For the first time in years, eastern Germany's Elbe River is seeing a relative flood of development. Viking Cruises is launching two vessels there this year, and CroisiEurope is gearing up to unveil a paddlewheeler on the Elbe in 2016.

There haven't been many newer ships launched on the Elbe in part because of the challenges the river presents. Its lower water levels and narrower passages mean that river cruise ships on the Elbe are more restricted in size compared to their counterparts on many other rivers in Europe.

But clearly Viking and CroisiEurope see enough potential in the river beyond the hardware size constraints. Their respective Elbe projects indicate renewed interest in a river that, while less talked about than other more famous waterways of Europe, is the fourth-largest river on the Continent and connects some very scenic and culture-heavy regions of Germany and the Czech Republic. 

A rendering of the Viking Beyla, launching April 11, in front of the Albrechtsburg Castle in Meisen.
A rendering of the Viking Beyla, launching April 11, in front of the Albrechtsburg Castle in Meisen.

"Elegant Elbe is really one of the most dramatically scenic river itineraries we offer, and it is our only itinerary that sails through eastern Germany," said Richard Marnell, Viking's senior vice president of marketing. "We have consistently heard overwhelmingly positive feedback from our guests, but because of the unique nature of the river, we needed custom ships in order to increase capacity there. The Elbe is shallower than the Danube and other popular European rivers, which means ships need to be smaller to better navigate it."

Building smaller vessels

The 98-passenger Viking Beyla (launching April 11) and Viking Astrild (launching May 2) are joining Viking's river fleet as smaller versions of the company's 190-passenger Viking Longships, and their placement on the Elbe will double Viking's capacity there. The two new vessels will join the 120-passenger Viking Schumann and the 110-passenger Viking Fontane on the Elbe, both built in 1991 and refurbished five years ago.

Despite having only 49 staterooms (compared with 95 on the Longships), the Beyla and Astrild will still have six cabin categories (compared with seven on the Longships). Everything is just a smidge smaller on the Elbe vessels. For instance, while the smallest staterooms on the Viking Longships are 150 square feet, the smallest cabins on the Elbe vessels will be 140 square feet. And the veranda suites on the Elbe ships will be 250 square feet each, compared with the 275-square-foot veranda suites on the Longships. The 35 upper-deck staterooms on the vessels will all have either French or full balconies.

The Elbe vessels will also feature some of the trademark features on the Viking Longships, such as the indoor/outdoor Aquavit terrace at the bow and the modern Scandinavian stylings. There will be a restaurant, bar and observation lounge, gift shop, reception area and sun deck.

In truth, Viking hasn't had much company on the Elbe, at least not from the larger U.S. river cruise lines, none of which currently sail vessels there (some, like AmaWaterways, have had sailings there in the past). But Viking is no longer the only river cruise company that sees some room for growth on the river.

A rendering of CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princesse, set to launch next year.
A rendering of CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princesse, set to launch next year.

This past fall, French river cruise company CroisiEurope unveiled plans to build the 80-passenger paddlewheeler Elbe Princesse to launch in spring 2016. Its two paddlewheels will allow for a shallower draft, enabling the vessel to sail the Elbe's waters year-round, according to CroisiEurope.

The vessel will feature 40 outside-facing staterooms with WiFi, air conditioning and heating, a flat-screen TV, a hair dryer and a safe. The Elbe Princesse will also feature a panoramic restaurant, a lounge bar with a central dance floor and a sun deck.

And like the company's three vessels that are launching in 2015 — the Loire Princesse, Camargue and Gil Eanes — the Elbe Princesse will be outfitted with Missoni Home textiles and furnishings.

Plotting the Elbe

River cruise itineraries on the Elbe generally begin and end in Prague and Berlin (or the reverse, depending on the direction of the cruise), must-see metropolises of Central Europe that are worthy visits unto themselves. Not surprisingly, pre- and post-cruise extensions are often offered for further exploration of these iconic cities, which are then connected by a motorcoach transfer to the river cruise itself.

Along the Elbe River, passengers will have the opportunity to visit Prussian palaces in Potsdam just outside of Berlin and will travel through what is known as the Saxon Switzerland, a region defined by soaring sandstone rock formations that is located southeast of Dresden. 

Sandstone rock formations of Saxon Switzerland.
Sandstone rock formations of Saxon Switzerland.

The river also winds through the Saxony wine region, known for its Muller-Thurgau, riesling and pinot blanc varietals. 

German towns that dot the itinerary include Wittenberg, Meissen and Dresden. Wittenberg is known for its close ties to the Protestant Reformation movement and the movement's champion, Martin Luther, a 16th century theologian who translated the Bible into the vernacular.

Meissen has become synonymous with the porcelain that has been manufactured there since the early 18th century.

And Dresden is the capital of Germany's Saxon region, situated near the Czech border and known for its wealth of opulent, centuries-old buildings.

River cruises along the Elbe also often stop in Litomerice in the Czech Republic, a Bohemian city at the junction of the Elbe and Ohre rivers.

"Unlike the Danube with its rolling hillsides, the Elbe offers a completely different landscape," added Marnell.

Viking's 10-day Elegant Elbe itinerary starts at $2,599 per person, cruise only, based on double occupancy.

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