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17 of the world's best river cruises

From drifting the backwaters of India and tracing the Nile to fording the Amazon's remotest reaches, these journeys take you, in style, to places the roads just don't go

A felucca in Aswan, Egypt, on The Nile (Dreamstime)

1. Rhine: Fairytales, castles and rivers

Boppard on the Rhine, Middle Rhine Valley (Dreamstime)

Length: 1,320km

Timing: Year-long; December brings incredible winter markets, but berths book up fast. Summer is hot and busy, with the shoulder months (April or September) a good compromise.

The river: Since the height of the Holy Roman Empire, the Rhine has been the busiest waterway in Europe. But while dense shipping can impact on views in places, its scenery remains the most varied on the continent, ranging from battlefields and vineyards to Baroque palaces and medieval castles, as it trickles out of Switzerland and through western Germany to the Dutch coast.

The sights: Germany’s 65km stretch of Middle Rhine Valley is the fairytale river of popular imagination, studded with castles, medieval villages and hill-top palaces. Four-day cruises from Strasbourg to Koblenz are a great way to pack this in – along with the Rhineland’s vineyards – while avoiding the river’s more pragmatic parts. Plus, Strasbourg’s Cathedral is among the finest medieval buildings in Europe.

Detours: Side trips along Rhine tributary the Moselle reward with classy views, especially on the final hairpin bends between Trier, Germany’s oldest city, and Koblenz. Weeklong trips between these cities take in ‘wine capital’ Bernkastel and medieval Beilstein, overlooked by the imposing Metternich Castle.

2. Kerala Backwaters: Drift southern India in a rice barge

Houseboat on Kerala backwaters (Dreamstime)


Length: 900km

Timing: Winter (Nov-Feb) is cooler but can also be quite busy. In monsoon season (Jun-Oct) expect heavy rain in the afternoon.

The area: Kerala’s network of canals, lakes, rivers and tributaries offer a slow-motion take on India’s south-east, along waterways sketched liberally in mangrove forest and drifting past bird sanctuaries, plantations and vast paddies. Most cruisers amble along in kettuvallam (rice barges), dinky houseboats crafted from bamboo and coconut fibres (coir), in which time seems to stand still.

The sights: Most houseboat cruises set out from Alleppey (Alappuzha). From here, side trips overland to Munnar’s Western Ghats and Periyar NP reward with bracing walks and tiger-spotting opportunities respectively, but the main appeal lies in simply drifting. Typical trips meander via the vast lake of Vembanad to the island-clustered village of Kumarakom, all the way to Cochin (Kochi) where sail-like Chinese fishing nets and colonial facades greet your arrival.

Detours: Tired of the slow life? Try the Brahmaputra River, which flashes through India’s far western states. Eight-day trips sail from Nimati in West Bengal to Guwahati, Assam, with visits to Kaziranga NP (best Nov-Apr) to spy rare one-horned rhinos a worthy side trip.

3. Nile: Return to Egypt

Nile river bank, near Luxor, Egypt (Dreamstime)

Length: 6,853km

Timing: Boats sail year-round, but Oct-April is the coolest period, with high season (Dec-Feb) not nearly as busy as it used to be.

The river: Prior to 2011, a reported 10,000 trips a year were made on the Nile. But recent times have seen that number fall to just a few hundred as troubles elsewhere in the country take effect. Yet the Nile Valley has remained largely untouched by incident, and with London-Luxor flights having since resumed, the ancient waterway should be high on agendas.

The sights: The Cairo-to-Aswan ‘long Nile’ cruise (880km) returned to itineraries in 2015 following a two-decade absence. But with the capital still making the wrong kind of headlines, its southern reaches may prove more attractive. Set sail from Luxor, in any one of a range of vessels – from a classic small cruise ship, to the Agatha Christie-inspiring Steam Ship Sudan or a dahabeya houseboat with its giant sails – before exploring vast temples (Karnak, Kom Ombo, Edfu) and ancient necropolises (Valley of the Kings) en route to Aswan. From there, a side trip to Abu Simbel, a pair of huge rock temples hewn out of a mountainside near the Sudanese border, is a must.

