By Simon & Susan Veness
We have two words for you this week. River cruising. There, we said it. In a world largely dominated by the ocean-going variety, we dare to raise the idea of the sedate – and often derided – realm of travelling the riverine route.
Now, we know this may put us out of step with the majority, but hear us out. We know people here like high-quality holiday experiences. We know they like to be charmed by the places they visit in an intelligent and cultured way. And we know they like to be active and engaged, taking a more energetic role in proceedings than past cruisers.
So why not take a river cruise? Yes, we know it’s had this rather staid and dull image in the past, with all the excitement of your Great Aunt Mabel and her friends on tour. But most of that has now gone, even if much of the marketing focus is still on the tried-and-trusted routes in Europe, mainly the Rhine, Danube, Moselle and Rhone/Saone. However, even there, you can now find more variety and, with the advent of new operators like Crystal Cruises, a whole new luxurious and erudite way to enjoy it.
But what if you are ready to break into new cruise frontiers (of the inland waterway persuasion) and have already sampled the Rhine, Danube, etc?
Well we are here to tell you there is still more you can try. Much more. And that’s because the river-cruise world has grown in vast proportions over the past decade or so, to Russia, the Far East, the USA and even Africa.
So, if you haven’t hitherto been attracted by the prospect of this type of cruising but you have an open mind, let us present a whole new look at your river options.
Riving cruising in The Far East: Yangtze, the Mekong and the Irrawaddy
This is possibly the area that has seen the most growth in recent years, in at least three directions. The quality of operations in this part of the world – with the likes of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Avalon, Pandaw Cruises, Viking and even CroisiEurope – has also gone up to meet demand, and the trio of mainstream options are all equally tempting.
First of all there is China, or, more specifically, the Yangtze River. This vast and ancient waterway offers a look at the heart of China, mainly on the 120-mile Three Gorges section, which is easily the most spectacular, between Chongqing and Yichang. Typical itineraries run from three to five nights, with a few offering seven and eight-night versions between Chongqing and Shanghai or Beijing.
Most cruises here will also incorporate a significant land-based tour as well, meaning you can undertake a truly meaningful journey in high style and with a great opportunity to really get to know the local culture.
Next up on the Far East pantheon of possibility is Vietnam, namely the Mekong River that runs from Ho Chi Minh City, the most populous Vietnamese city, to Siem Reap, deep inside Cambodia. This 256-mile journey usually takes eight days but can also be paired with a side trip to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, and the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, with its stunning limestone pillars.
The markets, temples, palaces and culture of both countries are superbly laid out as you travel the mighty Mekong, and any journey that culminates in the seat of the ancient Khmer kingdom, Siem Reap, the gateway to the fabulous temples and architectural grandeur of Angkor, should be sought out by every keen traveller. You can even find several longer itineraries with more time in Ho Chi Minh City or Siem Reap to set the seal on a totally memorable holiday.
Third on this fabulous Far East trail is the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, another timeless journey of ancient cultures and fascinating landscapes, with a very seasonal aspect due to the monsoon season in the country formerly known as Burma. From September to April, you’ll find a wide variety of vessels operating between Mandalay and Bagan (usually over four nights), Yangon to Mandalay (up to seven nights) or Yangon to Bhamo in the hinterland (a two-week trip). Pagodas, monasteries and ethnic villages will all be on the menu, and it will be a side of the country little-seen by Westerners even 10 years ago.
River cruising in Russia: The Volga and Svir River
This obviously isn’t as far afield as Myanmar and Cambodia, but the typical route from St Petersburg to Moscow (or vice versa) along the historic Volga or Svir Rivers is also a seasonal one, mainly from May to October, and tends to be fairly river-intensive, with more time on board than ashore and several large lakes to navigate.
The start and finish points afford extra time to explore the two major cities in question, while the history in between involves an intense exploration of the Tsars, the Orthodox Russian religion (with its many monasteries) and some of the most rural territory in Europe. For history buffs, it is possibly the most enthralling cruise of all.
River cruising in America: The Mississippi, Snake and Columbia River
So you’ve heard of the Mississippi, right? The USA’s version of the Rhine is equally distinctive and signature-laden, but it is only one of three major possibilities these days, as America has fully embraced the major river-cruise world in the last few years.
Old Man River still commands the lion’s share of the riverine business, and it comes in various seasonal sections, as far north as St Paul (in the summer), into the Ohio River to Cincinnati (also on summer routes), and down to Memphis and New Orleans in the colder periods. You will encounter major cities and tiny towns, backwoods history and musical heritage, from seven days to 16, and with numerous permutations in between.
Alternatively, for more frontier-style history, the story of American exploration and some great wine territory, the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Washington and Oregon are a growing area of cruise potential, with dramatically different terrain and unique local cultures. The scenery changes from lush rainforest to arid prairie and includes part of the route pioneered by Lewis and Clark on their early 19th century mission to discover The West, with the modern cruise season running from April to November.
Even more off the usual river-cruise radar is the Great Lakes route that takes passengers from New York to Chicago via the Hudson River, Erie Canal, Welland Canal and four of the five Lakes. This is typically offered from June to September and features all manner of small-town Americana in between the two terminus cities, including fabulous Mackinac Island in Michigan and beautiful Rochester in New York State.
The cruise operators will also be different from any of those elsewhere as they are all American owned and operated lines (although Viking Cruises have announced plans to join the Mississippi trail, but with no official start date as yet). Here, you will need to look for American Cruise Lines, UnCruise Adventures, the American Queen Steamboat Company, Blount Small Ship Cruises and the new French American Line.
River cruising in Africa: The Chobe River
This may still be a fly-speck operation compared to all those elsewhere, but the chance to explore the Chobe River in Botswana and Namibia should get the attention of all those looking for the next great river-cruise. The Zambezi Queen of AMA Waterways is a true luxury vessel and, while current voyages last only four days, they can be included with a variety of southern Africa sight-seeing and in-depth animal experiences. It is a true original and utterly unique, even by African standards.
All four regions offer great contrasts and even greater cultural experiences, and all will feel hugely different from the usual European routes. And, for those looking for that ‘Something different’ factor in the travel world today, this could well be the answer. Or, as we like to say: It’s river-cruising, Jim, but not as we know it.