Our guide to river cruising around the world
While there’s no doubt European river cruising is hugely popular, if you’re not into cruising on large ships, there are many alternative river cruise destinations that just may make you re-think where you go cruising next.
Peru, Ecuador or Brazil – The Amazon
At nearly 650kms long, the Amazon is the second longest river in the world. Surprisingly easy to fly to these days, this river offers what most don’t – truly unspoiled surroundings. The wild jungles are inhabited by isolated tribal villages where little has changed for centuries and tourists are rarely seen.
Luckily for today’s travellers there are several ships sailing this river and most offer comfort if not luxury, allowing you to get up close without leaving all creature comforts behind. The river itself, its tributaries and rainforests are rich with biodiversity. Have your camera at the ready and look out for monkeys, sloths and an abundance of birds. Most ships also have a naturalist at onboard so you’re not left wondering what that flash of colour was that just flew overhead!
Our tip? Avoid the height of the rainy season. There’s a reason the Amazon carries more water than any other river on earth.
Vietnam & Cambodia – The Mekong
For centuries locals have depended on the Mekong for shelter, food, water and their livelihood. This tranquil river stretches some 4,300km and is the longest waterway in South-East Asia. With its headwaters in China and Tibet most cruises concentrate on the lower Mekong in Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and out to the South China Sea.
There are so many styles of ship, tours and destinations to choose from, suiting all tastes, time frames, abilities and budgets. With a little research – and the help of a good travel agent – you can match your cruise to what you want to experience. Expect to see ancient temples, vibrant markets and bustling cities. A stand out for our money is the UNESCO listed Angkor Wat temple complex that spreads over 400 acres. We suggest you allow ample time pre or post cruise to fully explore this incredible site.
Launched in 2016, Scenic Spirit provides an exceptional level of luxury. Providing a boutique and intimate environment with just 34 balcony suites, you’ll enjoy the most personalised service with an almost 1:1 guest-to-staff ratio, with your shore excursions and beverages included – what’s not to love?
Burma – Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River
A cruise through the mysterious, once hidden land of Burma takes you deep into lands frozen in time with gilded pagodas, ornate monasteries and villages where friendly locals still follow a traditional way of life centred on farming. Flowing from the Himalayas, the Irrawaddy is Burma’s longest river, flowing the length of the country before emptying into the Andaman Sea.
With endless rice paddies, teak forests and dense jungle riverbanks, the countryside is also dotted with shades of saffron coloured robes worn by monks in and around the temples. You’ll also see an abundance of animal and bird life and may even be fortunate to catch a glimpse of the scarce Irrawaddy dolphin!
Most notable are the locals. You’ll be stunned with their gentle and friendly nature. Remember, tourism is relatively new here. We also suggest you do your homework – photography and certain types of clothing can be frowned on. Don’t miss the temples of Bagan located roughly 600km from the capital Yangon. The hundreds of ancient temples and stupas are easily accessible from most river cruises. Burma is one destination you should see before the world catches up with this unchanged land.
Want to go? Belmond operates the much-loved colonial-style Road to Mandalay river ship. It offers three, seven and 11-night itineraries including longer journeys downstream to Yangon and upstream to Bhamo on the Chinese border.
The 82-passenger ship offers the luxury services of a European rivership with countless opportunities to engage with local people. As well as giving lectures, each guide takes care of a small group of passengers for village and temple visits. The best time to visit Burma is during the dry season from November to April. At this time the warm and sunny days are ideal for sightseeing throughout the country.
Columbia and Snake Rivers
Often overlooked for nearby Western Canada and Alaska, those looking for the next big thing are often surprised to find there are more, just as spectacular, options less than an hour’s flight south of Vancouver or Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is fast gaining attention for its stunning Cascade Range with immense volcanoes including the famous Mt. St Helens and nearby Mount Hood. This is also wine and craft beer country. Portland, Oregon has more micro-breweries than any other city on the planet, and nearby Willamette Valley boasts over 500 vineyards.
