-deck cabins are smaller but have balconies. The only vessel on the Douro with a swimming pool and two whirlpools.

Itinerary: Lisbon to Porto, Portugal, with stops in Spain.

Extras: Dinner at an 18th-century manor house; a full day in Salamanca, Spain; and, of course, vintage port wine tastings.

Victoria Cruises

When the Victoria Anna arrives in China this year, it will be the biggest ship ever on the Yangtze.

" The Anna (308 passengers)

Amenities: Each cabin -- with the biggest, the Shangri-La suites, measuring 632 square feet -- has a private balcony and is wired for Internet as well as the BBC and HBO. The Anna has a gym, lecture room, two restaurants and three bars.

Itineraries: Replaces the Victoria Star on four-day Three Gorges Highlights cruises between Chongqing and Yichang, China.

Extras: The line takes its Chinese cultural program seriously. Last year, it hosted onboard presentations on feng shui and marriage traditions as well as tea ceremonies and chopsticks lessons. A cabaret and fashion show features traditional performances.

Viking River Cruises

This line added one ship, the Viking Sun, to its Europe lineup in 2005. In addition, a main focus has been Viking Rivers China product. This year, the Viking Century Sun will join last years new-build, the Viking Century Sky, on the Yangtze.

" Viking Sun (198 passengers)

Amenities: All 37 cabins have floor-to-ceiling French windows. The ship includes a restaurant with panoramic windows, a lounge and dance floor, a library and game room and a long, flat sundeck.

Itinerary: 12-day cruise from Antwerp, Belgium, to Basel, Switzerland.

Extras: Twelve tours included, such as visits to Bruges, Belgium; Amsterdams Rijksmuseum; Germanys Black Forest; and the Moselle Valley. Also, silversmith and cuckoo-clock demonstrations.

" Viking Century Sun (300+ passengers)

Amenities: Observation lounge, sauna, sundeck, bar, massage room, Internet cafe. Viking touts the ships Scandinavian-style interior decoration.

Itineraries: The Viking Century Sun will sail Vikings Beijing-to-Shanghai route. The cruise starts with a three-night stay in Beijing. Passengers are then transported to Chongqing for the actual cruise portion of the voyage, a nine-day trip up the Yangtze to Nanjing. Passengers also stay for two nights in Shanghai.

Extras: A welcome cocktail and a farewell dinner open and close the trip, which includes visits to Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Army, the Three Gorges Dam and Dongting Lake. Highlights are a night at the Peking Opera, a Peking duck dinner and an acrobatic performance.

To contact Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].

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