It’s an eye-opening few days as we cycle under the shadow of the Himalayas during a biking cruise along India’s mighty Brahmaputra River, which carves through the north-eastern state of Assam.
While afternoons and evenings are spent in the house-party surroundings of our rustic 20-passenger riverboat Charaidew, which carries our fleet of bikes, early morning starts see us pumping pedals along tarmac roads and bone-shakingly bumpy dirt tracks, dodging charging pigs and scampering monkeys that eye us inquisitively.
Over five days of cycling, our group covers nearly 100 miles and each outing brings a rich profusion of local life as we ride across hilly tea plantations, where tea-pickers’ bright saris add splashes of colour to the vivid emerald backdrop, and through paddy fields past farmers steering water buffalo as they plough the reddish soil.
Every route uncovers another mesmerising scene, from the village school where we watch pupils completing their morning exercises in unison before singing the Indian national anthem, to women pounding rice flour in hulking stone cauldrons and weaving threads on rickety handlooms.
Stopping in villages where locals have never clapped eyes on Western tourists, let alone a group of lycra-clad cyclists, is as much a novelty for them as it is for us!
Go with the flow
Asia and other exotic hotspots finally look as though they are returning to the river cruising landscape in 2022.
Covid’s reluctant but gradual retreat is sparking more confidence, but the restart is expected to be cautious as countries gradually roll back restrictions.
“There’s still much uncertainty over exactly when we can resume operations in South East Asia as current entry restrictions make planning extremely challenging,” explained Scenic & Emerald Cruises UK Trade Sales Director, Joseph Grimley.
“However, once these are lifted and we get back to normal, I see the region regaining its growing popularity.”
Europe’s continued recovery in 2022 is underpinned by two pivotal events intrinsically tied to river itineraries: the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria, featured in Danube departures; and Dutch horticultural extravaganza Floriade, included in Dutch and Belgian waterways sailings.
Shearings reports strong interest in 2022 cruises with Rob Carroll, Senior Product Manager, adding: “There’s definitely pent-up demand.”
He stressed that a reduced number of passengers on Shearings’ coaches and river craft helps to maintain strict health and safety protocols and makes social distancing easier, especially when you compare this to ocean cruising.
Newmarket Holidays reports similar renewed interest in river cruises, with Richard Forde, Head of Trade Sales, saying: “In the post-pandemic world river cruise holidays offer an ideal option to rediscover Europe.”
Rhine & Moselle
While the Rhine dominates European river cruising with highlights including the spectacular UNESCO-protected Rhine Gorge, Cologne and Strasbourg, its appeal is bolstered by the various tributaries that bring extra flavour. The Moselle, which joins the Rhine at Koblenz, opens up Germany’s prime wine region around the historic town of Cochem and the city of Trier, acclaimed as the oldest in Germany.
Nearly all the river cruise companies that offer European sailings feature the Rhine and a good number also include the Moselle. CroisiEurope, which operates 13 vessels on both rivers, is offering a new four-night Romantic German Sites and The Charming Neckar Valley cruise from Strasbourg to Stuttgart, which includes stops at Heidelberg and Eberbach.
Floriade, the floral festival held once every decade in Holland, is the big crowd-puller this year after it was postponed from 2020. Several companies including Viking, AmaWaterways, Titan, Riviera Travel and Avalon Waterways are adding excursions to the event, which in some cases are complimentary, while Shearings has an extended Floriade & Dutch Waterways sailing. Shearings also includes the Gardens of Appeltern, described as Holland’s biggest garden-themed park with more than 200 model gardens; the cheesy town of Edam and Flemish cities of Antwerp and Ghent.
The Dutch waterways come into their own during spring when the bulb fields are at their most colourful, with the Keukenhof Gardens having the biggest displays of tulips.
Taking in four countries along the Rhine and Moselle rivers, the new Charming Castles and Vineyards of the Rhine & Moselle river cruise will sail from Mainz to Basel, calling at Koblenz, Bernkastel, Cochem, Rudesheim, Rastatt and Breisach. Prices for the eight-day river cruise start from £2,495pp. scenic.co.uk
Egypt’s evocative artery is enjoying a renaissance, helped by the enduring appeal of the ancient treasures, from Luxor’s Karnak Temple to the Valley of the Kings, along its banks and a string of new river craft. Companies are reporting booming sales, with AmaWaterways and Viking both debuting new vessels.
“Nile cruises offer all the highlights and attractions of Egypt in a relaxed and comfortable way without the hassle of getting on and off coaches and travelling long distances,” said Stuart Milan, Channel Director at Riviera Travel. “It’s a much more laidback way to see the sights.
Riviera operates the 104-passenger Movenpick Darakum, claimed to be the only river vessel sailing from Cairo as others depart from Luxor. This gives passengers two days to explore the Egyptian capital before setting off. A 10-night Wonders of the Nile voyage from Cairo to Luxor starts at £3,099pp. including flights and tours. rivieratravel.co.uk
The Peruvian stretch of the Amazon River is narrower and quieter than the Brazilian section and takes passengers into the heart of the rainforest on small boats to spot exotic wildlife, tropical birds and the many tribal communities that live along its banks.
Aqua Expeditions has two luxury vessels, including the 40-passenger Aqua Nera which launched in July offering three-, four- and seven-night sailings. Guests enjoy the contrast of luxurious surroundings onboard and adventures like piranha fishing, , dolphin-spotting, kayaking trips and treks that take them deep into the jungle and the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
Small-ship river expeditions are a great way to see the Amazon as they enable guests to really get under the skin of the destination and engage with local communities while also being looked after on-board from start to finish.
Cruises along the southern stretch of this river between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Cambodia’s Siem Reap offer an ideal way to explore the heady mix of colourful markets, ancient temples and atmospheric villages that lie along its banks. Guests get to experience several destinations in one trip and explore highlights that include the impressive temples of Angkor in Cambodia and the country’s bloody history of the Killing Fields under murderous ruler Pol Pot. Visitors also get the chance to explore riverside villages on walking tours, where they often visit local schools, bustling markets and nearby temples.
The line’s Emerald Harmony can sail into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, saving guests a coach ride from further out. Its 15-day Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong, departing August 30 2022, costs from £3,245pp, including flights. emeraldcruises.co.uk
Ganges and Brahmaputra
Most Indian river cruises are centred around the Ganges, which flows through central India to the sea in the Bay of Bengal. Considered a holy river, its common to pass Hindus bathing in the sacred waters. Many cruise itineraries include the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur with a visit to the Taj Mahal, but a typical seven-night cruise will sail from Kolkata to Mushidabad and back, offering an insight into everyday life from local markets to historical buildings.
Cruises along Brahmaputra, which flows through Assam in North East India, travel from high in the Himalayan mountains through Tibet. Due to its fast-flowing nature, the river is only available to cruise at certain times of the year. Cruisers can expect a wildlife-rich itinerary with sightings including rhinoceros, Bengal tigers, and vultures.
Uniworld offers a 13-day India’s Golden Triangle & The Sacred Ganges cruise. Travelling from New Delhi to Kolkata, it features a new wellness programme, centred around the practice of yoga. The cruise is priced at £4,999pp for October 2022 departures. uniworld.com