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I’m trying to stay focused on the paved path in front of me as I pedal alongside the Danube River through Austria’s scenic Wachau Valley. But I can’t help myself: I turn my head left and right to gawk at the lush, green hills rising from the river.
This picturesque scene unfolded while riding a bike on a warm September morning with fellow passengers on an AmaWaterways European river cruise, including many silver-haired women. While most everyone else stayed onboard the AmaSonata for a few hours of leisurely sailing, a few of us disembarked in the small Austrian town of Weißenkirchen in der Wachau for a port-to-port cycling excursion.
After watching the ship pull away and continue west on the Danube, we clambered onto our bikes and followed behind local guide Monica Baptist. For 15 miles, she led us past quaint villages, historic churches, vineyards and apricot orchards, stopping periodically to tell us about the region.
“People come from all over to get these apricots when they ripen in July — they’re very well-known,” she says.
A few hours of easy riding later, we rejoined the ship at its next stop, just in time for lunch.
This excursion is just one of the many active offerings I enjoyed on AmaWaterways’ "Melodies of the Danube" itinerary, which is perfect for older travelers. Before the ship embarked from Budapest, I hiked to the top of Castle Hill to admire the panoramic views from Fisherman’s Bastion. A few days later, I biked around Vienna on a tour that ended at the elaborate Hofburg Palace. And, as the vessel glided from Passau to Vilshofen, I joined an on-board yoga class.
Many travelers equate European river cruises with easy guided walks and gentle bus tours — and you can still do those types of excursions. But, as I learned this summer, there are also plenty of options for older travelers who like to stay active on vacation.
Be as active — or as relaxed — as you want.
River cruising is appealing for many reasons. The ships — which typically accommodate fewer than 200 passengers — are beautifully designed and small enough to dock in the heart of many cities. You only unpack once, but you get to explore multiple different places in a short amount of time. Someone else does all the hard work of researching the best tours and activities at every port.
Since most meals and drinks are included, you don’t have to worry about finding a new restaurant every night for dinner. And speaking of the food, it’s delicious — you’ll enjoy fine-dining cuisine and service at every meal (and your wine glass will never be empty).
River cruises are great for girlfriend trips, wedding anniversary getaways and even solo sojourns for older women. “It’s an ideal choice for travelers who want to explore Europe actively while enjoying the comfort and convenience of a luxurious floating boutique hotel,” says Kristin Karst, AmaWaterways’ co-founder and executive vice president.
These trips are not cheap — though you can often save money by working with a travel advisor who specializes in cruises, booking during sales or traveling at off-peak times. And, after all, aren’t we all worth the splurge once in a while?
Here are a few European river cruise lines for active travelers.
In recent years, river cruise lines have started offering more choices of shore excursions, which range from mellow museum visits to delicious wine tastings to exhilarating castle hikes. The key word here is “choice,” because older travelers can mix and match throughout the journey based on their interests or preferred activity level. Your cruise can be as active or as relaxed as you want.
That’s the philosophy of AmaWaterways, which in 2006 became one of the first lines to carry bikes on board for guests to ride whenever the ship docks. Its vessels also have fitness centers and full-time “wellness hosts” who lead exercise classes. One ship, the AmaMagna, even has a full-sized pickleball court on its top deck.
Other cruise lines are also jumping on the active river cruise trend, including Avalon Waterways, which offers "Active & Discovery" itineraries on every major European waterway it sails. On its ships, Avalon also has bikes, small gyms and adventure hosts to lead fitness classes.
For older travelers who could use a little extra boost, there are Scenic cruises, that include a fleet of electric bikes onboard, along with fitness classes, gyms and excursions like hikes and bike rides. With Scenic’s emphasis on all-inclusive, five-star luxury, these trips tend to be on the pricier side — but you do get some nice perks for your money, like private butler service.
You don’t have to fly all the way to Europe, either — and taking a river cruise in the United States can help keep costs down. Viking offers several affordable itineraries on the Mississippi River, where you can participate in active excursions like a guided nature hike along the forested trails of Port Hudson or a walking tour of downtown Vicksburg.
Travel off-season for the best deals.
Peak river cruise season is May through September. However, you can usually score cheaper fares if you’re willing to travel in spring or fall. A travel agent can also help you get the best deals.
Look for solo cruiser specials.
River cruises are ideal for solo travelers. Unlike larger ocean vessels, river cruise ships are small and usually have just one restaurant, which makes it easy to meet and mingle. To save money, keep an eye out for special deals and itineraries for solo cruisers.
Pack casual, comfortable clothes.
During the day, you’ll want comfortable attire and shoes, for excursions or just hanging around the ship. Bring something dressier to change into for dinner.
After my first active river cruise on the Danube, I’m already eager for another adventure. I’m eyeing AmaWaterways’ new cruise on the Magdalena River in Colombia, which winds through the South American country from Cartagena to Barranquilla.
Have you ever been on a river cruise? Where did you go? Let us know in the comments below.