When less is more: River vessels big on options

NEW YORK -- Nowadays the savvy agent knows that less can be more when selling a cruise to clients who eschew the 2,000-plus passenger megaships in favor of the camaraderie, intimacy and personal service that are keys to the appeal of the small-ship experience.

Whether one prefers to sail on a sleek river ship carrying a maximum of 150 to 200 passengers or a deluxe barge with just 20 guests, there are more quality vessels to choose from than ever before due to the expansion of this market niche over the past decade.

Cruises featuring European waterways and ports of call are especially popular, and clients can choose from several new itineraries and take advantage of reasonable rates now available from Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, Peter Deilmann and Continental Waterways.

The Europe season runs from late March to the end of October or early November, and some of the best buys are typically available at the beginning and end of the season.

Two leading small-ship lines specializing in Europe -- Viking River Cruises and Uniworld -- aim to increase their share of the North American market in 2004.

• Viking River Cruises has added nine new vessels within the past four years and grown its fleet to a total of 23 ships. Plans call for construction of more ships and an increase in its destination offerings.

Its 2004 Europe schedule features all-inclusive cruise tours of six to 14 days along the Danube, Elbe, Main, Rhine, Rhone and Seine rivers plus Ukraine's Dnieper River and the Waterways of the Czars in Russia.

Prices include roundtrip air fare, all meals and daily shore excursions plus shipboard lectures and entertainment.

Among the best buys currently available are an eight-day Danube Explorer cruise from Vienna to Nuremberg, Germany, beginning at $959 per person; an 11-day Treasures of the Rhine sailing from Basel, Switzerland, to Antwerp, Belgium, with fares from $1,859; and a 15-day Grand European Tour from Amsterdam to Budapest, Hungary, priced at $2,459.

Francophiles may be in the market for an eight-day French Vineyards and Vistas cruise through the heart of France's Burgundy and Provence regions from $1,309 per person.

For a limited time, clients who book this cruise get a $250 per person discount, and past passengers are entitled to an additional $100 reduction.

Contact Viking River Cruises at (877) 66-VIKING or visit www.vikingrivercruises.com.

• Founded in 1976, Uniworld has a long history of river cruising in Europe. Its season begins March 27 and continues through Oct. 30.

The company's 2004 France, Italy, Portugal River Cruises program is highlighted by two new programs, a 14-day Grand France cruise/tour and a nine-day Splendors of Italy cruise.

Along with an eight-day cruise through the French countryside, the Grand France program includes a tour of Paris and a visit to the beaches of Normandy, which this year marks the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

Uniworld's new Splendors of Italy cruise, which is highlighted by a visit to Venice and the islands of the Venice Lagoon, sails for nine days on the Po River between the French Alps and the Adriatic Sea aboard the deluxe River Cloud II.

Uniworld is also offering several themed cruises in 2004, including Art and Wine cruises on select departures aboard the Venezia, the only ship on the Po River catering exclusively to U.S. travelers.

Each of these cruises includes onboard lectures on art and wine, visits to the Pilotta Palace and the Peggy Guggenheim museum and stops at various art galleries during shore excursions.

Uniworld's Italy, France and Portugal cruises start at $1,998 per person and include meals, shore excursions, English-speaking guides and roundtrip air fare from New York or Boston (fly from any other major U.S. gateway for an additional $100 to $200; free companion air fare is offered on select departures).

In addition, extensions are offered on the Venice Simplon Orient Express as passengers board the train in London or Paris prior to select Italy cruises departing from Venice.

For reservations and information, call (800) 360-9550 or visit www.uniworld.com.

• Another major player in Europe is Peter Deilmann Cruises, and its 2004 Great Rivers of Europe brochure lists more than 320 European river cruises sailing on itineraries on the Danube, Elbe, Moselle, Po, Rhine, Rhone, Saone and Vistula rivers from late March to early November.

Peter Deilmann's 10 deluxe vessels, which accommodate from 58 to 204 passengers, is known for its high-quality onboard service, with passenger crew ratios of 2.5 to 1.

New for Peter Deilmann this year is the debut of the 108-passenger Heidelberg, which sets sail March 27 on a series of spring cruises out of Amsterdam.

Early arrivals in Amsterdam for Peter Deilmann's March 27 debut sailing of the Heidelberg can catch the Keukenhof flower exhibition, which opens March 25 just outside Amsterdam.Tulips are the main attraction. Those who opt for a precruise stay can catch the Keukenhof flower exhibition, which opens March 25 just outside Amsterdam.

Also on March 27, the 79-passenger Frederic Chopin will inaugurate cruises on the Vistula River between Gdansk, Poland, on the Baltic coast to Poland's capital city of Warsaw.

One of the best deals available during Peter Deilmann's spring and fall value seasons are eight-day cruises on the 140-passenger Princesse de Pro-vence and the 100-passenger Cezanne, which sail on the Rhone and Saone Rivers from Lyon, France, to the Burgundy and Beaujolais wine regions and Provencal cities of Avignon and Arles.

Prices for these sailings have remained unchanged since 2001, with cruise-only rates starting at $1,375 per person on the Princesse and $1,450 on the Cezanne.

Meanwhile, the cities of Berlin, Dresden and Potsdam, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic, are featured on eight-day cruises aboard the Katharina and Konigstein on the Elbe, Havel and Moldau rivers starting at $1,395 per person for an outside twin cabin.

Peter Deilmann also offers 12- to 17-day cruise tours, which include eight to 12 days of cruising plus first-class hotels, deluxe rail travel on TGV and Orient Express trains and shore excursions.

In addition to its cruises and cruise tours, the line arranges pre- and post-cruise city packages, shore excursion packages, air transportation, meet-and-greet service and transfers between airports and ships. Call (800) 348-8287 or visit www.deilmann-cruises.com.

• Continental Waterways, which pioneered barge cruises on the rivers and canals of Europe, established fixed rates in U.S. dollars prior to the start of the 2004 season, which translates into savings of more than 25% over euro-based rates.

Cruise-only rates for a six-day cruise start at $995 per person. The small-ship line is also offering special barge cruise fares on four-, six- and seven-day cruise packages that include hotel and air fare (available at www.bargespecials.com).

Since the company's inception in 1966, Continental has focused on art, history, architecture, wine and gastronomy as major selling points for its cruises in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, and it owns and operates the largest fleet in Europe with 16 barges accommodating 20 to 50 passengers.

All barges feature rich wood paneling, decorative fabrics, spacious salons, dining areas, bars and sundecks. Call (800) 676-6613 or contact www.continentalwaterways.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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