River cruises offer fabulous opportunities to sample gastronomic feasts and local delicacies. Nick Dalton selects eight of the best

Dinner on board River Countess © Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Dinner on board River Countess © Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

French connection

Uniworld’s all-inclusive luxury is rich with wonderful food and fine drink, but the Bordeaux, Vineyards and Châteaux cruise, new this year, takes it to a new level. The trip on River Royale travels the Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde in a region home to the world’s great wines and cuisine to match. Wherever the ship calls there is something to sample, not least wine in the UNESCO site of Saint-Émilion, before an evening tour of Bordeaux. There’s a trip around the Sauternes region and a visit to one of its finest estates to chat with a winemaker and have lunch paired with the renowned wine. Meet another winemaker at his Médoc château for even more tasting. On board the highlight is a gastronomic feast inspired by the menus of Philippe Etchebest, who has two Michelin stars for his restaurant Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint-Émilion. There are also gala dinners, a choice of dining with a simple bistro menu, the captain’s welcome and farewell receptions.

Must-try dish: Try the gastronomic feast’s roasted loin of Quercy lamb with coriander and mint, caraway carrots, eggplant caviar and lamb jus.

Sample cruise: Titan Travel offers an eight-day Bordeaux, Vineyards and Châteaux cruise starting from £1,699pp all-inclusive including flights, transfers, excursions and home pick-up (titantravel.co.uk/uniworld).

Dining decisions

River cruise ships generally have a couple of restaurants; the AMA Concerto ships have five. They’re not your usual ones either. Verde is the main, fine dining restaurant; then there’s Bella Cucina, for Italian dishes; the River Bistro (casual meals cooked to order from morning until midnight); the Wine Room with two tables each for six guests, perfect for celebrations; and all topped off by the Erlebnis Chef’s Table (a private chef preparing a six-course degustation menu, at no extra cost). That’s aside from on-deck dining on warm days, and room service for those in select suites. The Magnificent Europe cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, passes through a number of countries, inspiring a number of dishes, with modern takes on local classics. Inclusive excursions also include a visit to Namedy Castle in Germany for a banquet and a cocktail party in Vienna’s restored Liechtenstein Palace, chocolate tasting in Cologne, wine tasting in Kitzingen and beer tasting in Bamberg. Should you wish to work off the goodness, the ships (including AMA Reina, new for 2014) feature a fleet of bicycles to borrow, a gym and a top-deck heated pool.

Must-try dish: Curry-marinated fillet of cod in masala sauce with asparagus, lentils and hummus from the Erlebnis menu.

Sample cruise: APT offers a 15-night Magnificent Europe cruise, sailing regularly from March to October, from £3,345pp on an all-inclusive basis (aptouring.co.uk).

Flavours of Europe

Expect fresh and fancy from Emerald Waterways, Europe’s newest river cruise line. Expert chefs create mouth-watering dishes in the ship’s main restaurant Reflections. The restaurant features as an extension of the sleek and smooth experience throughout the new 183-passenger ships. Four-course evening dinners reflect destinations on your itinerary and give you the opportunity to test local delicacies and regional specialties. Fresh seafood, succulent meats and innovative culinary skills combine to bring you a delightful end to the day, whereas the resident Egg Chef ensures your day begins in the best possible form. Boasting seasonal produce, the ever-changing menu will be a highlight of your time on board. The experience continues when you leave the ship too as you sample the local specialities in authentic settings. In Bratislava, you’ll be invited into the home of a local Slovakian family who put on their version of afternoon tea so that you can have a taste of traditional fare.

Must-try dish: John Dory with Swiss Chard Flan served with potato parsnip purée and tomato, caper and lemon butter sauce.

Sample cruise: An eight-day Sensations of Southern France cruise from £1,495pp, including transfers and excursions (emeraldwaterways.co.uk).

Southern style

The taste of the Deep South, starting with the ever-present supply of freshly-baked cookies (those almost-soft ones, the size of a small plate, with choc-chip or peanut butter) in the Front Porch Café. The food on American Queen is overseen by renowned US chef Regina Charboneau whose former restaurant, Regina at the Regis, was a luvvies hangout in San Francisco’s theatre district. She’s on board regularly – easily done as the paddlewheeler passes her current home, B&B and restaurant, Twin Oaks, in the Mississippi town of Natchez, on a classic New Orleans-Memphis itinerary. I’ve seen Regina give cookery demonstrations (how to cook those scone-like ‘biscuits’) and pass on tips to guests in the bar. Twin Oaks also hosts a paid-for excursion when Regina entertains a small group with cocktails and afternoon tea in the delightfully historic setting. On board, American classics are recreated with produce from the rich land by the river. Meals in the exquisite, Victorian-inspired JM White Dining Room include a novel take on catfish, or corn and shrimp fritters, alongside superbly-cooked steaks. The lunch buffet is no less inviting.

