Travelers looking to know the soul of a destination need not look further than its lifeline – the flowing waters of its river, from which nourishment, trade, transport, recreation, and more nods to cultured civilization have all sprung forth. Riverboat cruises, long popular with Europeans, are experiencing a surge of interest on storied waterways around the globe, thanks to the intimate and enriching destination approach they provide on routes impossible to replicate by any other means. Leave the over-the-top, Vegas-style mega-ships out at sea, and parking and traffic headaches back on land. Instead, opt to cruise the meandering rivers of a region’s heartland aboard small ships, ranging from luxury riverboats to vintage paddle wheelers. Every river bend reveals a destination’s new face, courtesy of a constantly shuffled deck of quaint riverside towns, historic monuments, and pristine countryside.
Sections of the wild waters of the Peruvian Amazon – like the portion coursing through the 5 million-acre Pacaya Samiria Reserve – are so remote they can only be reached by plane or ship. But the pristine region's ecological riches (think mammoth Victoria Regia water lilies, pink dolphins, sloths, and capuchin monkeys) have long lured veteran travelers. Getting there is no longer a tedious task thanks to Aqua Expeditions' luxury riverboat cruises aboard the M/V Aqua. Conceived by Peruvian architect Jordi Puig, the über-modern, 12-suite vessel is designed for maximum comfort on three- to seven-night jungle expeditions, which embark via Iquitos or Nauta (airport transfers to the port are provided for select flights). Guests appreciate perks like a master chef and plush, 230-plus-square-foot suites all the more after a full day of fishing for piranha, trekking through the jungle, and paddling through creeks. Ships operate year-round. From $2,685 per person.
Set sail on the well-traveled “Blue Danube,” whose beauty inspired one of Johann Strauss’ Viennese waltzes. Used for centuries as a route between Eastern and Central Europe, the Danube stretches from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. The M/V ‘River Cloud II,’ operated by Abercrombie and Kent, offers the opportunity to voyage a portion of the river on seven-night sailings. As one of the maximum of 88 passengers aboard this luxury riverboat cruise, keep your eyes on the banks, where castles, vineyards, and modern cities compose the changing river scenery. While there is plenty to see from the deck, the charm of this floating five-star hotel will not go unnoticed. From its lounge centered on a Steinway grand piano to its Northern European- and Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, the River Cloud II will not disappoint. The vessel boasts several different itineraries, the most popular of which runs between Budapest, Hungary, and Vilshofen, Germany, while passing through Vienna, Austria (select dates in August and September). From $3,595 per person.
Hudson River and St. Lawrence Seaway
Blount Small Ship Adventures' 12-night Locks, Legends and Fjords itinerary combines sailings along New York and Canada’s most scenic waterways. Embarking from Manhattan, the Grande Caribe sails the length of the Hudson River towards the St. Lawrence Seaway. The itinerary calls for an overnight stop at the Erie Canal and a wander through romantic Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay. Once past the Canadian border, guests may stroll the cobblestone streets of Quebec City before visiting the art museums of Montreal. Designed to navigate through narrow watercourses and low bridges, the ship features a dining hall, auditorium lounge, and several cabin options for passengers. The eye-popping colors of an autumn outing makes this riverboat cruise quite breathtaking. From $3,999 per person.
One of the world's longest and largest rivers, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, snaking through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. Pandaw River Cruises, the largest riverboat cruise company in Asia, emphasizes the latter two countries in its 10-night Mekong Unexplored journey, which kicks off with a full day in Saigon and includes tours of local landmarks, such as City Hall, Ben Thanh market, and nearby Cu Chi tunnels which were constructed by Viet Cong guerillas. From there, embark on one of four luxe, colonial-style steamers (each with capacity for less than 70 people) and wind upstream toward Cambodia, passing by jungle villages, lush wetlands, and rolling hills, before disembarking in Siem Reap. En route, excursions range from the adventurous to the otherworldly. Visit a catfish farm in Vietnam, then cruise through the colorful floating markets of Cai Be. In Cambodia, overlook the Mekong from Wat Nokor, an 11th-century Buddhist shrine, or tour Phnom Penh via private “cyclo“ (pedicab). Towards the end of the journey, travel to the WWF protected area to catch a glimpse of the region’s rare river dolphins. Optional pre- and post-trip excursions to Angkor Wat and Saigon are also available, as is a shorter, reverse (downstream) itinerary. Cruises are available in July and August. From $2,425.50 per person.
Explore America's Southern Charm on one of Blount Small Ship Adventures' Mississippi River cruises. This epic 12-night excursion stops in Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans, while offering passengers a look into the rich history of the south. Catch glimpses of our nation’s past that only the heartland can provide, with an itinerary that reveals a variety of landscapes and cultures with latitudinal changes. Stop off in historical hot spots like the Eddyville Historic Distric in Kentucky or the medieval-style "Castle on the Cumberland"; Vicksburg, Mississippi, the site of the 1863 Civil War Siege of Vicksburg and the Biedenharn Museum of Coca-Cola; and the quintessential Cajun cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. You’ll traverse the mighty Mississippi aboard the sleek, 96-passenger Grand Caribe. Sailings in April and December only. From $3,999 per person.
