The banks of the world’s great rivers, once the main arteries of trade and commerce and the heart of several civilisations, are a sightseer’s dream. And there’s no more comfortable way to enjoy their historic, cultural and scenic highlights than aboard a river cruise ship.
And unlike touring by land, it’s hassle-free. There’s always something to see on both beams and, since the water’s dead calm, there’s more chance of feeling nauseous watching your toothpaste water swill down the sink than while sailing.
The banks of the world’s great rivers, once the main arteries of trade and commerce and the heart of several civilisations, are a sightseer’s dream
Ships that ply rivers look very different from those on the world’s oceans. Long and thin, with the proportions of a pencil case rather than the lines of a ‘proper’ ship, the standard river vessel is just two or three decks tall, with a wide sun deck, often a small pool, and usually around 150 to 200 passengers (just right for mixing with people you like and avoiding those you don’t).
You can expect to pay more than the equivalent tour by coach but standards are high and all prices below (unless stated otherwise), include flights, transfers, all meals with drinks, and several excursions.
DALLY ALONG THE DANUBE
Starting in Budapest, the one week ‘Gems of Southeast Europe’ cruise on the top-rated AmaSonata follows the lesser-known lower Danube via Belgrade to Bucharest, known as the ‘Paris of the East’. Your journey ends in Rousse, with its fabulous Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture.
Parliament Building and the Danube River at dusk in Budapest, Hungary
Terrific tours: The immense fortress at Belogradchik in Bulgaria and Vukovar in Croatia, which is supposed to have suffered the worst damage in Europe since World War II (you can still see the bullet marks in many buildings from the violent break-up of Yugoslavia).
Top tip: Be on deck for the passage through the dramatic ‘Iron Gates’ where the Danube narrows as it slices through a series of magnificent gorges between Serbia and Romania.
Details: Cabins cost from £1599pp with AmaWaterways (AmaWaterways.co.uk; 0808 256 8422).
SPONSORED LINK: Travel the Danube in style with Scenic River Cruise
Celebrate the sights on-board one of our 5-star Space-Ships and immerse yourself in culture on our 8-day, award-winning Iconic Danube cruise. Enjoy fine-dining, complimentary drinks and your very own butler service. Taking advantage of our flexible included excursions, learn about each destination, before taking in a Viennese concert. Book before 12 September and enjoy a FREE Luxury Balcony Suite upgrade worth up to £2,400 per couple. Hurry, there are only 5 suite upgrades per departure. Visit www.scenic.co.uk or call Scenic on 0808 159 0779.
Immerse yourself in culture on one of Scenic’s award-winning Iconic Danube cruise
LURE OF THE LAGOON
Uniworld’s River Countess has a 10-day Italian jaunt starting with two nights in Milan, home to Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, before travelling by road to Venice for a week sailing across the lagoon and along the gentle meanders of the river Po.
The Grand Canal in Venice, at dusk, as seen from the Rialto Bridge
Terrific tours: As well as the cities of Padua and Verona there are also off-piste trips, such as to Chioggia where guests visit a casoni (fisherman’s hut) to learn the art of mussel-harvesting from locals, then steam their own catch in prosecco before enjoying them on the waterfront. In Venice, after a walking tour of the labyrinthine back lanes, there’s an after-hours, crowd-free visit inside St Mark’s Basilica.
Top tip: Visit the roof of Milan’s mighty gothic cathedral for close encounters with the spires and gargoyles.
Details: Cabins from £2,909pp for a seven-night cruise, two nights B&B in Milan, transfers but not flights. Valid on the cruise departing Milan on 21 October 2016 with Uniworld, (uniworld.com; 0808 281 1125). The lead in price for 2017 sailings is £2,599.
SWISH ALONG THE SEINE
Easily reached from the UK, the eight-day trips aboard one of three Viking ‘Longships’, starting and finishing in Paris, offer a new perspective on the capital as well as Versailles, Rouen, Honfleur, Richard the Lionheart’s castle at Les Andelys, the World War II landing beaches and the rural landscapes of Normandy.
Swish along the Seine, with the Orsay museum and the Eiffel tower in the background
Terrific tours: Monet’s garden at Giverny where you’ll see the Japanese bridge, water lily ponds, wisteria and azaleas that inspired many of his masterpieces. Another excursion takes in World War II landmarks such as the Omaha and Juno beaches, the American Military Cemetery and Arromanches D-Day Museum.
