River cruises carry you to places you never thought you’d see: French vineyards, Cambodian farms, Amazon villages and Hungarian castles. As you explore at a gracious pace, you’re treated to fine dining, thought-provoking lectures and luxurious accommodations. Here are six suggestions for unforgettable journeys — not only European river cruises but also in Africa, Asia and South America.
The Rhone River begins in Switzerland and flows southwest to Lyon, then south through Provence to the Mediterranean Sea. Most Rhone River cruises begin in Lyon and, over seven nights, pass by vineyards, lavender fields, plus the charming cities of Viviers, Arles and Avignon. Look for a cruise that offers lots of chances to stop, sip, taste and shop. Some cruise lines include special experiences. Tauck, for instance, takes guests to a private ranch in La Camargue to meet the region’s iconic white horses, black bulls and cowboys.1 Viking’s passengers may hunt for truffles, visit a lavender farm and see how chèvre cheese is made.2
A Rhone River cruise is best for: Wine lovers and foodies
One of the classic European river cruises is a leisurely trip down the Rhine River, which flows from the Swiss Alps to the Netherlands. A popular itinerary takes you from Amsterdam through Germany and France to Basel, Switzerland. Highlights include 700-year-old Marksburg Castle, Cologne’s Gothic cathedral, and the ruined Heidelberg Castle. Rhine River cruises are especially popular during the Rhine In Flames celebrations: special days between May and September when five German towns throw huge parties with wine, music, dancing and fireworks.3 In December, special Rhine River cruises visit the Christmas markets of Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Rüdesheim and Cologne, where you can buy ornaments, crafts and toys, then warm up with hot mulled wine.
A Rhine River cruise is best for: Shoppers and romantics at heart
The Amazon, the mightiest river on earth, winds for more than 4,300 miles through upper South America. The 1.4 billion-acre Amazon rainforest is home to least one in ten known species on Earth — but it’s possible to explore in comfort on an Amazon River cruise.4 Most Amazon cruises depart from Iquitos, Peru and sail through the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, home to breathtaking wildlife such as macaws, egrets, squirrel monkeys, caimans, bats and pink dolphins. Look for cruises that offer opportunities to explore via kayak and foot, plus the opportunity to visit indigenous people’s villages. For a truly memorable (though expensive) adventure, Seabourn offers a 21-day sea and river cruise that travels from Buenos Aires up the Amazon to Manaus, Brazil.5
An Amazon River cruise is best for: Wildlife lovers and adventure seekers
You may never have thought about visiting Hungary for a vacation, let alone Serbia or Bulgaria. But a Danube river cruise through Eastern Europe is an invitation to sample this area's rich cultural heritage, from the art museums of Budapest to the stunning architecture of Belgrade. A 13-day itinerary will take you from Budapest to Prague, visiting Vienna and several smaller towns along the way.
Note that Eastern European river cruises can have a more serious tone than, say, a wine cruise down the Rhone. Some cruises include sessions on discussions of Hungary's fascist past and life under communism, or the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. There are more lighthearted cruises available, too. Luftner Cruises operates a Classical Music on the Danube cruise with concerts and on-board performances, while Avalon Waterways offers a cruise for beer enthusiasts that includes workshops and brewery tours.6,7
A Danube River cruise is best for: Fans of history, music and beer
Follow the Mekong from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia and explore a region rich in contrasts: buzzing cities and quiet rice paddies, ancient temples and modern war memorials. Avalon Waterways’ Mekong River cruise emphasizes cultural interaction, with visits to local artisans and farmers, an ox-cart ride and a performance by children from a Cambodian orphanage.8 Most Mekong River cruises have a somber side, visiting sites related to the sufferings inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge regime and the horrors of the Vietnamese War (here, called the American War.” Itineraries are also subject to shifting water levels in the river; high-water cruises can travel to Siem Reap, while low-water cruises end in Phnom Penh.9
A Mekong River Cruise is best for: Travelers interested in local cultures
The Chobe River doesn’t have the same celebrity as the Amazon, but this African river offers once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to see bathing elephants, hippos and other wildlife. Embarking at Kasane, Botswana, Chobe River cruises are typically just four days.10 The boat pauses for a land safari in Chobe National Park, which is populated by lions, hyenas, giraffes, warthogs and Cape buffalo. The cruise ends at Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, “which is the world’s greatest sheet of falling water.”11 Don’t expect a rickety steamer, a la “The African Queen”; the Zambezi Queen is a luxury boat that feels like a boutique hotel.
A Chobe River cruise is best for: Wildlife watchers, fans of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn
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Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.