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Themed River Cruising


Tauck’s ms Emerald in Lyon, France

The visitors arriving at the Palais Auersperg in Vienna, Austria, a baroque palace that dates to the early 1700s, are about to sit in on an orchestra rehearsal normally closed to the public. They are ushered into the lavish performance hall, and then the conductor begins a conversation with them, explaining what’s taking place on stage. This exclusive experience is just one of the many highlights of Tauck’s classical music themed river cruise, the 12-day Musical Magic Along the Blue Danube from Budapest, Hungary, to Prague, Czech Republic. It’s also an excellent example of the types of immersive experiences that guests can expect while sailing on theme river cruises available from numerous river cruise companies.

On themed departures, guests can see the world with fellow travelers who share their passion for, say, food, wine or music, or they may opt for itineraries with a focus on such areas of interest as Jewish heritage, the Civil War or family activities. The theme is typically integrated into special onboard and in-port entertainment and events that may not be offered on other departures and often would be inaccessible to guests traveling on their own. “With a themed cruise, itineraries are enhanced to offer guests a vacation that is totally original,” says Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. “Extras across our offerings can include lessons, tutorials, Q&A’s with experts and celebrities, special onboard performances or activities, excursions that incorporate the theme in-port and more.”

Uniworld takes all things culinary to the next level with its Connoisseur Collection, featuring French food and wine on select dates of its eight-day Burgundy & Provence trip from Avignon to Lyon or Brilliant Bordeaux roundtrip voyages. On board, guests are treated to food and wine pairings and open-air cooking demonstrations with expert chefs.

Shore excursions on these sailings include a tour of the Rémy Martin facility in Cognac with tastings. A walking tour along the cobblestone streets of the medieval Saint-Émilion in the Bordeaux wine region is followed by a visit to the cellars of a Grand Cru estate, classified as such for its quality wines, also with tastings. The featured estate—either Chateau Villemaurine, Chateau Soutard or Chateau Fombauge—changes weekly based on availability. AmaWaterways’ Specialty Wine Cruises are so popular that the company is offering more than 65 wine-themed departures in 2020 on the Main, Rhine and Moselle Rivers.

Rüdesheim am Rhein in the Rhine Valley, Germany

“A theme cruise allows guests to forge a deeper connection with the destination because it combines a personal interest with the history, scenery and culture of the region,” says Kristin Karst, AmaWaterways’ cofounder and executive vice president. “Our shore excursions are inspired by the theme of the cruise and the destination, so there are opportunities to have authentic experiences on shore. “Many of the experiences we provide would be very difficult to organize on your own,” adds Karst. “For example, our specialty wine cruises allow guests to explore the distinctive flavors of Europe with visits to local wineries that include special tastings and tours from winemakers of Europe’s most esteemed wine regions.”

AmaWaterways’ guests can expect to find wine experts, certified sommeliers and vineyard owners hosting each cruise and leading onboard lectures, tastings and shore excursions that include visits to local wineries. New for 2020, the seven-night Treasures of the Main & Rhine sailing from Nuremberg, Germany, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands, are a tour of a local bakery to learn about pretzel making and a stop in the wine-making town of Rüdesheim. Also new this year, the seven-night Vineyards of the Rhine & Moselle from Luxembourg and Amsterdam, presents a gondola ride over Rüdesheim’s vineyards and visit a Bernkastel winery for a tasting.

The U.S. has its own culinary treasures to offer, of course. Leading among them, the American Queen Steamboat Company features eight- or nine-day American River BBQ Challenge cruises along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers from Memphis, Tennessee, to Alton, St. Louis (or reverse). On these sailings, guests are invited to dine on and vote for the best of the best in the barbeque business.

Music enthusiasts who want to listen to and learn more beyond the already-included local entertainment and shows that incorporate the region’s music would enjoy music-themed river cruises.

In addition to sitting in on an orchestra rehearsal in Vienna, guests on Tauck’s Musical Magic Along The Blue Danube can experience such exclusive activities as a special performance at a premier concert venue in Budapest and a dinner and performances at Nelahozeves Castle, nestled outside Prague. On board the riverboat, guests can attend workshops and talks led by Tauck “maestros,” experts who work professionally within the classical music field as educators and performers or both.

Tauck guests are treated to onboard recitals.

The sharing of similar interests allows guests to quickly bond, observes Katharine Bonner, senior vice president of Tauck River & Small Ship Cruising. “It’s a reasonable assumption, for example, that everyone on a classical music cruise has an interest in the subject, so there’s an immediate basis for engagement,” she says. “Guests with a shared interest automatically have common ground, which helps to spark conversations, encourage the exchange of ideas and experiences, and, hopefully, foster friendships.”

