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Top 10 river cruises around the globe

Travelers looking to truly know the soul of a city or region oftentimes needn't look further than its lifeline — the flowing waters of its river, from which nourishment, trade, transport, recreation, and more nods to cultured civilization have all sprung forth.
Image: Indochina
The 12th largest river in the world, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, snaking through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. Pandaw Cruises
/ Source: Sherman's Travel

Travelers looking to truly know the soul of a city or region oftentimes needn't look further than its lifeline — the flowing waters of its river, from which nourishment, trade, transport, recreation, and more nods to cultured civilization have all sprung forth. River cruising, long popular with Europeans, is today experiencing a surge of interest on storied waterways around the globe, thanks to the intimate and enriching destination approach it provides on routes simply impossible to replicate by any other means. Leave the over-the-top Las Vegas megaships out at sea, and parking and traffic headaches back on land, and instead opt to cruise the meandering waterways of a region’s heartland aboard small ships ranging from luxury riverboats to vintage paddle-wheelers, with every river bend revealing a destination’s new face courtesy of a constantly shuffled deck of quaint riverside towns, historic monuments, and pristine countryside.

1. Amazon
Sections of the wild waters of the Peruvian Amazon (like the portion that courses through the five-million-acre Pacaya Samiria Reserve) are so remote that they can only be reached by plane or by ship, but the pristine region's ecological riches (think mammoth Victoria Regia water lilies, pink dolphins, sloths, and capuchin monkeys) have long lured veteran travelers. Getting there is no longer a tedious task thanks to Aqua Expeditions' new luxury cruiser, the M/V Aqua. Conceived by Peruvian architect Jordi Puig, the über-modern, 12-suite vessel is designed for maximum comfort on 3-to 7-night jungle expeditions, which embark via Iquitos (airport transfers to the port are provided). Guests appreciate perks like the onboard master chef and plush, 230-plus-square-foot suites all the more after a full day of fishing for piranha, trekking through the jungle, and paddling through creeks. Ships sail between February and December.

2. Danube
Set sail on the well traveled “Blue Danube” whose beauty inspired one of Johann Strauss’ Viennese waltzes. Used for centuries as a route between eastern and central Europe, the river stretches from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. The M/V ‘River Cloud II,’ operated by Abercrombie and Kent, offers the opportunity to voyage a portion of the river on seven-night cruises. As one of the maximum of 88 passengers aboard this luxury vessel, keep your eyes on the banks, where a montage of castles, vineyards, and modern cities compose the changing river scenery. While there is plenty to see from the deck, the charm of the ship will not go unnoticed, from its lounge centered on a Steinway grand piano to its Northern European and Mediterranean-inspired restaurant. The M/V ‘River Cloud II,’ boasts several different itineraries, the most popular of which runs between Budapest, Hungary and Vilshofen, Germany while passing through Vienna, Austria (from June to September).

3. Hudson and St. Lawrence Seaway
American Canadian Caribbean Line’s 12-day “Northeastern Fall Foliage” itinerary combines sailings along New York and Canada’s most scenic waterways. Embarking from the cruise line’s homeport in Warren, Rhode Island, the Grande Mariner and Grande Caribe each sail past Manhattan and up the length of the Hudson River towards the St. Lawrence Seaway. En route, the itinerary calls for an overnight stop at the Erie Canal, a visit to West Point's U.S. Military Academy campus, and a wander through romantic Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay. Once past the Canadian border, guests may visit the art museums of Montreal, before disembarking to stroll the cobblestone streets of Quebec City. Designed to navigate through the narrow watercourses and low bridges, both ships feature a dining hall, auditorium lounge, and several cabin options for passengers. And while a voyage on these waterways is beautiful any time of year, the eye-popping colors of these autumn (September and October) sailings make it downright breathtaking.

4. Mekong
The 12th largest river in the world, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, snaking through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. High Country Passage Travel, a company specializing in small group educational tours, emphasizes the latter two countries in an eight-day journey that kicks off with a day in bustling Ho Chi Minh City before embarking on a luxe 1920s-style steamer, the Mekong Pandaw, up the Mekong Delta, stopping at colorful floating villages, passing remote rice paddies, and cruising on toward Phnom Penh in Cambodia. From there, the surrounding jungle becomes denser and denser until you reach the phenomenal ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Along the way, before retiring to your hardwood-clad stateroom, you’ll be treated to engaging lectures on Theravada Buddhist teachings and Khmer art and architecture. An optional pre-trip extension to Hanoi is also available. This special experience is available in late October.