The “Mighty Murray” is to Australia what the Mississippi is to the United States. Stretching from its mountain source in Victoria to near Adelaide in South Australia, the Murray, combined with the Darling River that feeds it, is Australia’s longest river. Navigated since ancient times by Aboriginal tribes, then European explorers and traders, today it’s most trafficked by recreational houseboats and historic paddle steamers. Sample the river’s bounties aboard an authentic paddle wheeler. Captain Cook Cruises' well-appointed, 60-stateroom PS Murray Princess, from the historic town of Mannum, is situated about 50 miles east of Adelaide (complimentary connections are available). Their four-night Outback Heritage Cruise combines history- and nature-based activities, like outdoor hikes, vineyard tastings, and aboriginal history talks, on a riverboat cruise route dotted by locks, old river port towns, and dramatic Australian outback scenery. Expect towering cliffs, red gum forests, and wildlife sightings ranging from kangaroo to egret. Cruises run year-round. From about $1,140 per person.
A journey up the Nile is a quintessential part of any Egypt trip, but the beauty of the river, as well as the villages and cities that line its banks, can be lost in seas of tourists or unreachable by large cruise ships. For a truly memorable experience that evokes the romantic luxury of days gone by, enjoy the Nile away from the crowds on a sailboat called a dahabieh (the preferred method of transport for ancient pharaohs and 19th-century Grand Tourists) on a five-night cruise from Luxor to Aswan with Nour El Nil. Depending on which of the four boats you reserve, you’ll be one among only 16 to 20 passengers enjoying Ptolemaic temples, swims in the Nile, and even desert walks and horse and carriage ride excursions. The cruises run weekly year-round, with Monday morning departure dates from Esna. The price of your ticket includes all meals and nonalcoholic drinks (you can bring your own alcohol or pay extra onboard), all entrance fees for your five stops, all taxes, and even transfer from Luxor to the ports at Esna. To arrive refreshed for your cruise on Monday morning, spend the night before at the Nour El Nil affiliated Beit Sabee Guesthouse in Luxor’s West Bank, starting from $52 per night with breakfast included. Transfers from Cairo, where international flights to Egypt arrive, are not included; you can fly one-way with Egyptair to Luxor (from $121) and from Aswan back to Cairo (from $137). Cruise only from $1,444 per person.
Editor’s Note: cruise itineraries are operating on schedule as of April 11, 2013. Be sure to check the most recent U.S. Department of State's travel warnings to Egypt before scheduling any trips to the region.
Glide along in style on France's sinuous Seine aboard Avalon Waterways' Avalon Creativity. Carrying just 140 passengers, this intimate ship has no shortage when it comes to luxurious amenities. Bunk down in one of the colorful, modern staterooms, most of which come with French balconies – perfect for gazing out across the water at the romantic landscapes. During the course of the seven-night riverboat cruise from Paris to Normandy, passengers can unwind onboard at the whirlpool spa, fitness center, hair salon, or bar and lounge area. Offshore excursions promise plenty of magic, with options to visit sights like Claude Monet’s magnificent gardens at Giverny, Vincent van Gogh’s Auvers-sur-Oise, the famous Rouen Cathedral, Normandy's historic landing beaches, and, of course, the incomparable sights and tastes of Paris itself. From $2,449 per person.
Volga River and Russian Waterways
Experience Russia’s imperial majesty while sailing along one of the oldest Russian routes, visiting cities of the Golden Ring, from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Premium AMAWaterways offers memorable 11-night Russian Waterway sailings aboard the revamped MS AmaKatarina. The itinerary starts with one of the country’s grandes dames, Moscow, famous for its domed churches and burgeoning hip nightlife scene, then covers visits to various Golden Ring cities like Uglich and Yaroslavl. The journey ends in Russia’s other crowned-jewel, St. Petersburg, a magnificent city speckled with imperial palaces and a few hundred bridges. This riverboat cruise journey incorporates cultural extras like an exclusive ballet performance at the Hermitage Theater and a home visit and meal with a local Russian family in Uglich. Sailings are available from May through September; reverse itinerary available. From $3,499 per person.
Discover China's treasures by signing up for one of Viking River Cruises' 11-night Imperial Jewels of China excursions, which combine land tours of the Beijing capital, the Terra Cotta Warriors’ site at Xian, and cosmopolitan Shanghai, with a riverboat cruise along the Yangtze River – a river lifeline that has interwoven the lives and legends of the local peoples. The intimate and modern Viking Emerald offers 128 spacious staterooms (each with private balconies), well-suited for enjoying the views of the breathtaking Three Gorges region. The cruise line’s package rates include all meals, shore excursions, six nights in high-end hotels, and intra-China flights; sailings are available between April and November. Trip extensions are also available to Hong Kong. From $2,842 per person.