As Australians take to the world’s waterways in ever-increasing numbers, we visit the key places to take a river cruise – some newly emerging, some perennially popular – close to home and across the globe.
River cruising in Myanmar is booming and there’s a thirst to experience this once-forbidden country before it’s spoilt by tourism. The 2,173-kilometre Irrawaddy River flows from the northern tip of Myanmar to the Andaman Sea through mountains, lakes and jungles, and for centuries has been the backbone of the country. It’s still Myanmar’s most important trading route. Along the Irrawaddy you’ll see traditional village life, ancient stupas and pagodas, monasteries and markets – and its major cities, Mandalay and Yangon (formerly Rangoon), are cultural and historic hubs. You can also cruise the Chindwin River, which is even less travelled than the Irrawaddy – expect to be transported into a wonderful, bygone world on vessels small enough to navigate remote areas.
Vietnam and Cambodia
The mighty Mekong attracts thousands of visitors every year – and no wonder. Cruising the river is the easiest way to experience Indochina’s history, culture and cuisine, and as several major cruise lines now operate there you can do it in some luxury too. Most vessels cruise between Siem Reap (the jump-off point for Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat temple complex) and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. Highlights include the elegant French colonial capital of Phnom Penh; visits to silk-weaving villages and floating markets in the Mekong Delta; cruising the Tonle Sap River that connects the Mekong to Tonle Sap (Great Lake); and the myriad contemporary and ancient sites of Ho Chi Minh City – which is still known by many as Saigon.
China’s Yangtze is the longest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world (beaten by the Nile and Amazon). The usual itinerary is from Chongqing to Shanghai, which takes in scenic sights such as the “ghost city” of Fengdu; the spectacular Three Gorges (Qutang, Wu and Xiling); the scenic narrow tributaries of the Three Gorges and the controversial dam (some visitors say this massive hydroelectric power station is a highlight of a Yangtze cruise); Huangshang (Yellow Mountain, a favourite site for artists for hundreds of years); and the dynamic cities of Nanjing and Shanghai. Most Yangtze cruises are taken as part of a land-based tour and as China undergoes rapid changes, now’s the time to see the future emerging from its rich history.
Since the American Queen Steamboat Company launched its refurbished American Queen in 2012 and American Cruise Lines’ newly built Queen of the Mississippi took to the water earlier this year, the Mississippi River is undergoing something of a renaissance. American Queen plies the upper and lower Mississippi and the Ohio and Tennessee rivers; you’ll experience a memorable insight into America’s heartland in the beautifully restored paddlewheeler, the largest riverboat in the world.
Other rivers to explore by small ship in the US include the spectacular Pacific Northwest wilderness of the Columbia and Snake rivers, where you’ll sail through spectacular gorges and canyons, lush farmland and vineyards, and step back in time to the days of the early pioneers and Native Americans.
Piranha fishing, monkey-watching and pink dolphin-spotting are just some of the exotic attractions drawing adventurous river cruisers to the Peruvian part of the Amazon River. Iquitos, in north-eastern Peru, is the starting point for most itineraries, which range from three to seven days and are often part of a land package. You’ll sail through the world’s biggest rainforest and guided tours might include canoeing on tiny tributaries and meeting indigenous people in remote villages. Gourmet food has become a feature on board Aqua Expeditions’ luxurious, 32-passenger MV Aria (also chartered by Avalon Waterways); Peru’s only Michelin-starred chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, devised the menus.
Cruising the Brahmaputra River in north-east India’s Assam offers an unusually peaceful perspective on one of the world’s most populous nations. Small colonial-style river ships ply the vast, broad river and highlights include elephant rides through national game parks, visits to tea plantations and villages, bird-watching and generally escaping from the rest of the world. The Assam Bengal Navigation Company also operates cruises on the Hugli River from Kolkata that link with itineraries on the Ganges, from the Bangladesh border to the historic city of Patna. You will experience rural India as few travellers can, and at certain times of the year sail into the fascinating holy city of Varanasi.
Where to start? Think of a deliciously picturesque French wine region and there will be a river running through it. All the major river cruise lines operate on the Seine, Rhone and increasingly on the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers. From Paris you can cruise to the Normandy region (OK, it’s more famous for cider than wine) and take in Gothic Rouen and Claude Monet’s Giverny along the way. You can also head south to the Cote d’Azur on the Saone and Rhone rivers through Burgundy, Beaujolais and Provence (these cruises operate in both directions). Or perhaps the wine region of Bordeaux is more your taste, in which case you could cruise the rivers of Aquitaine: the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne.
Known as the River of Gold, the Douro flows through central Spain and into Portugal’s wine-making interior. River cruises start at the attractive coastal city of Oporto, famed for its production of port wine and its UNESCO World Heritage centre that dates back to Roman times. The river then wends its way eastwards through steep terraced vineyards, and most cruises include visits to quintas (vineyards), some of which have been producing wines for hundreds of years. Also on the agenda are scenic towns and villages boasting castles, monasteries and beautiful old houses and squares, and just over the Spanish border is another World Heritage city, Salamanca. Foodies are well catered for in this region too, with Spanish and Portuguese specialties on offer at local restaurants.
The Volga River runs through central Russia and a cruise between the magnificent cities of Moscow and St Petersburg gives an extraordinary insight into this larger-than-life country. Highlights of the Volga, Svir and Neva rivers between these two cultural landmarks include the historic Golden Ring cities of Uglich and Yaroslavl, which have roots in the days of the Vikings; country towns, monasteries and museums – most notably Kizhi Island, an open-air museum of wooden architecture on Lake Onega – and a slew of eye-opening shore tours.
Holland to Hungary/Grand Europe
The route from Amsterdam to Budapest takes you through five countries along the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. This remains the most popular river itinerary in Europe and the easiest way to sample the delights of the cities and villages of the Netherlands, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary. Think castles in the Rhine Valley, Roman ruins, medieval towns, classic Danube cities such as Vienna, and fabulous Christmas markets in the winter months. All the major river cruise lines operate this itinerary, which takes 14 or 15 days. There are many variations on the theme – from Amsterdam you can travel as far as Bucharest in Romania, for example – and the opportunities to explore are virtually limitless. No wonder we’re seeing so many new ships taking to these perennially popular waterways.