River cruise lines have always considered themselves a cut above their ocean cousins thanks to an intimate, quality offering, and new river craft are reinforcing this with innovative twists and upscale foodie experiences. Much of the current innovation in river cruising is concentrated on attracting a high-end clientele by upping the ante in the luxury stakes.

Heading high-end

At nearly double the width of traditional river vessels, AmaWaterways’ revolutionary AmaMagna, due to launch next May, is the best example with more spacious cabins, extra dining venues and a water sports platform complete with its own boat.

Cruise Lines International Association UK & Ireland director Andy Harmer says river cruise companies are increasingly creating vessels to rival luxury hotels.

“Cabins on Crystal Cruises’ sister ships, Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy, will include features not typical of river vessels, such as walk-in wardrobes and king-size beds, while American Cruise Lines’ newest ship, American Song, will boast lounges soaring 40ft above the water, with triple the amount of glass of other riverboats, to offer astounding views,” he explained.

Harmer feels increased themed sailings, particularly those concentrating on golf and beer-tasting, are also helping to attract ocean cruise customers and first-timers.

Crystal Cruises Senior Sales and Marketing Manager Elaine Gillard agreed. “Crystal River guests not only come from other Crystal ships but luxury hotels and other ultra-luxury cruise lines,” she added.

“We feel river cruising is about giving choice, from dining to suites and excursions to entertainment. Luxury guests do not want to be told what to do on holiday.”

For agents looking to cross-sell, Harmer suggests targeting those enquiring about city breaks or rail trips.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for agents because customers can add a hotel stay or rail journey pre- or post-cruise, turning it into something extra special,” he said.

A royal river trip with APT

It’s an unearthly hour of the morning to be leaving for a flight and I’d normally be running late and panicking, but instead I’m whisked to Gatwick in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. As an introduction to upscale river cruising it’s not bad and I’m sold before I even start my journey down the Rhine.

Upon climbing aboard AmaVenita, which for my cruise has been chartered by APT, I’m delighted that my cabin has not one but two balconies, and there are more treats to come.

APT is known for complimentary Signature Experiences and on this voyage there’s one with a royal touch as we leave for an exclusive dinner at Namedy Castle, hosted by its blue-blooded owner Princess Heidi von Hohenzollern.

It’s a grand affair with all the trimmings, as a sumptuous feast is served in the vast mirrored ballroom, on tables heaving with crystal and silver and sprinkled with the delicate virtuoso performance of a talented pianist.

The memorable evening is finished with a fireworks display as we depart, but life onboard AmaVenita is similarly sumptuous. Gourmet cuisine comes as standard, especially in the intimate Chef’s Table restaurant where we enjoy a delicious tasting menu accompanied with a selection of fine wines.

All too soon my time aboard ends, but on arrival at Gatwick my chauffeured chariot awaits, setting a winning seal on a truly quality experience.

Top experiences

Home from home: Join a local family in their own home in Croatia for a traditional home-cooked meal and learn about their lives, offered on Danube sailings with Scenic.

Island delights: Enjoy a cocktail party like no other on this Ganges sailing with Uniworld where the vessel moors up on a small private island in this holy river for an impromptu drinks party where guests can toast the cultural riches all around them.

A regal occasion: Revel in the glitz and glamour of an ‘Imperial evening’ at the private Palais Pallavicini in Vienna with Tauck. Guests are greeted with white-gloved waiters bearing trays of champagne, followed by a tour and a lavish gourmet dinner while dancers, singers and musicians in period dress keep guests entertained.

Fish for piranhas: Get ready to do battle with these fearsome predators in the South American jungle while cruising along the Peruvian Amazon with Aqua Expeditions. And while you’re there, keep your eyes open for the river’s legendary pink river dolphins.

What’s new

New vessels: Leading the charge is AmaWaterways’ 196-passenger AmaMagna, though Uniworld unveils its latest ‘Super Ship’ next April, SS Bon Voyage, formerly River Royale, which is being upgraded with two new dining venues and enhanced culinary features that include French cooking classes.

New itineraries: Crystal River Cruises makes its debut on the Moselle next year with 10-day Enchanting Moselle sailings and is also introducing themed cruises that include focuses on wine and Jewish heritage. Tauck has added three new focused sailings for 2019: a Christmas season family-friendly Danube voyage; a Rhine Oktoberfest cruise; and an eight-day Seine sailing highlighting Normandy’s D-Day Beaches.

The strong recovery in the Egypt cruise market has prompted Uniworld to add two new optional extensions to Jordan and Israel on to its 2019 Nile sailings.

New features: APT has added enhancements for 2019, led by its culinary ambassador, celebrity chef Luke Nguyen, who is hosting three sailings in Vietnam, Burma and Bordeaux. It is also introducing trips aboard the Grand Empress steam train in Budapest on its Magnificent Europe itinerary.

A new active focus is added to 2019 sailings in Bordeaux and Provence with Scenic introducing yoga sessions, e-bike riding routes and Nordic hiking – and guests can relax in special salt therapy lounges now on all Rhine, Main and Danube voyages. A special D-Day departure along the Seine is also introduced to mark the 75h anniversary of the D-Day Landings.

Avalon Waterways is turning up the luxury touch with all its vessels becoming suite only from next year.

River barging is also getting a higher profile, helped by Belmond adding two barges to its Afloat in France brand this year, while European Waterways has upped the range of exclusive experiences following customer demand.

Where to book it

Step aboard ‘Royal Barge’ Spirit of Chartwell, which carried the Queen during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, and now sails along Portugal’s Douro River. Titan offers a nine-night Celebration of Lisbon and the Douro package that combines a two-night stay in the capital with a seven-night sailing. It costs from £2,699pp, departing on April 24, 2019.

Sanctuary Retreats has a three-night sailing along China’s Yangtze River is offered on the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer from £1,040pp for 2019 departures. Flights are extra.