The Booming 'Other' Kind of Cruising

Our first experience of "river cruising" consists of a week on the Midi Canal in the south of France on a 27-foot "ship" with a crew of two, neither of whom knew much about how to steer a vessel in the water, never mind negotiate the 64 locks that lay ahead of us. Oh yes, and the person tying our little ship to the bollards in each of the 64 locks didn't know how to swim.

Experts, we are not. Credible commentators, we are not. We are, however, intrigued by what's happening on the rivers of Europe…and Asia…and North America…and South America.

River ships are being built with amazing regularity. The industry leader, Viking, put 10 new ships in the water this year and will add 12 next year. That will bring the size of the fleet, according to the Viking website that lists them all but the class of 2014, to 68 ships.

Our esteemed colleague Phil Reimer of Ports and Bows has filled screensful of space enlightening the cruise world about the man behind Viking, Torstein Hagen. He is, if nothing else, a fascinating and wealthy Norwegian with a physics degree from his homeland, an MBA from Harvard and an ambition that taunts (or should) the cruise industry at large. Other than being the 69-year-old founder (also CEO, Chairman, President and chief cook and bottle washer) of Viking, not a lot is known about him…even Wikipedia is only able to come up with two paragraphs, one of them to simply identify him as "a Norwegian citizen."

Last week, not content to blow the river cruise industry out of the water with his expansion, Mr. Hagen dipped into the "other guy's" pond and unveiled plans for an ocean ship. The Viking Star will be relatively small by ocean standards (about 1,000 passengers) but it will mirror the marketing of his river ships.

Which is?

In a word, destinations.

Viking ships carry a couple of hundred passengers, each of whom can figure on paying $200 and $300 per night for a week of seeing the sights of (plug in the continent) from the rivers that at one time were the principal form of transportation. The emphasis is on spending time in what ocean cruisers call ports, sometimes for a day or two, as opposed to six or eight hours. There are no casinos, no plethora of fancy restaurants, no explosion of entertainment.

"I like to say ocean cruising is a drinking man's cruise," Hagen has often said. "River cruising is a thinking man's cruise."

It sounds like the accommodation is classy, the shore excursions are eclectic and the cuisine is elegant.

Hmm, just like on our 27-footer on the Midi Canal.

Norwegian Jade
7 nights
August 3, 2013
Venice (return): Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos, Olympia
Inside: $849
Cost per day: $121


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