Detours: Some tours include two-night trips downstream from Aswan aboard a small felucca (traditional wooden sailing boat) with mattresses slung on deck for a night under the stars.

4. Danube: Waltz across Eastern Europe

View of Belgrade city from Danube river (Dreamstime)


Length: 2,888km

Timing: Year-long; summer can leave water levels low, so avoid the hotter months (Jun-Jul) to skip potential cancellation disappointments.

The river: Veining nine countries (and edging another), the Danube stumbles over more borderlines than a four-year-old attempting an MC Escher colouring-in book. Nineteen nations in total share its basin and, from the Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea, it seeps through a spectacular array of landscapes, from the vineyards of Austria and Soviet-era architecture of Belgrade to the gorges and peaks of Romania.

The sights: Typical trips last around eight days, starting in Nuremberg, Germany, and drifting through Austria to finish in Hungarian capital Budapest. The more adventurous will likely be drawn to the river’s eastern fringes, where cruises usually depart the Baroque Austrian streets of Linz for the Little Carpathians of Slovakia and on through Serbia’s ‘Iron Gates’, the clawed gorges that mark its border with Romania. These trips tend to culminate in Tulcea, which has good links to explore the dramatic Black Sea delta.

DETOURS: For those inclined towards the epic, 24-day cruises incorporate the waterways of Amsterdam and parts of the Rhine and Main rivers before linking up with the Danube Canal in Nuremberg and pushing on to the Black Sea.

5. Mekong: Wildlife and pagodas in South-East Asia

Buddhist monks in front of Angkor Wat temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia (Dreamstime)


Length: 4,350km

Timing: Year-round; winter (Nov-Feb) is cooler but tends to be packed, while rainy season (Jun-Oct) is less busy, with heavy – if often fleeting – showers.

The river: In the heat of the Loatian summer, it’s difficult to believe that the source of the Mekong lies high up in the meltwaters of the Himalayas. Today, development along the river remains admirably restrained when compared to the rest of Asia’s rivers, a fact appreciated as you drift the lower reaches' bamboo jungle, stilt villages, floating markets, rice fields and pagodas between Laos and the South China Sea.

The sights: Typical week-long cruises either traverse Laos from laid-back Luang Prabang biodiversity almost rivals that of the Amazon, Siem Reap in particular a popular jumping-off temple complex, while the tragic legacies of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam War resound in the museums, POW camps and tunnels of Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh.

Detours: New 14-day trips along the Mekong’s upper section begin in late 2017, on what’s said to be the first cruises to take in this part of the river. From Vientiane, you’ll float over the Chinese border to Jinghong, wandering Laos’s Plain of Jars and the Dai villages of Yunnan en route.

6. Amazon: Welcome to the jungle

Trees in Amazon river, Amazonia, Brazil

Length: 6,992km

Timing: Wet season (Dec-May) means better access to the Amazon’s smaller tributaries, fewer crowds and spectacular wildlife watching.

The river: The majority of the world’s largest river runs through Brazil and Peru, with the former attracting the bulk of the traffic – and visitors. Legions of vessels prowl the broad, noisy stretches between Manaus and the Colombian border, which is why the adventurous look elsewhere…

The sights: The ‘alternative’ often means Peru, where shallow-bottomed riverboats set out from Iquitos to the Amazon’s northern tributaries (Ucayali, Marañon, Tahuayo) all the way to its headwaters. Trips (4-7 days) thread blackwater streams and islands swarming with iguanas to the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, a 20,000 sq km of flooded, wildlife-packed jungle. Pit-stop in river villages, swim with pink river dolphins and soak up one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Detours: The wildlife reserve and freshwater archipelago of the Anavilhanas lies around 75km upstream from Manaus, Brazil, along the Rio Negro tributary. Go in dry season (May-Nov) when its islands and channels come alive with jaguars, manatees and some spectacular birdlife.

7. Hooghly: History and tigers in India’s West Bengal

Length: 260km

Timing: Year-round; October to April brings milder temperatures.

