We’ve all seen those commercials for river cruises: Prosperous-looking couples clink champagne glasses on the deck of a ship, toasting the good fortune that has them sailing past art-filled chateaus. “Explore the world in comfort,” intones the cultivated British voice in the Viking River Cruises ad. And indeed, those couples look mighty comfortable.
For an increasing number of cruise guests, comfort means not having to dig out a tuxedo for formal dinners, or navigate a five-story ocean liner with 5,000 fellow passengers.
River cruises are billed as a casual, intimate alternative to their ocean counterparts, and a fast-growing mode of travel. Most inland cruises are between one and two weeks, with all-inclusive price tags starting in the mid-four figures.
Foregoing the elaborate dinners and shows found on ocean cruises, river passengers generally pay a bit more for small boats — a few hundred people at most — that can dock in the smaller, picturesque ports off-limits to huge ocean vessels.
“It’s a trend of slow travel,” observed Sophia Kulich, who coordinates river cruise vacations through her Florida-based Jewish Travel Agency and also leads her own Jewish heritage tours. “People get tired of, if it’s Tuesday, it’s Belgium. There are 3,000 people, crowds in the ports. River cruises are a smaller and more intimate option for people who like cruises” — and well-suited to those who want to visit multiple inland cities without schlepping suitcases.
Jewish heritage is a significant piece of the inland market. That’s because the river cruise world essentially revolves around Europe, and the most popular Central European itineraries pass through cities that are rich in Jewish culture, like Vienna, Prague and Budapest.
“These rivers were the highways of ancient times,” noted Terri Burke, managing director for the Lugano, Switzerland-based Avalon Waterways, which has 400 mostly European departures annually — a number that has grown steadily since its first river boat launched 13 years ago. Burke said Avalon’s August Jewish heritage cruise is booked well in advance; a Budapest-to-Prague route, “Blue Danube Discovery,” includes various Jewish-interest excursions and is among the line’s top five offerings.
“These rivers were the highways of ancient times.”
Many of the world’s great towns and cities, naturally, evolved on the banks of inland waterways, which gives river cruises an advantage over their ocean-going counterparts. “We can go right to the destination, up close and personal,” said Burke. “You literally step off that ship onto the cobblestones.” Ocean liners, in contrast, require larger ports for bigger ships that are complicated to unload.
A number of companies, like Avalon, offer specifically Jewish trips. But many more travelers opt to include Jewish heritage shore excursions on general-interest departures, or to add a multi-day, pre- or post-cruise tour of, say, Jewish Prague. “They’re already going to Europe; they want to stay in Prague a few days,” explained Kulich, who customizes Jewish-interest excursions for her river-going clients.
Kulich arranges local experts to help clients explore the Jewish highlights of cities like Budapest, Linz and Vienna, as well as concentration camps like Auschwitz (Poland) and Terezin (Checia). Danube itineraries are the most popular, Kulich said, but the Mosel and Rhine Rivers are beloved for their wine regions and small, quaint villages.
Many Jewish travelers also flock to the Douro, which flows through Spain and Portugal, prime sites for Sephardic heritage. Outside Europe, common river cruise destinations include the Mekong through Cambodia and Vietnam, the Yangtze through China, the Egyptian Nile, and the Amazon through South America.
Viking offers trips that combine rivers with nearby seas, such as the Mediterranean, or (unsurprisingly) Norwegian fjords. Viking’s Budapest stops include tours of that city’s Jewish quarter and its Great Synagogue, Europe’s largest; German routes can include visits to Jewish cemeteries or World War II points of interest in Nuremberg, site of the Nazi war trials.
One of the most comprehensive Jewish heritage tours is a two-week sojourn through Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna and Prague from Tauck River Cruises, part of the three-generation, Connecticut-based Tauck tour business. Along with visits to the historic Jewish quarters, Auschwitz and Terezin, the cruise includes a private concert at a Viennese palace and meetings with a Holocaust survivor and a rabbi.
While many companies offer Jewish content, Kosher Riverboat Cruises is a rare kosher line in this largely non-kosher market. The company’s offerings range from European rivers to the Mekong and even the Mississippi, allowing observant travelers to explore regions that would be significantly more challenging to explore independently. Naturally, Kosher Riverboat offers extensive Jewish interest programming on its all-glatt-kosher ships, as well as Jewish-heritage excursions in ports of call.
Jewish itineraries are part of a trend toward special-interest river cruises, which are expanding their so-called “active” offerings — everything from golf to zip lines — to attract younger patrons. At Avalon, Terri Burke said the “active discovery” departures skew about five years younger than other offerings; special-interest trips for everything from beer to golf also fill up more quickly, an indicator of traveler enthusiasm.
“The idea is for visitors to leave with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Germany’s Jewish culture, today and in the past.”
Emblematic of the trend is Los Angeles-based Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, which calls its ships “sleek, floating boutique hotels,” according to President and CEO Ellen Bettridge. Uniworld sources its cuisine from local destinations en route, engages guests with “wellness offerings” such as yoga and TRX, and recently launched a millennial-focused line, “U by Uniworld,” for ages 21-45.
Among Uniworld’s offerings is a popular Jewish heritage sail down the Rhine River — an opportunity for travelers to explore not only Jewish history, but also Europe’s largest postwar Jewish community.
“The idea is for visitors to leave with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Germany’s Jewish culture, today and in the past,” Bettridge added. The trip includes less-traveled cruise stops such as the Frankfurt Jewish Museum and Wertheim, a quaint town with a rich Jewish legacy.
Such itineraries illustrate how river cruises are expanding the options for highly organized, heritage-focused travel. “Travelers are increasingly seeking to visit hidden-gem locations — small villages and local restaurants along the rivers that they normally wouldn’t be able to easily get to,” Bettridge said. “There is no better way to discover the unique culture of a people than along its waterways.”