For active travelers, river cruising too often gets a bad rap. It’s thought of as an inactive form of travel when nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve straddled a saddle at nearly every port of call on nearly every river cruise I’ve done for the past ten years.
I’m not alone. On two recent river cruises this month and last, I rode with groups of like-minded individuals. On one day, we pedaled from Durnstein to Melk (think charming fairy-tale village through landscapes laced in vineyards to yet another charming fairy-tale village). The distance was about 20 miles on a ride that ranked as one of the highlights of the cruise for many of the guests who I spoke with afterward.
Cruise companies are recognizing that many of their guests value the ability to get out and pedal ashore. AmaWaterways partners with Backroads, bringing active adventure biking to Europe’s most renowned river cruise destinations. The partnership kicked off this year with 20 Danube River sailings.
Each Backroads tour features multiple expert trip leaders, custom titanium bikes, support vans, and flexible itineraries with a range of cycling routes ideal for all abilities.
That’s good news to those who prefer active vacations. In fact, I seldom do the organized ship tours, because I have visited many of the places along the rivers during my 40 years of travel. I pedal when in port instead.
Thanks to bicycles on board, I’ve found river cruising to be a “design it yourself” travel experience, which raises another point: Yes, you can repeat itineraries on river cruises; just try something different in the ports of call and you’ll see the places in a completely different way.
Pedaling Uniworld’s Bikes
In my last post, for example, I wrote about the bicycles on Uniworld’s S.S. Maria Theresa. To give you an example of the experience: In Bamberg, Germany, I awoke to a glorious morning. City tours were offered as well as an afternoon tour to a farm, both included in the cost of the cruise. I opted for neither, needing instead to stretch my legs and breathe in the fresh air of the Bavarian countryside.
There was a remedy for what I longed for: Uniworld’s fleet of fine bicycles ready for riding at the end of the gangway.
I did the same in Passau, cycling 20 miles with a group to catch up with our ship. We even rode through pasture lands called — now hold on to your seats — the “Julie Andrews Meadow.”
It was divine. Yes, the hills were alive with the sound of music — and bikes whizzing by. I could hardly imagine a better way of traveling Europe. The S.S. Maria Theresa served as our floating luxury boutique hotel, and we simply came and went as we wished.
Cycling is a great way not only to experience the countryside and life along the river banks but also to burn a few calories from the oh-so-delicious-and-irresistible cuisine served on the vessels. One of the things I love about river cruising, in fact, is that it marries two of my favorite forms of travel, bikes and boats — and negates another of my favorite activities: eating.
Plus, bikes make Europe so accessible.
On a river cruise, you’re never more than a few meters away from the river banks, and river cruisers often dock within a few steps of the city centers. If you’re someone who enjoys being active, you can walk or pedal into town — and beyond. While walking is easy, the bikes give guests the greatest degree of flexibility. In a few hours, a semi-fit cyclist can cover 20 miles or more.
I have quite a history of bicycling. I crossed America and Canada in my twenties, then cycled New Zealand and part of the east coast of Australia. I spent a few months cycling Europe with a childhood friend, and these days, I cycle almost daily.
On the morning I set out from the S.S. Maria Theresa in Bamberg, I discovered treasures so beautiful that they caused the soul to soar. There was lovely Bamberg with its beautiful architecture and the gorgeous countryside along the Main-Danube Canal. It didn’t hurt that cotton-ball clouds were pitched against a royal blue sky. The setting was the perfect backdrop for a bike ride in this lovely region.
I pedaled along the Main-Danube Canal, through Bamberg, past leafy green trees, colorful houses and the ever-present songbirds of spring. I continued out into the countryside past daffodil-hued fields of canola on roads only for pedestrians and bikes. All who I passed were in a cheerful mood. It was a Sunday morning perfect for breathing in life.
At one point, I overtook a rider making good time in front of me. I felt a slight sense of victory, as if I had just taken the lead in the Tour de France, until I saw that my competition was a nun, pedaling home from church service. If there was ever a moment that I wanted a selfie, that was it, but I pedaled on, not wanting to disturb her.
For the entire morning, my feet spun the pedals, propelling me along. I felt so good that I did not want to turn around and head back to the boat. When I reluctantly did so an hour later, I became slightly lost. I must have looked puzzled when I stood standing at a pedestrian intersection studying a map, because a German man passing asked me, “Kann Ich helfe Ihnen?”
I began my answer in German and apologized, “Ich habe Deutsch gelernt vor dreißig jahren in die uni.” I told him I had learned German 30 years ago in university. He replied, “Und ich habe Englisch gelernt vor sechzig jahren in the schule.” He one-upped me. He had learned English 60 years ago at school.
We both laughed, and with a smile, he pointed me in the right direction, sending me pedaling away with, “Have a nice day” in broken English. For a brief moment, two strangers had connected. Bike rides are full of magic like that. Remember? You were a kid on a bike once, weren’t you?
After lunch back on the ship, I pedaled into the city center to see Bamberg’s marvelous sights, including the Bamberg Cathedral. While exploring the grounds at Michaelsberg Abbey, overlooking Bamberg, I had a thought that reflected my mood: Travel, and the simple act of setting myself in motion, had time and again provided me with experiences that induced a sustained sense of euphoria.
Even after nearly four decades of travel, I still feel it as sharply as I did when I first put myself in motion.
I felt a little like that on the day I cycled Bamberg. The experience of cycling the Bavarian countryside simply took my breath away. Nothing would have made me happier — more money, a leaner waistline, more love or even a kiss on the cheek from Julie Andrews (well, maybe that would make me happier than being on a bike).
I was experiencing life not in the past nor in the present, but in that very moment, a moment given to me by a bike on a river cruise no less. Who would have thought such?