5. Mississippi
Steamboats have been a symbol of the American South since they were invented in the 18th century. Modernity may have replaced them with larger, more efficient vessels, but Majestic America keeps the tradition alive with its ships like the Delta Queen, a gracious ode to an earlier era with its stained-glass windows, teak decks, and 176 state rooms. The dignified craft (which has hosted the likes of Presidents Hoover, Truman, and Carter) plies the waters of the Mississippi, passing cotton fields, colonial mansions, and historic landmarks like the picturesque Oak Valley plantation as it winds its way from New Orleans to Memphis. Taking over some of the Delta’s workload, theAmerican Queen offers 222 staterooms and suites with modern luxuries and claims the title of the world’s largest river cruise ship. Seven-day cruises operate between May and November. (Book your journey soon — after 81 years of service, the Delta Queen is scheduled to retire in 2009.)

6. Murray
The “Mighty Murray” is to Australia what the Mississippi is to the United States. Stretching from its mountain source in Victoria to near Adelaide in South Australia, it, combined with the Darling River that feeds it, comprise Australia’s longest river (and the seventh longest in the world). Navigated since ancient times by Aboriginal tribes, then European explorers and traders, it is today most trafficked by recreational houseboats and historic paddle steamers. Sample the river’s bounties aboard an authentic paddle wheeler, Captain Cook Cruises’ well-appointed, 60-stateroom PS Murray Princess, from the historic town of Mannum, situated about 50 miles east of Adelaide (connections are available). Their four-night “Outback Heritage Cruise” combines historic and nature-based activities like nature walks, vineyard tastings, and aboriginal history talks, on a river route marked by locks, old river port towns, and dramatic Australian outback scenery marked by towering cliffs, red gum forests, and wildlife sightings ranging from kangaroo to egret. Cruises run year-round.

7. Nile
The awesome sights of ancient Egypt are on every intrepid traveler’s to-see list and you can cover all the highlights, from the pyramids and the Sphinx to King Tut’s tomb and the Luxor Temples, on a once-in-a-lifetime Nile sailing with Grand Circle Travel. This 15-day tour includes six nights on land at a high-end Cairo hotel, guided museum tours, home-hosted dinners, and treks to the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, before embarking on a weeklong M/S River Anuket Nile River cruise through temple-speckled Aswan and Luxor. While arranging a vacation tour this grand and all-encompassing on your own would usually mean big bucks and stressful planning, this hassle-free cruise vacation curtails the cost and covers it all. Plus, the tour, available during select periods from May to December, also includes round-trip airfare from New York to Cairo, airport transfers, most meals, sightseeing excursions, and private motor coach transportation on land — which translate to savings as staggering as the pyramids.

8. Seine
Billed as the world’s first “boutique luxury” river cruise ship, Jewel River Cruises’ MS Jewel Imperial Blue drifts along the Seine between Paris and Normandy’s medieval capital of Rouen. The ship accommodates just 70 guests (with an exceptional 2:1 guest-to-crew ratio), but reserving a spot won’t be difficult as more than a dozen voyages are planned from August through December. Eight to 14-day itineraries offer options for culinary adventures with a Michelin three-star chef in Paris, a tour of Monet’s house and gardens in Vernon, private wine tastings, and helicopter rides over the Champagne region. The land tours alone make it worth the splurge (from $5,999 per person), but with onboard amenities like a full service spa, a well curated wine bar, and spacious, modern suites ranging from 215 to 469 square feet, you may think twice before disembarking.

9. Volga and Russian Waterways
Experience Russia’s imperial majesty while sailing along one of the oldest Russian routes, visiting cities of the Golden Ring, from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Premium Amadeus Waterways offers memorable 14-day Russian waterway sailings aboard the well-appointed Tolstoy (originally built to host big-shot Kremlin officials). The itinerary starts with one of the country’s grandes dames, Moscow, famous for its domed churches and burgeoning hip nightlife scene, then covers visits to various Golden Ring cities like Uglich, Yaroslavl, and Kostroma, before arriving in Russia’s other crowned-jewel, St. Petersburg, a magnificent city speckled with imperial palaces and a few hundred bridges. The journey incorporates cultural extras like an exclusive ballet performance at the Hermitage Theater, onboard Russian classes, and even a home visit and meal with a local Russian family in Uglich. Sailings are available from May through September.

10. Yangtze
With the Olympic torch shining a spotlight on China in ’08, you needn’t be a pole vaulter to discover the nation’s treasures. Instead, sign up for one of Viking River Cruises’ 11-night "Imperial Jewels of China" excursions, combining land tours of the Beijing capital, the Terra Cotta Warriors’ site at Xian, and cosmopolitan Shanghai, with a cruise along the Yangtze River, a river lifeline that has long served to interweave the lives and legends of the local people. The intimate and upscale Viking Century Sky offers spacious staterooms each with windows or private balconies, well suited for enjoying the views of the breathtaking Three Gorges region. The cruise line’s package rates include all meals, shore excursions, six nights in high-end hotels, and intra-China flights; sailings are available between May and November. Trip extensions are also available to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.

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