Small Ship Cruising: Canal and River Cruises

Wander With Wonder – Discovering Wow Moments Around the World or Across the Street

There is something so relaxing about gliding slowly along a tree-lined canal or a lazy river, watching the towns go past, then stopping to explore intriguing towns. Read on for more about small-ship cruising or listen to the Wander Stories podcast.

Welcome to Wander Stories, a podcast bringing you stories from destinations around the world or across the street.

In Wander Stories, we go behind the scenes to share some of the wow moments we discover as we travel. My husband and I sometimes find the best stories as we travel the US in our fifth-wheel trailer. Other times, we might discover stories as we jet off to other locales. No matter the source or where we go, we love bringing you Wander Stories to help inspire your own travels. Pull up a chair, grab a glass of bubbles or your favorite beverage, and listen to this episode of Wander Stories.

Listen online here or on your favorite podcast app, or read the full script below.

Where is Susan Today?

Today, we are back in Arizona. We’re staying in the Phoenix West Valley this month, just a few miles from our old home. It’s odd to be back in Phoenix, living in our RV. We’re using the time to get some chores out of the way and enjoying the Arizona weather. I adore the desert southwest during the winter months. Evenings are cool (and yes, it can drop below freezing, but there’s no snow to shovel, and the cold doesn’t last long). The days are beautiful, with blue skies and sunshine. The time of year I enjoy Arizona.

Calderwood Butte Trail in Peoria. Photo by Bill Graham

We’re staying in Peoria, a Phoenix suburb of just under 200,000 people. And yes, Peoria, AZ, is named for Peoria, IL. William John Murphy worked on the Arizona Canal here and recruited settlers from Peoria, IL, to move west and create a community. The first eight residents were, in fact, from Peoria, IL, and they established residency in what is now Peoria back in November 1886. They recorded the first plot map the following May, naming the new settlement Peoria.

The train came to Peoria between 1891 and 1895. The original Peoria depot now resides at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale. The settlement became incorporated in 1954, and the town grew rapidly, especially when Luke Air Force Base opened in the 1950s.

It was in the late 1970s that Spring Training became a huge draw in Peoria. The small Greenway Sports Complex was the minor-league training facility for the Milwaukee Brewers from the 1970s until 1990. Today’s gorgeous Peoria Sports Complex was completed in 1994, making it the first of what is now many Major League Baseball training facilities in Maricopa County. Today, the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners use the facility for spring training and year-round player-development programs.

Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, AZ. Photo courtesy Visit Peoria

Now, on to this week’s episode of Wander Stories. I mentioned that I had just returned from a river cruise in Europe, and that had me thinking about the various types of cruises I’ve taken and which ones I most enjoy. Although I’ve done several large-ship cruises, I prefer the small-ship cruises. Yet even those can differ. I decided that each one is so different that determining a favorite comes down to what mood I’m in at the time. I thought that would make a great episode to tell you some stories from the various small-ship cruises we’ve taken.

Canal Cruises

The smallest boats I’ve been on have been canal barges. Not everyone in the US has heard of canal cruises, but I enjoy them. Throughout Europe, there are series of canals, many created hundreds of years ago, that were once used to move commercial items. Most of the canals today are primarily for leisure use, and many of the old commercial canal boats have been converted into floating hotels.

Enchanté makes a brief stop in Le Somail, giving you time to explore the tiny hamlet. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Several different companies operate canal boats, but I’ve only sailed with one company, European Waterways. I did one cruise through Burgundy and another through Southern France’s Canal du Midi.

Belle Epoque on the Burgundy Canal. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

These are very small boats because they were designed for very small canals. My most recent canal cruise on the Canal du Midi was onboard Enchanté, a barge built in 1958 that was converted in 2008/2009 into a hotel. It holds five crew members and a maximum of eight passengers.

On canal cruises, you get to know the other guests intimately because you’re on the barge with them the entire time. You eat together family-style at a dining table and relax in the salon.

Salon and dining room on Enchanté. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Barges go very slowly. So slow that you can get off and walk along the banks, joining up with the boat at the next stop or somewhere along the way. There are also bikes onboard if you prefer to bike along the paths or take a bike into a nearby town.

