River Cruising: Reflections Of A Touring Cyclist

So my seven nights on board the Fred. Olsen operated MS Brabant have come to an end. I will be very honest; I’ve always been a little dismissive of cruise ships and the cruising fraternity in general. Cycling along the Mediterranean coast in 2013 I would often come into contact with the large herds of cruise passengers as they were escorted around the tourist hotspots of southern Europe; Athens, Dubrovnik, Venice, Nice… following the table tennis paddles of their guide, within the cocoon of a crowd gently sweeping away all others as they moved, swarm-like, through a city. As a man on a bike, I would frequently be questioned by (usually male) breakaway herd members as to where I was going and why. I liked to think that they were secretly planning an escape from the cruise ship throng. Perhaps some were but most were probably just being curious. This week I’ve experienced life inside the swarm and I haven’t been stung.

The Fred. Olsen cruise ship company are the new kids on the block when it comes to river cruising. Their history is in the more traditional ocean-going vessels and they currently operate just the one river boat. By necessity, these river boats are intimate and modest holding at most only around 200 passengers. Whereas a new ocean liner seems to break the size record every year, that’s not an option for the river cruisers; vertically they must squeeze under the relatively low bridges of the Rhine, Mosel and Danube and horizontally they must be able to manoeuvre into locks of a fixed width and length. The cruise herds to be found in Strasbourg, Koblenz and Cologne are equally modest and their impact less noticeable. The size records have, until all the bridges and locks are replaced, been capped. And long may that be the case.

My only previous ‘cruising’ experience was on the Norwegian Hurtigruten ship, the MS Lofoten, the oldest and smallest vessel of their fleet. Again, a very modest boat compared to the Queen Marys of the ocean-going world. 200 or so passengers, short hops along the coast and frequent short visits to the ports of northern Norway. It was the perfect way to wind down after having cycled the 8,000 km from Tarifa to Nordkapp and a thoroughly enjoyable experience. This trip on the MS Brabant didn’t involve the precursor of a long cycle ride of course – just a short flight from Manchester airport – although as the resident guest speaker on the boat, it could be argued that the voyage from Basel to Dรผsseldorf along the Rhine and Mosel valleys has been delayed gratification for having cycled an accumulated 15,000 km during the three crossings of Europe. I have certainly eaten like a king and desperately need to get back on the bike to start burning off the delicious excesses of the past few days.

There are parallels between river cruising and cycling. Often literal ones as most of the great rivers of Europe have excellent cycle paths running beside them, many of which are EuroVelo routes of course. Compare the two maps below. The first highlights the great rivers, the second the EuroVelo routes:

The Rhine (EuroVelo 15), the Loire and the Danube (both EuroVelo 6), the Meuse (EuroVelo 19) and the Mosel (the Mosel cycle route) all make great locations for river cruises and cycle journeys and many thousands of people travel along them every year by boat or bicycle. I think Fred. Olsen have realised the connection and are not just dipping their toes in the river cruise market but also trying to exploit – in a good way – the connection between the two. By seeking out some long-distance cyclists such as myself and Anne Wilson (who cycled around the world after retiring) to talk about our experiences and by carrying a small number of bicycles on the boat, the guests are being gently encouraged to get on two wheels at some point during their trips and, over the past seven days, many have done so. The inclusion of an optional e-Bike cycle tour was only taken up by three of the Fred. Olsen passengers (plus me and the local guide) but it’s a start and, with a little encouragement and some canny marketing, many more people might, on future cruises, sign up. The video I produced earlier this week could be helpful in doing just that.

Although the average age of the passengers on this ship is probably north of 65, I would guess that at least half of them are perfectly able to use an e-Bike. Anyone who is able to drive and who has at some point in the past ridden a bicycle would have few issues using one and, with the power turned to maximum, only very gentle effort is required.

But there is surely a further step that could be made. Many of the Hurtigruten coach trips set off from one port and rejoined the MS Lofoten at another later in the day, the ship having sailed along the coast in the intervening period. Couldn’t a similar thing be done on these river cruises? I tweeted as much last night and this is something that is on offer by at least one of the cruise companies:

I have to admit that I love the camping as much as the cycling but for people such as John, the cruise-cycle-cruise option is clearly an attractive one that more companies could perhaps exploit. Craig Dodson would sign up for sure!

Inviting along an experienced cyclist to guide the swarm of cyclists would be a good move. Any suggestions?

As for the cruise: highly recommended!

Categories: Cycling, Travel

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What do you think?