Christmas river cruises
By Cruise International | 11 Sep 2014
Whether you want to hit the traditional markets for gorgeous gifts or experience Yultetide with a cultural twist, these six river cruises are perfect for the festive season
Sail through the heart of Europe, down the River Rhine and River Danube in December to see Christmas celebrations from Amsterdam to Budapest on Scenic Tours’ 16-day Christmas River Cruise. Amsterdam’s canals and bridges are lit up and there are Christmas markets at Leidsesplein and Koningsplein town squares. Cross into Germany, though, and you will really see how to celebrate Yuletide. Cologne has four Christmas markets surrounding its UNESCO-listed cathedral, where you’ll see the largest Christmas tree in Europe. A warming glass of Glühwein is all part of the fun as you wander around the brightly-lit stalls, choosing which traditional wooden Christmas ornaments to take back home. Not that you will want to leave Scenic’s ‘Space Ships’ with free personal butler service for everybody, unlimited complimentary drinks (except top-end brands), a choice of free excursions and complimentary bikes or GPS devices for those who want to explore independently. The wifi is also free and even tipping is taken care of. As you sail through Germany into Austria you can prepare yourself for more Christmas treats at Vienna, where the impressive Town Hall is dressed as a giant Advent calendar, then on to Budapest where you can relax in the lovely Art Nouveau thermal baths.
The only Christmas present many people want is a few weeks in the sunshine, away from family gatherings and TV specials. A cruise along the Mekong river through Vietnam and Cambodia fits the bill nicely, with the chance to explore ancient temples, shop in colourful markets and eat delicious meals featuring sprouts of the bean kind, not Brussels. APT’s 14-day Vietnam and Cambodia Highlights has included tours, complimentary drinks and no gratuities required. Like most cruises in the area, there is a mix of hotel and river boat accommodation to maximise time for sightseeing. During the included hotel stay in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City there are complimentary tours of the Cu Chi Tunnels built by Vietnamese resistance fighters during the Vietnam War, and tours of the city’s French colonial architecture before joining RV AmaLotus. This 62-suite ship is like a floating luxury hotel, with large air-conditioned cabins. The ship sails through luscious countryside for seven days on its way to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, when you can visit the Royal Palace’s Throne Hall and see the jewel-encrusted Buddhas in the Silver Pagoda. But the highlight for many will be the temples at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat during a two-night included hotel stay at Siem Reap before flying home.
Bordeaux is the perfect Christmas cruise destination for foodies, not to mention wine lovers and is a stylish, cosmopolitan city, which you can discover on Viking River Cruise’s eight-day Heart of Bordeaux cruise. There’s an overnight mooring at the city’s central harbour on the Gironde River before setting off to see the region’s vineyards and medieval towns. Get into the Christmas spirit at the Allées de Tourny winter wonderland market, where regional specialities include chocolate, Armagnac and pear or prune spirits. Then relax as Viking Forseti sails to Pauillac, home to Château Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Mouton Rothschild wines. There are plenty of wine-tasting opportunities and after arriving at the ancient walled city of Blaye you can take an optional excursion to the medieval town of Cognac. Another optional trip is to Bergerac, famous for its truffles, with a Christmas market at the centre of the old town. The cruise also takes you to the medieval village of Saint-Émilion, where the Romans planted vines back in the 2nd century, then the ship meanders back to Bordeaux for a full day’s sightseeing in the city.
Escaping the winter weather is always attractive but, for many, escaping the commercialism of Christmas is even more important. A cruise on the Irrawaddy River does both and makes for an unforgettable experience. There are golden pagodas, temples and giant Buddhas in many of the towns and villages along the river or just a coach ride away, while British colonial buildings remind us of our own country’s involvement in beautiful, but complicated, Burma – or Myanmar, as it is now known. Paukan Cruises operates between Mandalay and Yangon (formerly Rangoon) on the Irrawaddy, with downstream cruises from Yangon heading to Prome to see the Shwesandaw Pagoda complex, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. There are old colonial houses in Thayetmyo and a pagoda built from gold bricks in 1929 at Myat Than Lun Paya. The cruise includes many more extraordinary cultural sights, such as the 19th-century teak monasteries in Salay and the Shwebadaung caves with hundreds of Buddha statues and paintings dating back to the 14th century. However it’s also about visiting the local markets; for instance in Bagan you can buy wood carvings, fabrics and rattan products. Or you can hire bicycles to explore on your own, or just sit and watch the sun set in astonishing surroundings. Paukan’s river boats are traditional but luxurious, with colonial-style decor in a luxury boutique hotel arrangement. The dining room serves a mix of Eastern and Western cuisine, the sun deck has a stage for cultural performances and the wickerwork furniture of the bar gives it the feel of an Agatha Christie novel.
A balmy evening on deck taking the air after dinner, listening to the sound of the steamboat’s paddlewheel… river cruises don’t get any more relaxing than a lazy few days on the Mississippi. American Cruise Lines has several eight-day New Orleans round-trips in December on board paddlewheel riverboat Queen of the Mississippi, where you can indulge your Gone with the Wind fantasy among the Victorian-style lounges and bars. The surroundings are elegantly old-fashioned but the service is anything but antebellum. The staterooms are huge, with private balconies and hotel-style bathrooms, room service is complimentary and there is wifi throughout. Many of the excursions are also complimentary, for instance tours of historic plantation houses that line the Great River Road. You can picture Scarlett O’Hara living at Oak Alley Plantation or Rhett Butler striding through the historic district of Natchez, which escaped the devastation of the American Civil War. Among the included guided tours is the Vicksburg National Military Park, where the North and South fought for control of the Mississippi. And there is glorious fun to be had in New Orleans, where the music never stops in the French Quarter and you can indulge in coffee and traditional beignets (superior doughnuts) in the cafés around the French Market.
Paris is extra-special at Christmas with its festive markets across the river from the Eiffel Tower, exquisite decorations (particularly at Galeries Lafayette) and nighttime Christmas lights. Uniworld’s eight-day Parisian Winter Holiday starts with an exclusive included tour of the Palace of Versailles, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lived in palatial opulence. The richly-decorated rooms are not unlike sumptuous River Baroness, with gorgeous furnishings in bold colours with gilt-framed mirrors and designer decor. The hotel-quality beds and bathrooms in each uniquely decorated suite are superb, and there is also free wifi. Most drinks are included and there’s a Gala Dinner after visiting Versailles. During the included excursion to Rouen to see the Christmas markets and cathedral the guide takes you to eat tarte tatin at one of the cafés. Then there are the traditional galettes – buckwheat crêpes – served with Normandy cider after a hike up to the romantic ruins of Richard the Lionheart’s castle in Les Andelys. Heading back to Paris you can also visit van Gogh’s last home at Auvers-sur-Oise.
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