By Jeannine Williamson – November 2019 – 8 minute read
Whether it’s fairy tale castles in Europe or golden temples in Asia, the world’s waterways offer access to an array of enticing attractions and cultures. We run down the world’s top rivers for cruising.
What the experts say
Andy Harmer, CLIA UK & Ireland Director, says: “The central and western European river destinations still hold the largest share of the UK and Irish river cruise market, accounting for 64% of passengers. Last year the Danube overtook the Rhine to become the most popular river, with the Douro in third, experiencing an increase of almost 15% in passenger numbers.
“Outside Europe, Asia stood as the main river cruise destination, with the Mekong holding the top spot. North America, a relatively new destination to the river cruise market, and Africa, with the resurgence of cruises on the Nile, have both experienced strong growth.”
Kathryn Pollitt, Product and Marketing Manager at Blue Water Holidays, adds: “Whilst the Rhine and Danube are favourites for first-time cruisers, one of our most popular European rivers this year has been the Lower Danube through Eastern Europe.
“Further afield, we’ve seen increasing interest in Asia compared to last year, with twice as many of our customers cruising through Vietnam and Cambodia.
“I expect to see more growth outside Europe, with new ships on the Mekong and more cruises on India’s Ganges and Brahmaputra. In the U.S. there are unique itineraries, including the Cumberland and Hudson rivers, and we’re seeing more customers returning to Egypt.”
James Hill, from Go Cruise, has also experienced growing interest in exotic destinations, with demand for the Lower Danube exceeding supply.
He explains: “India is on the rise, with Pandaw ships supplementing the current offer and there are green shoots of revival on the Nile with fewer ships, but better quality. Also trending and selling well are American rivers such as Columbia, Snake and Hudson.”
Danube: Flowing through 10 countries and four capital cities – Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade – and the stunning UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley, the Danube is big on sights and an obvious choice for first-time river cruise clients. Seven-night sailings between Budapest and Passau, or week-long round-trips from Passau, are an ideal introduction to Europe’s second longest river. Beyond the upper stretches lies the lesser-explored Lower Danube running through Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania to its mouth at the Black Sea and the wildlife wilderness of the Danube Delta, which is a good recommendation for repeaters.
Dordogne, Garonne & Girande These three rivers combine to create cruises that start and end in Bordeaux, where ships moor close to the historical centre. Flowing through the renowned Medoc, St Emilion and Sauternes winemaking regions, recommend these sailings to wine lovers.
Douro: Discovered by the Romans who named it the ‘River of Gold’, Portugal’s Douro is a hot spot with several new ships launched this year. Rising in Spain and winding 125 miles through lush green landscapes, all itineraries are seven-night round-trips from Porto to the Spanish border, including a visit to the beautiful university city of Salamanca.
Dutch Waterways: Connecting to the Rhine, this dense network of waterways reaches across the Netherlands and affords views of historic windmills and the low-lying peaceful countryside. Highlights include the famous tulip fields of Keukenhof Gardens, the postcard pastures of Freisland, waterland houses and cheese in Edam and medieval architecture in Ghent (Belgium).
Elbe: Starting in the Czech Republic and flowing to the North Sea beyond Hamburg, the Elbe runs between the show-stopping capitals of Prague and Berlin, taking in the dramatic craggy scenery of Saxon Switzerland along the way. Featured by few lines, it is one of Europe’s least discovered and lesser-known rivers.
Guadalquivir: Spain is not well-known for river cruises, however the Guadalquivir and Portuguese Guadiana rivers combine to provide an itinerary encompassing a Seville city break, river and ocean cruise. CroisiEurope is the only line offering this unusual sailing, with stops including Jerez, Cadiz and Cordoba in Spain and Vila Real in Portugal.
Loire: Known as France’s ‘royal river’, due to the kings and aristocrats who once lived in the beautiful chateaux lining its banks, the Loire will appeal to those looking for a tranquil sailing on a lesser-known waterway. Taking in the quirky art-filled city of Nantes, CroisiEurope is the only line to feature the Loire with its contemporary paddle-wheel ship.
Moselle: Quieter and narrower than the Rhine, the Moselle winds through the heart of Germany’s wine-growing regions and a highlight is Cochem, one of the prettiest spots on the river. The castle perched on a 300ft promontory is the highest on the Moselle and the charming old town is filled with half-timbered buildings.
Po: Venice is the jewel in the crown on Italy’s longest river which is only navigable along a 60-mile stretch. Peaceful sailings take in gorgeous medieval cities such as Ferrara and Mantua and intimate barge cruises are available along the Canal Bianco running alongside the river.
