Just when you think Europe’s rivers are replete with ships, enter another new cruise line. Riverside Luxury Cruises isn’t your typical start-up: The owners are second-generation hoteliers with a string of resorts and boutique hotels, so they know a thing or two about high-end travel. To top it off, they are entering the market with an instant fleet, having purchased five ships from a luxury line that fell victim to the pandemic.
Riverside Ravel is the second ship launched by the company this year (after Riverside Mozart on the Danube). She recently completed her first season on the Rhône River, and I was onboard her final 2023 sailing through France in early October. Even at seven years old — albeit having been idle for three years during the pandemic, Riverside Ravel looks and feels practically new. Upscale and elegant, she pleases the eye with contemporary décor and subtle hues; most impressive are her floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights that flood the ship with a sense of airiness.
Of all the river cruise companies sailing in Europe, very few qualify to be in the luxury sector. Operating a pretty ship, serving local wines, and including excursions aren’t enough. Every brand offers those features. It’s the unique touches that elevate a cruise line to the next level, and here’s what Riverside Ravel brings to the table.
More Space: There are only 55 suites onboard, which means with a capacity of 110 guests, Riverside Ravel is one of the roomiest ships on the rivers. Considering that some river ships carry up to 190 guests (and river ships are mostly the same size), this cap on numbers means Riverside Ravel has more space for guests, starting with the accommodations.
The entry-level suite on Riverside Ravel is 194 square feet, much larger than the cabins found in most other competitors. Each suite is well-appointed with a king bed, a well-stocked bar, floor-to-ceiling windows spanning the width of the suite, and a marble bath. The extra-large window glides down to bring in fresh air and even has a mosquito screen to keep out unwanted visitors. Move up to the next level and suites become an even roomier 254 square feet, with a walk-in closet and double bath vanities. At the top end are two 764-square-foot, two-bedroom Owner’s Suites with a separate living room and an extra-large bath with a view. Regardless of category, all suites include 24/7 room service from an attentive but unobtrusive butler. Mine noticed I prefer my bottled water at room temperature, so he placed them on the bar shelf instead of in the fridge.
Having more space allows Riverside Ravel to offer a secondary eatery and coffee bar — The Bistro. As a late riser, this was my usual breakfast haunt, where I could choose from smoked fish, a variety of cheeses, fresh breads, and pastries. I was there often enough for the barista to remember how I like my cappuccino (decaf with oat milk, in case you’re wondering). In the afternoon, a spread of sinful sweet treats awaited just as guests returned from excursions.
On the top deck is another bar and plenty of tables, chairs, and lounge seating in the sun and shade. An indoor swim-against-the-current pool — a rarity on river ships because of the lack of space onboard many of them — is an alternative to working out in the fitness center. There are massage and facial treatments, and even a complimentary self-service guest laundry, which was well-used on my cruise. These amenities exist because Riverside Ravel was designed with the guest comfort, and not revenue-generating headcount, in mind.
No Nickel and Diming: Luxury means not having to pull out your wallet at every turn. Riverside’s fares include all meals and beverages including top-shelf brands, and unlimited (and speedy) Starlink WiFi access. Another plus: covered gratuities extend beyond the ship’s crew to tour guides and drivers. There aren’t any upsell on excursions either, everything from specialty wine tastings — including one at famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape — to a gourmet lunch at a winery is included, whereas other cruise lines would charge extra for these activities. Short of a special wine-pairing dinner (more on this below), spa treatments, and ultra-premium spirits, it’s fully possible to disembark from Riverside Ravel without a bill. That’s a feat only luxury river ships can boast.
Choice and Flexibility: Having choice and flexibility is also an element of luxury, and Riverside delivers on that front, too. Keeping in mind that not every guest drinks alcohol, and some may not be keen on taking group excursions, Riverside also offers three other pricing tiers, where guests can customize their experience to their preference. With other lines, it’s all-in, and guests end up overpaying for amenities they don’t use.
Traditional dining on river cruising has everyone taking meals at the same time, but meal times onboard Riverside Ravel operate in an open-sitting format, where guests can dine at any time during restaurant hours. This allows them to linger over cocktails in the lounge or perhaps watch the sunset on deck instead of rushing to arrive at the dinner bell to get a good table. And seating choices also exist — with plenty of tables for two for intimate dining and larger ones for sharing with new friends. On two nights during my cruise, The Bistro also offered a tapas dinner, giving guests a different option from the main restaurant.
Exceptional Cuisine: Equally matched with Riverside Ravel’s distinctions of luxury is her food and beverage program. Culinary magic happens daily with meals cooked à la minute, and pasta, pastries, and bread are freshly made in-house from scratch. Breakfast and lunch is an upscale smorgasbord of healthy choices and tried-and-true favorites. I noticed the salad bar featured innovative items such as spiced snow peas and marinated river crayfish, and the cheese board went beyond the ordinary to include Tête de Moine, Comté, Pont L’Évêcque, and other French varieties. The buffet, being placed forward and separated from the restaurant, is another luxurious touch (compared to other ships where it is amid the dining room), eliminating noise and bustle in the restaurant proper for diners to enjoy their meal.
Dinner features international fare such as traditional grilled ribeye and spaghetti carbonara along with the more exotic venison tartare and seared foie gras. In between is a variety of fish, fowl, meat, and vegetarian dishes, pasta, and salads. And, of course, being on the Rhône, plenty of French fare makes an appearance: escargots, Vichyssoise, beef Bourguignon, and soufflé, along with Rhône Valley wines. Dishes are fresh, flavorful, and beautifully plated. I, along with many fellow guests, agreed that dining on Riverside is worthy of any five-star restaurant ashore.
The extraordinary dining extends beyond the dining room. The Vintage Room, with a vast river view, leather armchairs, and an impressive wine collection, is where a wine-paired dinner extravaganza is reserved for 10 guests per sitting. Hosted by the restaurant manager, the three-hour gastronomic affair is an apropos reflection of the culinary team’s talent, with seven exquisite courses accompanied by free-flowing premium vintages. Its price at 295 euro (approximately $310 USD) per person is steep but will appeal to serious foodies and wine aficionados. After all, luxury also means exclusive experiences, and The Vintage Room is just that.
Riverside Luxury Cruises will launch its next vessel, Riverside Debussy, on the Rhine River in March. With three elegant ships providing space, choice, and top-end experiences, Riverside stands ready to make an indelible mark on luxury river cruising.