Our bicycles crunch over yellow oak leaves as we pedal beside the Seine River to Villequier.
The river burbles gently, a soft choral accompaniment to the birdsong of robins. Sunlight streams through a lacy canopy of leaves overhead, warming our backs on this glorious autumn day.
And we have this flat, paved, bicycle path all to ourselves – heavenly.
What better morning could there be on this French river cruise!
It’s a great “bike and boat” combo – one of the new cycling cruises that people favor as they seek out more active cruises.
On this cruise, we’re sailing the Seine in France’s Normandy region with Scenic Cruises.
Villequier is a speck of a hamlet along the route, home to the Victor Hugo Museum, and our destination on this guided shore excursion.
Our motley group of bike enthusiasts – and some not-so-experienced riders (us) – will tour the museum to view its artifacts and books celebrating the life of the famous French author and his family (including his mistress).
Then some of us will continue pedaling further on the Seine Valley Cycle Route, before whizzing back to the ship on our e-bikes in time for lunch and a well-deserved glass of wine.
Bicycling on river cruises is becoming more and more popular.
A growing number of people want to discover a country in a fun, energizing way.
In Europe especially, towns and cities are often bike-friendly, and many rivers have level riverside paths made for cycling and walking.
Ocean cruises have also jumped into the game and offer cruises with cycling too, though on a more limited scale.
Bike-and-boat river cruises
Let’s start with cycling river cruises. Which river cruise lines have bikes?
Here are the best river cruises for exploring on two wheels.
1) AmaWaterways’ bicycle cruises
The first to get into the boat-and-bike biz, AmaWaterways packs more than two dozen bicycles and helmets on its river ships in Europe (except in Portugal).
You sign them out for free.
Complimentary bike tours:
As well as free bikes to use on your own, one or two complimentary guided bicycle tours are also included on each AmaWaterways European river cruise.
Does biking past Art Nouveau townhouses and 15th century Gothic churches (stopping to taste Belgian chocolates, of course) sound like an amazing vacay day?
Then check out Ama’s tulip-time Belgium/Netherlands itinerary. Bonus: This cruise includes four guided bike tours.
Bicycle-themed cruises with Backroads:
For keeners, AmaWaterways works with award-winning adventure company Backroads on a boatload of bicycle-themed cruises on the Rhine, Danube, Seine and Douro Rivers.
For example, they offer several departures of their seven-night Douro River cruise bike tours in Portugal.
By day, you cycle with other Backroaders on the cruise (usually 20 to 60 per ship, each of which accommodates about 160 guests). At night, you dine together onboard.
Two Backroads trip leaders ride with you, and you can choose from different routes, based on distance and level of difficulty.
Ground crew members in support vans also shadow the groups, to help in case of a flat tire or offer a lift if you’re pooped. And the Backroads bicycles are superior, with a choice of custom Titanium models, touring bikes with wide tires, upright versions and even tandem bikes.
2) Bicycling on Scenic’s river cruises
Hills? No problem!
For those who like their cycling easy, each Scenic river ship carries some 25 electric bikes.
Complimentary for guest use, the custom-made bikes have seven “normal” gears for shifting manually plus eight levels of power assist. At top speed, you feel like you’re flying!
The e-bikes come with GPS touring devices, programmed with maps and points of interest along the way. Just tap, and you can listen to the running commentary as you cycle.
On our Seine River cruise, we skipped the motor coach ride from Vernon to Giverny, signing out bikes to ride independently instead to Claude Monet’s house and gardens.
Guided bike excursions:
Complimentary guided bicycle excursions are also offered on some itineraries (like on our 10-night Seine trip from Paris to Normandy and back).
These cruise bike excursions have been amped up on the line’s Bordeaux cruises (see the “Bordeaux Affair” itineraries).
In Blaye, for example, there’s a guided 20-mile cycle along the “Captain’s Road,” passing unique fishermen’s huts on stilts, beautiful flowering gardens, troglodyte houses tucked in cliff caves and vineyards dating back to Gallo-Roman times.
Sign us up!
Bike-intensive cruises with Trek Travel:
For a dedicated bicycling experience, Scenic partners with upscale cycling company Trek Travel on several “bike-and-cruise” trips (see here).
Trek supplies the bikes (carbon fiber road bikes, hybrids and e-bikes), which they move from port to port.
You spend more time biking on these trips (daily rides of 12 to 60 miles), with picnics or pub lunches on shore and route support along the way.
3) Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
You also find complimentary bikes onboard Uniworld’s river ships, with one or two guided cycle tours per trip.
For example, bike-focused city tours of Belgrade and Bucharest have been added to the “Highlights of Eastern Europe” Danube itinerary.
In Belgrade, you wheel past a former concentration camp, the Palace of Serbia and the centuries-old Kalemegdan Fortress, with a stop at a traditional fishermen’s bar.
Bike boat tours:
Uniworld also works with luxury tour operator Butterfield & Robinson on three different one-week cruise itineraries on the Danube, Rhone and Rhine Rivers – similar to the AmaWaterways/Backroads and Scenic/Trek Travel trips.
See details of these cruises here.
U by Uniworld:
And no worries about missing out on bicycling on U by Uniworld!
U by Uniworld is the hipper, lower-cost offshoot from Uniworld. Its river cruises attract both millennials and young-at-heart boomers with neon-lit dance lounges, hammocks on deck and late breakfasts.