Rhine: With the highest number of castles on any river and picturesque wine villages such as Rudesheim, it’s no surprise the Rhine is the second most popular waterway. Most lines offer a seven-night sailing between Basel and Amsterdam, which is ideal for new-to-cruise customers. It includes the UNESCO-listed Middle Rhine Valley and famous Lorelei Rock where a siren was said to lure sailors to their doom. For repeaters, suggest themed sailings including the spectacular Rhine in Flames event, marking the wine harvest season, and Christmas market cruises.
Rhone & Saone: These two rivers provide journeys into the heart of southern France and go down a treat with food lovers. Itineraries include time in the gastronomic capital of Lyon and excursions to Beaune, the capital of the Burgundy wine region. Natural highlights include Provence, which is famous for its lavender fields, wild Camargue horses and black bulls.
Russian waterways: The mighty Volga and interconnecting lakes and waterways take visitors deep into the heart of Russia on larger-than-average ships between St Petersburg and Moscow – with iconic sights like the Kremlin, Red Square and Catherine the Great’s Palace. In the middle are cities like Uglich and Yaroslavl, full of onion-domed churches, and Kizhi Island on Lake Onega, famous for its wooden churches and windmills.
Seine: Cruises begin and end in Paris, with the opportunity for land extensions. Excursions to the Normandy’s D-Day landing beaches will appeal to customers interested in wartime history and cultural highlights include Rouen with its grand cathedral and Giverny, where impressionist painter Monet lived and painted many of his most famous works.
Chobe: Itineraries offer a choice of land stays in safari lodges and cities such as Cape Town combined with a cruise along this river which straddles Botswana and Namibia. Highlights are a visit to Victoria Falls and a jeep safari in Chobe National Park, home to Africa’s largest elephant population.
Nile: Once one of the best-selling river cruises, the Nile is back on the radar. Luxury vessels transport passengers between Luxor and Aswan with excursions including the Valley of the Kings where pharaohs like Tutankhamun were buried. Recommend the Nile to culture vultures and twin with a stay in Cairo to see the pyramids or a Red Sea beach break.
Brahmaputra: An up-and-coming river cruise destination, the winding Brahmaputra rises in the Himalayas and flows through the lush Assam valley in the northeast corner of India, a land filled with religious sites, ildlife and, of course, tea.
Ganges: The river, immortalised as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism, is both India’s lifeblood and a sacred waterway. With visits to temples, palaces, chaotic towns and remote rural areas, often using rickshaws for transport, these sailings suit those looking for culture, history and authentic exploration.
Irrawaddy: Typically starting from the former Burmese capital Yangon, most itineraries run from the temple-filled town of Bagan, where hot air balloon rides are popular, to Mandalay on atmospheric colonial-style ships. Itineraries can change according to river conditions so these trips are best suited to open-minded clients. For the more adventurous, some sailings take on the remote tributary of the Chindwin, flowing towards the Indian border and passing places like Mawlaik, with its colonial ‘dak’ bungalows.
Mekong: Literally translated as the ‘Mother of Rivers’, the Mekong offers a kaleidoscope of sights and experiences. The busier Lower Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia showcases the wonder of the Angkor temples, the world’s largest religious complex, and the poignant Killing Fields. The twisting, fast-flowing Upper Mekong is a fascinating off-the-beaten track choice for travellers looking to explore remote villages and the calm and stylish French colonial-styled city of Luang Prabang in Laos.
Yangtze: A cruise through a country that was closed to the outside world for centuries is a real voyage of discovery. Itineraries include land-based stays in historic Beijing and neon-lit Shanghai, providing a fascinating contrast between cities and secluded rural areas that are only accessible by ship. Top sights include the awe-inspiring Great Wall of China and Terracotta Army, and the most dramatic part of the river is the 150-mile Three Gorges region, with a spectacular landscape of misty mountains, sheer cliffs and the namesake dam which is the world’s largest engineering project.
Amazon: Waking up to the sound of the rainforest coming to life and expeditions with naturalists are key experiences that make an Amazon cruise so memorable. Ideally suited to well-travelled clients, Iquitos in Peru is the gateway for cruises along South America’s largest river and can be twinned with a stay in colourful capital Lima.
Columbia & Snake: Those who cruise this route will be following in the wake of 19th century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their historical expedition to discover the Pacific Ocean on a one-week cruise from Portland to Lewiston through the Cascade Mountain Range.
Mississippi: The iconic American river plied by atmospheric paddle-wheelers is a wonderful way to explore Civil War history and charming small towns such as St Francisville with its antebellum mansions. The most popular itinerary is a seven-night sailing from New Orleans to Memphis, home of the blues and the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis.