When the Strand Cruise sets sail on its Valentine's Day 2017 departure on Myanmar's Irrawaddy River, passengers will be joined by some VIP guests: musicians from the Opera de Paris and Orchestre de Paris and French music journalist Elsa Boublil.
During the four-day sailing, the artists will play a series of classical concerts both onboard and onshore, with Boublil introducing the shows and offering music-themed lectures to complement the live performances.
While the voyage marks the year-old river cruise line's first foray into themed trips, such sailings have long been a fixture on European waterways. Tauck offers a French foodie cruise along the Rhone River, music-themed departures on the Danube and holiday-focused sailings on both the Rhine and Danube rivers. Viking centers cruises around European Christmas markets, and AmaWaterways welcomes guests on art- and wine-themed voyages. Uniworld offers a quintet of itineraries focused on everything from European royalty to culinary delights to Germany's Jewish heritage, while Avalon Waterways has special interest departures dedicated to beer, opera and World War I and II history, among other themes.
Recent partnerships have brought active travel to the rivers as well, with companies like Scenic, Uniworld and AmaWaterways partnering with adventure tour companies to offer cycling or walking-focused river cruise trips.
With so many ships plying European rivers and canals and advertising all-inclusive, luxury experiences, understanding the differences between the lines and itineraries can be problematic. When all the elegantly outfitted cabins and white-tablecloth restaurants start to blend together, themes can provide a point of differentiation, helping a traveler select a departure that speaks to them in a more specific way. A theme might make the difference between "We should try a river cruise" and "We should try that river cruise."
Now, themed departures are slowly spreading outside Europe. This year, AmaWaterways and Backroads expanded their cycling-centric sailings to the Mekong River, and in 2017 they'll partner on Galapagos, Andes and Amazon river cruise walking tours. Along with the Strand's upcoming music-themed trip, the company will offer culinary cruises led by executive chef Christian Martena and a photography trip along the Irrawaddy.
Still there's ample opportunity for themed sailings to grow on South American, Asian and African rivers. Perhaps a wildlife photography departure of Pandaw's Borneo expedition cruise or a yoga-themed voyage on the Ganges with Uniworld.
Just as river cruise lines have reached new customers by offering trips on less trafficked waterways around the world, those sailings are also ripe for new ideas and innovations. With a little imagination, it's easy to dream what themes may come.