A clutch of new ships and revamped itineraries are being unveiled ahead of the 2012 European river cruising season.
Roomier cabins, more onboard restaurants, themed itineraries and new shore tours combined with a relatively strong dollar make river cruising an attractive way to enjoy the European countryside and see small riverside villages often bypassed by road-based tours.\
Avalon has commissioned two "suite ships" - the 83-cabin Avalon Vista and the 64-cabin Avalon Visionary - to cruise on the Danube and Rhine in 2012. Both will have two decks of suites with windows which open on to a balcony.
Each will have a big dining room with full-length windows as well as an open-air bistro on the Sky Deck allowing passengers to enjoy the scenery as they dine.
The vessels are modelled on the 83-cabin Avalon Panorama, the first of the "suite ships", which was launched in May and they will bring the company's fleet to 11 ships with an average age of just over two years.
Between May and October, Avalon Visionary will embark on a series of seven-night Romantic Rhine cruises between Basel, at the junction of the Swiss, French and German borders, and Amsterdam. The cruise heads north to Strasbourg in France where passengers can take a guided tour of the cathedral - once one of the tallest buildings in the world.
At Heidelburg, a German town dominated by its sandstone castle, passengers have time to explore before the cruise moves on to Mainz, an important wine centre and the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, the father of modern printing.
Then, the Panorama will pass through the castle-lined Rhine Gorge and the ancient Roman town of Koblenz before reaching Cologne, a city with a cathedral that took more than 600 years to build and is now Germany's most visited landmark.
The cruise ends in Amsterdam, where the works of many of the Dutch masters are displayed.
Avalon has also developed themed cruises which allow passengers to find out more about areas of interest such as wine, art, music or Jewish heritage.
They are the same price as regular departures but will be hosted by an expert in the field.
On June 24, Avalon Scenery will offer a seven-night jazz-themed cruise from Port St Louis to Chalon-sur-Saone as part of a longer Burgundy and Provence package. Passengers will attend the Jazz Festival in Vienne and there will be onboard lectures about the history of French jazz and visits to music clubs in ports such as Viviers and Lyon.
Uniworld has made a splash in 2011, adding three new ships to its European fleet. The biggest is the 206-passenger River Victoria which has a restaurant, bar and a lounge with a dancefloor, 93 cabins and 10 suites including the 38sqm Presidential Suite.
The ship will cruise the 13-day Imperial Waterways of Russia, a new program between Moscow and St Petersburg. There are 10 itineraries between May and September with highlights including the Red Square and the Kremlin and visits to Yaroslavl, known for its exquisite domed cathedrals, the open-air museum and wooden Transfiguration Church on Kizhi Island and the 18th century village of Mandrogi.
There's more awe-inspiring architecture in St Petersburg in the shape of the world-renowned Winter Palace where the Hermitage Museum houses art by Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Porto was a fitting location for the launch of the Douro Spirit in May, for the 128-passenger vessel will ply the waterways of Portugal and Spain during the European summer.
Each cabin has a French balcony and the Douro Spirit has a lounge, restaurant, sun deck with spa and a swimming pool. The ship will embark on a series of seven-night cruises of Portugal, Spain and the Douro River Valley as part of a wider 11-day itinerary which visits Lisbon, Porto and Salamanca.
The third new ship, the lavish ss Antoinette, features a two-storey lobby adorned with a Strauss Baccarat chandelier as well as top-deck suites and cabins with full balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows which can be raised at the touch of a button.
The 164-passenger ship will cruise seven-night Castles of the Rhine itineraries between Basel and Amsterdam and, in November and December, seven-night Rhine Holiday Markets programs between Basel and Cologne.
The once-a-decade Dutch flower festival, Floriade, is the focus of both of Uniworld's new itineraries for 2012. The eight-day Gems of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands package and the 17-day Grand Treasures of Europe itinerary will operate from April and September and will visit Floriade host Venlo. Both itineraries will be onboard the River Ambassador.
Scenic Tours will launch its sixth "Space-Ship" - Scenic Crystal - in 2012. The ship will have three big dining areas and most of the cabins will have fully enclosed sun lounges which convert into a private balcony.
Scenic Crystal will offer the 15-day Jewels of Europe River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest and the 15-day Romantic Rhine & Moselle River Cruise from Amsterdam to Basel.
Scenic will also spend more than $4 million revamping the Scenic Tsar before the 112-passenger ship plies the waterways of Russia in 2012. Almost all cabins will have private balconies and the ship will have a single-seating dining room, two bars, a lounge and an entertainment area big enough to seat every passenger.
Scenic Tsar will embark on 15-day Imperial Jewels of Russia river cruises from St Petersburg to Moscow on which passengers will visit monasteries and palaces, see folk shows and visit the home of a Russian family.
Tauck's newest riverboat, the ms Treasures is barely three weeks old and is the company's fourth addition in five years. The 118-passenger ship has luxurious suites with walk-in robes.
The ms Treasures will cruise seven-night itineraries as part of Tauck's 12-day Blue Danube package between Prague and Budapest.
The program begins in regal surroundings with a reception and dinner at the 16th-century Lobkowicz Palace and travellers have a full day to visit the Czech capital before the ms Treasures leaves from the old German town of Regensburg and heads east to Passau where St Stephen's Cathedral holds the biggest pipe organ in Europe.
Into Austria, passengers can explore Linz or take a tour of nearby Salzburg before ms Treasures continues along the Danube to Vienna, where a palace dinner and musical performance awaits.
Then, it's on to the twin cities of Buda and Pest.
As well as themed cruises which focus on Christmas markets, Floriade, composers and French cuisine, Tauck has family cruises such as The Blue Danube: Family Riverboat Adventure which incorporates scavenger hunts, amusement park visits and marzipan and strudel cooking classes into its itinerary.
APT has added the ms Amaverde to its Concerto Class of ships offering passengers three specialty restaurants among its seven eateries, twin balconies on many cabins and butlers for higher-end suites.
The 161-passenger ship which will sail the 15-day itinerary between Amsterdam and Budapest has allowed APT to introduce themed cruises such as a Culinary Mastercruise hosted by chef Jacques Raymond and Artistic Visions of Europe led by entertainer Rhonda Burchmore.
DINE AROUND DINNERS
APT has also expanded its Dine Around Dinners program which allows passengers to try restaurants in each city for no extra cost and will use high-speed trains for transfers between Paris and Amsterdam, cutting the journey time from eight hours to just over three.
In 2012, APT will have the use of the refurbished ms AmaKatarina, touted as Russia's most spacious river ship. Featuring a sundeck, conference hall, and outside balconies on most cabins, the 212-passenger ship will operate 15 and 12-day Russian Waterways packages between Helsinki and Moscow and Moscow and St Petersburg.
Viking River Cruises will debut six riverboats or "longships" in March as part of a $250 million fleet-development program which sees 10 new ships launched by 2014. The Viking sisters Aegir, Embla, Freya, Idun, Njord and Odin will be almost identical - each will have 95 cabins, a sun deck with uninterrupted views.
Although the onus is on bigger cabins and verandas, the vessels will also have "greener" hybrid engines, solar panels and organic herb gardens. All six will operate cruises on the Danube and Rhine and Freya, Idun and Njord will have 10-day Tulips and Windmill cruises between Amsterdam and Antwerp, visiting old fishing villages on the Dutch coast, the windmills of the lowlands and the vibrant gardens of the Netherlands and Belgium.
• For more information, contact travel agents and go to avalonwaterways.com.au, uniworldcruises.com.au, scenictours.com.au, tauck.com, aptouring.com.au and vikingrivercruises.com.au.