Quite simply, as a way of getting about river cruising is hard to beat. River ships provide ever-more luxurious floating accommodation and reliable, quality meals without the bother and unpredictability of hunting down restaurants. You unpack once. You see splendid scenery rolling past rather than open ocean and spend most days tied up in the heart of riverside villages and cities. The choice of ships, rivers and itineraries is growing at an extraordinary pace. But beyond all that, river cruising is really about the destinations. Here are five ways river cruising satisfies the senses.
1 You can do more than ever before
The standard old-town tour is a little bit yesterday. River cruise shore excursions are increasingly flexible, more youthfully orientated and more interesting. You might visit Xian’s terracotta warriors with a conversation expert, join a pastry-making class in Lyons, learn about brandy-making near Bordeaux or attend an exclusive cocktail reception in a German castle. Some ships carry bicycles and GPS guides that allow you to explore by yourself. There has also been a rise in special-interest cruises that cover topics such as beer, wine, spring blossoms, Christmas markets, golf, music and more.
2 You can enjoy spectacular scenery
Some landscapes are meant to be seen from a river. The vineyard-clad and castle-topped hills of the Rhine Gorges are the most cruised strip of river for good reason: nothing beats the 360-degree panoramic views from a ship’s deck. The soaring cliffs of the Iron Gates on the Lower Danube (shared by Serbia and Romania) and the fabled Three Gorges on China’s Yangtze River are hard to see any other way. Other fabulous scenery unfolds along the United States’ Columbia River and the Elbe in Germany, nicknamed the “Saxon Switzerland” for its mountains.
3 You can visit hard-to-reach places
River cruises aren’t confined to the beaten track: you can cruise the Mackenzie River in the Canadian Yukon and Gambia River in West Africa. Even mainstream cruises take you to remote places. A river cruise between Moscow and St Petersburg sails through the big-sky, forest-filled landscapes of northwest Russia with stops such as the remote Kizhi Island on vast Lake Onega, known for its World Heritage wooden churches. A Mekong River cruise in Vietnam and Cambodia has shore excursions at riverside villages and temples that would take uncomfortable days to get through by road.
4 You can enjoy local cuisines
The days of bland international fare on board river ships are fading fast, allowing you to sample the more sophisticated and varied fare that reflects the destination: strudel in Austria, noodle soups in Vietnam, blue cheese and coq-au-vin in France. There has also been a rise in gourmet-themed shore excursions that take passengers to local markets, cooking schools, chocolate and vinegar producers and restaurants, not to mention a surge of interest in river cruises in some of Europe’s best wine regions, including Bordeaux and the Rhone in France and the Douro River in Portugal.
5 You can explore wild places
While many associate river cruising with Europe, a seismic shift has seen huge growth in river cruising across the world. A future trend could see us cruising more remote places, with a focus on wildlife and nature rather than culture. Already, you can sail on the Amazon in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil for close encounters with pink dolphins, monkeys and macaws – and the chance to fish for piranha. A Chobe River cruise in Botswana and Namibia takes you through magnificent floodplains teeming with hippos, elephants and giraffes for a safari with a difference.
Lines to try: APT, Avalon Waterways, Evergreen Tours (Emerald Waterways), Scenic, Tauck, TravelMarvel, Uniworld.