River cruising remains a piping-hot travel trend due to its ease of exploring exotic destinations, as Sally Macmillan reports.

Aussie travellers in their droves are discovering that a river cruise is one of the easiest, most enjoyable ways to explore Europe, Asia and, increasingly, the US. And why not? A floating hotel with all mod cons takes you on a leisurely journey to many of the most desirable destinations on offer anywhere and, once you’re on board, everything from enticing meals to fascinating shore tours is taken care of for you.

On a classic European cruise between Amsterdam and Budapest, you take in a different port almost every day. Over 10 to 14 days, ships sail along the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers through five very different countries – the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. You’ll enjoy classical concerts in lavish palaces, break bread in medieval castles and sample the best regional wines in stunning vineyards.

Even better, it’s not all group-oriented: if you want to venture off the well-trodden path and see it all for yourself, you can do that, too. River ships moor in the very heart of exquisite cities, towns and villages and you can cycle off, catch local transport or just meander to the nearest old-world town square to imbibe the atmosphere.

Avalon, APT, Scenic, Uniworld and Viking are among the most popular river-cruise lines, with APT and Scenic’s “less inclusive” (ie, less pricey) sister companies Travelmarvel and Emerald Waterways attracting a growing number of exponents among travellers who simply don’t need butler service or oceans of alcohol included in the fare.

Europe’s “hero” cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest remains the star draw of itineraries, particularly with first-time river cruisers. However, in recent years, France is fast becoming a go-to destination. Foodies and viticulture vultures are, of course, spoilt for choice wherever they go in Europe, but French regions, wines and cuisines are so diverse.

The three main itineraries are between Lyon and Arles, in the south (Rhône and Saône rivers); Paris to Normandy, in the north (Seine); and the Bordeaux region in the southwest (Gironde, Garonne and Dordogne rivers).

A typical seven-night Rhône cruise takes you through the vineyards and villages of Provence, Burgundy and Beaujolais, while Lyon is renowned as the gastronomic capital of the country.

Seine cruises start and finish in Paris and make their way towards Honfleur, at the mouth of the English Channel, visiting the magnificent city of Rouen and villages such as Conflans and Les Andeleys along the way. Highlights include visiting Monet’s gardens at Giverny and Normandy’s D-Day landing beaches.

The beautifully restored city of Bordeaux, on the banks of the Garonne, is the start and end point for cruises that crisscross the Gironde estuary, the Dordogne and Garonne. Storybook chateaux and medieval fortified villages are among the attractions of this rich wine-producing area.

Portugal’s peaceful Douro River is another in-demand attraction. Cruises can be bookended with stays in Lisbon and Madrid and tend to be more laidback than the busier, bustling European river trips. Itineraries usually include a couple of days in the postcard-perfect Porto and sailing through the Douro Valley – the entire region is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In terms of river cruises that don’t involve quite such a long haul, an increasing number of exciting options are opening up in South-East Asia. Mekong cruises between Vietnam and Cambodia and Irrawaddy cruises in Myanmar are operated by Avalon, APT, Scenic and Uniworld as well as smaller lines such as Pandaw and Aqua Expeditions.

Modern ships designed for the Mekong and Irrawaddy are generally more spacious than their European counterparts as they don’t have to fit under low bridges and squeeze through narrow canals, so expect generous accommodation and well-proportioned public spaces. While Mekong land-cruise packages can be up to 21 nights, the actual cruise takes eight days between Cambodia’s Siem Reap and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.

Most Irrawaddy itineraries range from three or four nights between Mandalay and Bagan to seven nights between Bagan and Yangon. Again, there are several land-cruise packages to choose from – some longer itineraries combine the Mekong and Irrawaddy.

These are developing countries where you’ll encounter dramatic contrasts: ancient temples and Buddhist culture live alongside harrowing histories of recent wars, and cities that are home to millions give way to serene villages where life has barely changed for eons.

Aussie travellers are also starting to discover the many delights of cruising on America’s Mississippi river, on classic paddle wheelers that conjure up images from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company both operate cruises on the waterway’s upper and lower ends.

Lower Mississippi cruises run between Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans in Louisiana, and Upper Mississippi trips run between St Louis, Missouri and Saint Paul, Minnesota. History is the main focus of both itineraries, in small river ports and vibrant cities; you’ll visit stately Antebellum homes and plantations, museums, Civil War sites and hear absorbing stories about life in America’s south.