Top tip: Don’t miss al fresco meals served on the ‘Aquavit Terrace’ and lounging on the sun deck, which has an organic herb garden, a putting green and walking track.
Details: Cabins cost from £2,145pp with Viking Cruises (vikingcruises.co.uk; 0800 319 66 60).
SPONSORED LINK: Soak up French culture with Scenic River Cruise
The Scenic Culinaire experience allows guests to participate in on-board cooking classes
Sail in comfort and style in the largest, most luxurious balcony suites on French rivers. Enjoy included fine dining and complimentary drinks, bespoke excursions and private events. New for 2017, our rebuilt France ships will feature our exclusive Scenic Culinaire experience, allowing guests to participate in on board cooking classes. Until 12 September enjoy a FREE Luxury Balcony Suite upgrade, worth up to £2,400 per couple. Hurry, only 5 suite upgrades per departure. Visit www.scenic.co.uk or call Scenic on 0808 159 6771.
STEAMING ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI
Immerse yourself in America’s Deep South in Gone With The Wind-style aboard the paddle steamer American Queen, the largest of its kind in the world, as it cruises between New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, and Memphis, home of the blues. Six decks high and longer than a football field, the Queen features an abundance of filigree, fretwork, antique furniture, original Tiffany lamps and mahogany panelling.
New Orleans at night, as seen from the Mississippi river
Terrific tours: Optional extra excursions include the battlefields of the American Civil War at Vicksburg, described by President Lincoln as ‘the key to victory’, and the ‘white gold’ sugar fields and plantation houses along the Great River Road in Louisiana.
Top tip: Take in a musical (from bluegrass to country, jazz to rock & roll) in the ship’s Grand Saloon theatre, which resembles the small town opera houses of the 19th century.
Details: From £2679pp for 10 nights, including seven on board, two in New Orleans and one in Memphis (room only) with Light Blue Travel (lightbluetravel.co.uk; 01223 568904).
NAVIGATE THE IRRAWADDY
Explore the scenic and remote Upper Irrawaddy on a 10-night journey aboard the Kindat Pandaw. Built along traditional colonial lines with lots of teak and brass, her shallow draft means greater access to the river’s remote upper reaches. She has just 18 outside staterooms, all accessed from the promenade deck.
The Shwe Kyet Yet temple on the banks of the Irrawaddy River near Mandalay in Burma
Terrific tours: The magnificent and many temples of the ancient capital of Pagan (it has 3000 listed monuments) and a guided bike ride through local villages.
Top tip: Read George Orwell’s Burmese Days, written in his onetime home in Katha, your last port of call.
Details: Cabins from £3460pp with Pandaw (pandaw.com; 0208 326 5620).
PORTUGAL’S WINE ROUTE
Terraced hillside vineyards studded with quintas wine estates and the port city of Porto are the main ingredients of this leisurely eight-day cruise along the Duoro, the so called ‘river of gold’.
A panoramic view of the river Douro in Porto city, Portugal
Terrific tours: To the pretty town of Vila Real and the 18th century Casa de Mateus manor house, a baroque masterpiece with beautiful gardens, as seen on the labels of its famous rosé wine. Next best? The excursion to medieval Aveiro, known as the ‘Venice of Portugal’ and surrounded by salt flats, beaches and lagoons.
Top tip: Enjoy a tipple or two of port in one of Porto’s famous lodges on the Gaia side of the river.
Details: Cabins from £980pp, excluding flights, with CroisiEurope (croisieurope.co.uk; 020 8328 1281).
TRAVERSE THE RHONE AND SOANE
Linking the vineyards and villages of Burgundy with the historic towns of Provence, including Arles with its Roman ampitheater, Avignon and the Palaces des Papes, and the ancient temples of Vienne, plus the gastronomic city of Lyon, these waterways are also very accessible by rail for those not wanting to fly or drive.
Avalon’s Poetry II’s 10-night cruise between Arles and Chalon-sur-Saone starts with an overnight stay in Monte Carlo and finishes with a TGV journey to Paris for two nights
The Papal Palace as seen from the River Rhone in Avignon, Provence
Terrific tours: Fans of the TV series Disparue (Disappearance) will love Lyon, France’s third largest city, which stands at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône. The tour includes Fourviere Hill for amazing views and the imposing Notre Dame De Fourviere, and the old quarter with its narrow passageways and Michelin star restaurants. There’s also (optional extra) wine tasting at the Chateauneuf du Pape vineyard, where grapes can only be hand picked.
