-- River cruises are such a fast-growing trend there are actually twice as many new river ships debuting in 2012 as there are traditional ocean-going cruise liners.
Of the at least dozen new river ships, most will ply popular European waterways. The world's largest river cruise company, Viking River Cruises, alone is launching six, state-of-the-art, 190-passenger "Longships," inspired by an ancient Viking design, on rivers including the Danube and Rhine.
Why is river cruising so hot?
"It's a slower, more relaxed experience and the scenery is the attraction rather than a rock-climbing wall or surf simulator," says Chuck Flagg, owner of a Cruise Holidays franchise outside of Atlanta.
River ships provide an intimate atmosphere with a big dose of culture — partaking of knockwurst, beer and pretzels, for instance, while you cruise the Danube past castles and vineyards.
Most river cruise passengers are experienced ocean cruisers who appreciate the fact the inland ships typically carry fewer than 200 passengers and can dock right in riverside city centers, so you need only walk off the pier to go exploring.
The "Bucket List" crowd is the main market. "Interest is absolutely exploding with 55 and older travelers with money to spend," Flagg says.
Rates on river ships can be steep — for a weeklong cruise on the new Viking ships, for example, fares start from $1,756 per person on the Danube. Compare that to a seven-night Northern Europe cruise on Holland America's Rotterdam next spring, priced from $999.
But a bonus of river cruises is that shore excursions, which can add heavily to an ocean cruise tab, are typically included in the river cruise fare.
The size of river ships is limited by the need for the vessels to go through locks and under low bridges. But every cabin comes with a view, and part of the increasing attraction may be an effort by the lines to upgrade accommodations — many are taking a page from the big ships by introducing larger cabins with balconies, suites and such amenities as hotel-style beds done up with luxury linens, flatscreen TVs and free Wi-Fi.
While the ambience is generally casual, you are hardly roughing it. Much focus is put on meals, with open-seating dining adding to the sociable atmosphere. And while public rooms are limited, there is still space to hang out both indoors and out on the sun deck, where there's sometimes even a pool.
The rivers of Europe, especially the Danube and Rhine, continue to be the epicenter of the industry. Other popular destinations include Russia's Volga, China's Yangtze and Egypt's Nile (expected to pick up pace after the political turmoil of 2011).
The Mekong, between Vietnam and Cambodia, is a waterway of increasing interest — including with returning Vietnam vets — and will see new ships in 2012. Closer to home, next year marks the return of cruises on the Mississippi.
Among the new river ships for 2012:
Viking River Cruises
As part of a $250 million expansion, Viking ( vikingrivercruises.com) will debut four innovative, energy-efficient "Longships" — the Viking Freya, Viking Idun, Viking Njord and Viking Odin — in rapid succession, all in March. Two more, the Viking Embla and Viking Aegir, arrive in July and August.
Special features: Suites with separate bedroom and living rooms, some with 445 square feet (billed as the largest on river ships in Europe), 3/4s of the cabins have full balconies or French balconies or both; indoor/outdoor lounge with retractable floor-to-ceiling glass walls, al fresco dining area with grills.
Rivers: Primarily Rhine and Danube.
Tour operator Uniworld ( uniworld.com) is expanding its Asia options with the addition of the new 60-passenger River Saigon, debuting on the Mekong in January.
Features: Handcrafted colonial details, all 30 cabins have French doors that open onto a spacious promenade, pillow menu, massage room.
Rivers: Mekong between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, combined with a land tour in Hanoi or Hanoi, Beijing and Shanghai.
AmaWaterways ( amawaterways.com) is celebrating its 10th anniversary with the debut of the 164-passenger AmaCerto in April. The ship has a design inspired by classic ocean yachts. Most cabins have the company's innovative "Twin Balconies," which combine a French balcony and step-out balcony.
Special features: Hip decor including tufted headboards, 350-square-foot suites, alternative dining venues including a Chef's Table and al fresco bistro, two wine bars, pool with "swim-up" bar.
Rivers: Danube and Maas (in Holland and Belgium).
Debuting in March for Avalon Waterways ( avalonwaterways.com) are the new 166-passenger Avalon Vista and 128-passenger Avalon Visionary, both billed as "Suite Ships." The seven-year-old company is also launching a 32-passenger ship, Avalon Angkor, in September on the Mekong.
Special features: For Vista and Visionary, two full decks of 200- to 300-square-foot suites with sitting areas and wall-to-wall panoramic windows that open, expanded fitness center, Sky Deck whirlpool. For Angkor, colonial-influenced decor, cabins with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors.
Rivers: Vision and Visionary on Danube, Rhine and Main; Angkor on Mekong, between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia.
American Cruise Lines
American Cruise Line's ( americancruiselines.com) 140-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, currently under construction in Maryland, will ply the Mississippi and its tributaries beginning in August. Officials say the sternwheeler would recreate the Victorian splendor of past Mississippi riverboats.
Special features: Elegant dining room with crystal chandeliers, large cabins with balconies, six lounges, library.
Rivers: Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland.