Cruises: Voyages of discovery

By Gabriella Le Breton

Gabriella Le Breton selects the best cruises on some of the world's more far-flung rivers.

Just a short hop across the Tasman, a cruise on Australia's Murray River will show you sights you'd never imagined seeing in Oz. Photo / Supplied
Just a short hop across the Tasman, a cruise on Australia's Murray River will show you sights you'd never imagined seeing in Oz. Photo / Supplied

River cruising is now for winter, spring and autumn, not just for summer. It hasn't always been the case.

However, river cruising is booming, and the companies involved are becoming more adventurous as increasing numbers of travellers come to appreciate the intimacy and convenience of boat travel, and the often unparalleled ease of access to remote communities and cities it provides. As a result, the choice of river cruise destinations and itineraries is becoming increasingly diverse and exotic.

And riverboats finally are catching up with their ocean-faring cousins in style, comfort and facilities, ranging from restored 19th-century, six-person dahabiyyas to modern, 250-passenger vessels complete with bathtubs and elevators.

From the Amazon to the Zambezi, here is my selection of the best, farther-flung river cruises:

The Murray River ("Mighty Murray" to locals) is Australia's largest river, meandering 2414km across inland plains from the alps to the state of South Australia. You can follow the river through the Outback and past old riverside ports at a leisurely pace on the paddle-wheeler PS Murray Princess. Cruise itineraries combine guided walks through the mallee scrub, red gum forests and dramatic gorges with small-boat safaris to lush lowlands with talks about the history of villages and indigenous people.

The Mekong has been of vital cultural, political and ecological significance to south-east Asia for centuries. Rising in the Tibetan plateaus of China's Yunnan province, it negotiates dense rainforest, open plains, rice fields, fishing villages and floating markets, ancient temples and shrines of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand en route to the South China Sea. Explore the rich sights and sounds of the lower Mekong Basin from the decks of an original Pandaw paddle steamer, calling at former French colonial Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Phnom Penh and the ancient Khmer capital, Angkor.

A visit to New York shouldn't be restricted to the city - sailing on the Hudson River is a wonderful way to experience picturesque New York State. A week-long cruise takes you north from New York City to the historic US Military Academy at West Point, in the Catskills, the attractive city of Albany, past the grand mansions of Millionaires' Row in Kingston, and to the charming riverside town of Sleepy Hollow before returning to the Big Apple.

The Chobe River is the name of the lower section of the Cuando River, which rises in the northern Angolan highlands, flows through the Kalahari into Botswana then runs along the northern border of Chobe National Park before flowing into the Zambezi.

Combine a land safari with a three-night river cruise on the Chobe for an original way to experience the beauty and wildlife of Botswana, travelling aboard the Ichobezi houseboat. Go game viewing or fishing, or soak up the views from the top deck.

A Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan is the ideal way to appreciate the rich legacy of one of the world's most ancient civilisations. Take in the highlights of Cairo and Luxor, the ruins of Memphis and the pyramids, then watch the shores of the Nile slip past from the Movenpick Radamis II. Using this comfortable river boat as a base, explore the East Bank, the temples of Luxor and Karnak, and the West Bank's mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut and Colossi of Memnon before sailing to the High Dam at Aswan.

Steeped in the diverse history and culture of the Vikings, Tartars and Cossacks, Ukraine offers unique architecture and tradition. It is also home to the Dneiper, Europe's fourth-longest river at nearly 2414km, which rises in Russia and flows through Belarus to Ukraine to empty into the Black Sea. The Dneiper is dotted with elegant, cosmopolitan cities such as Kiev, Odessa and Yalta, plus picturesque fishing villages, lakes and ancient forests.

Until recently, the Rajang River, in Borneo was the sole territory of locals, including the Iban tribes who retained their headhunting traditions until the 1950s. Following the introduction of the RV Orient Pandaw, the Rajang now offers adventurous travellers the opportunity to explore the dense, untouched rainforest that flanks the river and small communities that dot its shores.

An eight-night journey on the Orient Pandaw is part of Noble Caledonia's 20-day exploration of Malaysia, visiting Kuala Lumpur and Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and staying at the colonial station of the Cameron Highlands and beaches of Sabah.

A river cruise is a fascinating way to travel between Russia's two greatest cities - Moscow and St Petersburg. The luxurious MS Tolstoy cruises the waterways that link them in both directions, so passengers can stop in at little-known towns off the beaten track such as Uglich, Yaroslavl and Kizhi Island. The ship follows various rivers, including the Svir and Volga-Baltic Waterway, and crosses Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest lake.

The Ganges is regarded as India's holiest waterway and arguably plays the most important cultural, economic and social role of any river in the world. To travel along this from the heaving city of Kolkata (Calcutta) past pilgrimage sites, temples, mosques, palaces and elaborate gardens to the temples of Varanasi is to sample a wonderful slice of India. As you glide slowly along an 1287km stretch aboard the 28-cabin RV Bengal Pandaw, you soak up the vibrant atmosphere of the river and enjoy varied excursions.

A journey along the Yukon River should be high on every traveller's list of things to do. More than half the river is in Alaska, with most of the rest in Canada's eponymous Yukon Territory. Frontier Canada offers a unique eight-day river safari that covers 595km of wilderness. Travelling with an experienced guide, small groups follow the river from Whitehorse to Dawson City, viewing wildlife, hiking, canoeing and fishing. The journey includes a flight in a sea plane and a night of tented luxury at remote Wilderness Outpost.

Another of India's remarkable rivers, the Brahmaputra cuts its way from the glaciers of south-western Tibet to the Bay of Bengal, crossing the beautiful plains and lush tea plantations of Assam. Board a stylish river boat (RV Charaidew or Sukapha) for a week-long cruise along the Brahmaputra. Highlights of this varied itinerary include an elephant ride and jeep safari in Kaziranga National Park, visits to riverside villages and Majuli, the world's largest river island and the site of fine Hindu monasteries, plus the Gatoonga tea estate. The tour finishes with two days in Delhi.

China has captured the imagination of travellers for hundreds of years, not least for the world's third-longest river - the Yangtze. Modern China retains many of its traditions and the vast countryside remains the picture of rural simplicity. It provides a vivid contrast to cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing. Follow the Yangtze past the new and old faces of China, with the Three Gorges Dam en route.

Although it is the world's second-longest river, the Amazon is the largest by volume. Some parts are more than 193km wide in the wet season. It also boasts unparalleled flora and fauna - the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve alone is home to more than 2000 species of birds, 4000 species of butterflies and countless monkeys, sloths, tarantulas, pink dolphins, land iguanas and caiman. Explore this extraordinary river from the traditional, seven-cabin MV Delfin, which offers various itineraries, with guided small boat trips, shore excursions and optional piranha fishing.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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