The river: This West Bengal tributary of the Ganges embraced river tours, after its once dried up flows were bolstered by a diversion from the main stem. Since then, shallow-draft ships have opened up the route, with week-long cruises from Farakka to Kolkata ploughed by a handful of luxury craft, pushing deep into West Bengal’s storied fringes.

The sights: India’s imperial west is the incentive here, with visits to Murshidabad and its impossible Palace of 1,000 Doors, which was the seat of the Murghal nawab (ruler), as well as the Battlefield of Plassey, where the last independent ruler of the region was defeated by the British in 1757. Stops at the ruined city of Gaur and terracotta temples of Kalna delve even further back into an era and region little explored by visitors.

Detours: Trips upstream along the Ganges from Farakka are possible in August/September, when the high waters allow you to journey to the holy city of Varanasi, spying gangetic river dolphins and pilgrimage sites en route.

8. Yangtze: Ghosts and gorges of China

Yangzi river In China (Dreamstime)

Length: 6,300km

Timing: Year-round; spring (Mar-May) and autumn (Sep-Nov) offer cooler breezes and fewer mosquitoes.

The river: The Yangtze is big! It is said more people live on its banks than in the entire US, and even the boats that cruise it (100-250 passengers) are huge, thanks to local demand and a dearth of low bridges. But it has changed. The controversial Three Gorges Dam has taken its toll, raising water levels and erasing villages along its most popular stretch, between Chongqing and Shanghai. The epic scenery, however, remains breathtaking.

The sights: Trips tend to vary between ten-day voyages from Chongqing to Shanghai and abbreviated three/four-day jaunts, usually to the towering gorges of Wuhan, which are part of a longer trip that includes flights to Beijing and Xi’an. Other Yangtze pit-stops include the ‘ghost city’ of Fengdu (pictured left), where a vast ‘ghost king’ statue cradles a mountainside of monasteries and shrines, before drifting on to the first – and most dramatic – gorge, Xiling, its steep-sided, misty canyons velveted in a lush canvas.

Detours: A side-trip to Guilin (1.5-hour flights from Chongqing) rewards with trips on the Li River, floating amid karst rises and terraced hills; meanwhile Suzhou – 30 minutes by train from Shanghai – is the gateway to the old water towns of Jiangsu province, laced with scenic canals and Qing-era gardens.

9. Chobe: Cruise Botswana’s Big Five

Length: 731km

Timing: Botswana’s dry season (Apr-Oct) sees water sources inland become scarce, improving the chances of spotting wildlife from the river.

The river: The Chobe is the name given to the lower section of southern Africa’s Cuando River, which rises out of Angola, edges Namibia and northern Botswana before flushing into the mighty Zambezi. Plush river cruisers float its middle reaches, heading out from Kasane, Botswana, and into the wild wetlands of the Okavango Delta and the Chobe National Park.

The sights: Most tours include four days on the Chobe River as a part of a longer trip (12-14 days), usually beginning in South Africa’s Johannesburg and ending at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls (pictured above). In between, drift the park’s teak and mahogany-riddled banks, as giant marabou stork watch on and great egrets swoop overhead seemingly mocking gravity. River and overland safaris bring you closer to the park’s huge herds of elephants and buffalo, with plenty of opportunities to spy big game from the water.

Detours: Take advantage of a longer trip to cram in more nature. Many tours can include nights and game drives in South Africa’s Kruger NP, known for its large numbers of rare white rhinos.

10. Irrawaddy: Myanmar (Burma) by water

Temples of Bagan, Burma (Dreamstime)

Length: 2,170km

Timing: Year-round; dry season (Nov-Feb) sees cooler temperatures

The river: Like South-East Asia’s other alpha rivers, the Irrawaddy’s Himalayan source offers stark contrast to the hot plains of Burma that most cruisers experience. Here, luxurious colonial-style riverboats regularly skim the waters between Yangon and Mandalay (11-15 days), dipping in at Inle Lake and Bagan.

