From the unashamedly touristic gondolas of Venice to the more rustic riverboats that ply the Amazon, these boat rides are guaranteed to add a splash of excitement to your next family holiday
England is criss-crossed with canals, which were built to transport goods across the country during the Industrial Age. Many have been restored, and most pass through idyllic rural countryside, dotted with welcoming pubs.
A narrow boat is the best way to explore them. Most come with all the mod cons, and after a brief lesson from the company you’re hiring yours from, they are fairly easy to navigate. The most popular routes include the Grand Union Canal, the Kennet and Avon Canal, and the ‘rings’ around Oxford, Cambridge and London. Your most difficult decision will be which one to choose.
Hiring a traditional thatched houseboat and exploring the Kerala backwaters is one of the quintessential southern India experiences. Here, on languid waters lined by palm trees, life continues as it always has – at a somnolent pace.
The best place to hire a boat is Alleppey, halfway between Kochi and Kollam and considered the ‘gateway’ to the backwaters. The best route is Alleppey-Kuttanad. It offers an extensive network of narrow backwaters and is great for experiencing village life.
A wildlife cruise in the Galapagos is like a floating safari camp, with your ship acting as a base for a fully immersive introduction to the islands' extraordinary wildlife. Each day brings a new island and a new encounter, both at sea and on land.
Avoid the big mega-cruisers. Most smaller ships have professional naturalists on board – as well as all the gear you’ll need to snorkel and kayak among the curious sea creatures – and have the added benefit of being able to reach more secluded spots.
In Amazonian Brazil, the rivers are the roads: the best (and often only) way to get from point A to B is by river boat. Old, wooden and slow, riding one is an adventure that you and your kids will never forget.
It’s a unique experience, sleeping in hammocks, watching the river and local life glide by, and eating with fellow passengers at a huge communal table. You could catch one all the way from Belem to Manaus, but two or three days is probably enough for kids to get a taste of Amazonian river life.
The karst-dotted waters of Vietnam’s Halong Bay are rightly regarded as one of the wonders of the world. Sailing around the bay on an old wooden ship is the best way to appreciate the vast bay and its breathtaking rock formations.
An overnight cruise is arguably the best option. You get more time to relax and truly enjoy the scenery, and wake up to one of the world’s greatest views.
Still put off by the crowds? Try a cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay. Just up the coast from Halong Bay, it offers the same jaw-dropping scenery but sees only a fraction of the visitors.
Costa Rica is a great place for families to try white water rafting. The rivers are invariably beautiful, framed by thick jungle, and the rapids aren’t too fierce for young paddlers.
Reventazon River has good water levels all year round, while Pacuare River is renowned for its biodiversity – including rainforest and waterfalls. Corobici River offers the calmest rafting trip in Costa Rica, making it ideal for kids, and is one of the best to spot wild animals and birds. It is surrounded by Palo Verde National Park, which is home to more than 300 species of birds.
Granted, taking a gondola ride in Venice is a bit of a travel cliché. And paying for it will probably mean dipping into your childrens’ university funds. But just watch your kids’ faces light up when their oarsman, resplendent in his striped shirt, starts belting out a few verses of ‘O Sole Mia’. Chances are, you’ll have a hard time not smiling too.
Don’t be put off by horror tales of overcharging. The good news is that gondoliers now have to charge a set fee: €80 for 40 minutes for a maximum of 6 people, or €100 after 7pm. Your gondolier may try and cut it short, so keep an eye on your watch. Head to Camp Sant Angelo. There is usually a gaggle of gondoliers sitting by the stone steps leading to San Stefano.