For all the fuss river cruise lines make about their pretty ships (and don't get me wrong, most are a visual delight), the truth is that many of the most memorable river cruising moments don't take place on the water - they take place on land.
Yes, images of boats sell cruises. And yes, we all love to get a sneak peak of and visually approve of our sleek vacation accommodations before we journey out into the world. But in theory, those accommodations are just a means to an end, a literal vessel to bring us to the places we battle through long flights and jetlag to get to: the destination itself.
In recognizing that, river cruise lines are steadily highlighting and enhancing experiences that go beyond the hardware with ever more intriguing onshore programs. For instance, Crystal River Cruises has said that in addition to its onboard culinary program, its guests will have access to dining experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants. In fact, each 2017 Crystal river itinerary will feature at least one Michelin-starred dining opportunity, the first of which will be complimentary, the company has promised.
Tauck, a tour operator first and foremost, has repeatedly touted its emphasis on and investment in onshore experiences. The company recently announced that it would continue along that path by adding more and enhanced shore excursions for 2018.
Along those lines, Tauck has secured exclusive pre-opening visits to Versailles and after-hours tours of the Louvre (both of which have been piloted on select departures in 2017 and will be expanded for next year). In 2018, some river cruise passengers will also be invited to a private Tauck dinner inside the German Parliament building, and there will be an included lunch at Alain Ducasse's newest restaurant, Ore, in Versailles.
Hotel barge company European Waterways said that it has also noticed that passengers are asking for more immersive and experiential encounters ashore. In response, the company is adding excursions such as an exclusive tour of a castle garden in Scotland led by the head gardener, and the opportunity to try some fresh oysters after a private tour of an oyster farm.
In recent years, European Waterways said that it has also worked to better curate its wine tastings excursions to passengers' tastes and to enhance the culinary experience by including more private cooking demonstrations with regional chefs.
You see, while it's definitely a close cousin of ocean cruising, river cruising is by nature of the restricted size of the vessels never going to be able to bank on the "ship as the destination" appeal that many blue-water behemoths benefit from. Thus, while the promise of a fetching ship and a comfortable mode of travel may lure many travelers to river cruising, it will ultimately be the "wow" moments onshore that are likely keep them hooked.