The sights: Two-day cruises from Mandalay to the temple complex of Bagan are a fine way to quickly soak up the region. The city is still flecked with remnants of its colonial heyday, especially around its old docks, while the golden monastery speaks of another era entirely. Both cities feature on the round-trip to Bhamo (11 days), before peaking in the stark gorges and remote villages, such as Katha, of the distant north, near the Chinese border, where fewer visitors tread.

Detours: To escape the crowds further, the Chindwin tributary branches of Burma’s Upper Irrawaddy and brushes steep-sided cliffs, lush jungle, and en route to Homalin, with potential land trips across the border to the Indian state of Nagaland – offering a different world entirely. 

11. Mississippi: Birth of a nation

Boat in the Mississippi River (Dreamstime)

Length: 3,734km

Timing: Riverboats plunge the lower reaches of the river during winter (Nov-Dec) and summer (Apr-Jun).

The river: The Mississippi occupies a powerful place in the American imagination, with a crowded history that takes in everything from the American Civil War to the creation of rock ’n’ roll as it swerves ten states, its waters still ploughed by giant paddle ships.

The sights: It’s the lower New Orleans-to- Memphis stretch of this vast river that truly feels like the Mississippi of Mark Twain and the history books. Eight-day cruises typically begin in the ‘Big Easy’, with stops narrating the birth of modern America, from the harrowing plantations of Oak Alley, which explore the antebellum homesteads that witnessed the heyday of slavery in the US, to the battlefield of Vicksburg, where the Civil War turned in favour of the Yankees. In between lie ageing river towns, wild swamps and rock ’n’ roll legends.

Detours: Longer cruises along the lower, middle (Cairo, Illinois, to St Louis, Missouri) and upper (St Louis to St Paul, Minnesota) parts of the river are a veritable three-week PhD in Americana.

12. Volga: Russia made easy

White church along the Volga River in Russia (Dreamstime)

Length: 3,530km

Timing: The bulk of the river is navigable between March and December.

The river: Stretching from the hills north of Moscow down to the Caspian Sea, the Volga is Russia: impossibly vast and wrinkled with an operatic and turbulent history narrated in the folktales, buildings and cities that line its banks.

The sights: The route between Moscow and St Petersburg (10-15 days) is a popular one, following the Volga for part of the way, fording rural villages and some of Europe’s largest lakes. But the true Volga experience is found on its lower reaches, strung between Moscow and ‘caviar capital’ Astrakhan (12 days). This covers 3,000km in a blur of onion-domed cathedrals and (bloody) Red history, pit-stopping at the UNESCO-listed city of Yaroslavl and drifting through the Republic of Tartarstan before pitching into a vast, wild delta speckled with lotus flowers and flamingos.

Detours: The Neva River makes up the final stretch of the Moscow-St Petersburg route, seeping from Lake Ladoga through the delta that St Petersburg sits on. It’s a quick way to get a taste of Russia and see some fine architecture.

13. Rhone: The reign of terroir

Flamingos in the Rhone Provence, France (Dreamstime)

Length: 812km

Timing: Cruises run from March to November, with grape harvests typically taking place between August and October.

The river: From the glaciers of Switzerland, the Rhône plunges west through France, branching into the Saône as its pushes on to the Mediterranean. This last stretch is pure gastronome country, with typical wine-themed cruises traversing Provence and Burgundy aboard small riverboats and barges, pit-stopping at vineyards and crumbling Gallic castles.

The sights: Most routes combine both regions (and rivers), usually beginning or ending in Beaune, the heart of the Burgundy region where pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes rule the roost. From there, wend vineyards, châteaux and medieval cities, stopping in gastronomic capital Lyon and finishing in Provençal Arles. Try and include a visit to Camargue, where the Rhône flows into the sea; this delta is packed with birdlife and crowds of promenading flamingos.

Detours: Alternative French wine cruises either combine the Dordogne and Garonne rivers (setting off from Bordeaux) or drift the Loire Valley, an area known for its castles, barges and Sancerres.

14. Murray: Australia’s answer to the Mississippi

Length: 2,735km

Timing: Cruises operate year-round on the lower river, but tours further inland rely on the higher waters of spring.

