River Cruises Go Luxe in the U.S.A.

French American Line

Possibilities for cruising the world’s waterways continue to expand with a true luxury American experience.

It’s no secret that river cruising has an ever-growing fan base and an ever-increasing fleet in Europe and Asia, but there has long been a void to fill in the U.S. If you wanted to sail the Mississippi, you were relegated to a handful of low-end lines or the American Queen, a 436-guest steamboat decorated in Victorian-era antiques, dark-wood paneling, and brocade wallpaper. The just-launched French America Line (888-387-1140; frenchamericaline.com) changes all that.

The company purchased the former Columbia Queen steamboat, which had previously sailed the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest, and gave it a top-to-bottom renovation. The new ship, renamed Louisiane, has French-inspired decor (think café chairs, two-poster beds, and touches of mint, cream, and yellow). With only 75 rooms and suites for 150 passengers, it can explore waterways large and small, including the Mississippi, Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers. “We are filling a niche for intimate cruising, allowing our guests to really connect to the land and community along the river,” says chairman Christopher Kyte.

Meanwhile, eight new luxury ships will debut this year in Europe. Viking River Cruises (800-706-1483; vikingrivercruises.com) will introduce two of its 190-guest longships, named Herja and Hild. Uniworld (866-883-7230; uniworld.com) launches the Joie de Vivre in March, carrying 128 guests on the Seine. It’s decorated with the line’s typical opulence, with gilded mirrors, chandeliers, and antiques. (And we already like what's they've done with their cruise down the Danube River.) Also in March, AmaWaterways(800-626-0126; amawaterways.com) 158-person AmaKristina will begin sailing the Rhine. It features a lounge with art from Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Belmond (800-524-2420; belmond.com) adds two new barges to its Afloat in France program, Pivoine and Lilas, which will start sailing on canals and rivers in Champagne and Alsace this summer. Both accommodate eight guests in four rooms. Also this summer, Crystal Cruises (888-722-0021; crystalcruises.com) will introduce Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler, both of which will sail on the Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers and carry 106 people in 53 suites. All the suites on both ships have panoramic windows and identical configurations. The two-bedroom Crystal Suite offers 759 square feet of space—one of the largest rooms on a riverboat.

Cycling is a big trend, with AmaWaterways expanding its partnership with Backroads and offering a trip on Portugal’s Douro River—a waterway not yet overrun by riverboats. Uniworld’s partnership with Butterfield & Robinson has itineraries that include pedaling through vineyards in Austria’s Wachau Valley. Trek Travel, the eponymous bicycle company’s tour arm, will operate two seven-night itineraries aboard Scenic (855-517-1200; scenicusa.com) ships on the Danube and Rhine starting in May.