For your next European sojourn, try a river cruise, where you'll float from one city to another, gliding past emerald vineyards, fairy-tale châteaux, and medieval villages.

There's nothing like lounging on the deck of a graceful ship while watching a magnificent field of sunflowers or a 12th-century cathedral slide slowly into view. Or waking each day to the thrill of a different European city spread out before you. Sound appealing? Then a European river cruise may be your perfect next vacation.

More and more Americans are discovering the laid-back luxury, the intimacy, and the personal service of the small-ship experience. Seeing Europe from its rivers - from its earliest routes of exploration, invasion, conquest, and trade - puts you at the very heart of a region and its history. 

There are two distinct types of vessels that cruise the inland waterways of Europe: riverboats and canal barges. It's important to distinguish between the two because the experiences they offer are quite different.

Canal barges usually hold a maximum of 24 passengers. Also called peniches, they ply narrow, tree-lined canals and travel deep into the countryside. Cruising at an average of five to six miles a day, canal barges typically cover 30 to 50 miles per week.

River-cruise ships are larger, holding anywhere from 60 to 300-plus passengers. They cruise the Danube, Rhine, Rhône, Po, Elbe, Douro, Volga, and other major rivers. In a week, you'll travel 150 to 200 miles or more. And the recent completion of the Main-Danube Canal makes it possible to travel from the North Sea to the Black Sea on a voyage that spans eight countries.

Today, the European river-cruise industry is in a major expansion mode. Nearly every corner of the continent has navigable rivers and a selection of ships, which continue to grow increasingly comfortable and luxurious. Peter Deilmann Cruises offers 39 different itineraries and 243 European river cruises on nine ships. Vik­ing River Cruises has unveiled 10 new ships in the last five years, including the 198-passenger Viking Sun, new in Europe this year.

Avalon Waterways, one of the newer companies on the scene, has three ships and big plans. "We're definitely growing, not just in ships, but also in destinations," says managing director J. Patrick Clark Jr. "The river-cruise business is rapidly expanding to cater to the growing demand, much like the ocean-cruise industry has grown and improved over the last 10 to 15 years."

River cruising is meant to be a restful experience. It's about stashing your luggage and having time and energy to explore without the hassle of packing and unpacking, searching for hotels, and navigating unfamiliar roads. Some say river cruises are the new bus tours of Europe - only better. "Actually, river cruising is perfect for those who would dread a traditional motor-coach tour," Clark says.