Enchanté anchored at Salleles d’Aude. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

During the day, you will take short excursions into the area, led by the captain or another crew member who knows the area.

On European Waterways, you go out in the morning or afternoon, enjoying all three meals on the barge, prepared by the chef. There is usually one day that includes a local lunch off the boat. Because of the small number of passengers, the chef—and indeed the entire crew—caters to passengers’ every whim.

I’ve enjoyed going into the towns and shopping with the chef or the captain on both of my canal cruises. On my Burgundy cruise, the chef took us into a small village market to buy cheeses and then to a wine cellar to purchase wines. On the Canal du Midi cruise, the chef took us to the famous Les Halles Narbonne, one of the most renowned food markets in Southern France. There, he showed us various products and purchased items he would need to create what he called a seafood feast.

I loved Les Halles Narbonne, one of my favorite food markets in Europe. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We returned to the boat, and he created an impressive spread of fresh seafood. I share a photo of it in the article about Canal du Midi in today’s notes. There was enough food for more than a dozen people, so the six of us sitting around the table for that lunch felt bad that we left so much food. It was indeed a feast, and we had the best langoustine ever!

River Cruises

I also really enjoy river cruises. These are most common on the European rivers, although you can now take river cruises in the US. There are also river cruises in Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. My first river cruise was on the Nile River in Egypt. The others have all been in Central Europe.

My Experience on Viking River Cruises

River cruises are also small boats, although larger than the canal barges. I’ve taken about seven river cruises, most often with Viking River Cruises. Those boats carry 106 passengers on smaller sailings, in particular on Portugal’s Douro River, up to 190 guests on most of the other routes. If you get seasick, you don’t have to worry about that on a river cruise. You don’t feel the boat moving. It’s in very shallow water most of the time (although the Danube can get quite deep during certain times of the year), and you’re always within sight of the shore.

Viking Torgil on the Douro River in Porto, Portugal. Photo courtesy Viking River Cruises

People often ask me why I like river cruises. I think a big part of it is that it’s easy. Viking handles all of the details, including flight reservations. Someone will meet us at the airport and get us to the boat when we arrive. Once onboard, we unpack and never have to worry about luggage again until the end of the trip. All three meals are included, so we can eat on the boat or head into one of the towns we’re anchored in to try local dishes.

Viking focuses on cultural experiences, so guests are often on board to entertain or educate the passengers about the local culture.

Exploring the Countryside

I also like that these small boats are on rivers, so there’s no feeling of movement when you’re going (no need to worry about getting seasick), and you almost always anchor right in the middle of town. This makes it easy to get off and on to do your own exploring. And Bill and I do plenty of our own exploring.

We research and know what we want to do independently. Those explorations have led to some of my favorite cruise-related stories.

My favorite was discovering a tiny tasting room hidden in the catacombs in Budapest. Or perhaps it was discovering the remains of a synagogue in Vidin, Bulgaria. We’ve hiked up mountains in Germany, discovered tiny, hidden boutiques as we explored the backroads near Porto, and always search out a small cafe where we can sit, relax, and watch the locals.

We discovered Faust in the catacombs below Matthias Church in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Viking River Cruise Excursions

Most river cruises, including Viking, have at least one included excursion at every stop. While we love exploring independently, we frequently take the included excursion or upgrade to one of the extra excursions.

The excursions have also given me some great stories. My most memorable Viking excursion was on the Danube Waltz cruise, which also ran from Budapest to Passau during the summer. While we were docked in Linz, I did the full-day excursion to Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic.

While en route, our guide told us her story of growing up in what was Czechoslovakia. Her parents were activists against the communist government in the late 1940s, following World War II. She had grown up hearing her parent’s stories. Then, in late 1989, during what has become known as the Velvet Revolution, she became an activist during a wave of protests against the communist rule that resulted in the ouster of the communist government, the establishment of the Czech Republic, and the beginning of democracy in the country. Her stories sometimes moved me to tears, and I felt I understood the people and the country more before setting off on my day exploring Český Krumlov.

Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic was one of my all-time favorite excursions. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

The crews on river cruises all get to know the guests and call you by name. By the third day, they usually greet me in the lounge with a glass of champagne because they quickly realize that’s my jam. They make you feel as if you’re part of the family.

My husband and I are toasting our journey onboard the Viking Helgrim on Portugal’s Douro River. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Christmas Market Cruise

In December 2023, my Christmas Market cruise onboard Viking—the Danube Christmas Delights—was a dream trip.

Preparing to board the Viking Vilhjalm for the Danube Christmas Delights cruise. Photo by Bill Graham

Back in 1983, my husband and I found ourselves in Germany. He was in the Air Force, and we were sent to Bitburg AF Base. I was about three months pregnant when we arrived in October 1983. When Christmas came along, we still didn’t have our furniture or personal items—the Air Force had lost them and they didn’t show up until February, after we had been there for more than four months. So there we were, in a country thousands of miles from home, expecting our son, alone at Christmas for the first time, with almost no furniture.

Someone mentioned that we should go to Trier, about 20 miles away, to the Christmas Market. It was magical for us. The lights. The smells. The beautiful hand-crafted ornaments. Suddenly, we realized that the spirit of Christmas was with us no matter where we found ourselves. The ornaments we purchased during our three Christmases in Germany remain some of our favorites.

Nativity ornament from Germany. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I had always wanted to go back and visit the Christmas markets, so I was excited to embark on Viking’s Danube Christmas Delights cruise, which was eight days from Budapest to Passau, Germany. We flew into Budapest and enjoyed the markets there.

I’ve visited Budapest several times, so seeing it during the holidays was fun. My favorite spot in Budapest was at Café Gerbeaud, originally opened in 1858. It was decorated exquisitely for Christmas, with Christmas trees and twinkling lights inside and out. I enjoyed a lovely early-morning latte while Bill sipped on a hot chocolate, and we savored the best pastries while watching vendors setting up for a day of selling at the Christmas market.

Café Gerbeaud in Budapest, Hungary, was decorated for Christmas. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Our trip took us to the little town of Bratislava, with several markets within walking distance from the boat, and on into Vienna—one of my favorite European cities, where we discovered the lovely Alt Wiener Christkindlmarkt—or Old Viennese Christmas Market.

Alt Wiener Christkindlmarkt in Vienna, Austria. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

This was much smaller than the ones in front of City Hall or on Maria Theresien Square, but I loved the small-town feel in the midst of Vienna. We left Vienna and stopped in Krems and Linz before heading to Passau. We didn’t visit the Christmas Market in Krems, but Bill and I visited the Landesgalerie Niederösterreich or the State Gallery of Lower Austria. Several years ago, we toured the museum with the architect while it was under construction, so it was really lovely to return and go through the exhibits. It is an exquisite building!

Landesgalerie Niederösterreich or the State Gallery of Lower Austria in Krems. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I enjoyed exploring Linz on the journey. The Christmas market there was within walking distance from where our ship docked. It was filled with delicious aromas of Christmas.

Linz Christmas Market in Linz, Austria. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

My favorite Christmas market of the entire trip was in Passau. It was the most traditional, with the most hand-crafted items. We picked up some lovely ornaments for our son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids along the way. We also enjoyed mulled wine, pastries, and bratwurst as we strolled through the market.

The Christmas market in Passau, Germany, was my favorite. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Articles Related to Small-Ship Cruising

Adventures on the Danube with a Viking River Cruise
Exploring Portugal with Viking River Cruises
European Waterways Barge Cruise Along France’s Canal Du Midi

Small Ship Cruising on Canals and Rivers

I adore the canal and river cruises. I hope this captivates you enough to entice you to book a canal or river cruise. It’s a different way of traveling and can be as chill or active as you want. Check out the podcast about small-ship ocean cruises. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more articles about small-ship cruising.

Until next time on Wander Stories, I hope you find the wonder of your childhood dreams when you travel. If you love this episode, please subscribe and leave us your feedback.


Small Ship Cruising: Canal and River Cruises