The American Queen Steamboat Company celebrates such sounds as New Orleans jazz, the blues of St. Louis and Memphis, and Nashville country on its music-themed river cruises. Guests enjoy onboard entertainment and lectures highlighting the music of the region on the nine-day Music of America from Clarksville (Nashville), to either St. Louis or Memphis or American Music Festival voyages from Louisville, Kentucky, to Clarksville or Clarksville to Memphis. Musicians performing on select departures include Lee Greenwood, who wrote the country hit “God Bless the USA;” the Storefront Congregation with a bluegrass show; folk musician Dave Para; and an exclusive rock, blues and country show with Terry Mike Jeffrey.

While many cruises cater to families, family-themed cruises feature itineraries with a special focus on family bonding and together time.

Adventures by Disney, for example, offers 26 departures in 2020 on eight-day river cruises on AmaWaterways’ ships along the Seine, Rhine, Danube and Rhône Rivers. Up to eight Disney-trained guides on each sailing are “tour leaders, storytellers and concierge hosts all at once,” says Heather Killingbeck, director of Trip Program and Development for Adventures by Disney.

“Everything about these itineraries is designed with families in mind, from the onboard meals and activities to the shore excursions and adventures, and that means there’s tons of variety to suit everyone’s needs and preferences,” Killingbeck says. “Excursions range from high-adrenaline outdoor activities to local entertainment to culinary adventures, historical tours and more.”

On Adventures by Disney’s Seine River Cruise roundtrip from Paris, for example, guests visit the Museum of Impressionisms in Giverny to view works by Impressionist artists from 19th-century France and beyond, followed by a painting lesson for the kids. During the Danube River Cruise from Budapest to Vilshofen, Germany, families may see a private marionette show and then try their hand at strudel-making at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

Adventures by Disney on the Seine

Tauck Bridges’ family cruises sail on the Rhône, Rhine, Danube, Seine and Douro Rivers. On the eight-day Bon Voyage! France Family River Cruise Paris to Lyon, excursions and activities are designed for family members of all ages to enjoy together, with select activities created specifically for children. For example, all travelers can participate in a hands-on cooking class in Valence, France, at Scook, the cooking school of Annie-Sophie Pic of Michelin-awarded restaurant Maison Pic. While in Paris, families can tour the Louvre on a scavenger hunt geared toward young travelers. Dedicated Family Hosts lead onboard activities that vary by destination and time of year, ranging from kite flying on the sun deck and karaoke in the lounge, to onboard escape room games and gingerbread house-making projects.

Uniworld’s Generations Collection cruises for families feature crafts workshops tailored to the destinations visited, pastry-making classes, dedicated family hosts who oversee all activities for kids ages 4 to 17, and surprise in-stateroom gifts each night of the cruise. On the eight-day Castles Along the Rhine itinerary from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, popular shore excursions include a Family Knight’s reception at the fairy-tale 19th-century Rheinstein Castle near Trechtingshausen, Germany, as well as a scavenger hunt through the 2,000-year-old German city of Koblenz and a visit to its medieval Marksburg Castle.

Guests seeking a deeper dive into the history of a region would enjoy history and heritage cruises that bring more of the past alive while sailing. Uniworld offers three Jewish Heritage itineraries in Europe that “showcase Jewish communities and the many positive developments that can be seen throughout Germany in present day,” says Bettridge. “These itineraries tell the whole story to guests, from Holocaust memorials and WWII museums to the current-day Jewish revival.”

Jewish heritage elements on the 10-day Authentic Danube & Prague cruise from Vienna to Prague, for example, include a Jewish Vienna tour with stops in Stadttempel, the city’s main temple and the only synagogue to have survived the Night of Broken Glass, a pogrom against Jews that included Nazi Germany and Austria. In the Czech Republic, travelers tour Prague’s Old Jewish Quarter, home to the Old New Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in Europe, as well as the city’s second-oldest surviving synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, now a monument commemorating nearly 80,000 Holocaust victims from the Czech lands.

American Queen visiting Nottoway Plantation & Resort in Louisiana

For defining moments in American history, the American Queen Steamboat Company offers nine-day Antebellum South cruises from Memphis to New Orleans (or reverse) and eight- and nine-day Civil War-themed cruises from Memphis sailing either to New Orleans, Louisiana, Clarksville or Chattanooga, Tennessee (or reverse). The sailings bring the era to life with guest speakers and excursions to battlefields, plantations and historic homes. With 68 sailings in 2020, the Antebellum South cruises along the Lower Mississippi River are the company’s most popular, says John Waggoner, founder and CEO. A favorite among guests is the walking tour of the South’s largest-remaining antebellum mansion, Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana, which is an exclusive port to the company. “The Antebellum South includes the experience of authentic Southern culture as guests journey through living history,” says Waggoner.

Themed cruises that feature the Christmas Markets in Europe revel in the holiday season, combining tradition, heritage and history. Read more about them in “The Most Wonderful Rhine of the Year” on page 18. Theme cruises present the opportunity to expand a traveler’s passions with exclusive immersive experiences.

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