Must-try dish: Shrimp in tomato cream sauce over rosemary grits.

Sample cruise: A 10-day River of Legends: New Orleans-Memphis trip on American Queen from £2,595pp (lightbluetravel.co.uk).

The perfect combination

Travel the length of France with extravagant dinners paired with exceptional local wines. Avalon’s culinary-themed Grand France cruise offers plenty of tastings – cheese, wine, beer and the cider of Normandy – as well as an onboard pastry-making class. This cruise travels the Rhône and Saône in the south with a coach transfer to Paris and another cruise on the Seine. The trip aims to take you behind the splendid cuisine that Avalon is known for with demonstrations by recognised chefs using ingredients from the regions that you pass through. There are also lectures on food and wine, and visits to distilleries and cheese farms. The itinerary includes Avignon in the south, with its bridge, and Rouen, north-west of Paris, with its immense Gothic cathedral. Avalon Scenery, carrying you on the southern portion, takes only 138 passengers and is a charming boutique setting for the trip.

Must-try dish: The pan-fried scallops on noodle risotto and Cognac sauce in the six-course wine-paired dinner.

Sample cruise: Avalon Waterways offers a 16-day Grand France cruise, departing regularly March to October, from £2,794pp including flights, transfers, excursions, wine with dinner and home pick-up (avaloncruises.co.uk).

Rising interest

Bread might not seem the height of cuisine, but watch the Portuguese do it and you’ll soon think differently. On a Douro cruise with Viking there’s a trip from Pinhão to the hillside village of Favaios where one of the last traditional bakeries turns out crusty loaves the way they were centuries ago. Have a try then set off to the local museum for a fuller tasting, along with, naturally, wine. You’re rarely out of sight of a vineyard as the Douro weaves its way through sun-drenched countryside – there’s port for you on more than one occasion and you even visit Mateus Palace, from those famous Mateus Rosé labels. A highlight is a trip to 11th-century Alpendurada Monastery, now an inn and museum with sweeping views of the river, for a dinner – maybe the local delicacy, salt cod, and a fado concert. Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil are new for 2014, with sleek Scandinavian design and carry only 106 passengers. Food is exceptional, not only regional dishes in the five-course dinners but regional wine too.

Must-try dish: Frango na Púcara from Portugal, a clay pot-cooked chicken stew with port and brandy.

Sample cruise: Viking River Cruises offers a 10-day Portugal’s River of Gold cruise, sailing regularly from March to December, from £2,095pp, including flights, transfers, excursions and wine with dinner (vikingrivercruises.co.uk).

Fine dining

If you’re looking for delectable French cuisine, CroisiEurope showcases some of the best. Chefs are trained to curate the finest dishes for both lunch and dinner to complement the areas that the ship travels through on the different itineraries. The menus are carefully crafted to give guests a taste of fine French gastronomy without the hassle of worrying what to order in a luxury restaurant. The cruise line’s head chef Alain Bohn was recently nominated as a member of the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France – an esteemed association including only 250 chefs worldwide. Guests who want to learn even more about food can book on to one of CroisiEurope’s Gastronomic Cruises where things are stepped up a notch on board and excursions include visits to restaurants of renowned chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Marc Haeberlin.

Must-try dish: Creamy crayfish lasagne soup with Parmesan crumble – it’s simply delightful.

Sample cruise: CroisiEurope offers an eight-day river cruise through the Seine Valley starting from £1,018pp (croisieurope.co.uk).

Crowning glory

Royal Crown gives you a taste of grand 1930s Europe, taking just 85 passengers in serene style through Europe’s waterways – and the cuisine lives up to the surroundings. Every evening is a five-course banquet in the dining room that has the air of a historic Pullman car. Cuisine is an inspired mix of British and European, timeless yet with a modern edge. Lunch might be a buffet, or a refined four-course affair. And the discreet bar, with the air of a gentleman’s club, offers a splendid selection of drinks and cocktails. The ship’s regular cruise, between Amsterdam and Luxembourg, visits Arnhem, Koblenz and Cologne, with visits to traditional taverns and the chance to explore ancient markets. Cabins are Art Deco delights, where you can relax with tea or coffee anytime.

Must-try dish: Roast lamb shank on garlic glace, with green beans and bacon and pommes rissolées.

Sample cruise: Treasures of the Danube cruise on Royal Crown (titantravel.co.uk).

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