The river: The ‘mighty Murray’ shaped Australian history. Back in the 19th century, the river was a major shipping route, ferrying goods across three states (Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia). Today, paddle ships now inch passengers through its lower reaches, edging wildlife reserves and red gum forests.

The sights: Luxury steamers line the lower river between Murray Bridge and the old trading posts of Mannum and Morgan (3-7 days). En route, the riverbank hums with wildlife, from wombats and kangaroos to the rich array of birdlife that flits its shores, while week-long trips typically cram in hikes, small-boat safaris, wine tastings and a visit to the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve.

Detours: To explore the reserves, vineyards and tributaries of upstream, swap steamers for a catamaran and overnight stays on land. Week-long cruises from Echuca, once Oz’s busiest inland port, only run in November, when the high water allows.

15. Caledonian Canal: Barging through Scotland

Length: 100km

Timing: Cruises run between April and October.

The canal: Cutting a gash across northern Scotland from Inverness to Fort William on the west coast, the Great Glen fault carves its way through fen, forest and fell. By 1822, it would also shepherd the Caledonian Canal, a hand-dug waterway using vast lochs (Ness, Lochy, Oich), like stepping stones, to ferry trawlers inland from the North Sea. Today, it’s mostly small barges (8-12 people) ploughing its waters on week-long trips.

The sights: The canal’s setting is drama enough, especially seen atop a low-slung barge while inching through the Highlands. Soak in the raw beauty of the country’s lochs while pit-stopping at Cawdor Castle and cruise the locks of Neptune’s Staircase as you descend to the village of Corpach, overshadowed by the mighty Ben Nevis, before warming up with a wee nip at a Scottish whisky tasting.

Detours: If you prefer a ship to a barge, cruises from Inverness continue on to the isles off the west coast during summer (May-Sept), visiting Eigg, Skye and the sea loch of Inverie in the remote Knoydart peninsula. Pure isolation. 

16. Douro: Port, parks and Portugal

Porto cityscape on the Douro River (Dreamstime)

Length: 897km

Timing: Year-round; go May or – for barefooted grape-stomping – September.

The river: From the medieval dockyards of coastal Porto, the Douro winds sun-dappled vineyards, plunging locks, valleys and Portuguese villages to the Spanish border. Its headwaters, however, lie further on in central Spain, with week-long cruises usually culminating amid the grandiose walls of Salamanca.

The sights: Wander the Romanesque streets of Porto before cruising into the Douro Valley for port tastings and visits to traditional Iberian villages such as Pinhão. Upriver, rocky gorges hide nesting griffon vultures, with trips to the Douro Natural Park (straddling the Spanish border) a must. But the highlight is the UNESCO-listed Salamanca, a bustling university town speckled with cathedrals and golden sandstone.

Detours: Further south, the Guadiana and Guadalquivir also offer similar under-the-radar escapes on the Portuguese border and Spain’s Andalusia region. Cruises thread between Seville and Cádiz, and even splash into the Atlantic to switch rivers as you explore vineyards, national parks and Moorish architecture along the way.

17. Columbia: Go west in the USA

Length: 2,000km

Timing: Boats run between April and October, but bring plenty of warm clothing – even during summer. Early October sees the grape harvest.

The river: The Columbia River slips through the Canadian Rockies and over the US border into Washington to the Oregon coast. Together with its main tributary, the Snake River, this stretch is best known as the final part of Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition into the then-uncharted west.

The sights: Small boat and paddle wheel cruises explore the last push of the duo, from Clarkston, Washington, to Astoria on the Pacific coast – albeit in more comfort. Explore the petroglyphs of the deepest river gorge in the US, Hells Canyon, under the watchful gaze of its Bighorn sheep, then push on to the Multnomah Falls. Most cruises take in a trip to Fort Clatsop, the expedition’s furthest point in 1805, and give you time to explore the Dalles (the end of the old pioneer wagon route), hip Portland and towering Mount St Helens.

Detours: Forget pioneer hardships on a wine cruise along the Columbia between Portland and Vancouver (Washington) – a chance to savour the vineyards and seasonal grape harvesting.

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