The line stocks 50 complimentary “U bikes” on each of its two 120-guest river ships.
4) Avalon Waterways’ cycling river cruises
Avalon has just pumped up the river cruise experience big-time on its Danube, Rhine and Rhone itineraries.
These trips now include complimentary “active” excursions in every port, like canoeing on the Danube and cave-hiking in Budapest.
Guided bike rides:
As for biking, Avalon’s new Arles-Lyon cruise on the Rhone River offers some unique rides.
How about cycling through Camargue Nature Park while keeping an eye out for pink flamingos and 400 other bird species?
And near Tournon, there’s a unique rail-bike ride along the historic 1891 Gorges du Doux railway in a four-seat rail-car with pedals.
Explore on your own:
You can also use the bikes (carried on all Europe ships) to explore on your own.
New onboard “Adventure Hosts” help with maps, routes and directions to local cafés and attractions.
5) Emerald Waterways’ river bike cruises
Emerald, the 4-star sister brand to Scenic River Cruises, has free bikes too.
Active river cruise excursions:
Each Emerald Waterways cruise includes a guided “active” (hiking or biking) tour. You’ll now also find an Activity Manager on all ships.
Guided bike tours are offered in Belgrade, Amsterdam, Vienna, Hoorn, from Tournus to Macon, along the Rhone River to Glun, and between Durnstein and Melk (the longest – a 23-mile ride past castles and vineyards).
Cycling-centric river cruises:
Emerald Waterways has also ushered in new cycling-centric Danube River cruises in partnerships with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations (see here).
There’s room for 24 VBT guests on several Nuremberg-Budapest departures. Daily rides are mainly on paved and gravel paths, with a few climbs to reach riverside towns.
Sample ride: Cycle through the edge of Vienna and then out along the 13-mile strip of Danube Island.
6) Barge-and-bike on European Waterways
European Waterways has been offering luxury barge holidays on its deluxe hotel barges for over 35 years.
The company has some 17 vessels; most have three to four guest cabins, but some carry up to 20 passengers.
Each barge carries enough all-terrain bicycles for every guest to use.
Crew can unload the bikes at one of the barge moorings or the next lock so you can pedal along the towpath running beside the canal. (The barges travel along narrow scenic canals, not rivers, in 9 countries, mostly in France.)
Several barges include an additional “biking plus” option.
You get maps and backpacks so you can cycle for a couple of hours on a roundtrip route, exploring local villages and the surrounding countryside.
“Biking plus” is available aboard Anjodi, Enchanté, Finesse, L’Art de Vivre, La Belle Epoque, L’Impressionniste, Renaissance and Panache.
And don’t worry about missing any of the excursions!
The itinerary is arranged so you can bicycle and tour that castle you want to see.
Specialized cycling barge trips:
Want even more cycling? Bike-and-barge tours can be booked by chartering the barge.
You get a specialist cycling tour guide and the bikes onboard are upgraded.
Other river cruises with bike tours
Crystal River Cruises:
Crystal offers Trek bikes for complimentary guest use. The bikes are delivered to the line’s four all-suite, butler-serviced yachts at each port (they’re not stored onboard).
Several cruises include guided bicycle excursion too (e.g., a bike tour to Veitschochheim Castle in Wurzburg, Germany).
Tauck’s river ships carry 12 to 15 bicycles, which you can sign out (complimentary). And Tauck has also recently bumped up the number of its guided bike excursions (included in cruise rates).
Must do: Pedal past the vineyards and medieval fortresses of Austria’s UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley on Tauck’s Danube cruises.
Vantage Deluxe World Travel:
Vantage Travel carries between 15 and 20 unisex, three-gear bicycles (designed for paved city trails) on several of its ships. They can be reserved (free) for up to four hours at a time.
Ocean cruises for bicyclists
There’s biking to be had on ocean-going cruises too, though it’s more limited.
Which cruises have bikes?
Some lines like Celebrity and NCL allow you to bring your own folding bike onboard for use in port (not, of course, on the ship).
The hitch? You have to store it in your stateroom.
Windstar Cruises makes it easier by transporting several of its own bicycles on each of its six yachts.
You can rent the aluminum-frame folding bikes for a full or half-day at most ports to explore on your own. (Book the same way as you would regular shore excursions.)
Bike-oriented ocean cruises:
2019 was the first year to usher in bike-focused ocean cruises.
Backroads has partnered with several ocean-going cruise lines for sea-based bicycling trips. For example, Ponant has new bike-and-cruise journeys with Backroads in New Zealand, Iceland, the Baltic, Galapagos and Croatia.
The Baltic Sea ocean cruise bike tour (see here) is on the new Le Dumont-d’Urville, one of Ponant’s new “Explorer” class luxury expedition yachts. Think French service, wine and cuisine.
And no guilt eating all that delicious French cheese!
Because you’ll be bicycling around St. Petersburg’s grand avenues and, in Pavlovsk, through the countryside to Catherine the Great’s opulent summer palace.
Our boat-and-bike magazine story
We first wrote about biking-and-boating for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine. Click here to read a PDF of the print feature.
More cruising inspiration
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Photo credits: Lead image European Waterways | 2 and 3 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 4 and 6 AmaWaterways | 43 and 45 Pixabay | Remaining images courtesy of the respective cruise lines and bike tour operators (except where noted)