Winding all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the prairies of Idaho, the Columbia and Snake rivers offer something very different. Expect to see sights such as Multnomah Falls that drops 189m into the river. There are bridges aplenty too – from the 6.5 km long Astoria Bridge to the Bridge of the Gods that Charles Lindberg actually flew under. What you may not expect is a series of locks that will either raise or lower your ship as it travels to or from Clarkston on the Washington / Idaho border.
Taking just 86 passengers, the ss Legacy, operated by UnCruise offers something that other cruise lines don’t – a round trip cruise from Portland. There are a couple of itineraries that focus on cruising at either end of the river systems – the main advantage being no necessity to travel to Clarkston which is some two hours south of the nearest major airport. Regardless – this spectacular area of the world should be on your list.
Mississippi – the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers
Snaking its way through 10 states, the Mississippi isn’t all blues, jazz and plantations, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. With its headwaters close to the Great Lakes, the river winds it’s way to the Gulf of Mexico via a series of locks much like those on the Panama Canal.
Travellers short on time can sail the lower stretches on paddle ‘steamers’ visiting cities like New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville. Expect to be immersed in all things Elvis, military history, antebellum architecture and the wonderful French-influences of creole and Cajun cuisine in New Orleans.
Those who are a little more adventurous can sail further, almost as far north as Minneapolis. Taking two weeks, you’ll see more of America than many locals ever do.
Botswana and Namibia – The Chobe River
For many, a journey through Africa involves 4WD vehicles and patiently scouting for wildlife. However, this completely misses one spectacular side to wildlife spotting – the water ways. If you really want to get up close and personal, our pick is the Chobe River. Close to the mighty Zambezi and the iconic Victoria Falls – the Chobe offers some of the best water based viewing in Africa. Hippos, buffalo and birds are the highlight but also expect to see elephants and other land based animals too.
Never heard of it? Our tip is to go before everyone else finds out too!
Egypt – The Nile
Cruising on the Nile conjures many visions – Agatha Christie mysteries, feluccas, camel trains, pyramids shimmering in the desert heat and teeming bazaars. Travellers these days won’t find themselves sweating genteelly under the waft of a palm frond. There are many options to cruise on the Nile with most cruises visiting the ancient sites including Luxor, Giza, Aswan and Abu Simbel – all with much needed modern comforts.
Our choice is the ss Sudan. Not only is this century old vessel a rare survivor of the past, Ms Christie herself sailed aboard, later penning her famous Nile based novel. Think brass beds, pleated lamp shades, deep wicker chairs, gold framed portraits of famous past guests and flutes of hibiscus tea. You may not be Hercule Poirot but this is an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list!
India – The Ganges
Colourful, chaotic and spiritual. India is ideal for the intrepid traveller wanting to immerse themselves in this incredible culture – however you don’t just have to explore on land. A great way to see rural India, the Ganga Mata (Mother Ganges) and her tributaries, has and continues to provide life to millions of people. Cruises tend to focus on the human side of India, while unveiling scenery filled with temples, tea gardens, incredible palaces, bustling bazaars and national parks that protect India’s wildlife.
A river cruise on the Ganges can also take you through historically significant towns and villages that were once important as provincial or imperial capitals. With so many options to choose from, some will travel to UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Taj Mahal and Nalanda, the archeological ruins of an ancient university, dating back to the third century BC.
India – Brahmaputra River
For those really wanting to venture off the tourist trail, the little known Brahmaputra in north eastern India should be on your ‘must do’ list.
With its origin in the Angsi glacier, the river drains the Himalayas east of the Indo-Nepal border and travels some 3,848 km to the Bay of Bengal. The Brahmaputra is the only navigable river in the world from which you can see 7400 metre high, snow covered Himalayan mountains. It is also the only river, apart from the Zambezi in Africa, from which elephant jeep and boat safaris are conducted. It is a river that spans 3 kms at it’s narrowest and 40 kms at it’s widest.
Many come here to see the “Big Four” which include the great single horned rhino, elephant, wild buffalo and tiger as well as fresh water dolphins in the river and birds like the Great Hornbill, Great Adjutant Stork and the Black Necked Crane. Together with over six hundred varieties of migratory and domestic birds, other mammals like deer, apes like the Hollock Gibbon, turtles & tortoises, this as one of the greatest natural habitats with the greatest variety of wildlife outside Africa.