Top tip: Have a flutter in the Casino de Monte-Carlo, admiring the legendary décor as you lose your shirt.
Details: Cabins from £1522pp including home pick-up by private car, a night at the Fairmont Monte Carlo and two in Le Meridien Montparnasse Paris (B&B) through Avalon (avaloncruises.co.uk; 0800 668 1801).
FINE TIMES ALONG THE RHINE
The Rhine is rich in history with fairy-tale castles, medieval towns, historic cities and a number of pretty villages parading along its banks. Emerald Dawn’s eight-day ‘Jewels of the Rhine’ cruise starts in Holland (Amsterdam), passes through Germany and besides the edge of France and finishes in Basel (Switzerland).
Emerald Dawn’s eight-day ‘Jewels of the Rhine’ cruise starts in Amsterdam, Holland
Terrific tours: In Rüdesheim, board the Winzerexpress mini-train to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Instrument Museum to see one of the world’s biggest collections of self-playing musical instruments.
In the heart of the Black Forest there’s a cooking demo in a typical, family-owned Gasthof with famous Black Forest Gateau in the repertoire.
Top tip: Be on the sun deck for the stretch between Cologne and Mainz, arguably the most scenic section of all Europe’s waterways.
Details: Cabins from £1,795pp with Emerald Waterways (emeraldwaterways.co.uk; 0808 115 6269).
SPONSORED LINK: Discover Rhine’s fairy tale castles with Scenic River Cruise
Flowing from the eastern Swiss Alps to the North Sea coast, see the sights of the Rhine in all-inclusive 5-star luxury with Scenic. Discover the fairy tale castles and waterside villages that line the banks of Europe’s longest river. Book before 12 September, to enjoy a FREE Luxury Balcony Suite upgrade worth up to £2,400 per couple on all 2017 all-inclusive 5-star Rhine River Cruises. Visit www.scenic.co.uk or call Scenic on 0808 252 3944.
Discover the fairy tale castles and waterside villages on the banks of Europe’s longest river
RUSSIA AT ITS MOST REWARDING – ALONG THE NEVA-VOLGA
Take a 15-day, back door view of Russia on board the Scenic Tsar, bookended by Moscow and St Petersburg. The waterway also includes canals and inland lakes as well as rivers, with shore time involving a mix of cities, small towns and villages and a heavy quota of churches and icons.
Journey into Moscow on water on the Scenic Luxury River Cruise
Terrific tours: In addition to the Hermitage there’s a private ballet performance at the Palace of Prince Vladimir, the last Imperial palace to be built in St Petersburg in an eclectic combination of architectural styles. Meet a real astronaut in Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics devoted to the history of space and exploration.
Top tip: On Kizhi Island don’t miss the magnificent Church of the Transfiguration with its 22 onion domes. Built entirely of wood and without a single nail, it’s a World Heritage Listed site.
Details: Cabins from £3995pp with Scenic, (scenic.co.uk; 0808 163 4010).
SPONSORED LINK: Enjoy the splendour of Moscow with Scenic River Cruise
Explore the majesty of Russia on-board a fully-inclusive 5-star river cruise ship
Explore the majesty of Russia on-board a fully-inclusive 5-star river cruise ship and travel from the haunting beauty of St. Petersburg to the might and splendour of Moscow. Navigate this epic land of stark contrasts in one of the easiest and most fulfilling ways. Book before 12 September, to enjoy a FREE Luxury Balcony Suite upgrade worth up to £2,400 per couple on all 2017 fully-inclusive 5-star Russia River Cruises. Visit www.scenic.co.uk or call Scenic on 0808 271 7292.
SAVOUR THE GARONNE AND GIRONDE
This must surely be a wine lover’s dream voyage. Passengers board an Aria river ship in Bordeaux and ease gently through Bordeaux on an eight day journey linking many of the most famous vineyards.
Pont de Pierre and the UNESCO sight of Saint Michel Basilica with the bell tower in Bordeaux
Terrific tours: As well as visits to vineyards for tours and tastings, including Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Cognac and Saint-Émilion, there’s also samplings at a caviar estate in Libourne and a gala dinner at Château Pape Clément, with wines produced from vines that were planted in the 13th century. All guests get a chance to dine at the ship’s Chef’s Table alongside just 24 guests.
Top tip: Since the cruise begins and ends in Bordeaux be sure to visit the new, architecturally striking, wine museum.
Details: Cabins from £2,295pp including home to airport transfers by private car, with APT (apttouring.co.uk; 0800 046 3002).