Rolling on the river is cruising's hottest trend

It's Day 3 of a week-long cruise down Europe's second-longest river, and the River Beatrice is gliding leisurely through the verdant Slovakian countryside into the tiny capital of Bratislava.

Lauren and Gary Snyder prepare to stroll into town, conveniently just steps from the pier where Uniworld's new 160-passenger vessel will dock. "It's been a surprise," says Lauren of the ease of exploring the ports along the route from Budapest, Hungary, to Passau, Germany.

"The most stressed I've been so far is playing Name That Tune," says Gary, a cardiologist from Jacksonville.

The relaxed pace and easy access to city centers are just two reasons why river cruising is on a roll. Indeed, it's one of the fastest-growing segments of travel with up to 60% annual growth for some lines in the past five years — nearly 10 times the rate of ocean cruising. Even with the recession, Uniworld competitors Viking River Cruises and AMA Waterways are growing at double-digit rates this year.

Why the surge? With fewer than 200 passengers per ship, river cruising is more laid-back and intimate than most ocean cruising, without lines to embark, debark or wait for meals or crowds to overwhelm ports. On ocean cruises, "there's too much herding around and standing in line," says Paula Wagner of the Travel Square One/Alltour agency in Denver.

It can also be more sociable. "You meet more people than on ocean cruises, because of the open-seating in the dining room," says the ship's hotel director Siegfried Penzenleitner. "The average for a river cruise is 20 people."

Because river ships dock right in the center of town, cruising the inland waterways offers far easier entree to a region's heartland — whether small medieval villages or grand historic capitals. Unlike on many ocean voyages, you can walk right off the ship into town — whenever you like. No tendering ashore. No long drives to your destination.

Furthermore, the size and configuration of river vessels guarantees that every cabin is "outside" with a coveted river view. And calm, shallow waters prevent any motion sickness of being at sea.

Compared with bus touring, it's much easier. "All the major cities of Europe are on a river, so why not unpack just once?" says Joy Whitney, 45, a researcher from Princeton, N.J, who has taken five Uniworld cruises.

Ian Dash, 48, an audio engineer from Sydney, agrees. "On a bus trip, most of the time you're on motorways, going from city to city. The nice thing about a boat is you can sleep in the same bed, and you travel slowly and can see the scenery rolling by."

Finally, river cruising — unlike most ocean liners — often includes excursions and wine with meals, as does the River Beatrice. That's a particularly good value in Europe, where you pay upfront in dollars and avoid the unfavorable currency exchange.

"Economically, you can't beat it. You aren't nickel-and-dimed to death," says travel agent Wagner. "People say 'I can't afford Europe,' but with this, I say 'yes, you can.' River cruising is under-promised and over-delivered."

A rising tide of cruises

Indeed, no fewer than nine new river ships are launching worldwide just this year: two from Avalon Waterways, one from Viking River Cruises, three from AMA Waterways, one from Tauck, and two from Uniworld. Avalon and AMA are rolling out three more in Europe next year, reflecting bullishness about a product that appeals mainly to Baby Boomers, retirees and experienced travelers.

(One exception: Peter Deilmann Cruises, geared largely to the German market, announced last month that it is removing all of its eight river vessels in 2010.)

How does the River Beatrice, now Uniworld's flagship, make waves in a burgeoning market? By paying attention to details. As in generous closet and storage space. As in vanity mirrors and good bathroom lighting. As in French balconies in 80% of the staterooms. "I've toured a lot of other ships, and this one stands up," say Wagner. "They've been listening to their customers."

Overall, the River Beatrice fairly gleams, from the white Murano crystal chandelier in the two-story lobby to the smartly appointed staterooms. Some 2,085 mirrors — from beveled wall insets to cabin table tops to full-length in the bathrooms — enhance the luminosity and sense of space. Silk wallpaper, velvet curtains, original art (Chagall, Picasso and Matisse, among others) and a soothing cream and brown color scheme complete the understated elegance.

There's no skimping on cabin amenities, either: flat-screen TVs, in-room safes, mini-fridges, hair dryers, fluffy robes and slippers, and crisp white-on-white Egyptian cotton linens. Bathrooms boast floor-to-ceiling white marble and luscious L'Occitane toiletries. Several unexpected touches stand out: espresso makers in the mini-suites, delicate white orchids, and complimentary bottled water. One quibble: Although rooms are equipped with Internet access, service was slow to non-existent.

Still, some passengers, such as Barbara King, a show-business retiree from Scottsdale, Ariz., find the 150-square-foot cabins too small. But she still prefers this to the megaliners.

Visitors are immersed in the flavor of Europe from the minute they step aboard. Start with the 53 crew — from the Dutch captain, Austrian hotel manager and German cruise director, to the Romanian concierge, Hungarian masseur and Slovakian engineer.

Well-prepared meals — some five-star worthy — spotlight regional specialties, too: Hungarian goulash and cabbage soup (better than it sounds); Wiener schnitzel and Sachertorte; Bavarian sausages and potato pancakes. But there's plenty for the less adventuresome, with two entrees plus a vegetarian choice at dinner.

After dinner, forget cabaret shows, casinos or Broadway revues. Instead, cruise director Christine Bremberger showcases the local culture — especially fitting for a region as famous for its musical heritage as Central Europe. Highlights include a magical night at the Kursalon concert hall in Vienna, where a chamber music group played selections from the Strauss brothers, Mozart and Haydn— all of whom lived in this music capital — as well as an unforgettable organ recital at St. Stephan's Cathedral in Passau, which boasts the world's largest cathedral organ with nearly 18,000 pipes. You can even take onboard Viennese waltz lessons.

The makeup of passengers is international, too — Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada and the USA — but all are English-speaking to avoid language barriers, says Robert Fitzgerald, a Uniworld sales manager.

Retirees Brian Johnson, 65, and Toni Johnson, 63, from Corlett, Australia, say they like the mix of nationalities. They chose the River Beatrice "because we wanted the comfort and service," says Toni. "They're very hands-on." For example, when Capt. Tom Buining overheard a passenger complain about the lack of weights in the small fitness center, he bought some at the next port and delivered them personally.

Life on the river's banks

As comfortable as the ship is, this voyage draws you into the destinations. Slicing through the heart of the Continent, the Danube historically was the lifeblood of its communities. Quiet country scenes and vineyards, citadels and castles, monasteries and cathedrals form a never-ending tableaux along its 1,770 miles. This itinerary features some of Europe's great capitals: sophisticated, stylish Vienna with its reminders of Austro-Hungarian imperial grandeur; historic Budapest, where coffee culture percolates again in some 300 cafes; Bratislava with its cozy cobblestoned Old Town.

But the less-known stops offer the most unexpected treats: tiny baroque Dürnstein (pop: 900), gateway to Austrian wine country (bike tours to the vineyards are available). Melk, Austria, home to a 900-year-old cliff-top abbey famous for its 80,000 medieval manuscripts. Storybook Salzburg, which is still alive with the sound of music on every street corner and courtyard, and Passau, set in pastoral Bavaria.

As Harvey King, an association executive from Scottsdale, sums it up, "This cruise is a no-brainer."