For the first time, Titan Travel has chartered a river cruise ship for a whole season in Europe. Daniel Pearce enjoys an inaugural sailing from Cologne to Amsterdam.
There aren’t too many firsts still available to Titan Travel – founded in 1978 and now part of the Saga Group. It already operates escorted tours across the globe, taking customers to more than 70 countries on all seven continents, and carrying in excess of 40,000 passengers a year.
But this year for the first time ever the operator has exclusively chartered its own river cruise vessel, the Serenade 1 – for a full season in 2017 and 2018. Titan took ownership of the four-star, 68 cabin vessel in March with sailings planned on the Rhine, Danube, Main and Dutch waterways.
And the trade is a key focus with travel agents responsible for around a third of Titan’s sales and managing director Andy Squirrell claiming it is “closer to the trade than it’s ever been”.
Working closely with owner Select Voyages on refurbishing Serenade 1, Titan has designed the experience with the needs and interests of its customers in mind – from itineraries and excursions, to the onboard cuisine and ambience. A number of touches for the UK market – such as free tea and coffee onboard – complete the picture and follow Titan’s years of working with other cruise partners.
It’s an alluring proposition and I am fortunate enough to sample all this for myself on a taster cruise from Cologne to Amsterdam in March.
The trip begins with Titan’s complimentary VIP Home Departure Service, which collects customers from their front door – wherever that may be in Britain – and drops them at their departure point, a real plus for Titan and something that its rivals have been slow to emulate on the same unlimited mileage basis.
The customer service begins here, with our driver Steven asking us not to lift a finger as he loads up the car and settles us into the short journey to Heathrow.
Following a flight to Dusseldorf and a short coach journey to Cologne, we are off, taking in the Dutch towns of Arnhem and Hoorn before docking two days later in Amsterdam.
This is the true benefit of river cruising – so often taking customers to the heart of towns and cities they may not otherwise explore. Arnhem and Hoorn do not disappoint, with history on show as well as the typical northern European market squares and cobbled streets. For those keen to gain extra insight, reasonably priced walking excursions led by Titan’s own tour managers are available on every stop-off.
Certainly the tour of 17th-century Hoorn that we enjoyed took us straight to the key sites and facts – did you know, for example, that Cape Horn at the tip of South America was named after local resident Willem Schouten rounded it in 1616?
Yet it is the ship that is the true star of the trip. With room for 136 passengers and 40 crew onboard, it is roomy enough to ensure everyone has their own space, whether in the Panorama Lounge – the main hub of the ship, featuring musical entertainment and a sophisticated bar area – or the Sun Deck and Sky Lounge on the top deck.
Entertainment includes music as well as giant chess on the Sun Deck and the opportunity to sit and watch the European scenery calmly pass by. Other facilities onboard include a gym and revitalising sauna, while Titan’s own cruise director is always at hand to help out with questions and requests, as well as a complete understanding of the needs of the British customers.
Cabins are also ample – located across three decks, some offering French balconies behind floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, while there are two superior, 22-square-metre suites with private balconies and seating areas.
Every cabin has a separate bath and shower, with other facilities including flatscreen TV, mini bars, and individual tea and coffee.
The relaxed restaurant offers a four-course lunch and dinner menu reflecting the regions the ship is sailing through, using locally sourced ingredients for a true flavour of the area. Breakfast is made to order and there is even a midnight snack available in the Panorama Lounge. Chefs and waiters are also extremely accommodating for a member of a party on a gluten free diet during the cruise. It’s worth noting that most dining tables seat eight, so customers are unlikely to enjoy too many candlelit dinners for two onboard.
Throughout the ship, service is excellent and while Serenade 1 may not operate the same breadth of facilities as some of the larger river cruise ships, its accent on service means customers should not be disappointed. Every waiter is courteous and polite, with the barman quickly learning my cocktail of choice – a Manhattan – during our short trip.
I catch up with Titan Travel managing director Andy Squirrell while onboard. He says the early success of the new ship has been extremely encouraging – with the group looking to expand its exclusive chartered offering in 2019 as a result.
“When we look at a second ship we’ll have a lot of options. One will be to add another four-star, but we could well decide to try the Titan brand with a five-star ship,” comments Squirrell. “We’ve got an open mind, but it will be in Europe again, on the Rhine and Danube.”
With river cruising now taking a 15% share of Titan’s business, Squirrell expects that proportion to grow in the years ahead through both charters and non-exclusive arrangements.
“We won’t get away from escorted touring and doing what we do best. But river cruising is a growing part of our business, the core demographic of 60-70 year olds is growing and there’s an ever-increasing pool of people coming into the market. This is a compelling place to be.”
Titan’s Serenade 1 River Cruise Brochure features 18 varied itineraries for 2018 departures as well as three new Christmas 2017 itineraries to some of Europe’s finest festive markets.
A five-day Rhine Christmas market cruise based on a December 14, 2017 departure starts from £629pp. Taking in the cities of Koblenz, Frankfurt, Rudesheim and a walking tour of Mainz, this no-fly cruise also includes Eurotunnel or ferry crossings.
The six-day Dutch Waterways and the Beautiful Keukenhof Gardens cruise in March 2018 starting from £1,149pp departs March 31. The no-fly cruise includes a city tour and canal cruise of Amsterdam, and a lecture on tulips before visiting the Keukenhof Gardens. Further highlights include Hoorn and Enkhuizen and the village of Zaanse Schans.
For those seeking a longer cruise, the 17-day Eastern European Odyssey itinerary starts from £3,249pp based on a June 11, 2018 departure. Sailing through seven countries, this journey follows the Danube from Budapest to Romania’s Black Sea Coast, stopping in Budapest, Belgrade, Bratislava and Vienna.