Rifling through the many possibilities, Joanna Booth recommends the best river cruises for historical discovery.
Rivers have always carried more than water. For hundreds of years, goods, customs, fashions and news flowed from port to port, making settlements on their banks important cultural and trading hubs. These days, superseded by faster channels of distribution and communication, rivers have mellowed, their traffic now chiefly recreational. Yet the echoes of their glory days still sound in the cities, castles, temples and tombs that line their winding routes, and there’s no more convenient and relaxing way to journey into the past than on a river cruise. Sail the Nile and Mekong and you’ll discover the ruins of ancient civilisations; cruise the Seine or the Mississippi and you’ll find evidence of the more recent past, from World War II battlefields to Civil Rights memorials. Decide by destination or pick a historical period – however you choose, one of these history-rich itineraries should float your boat.
There’s no river in the world more associated with a country’s history than the Nile. It’s all down to one relatively small section of this mighty waterway – the 200km stretch between Luxor and Aswan, where glorious remnants of Ancient Egypt’s elaborate civilisations line the banks. Tours take place in the cool mornings and late afternoon; other hours are filled with scenic cruising and the chance to chill on board ship. Viking Cruises has launched three new Nile ships in the past two years, with another due for 2025, all with an expansive pool deck, al fresco dining and a choice of staterooms, some with their own verandas.
In Luxor, the Temples of Karnak and Luxor are immediately breathtaking, with soaring pillars, ornately carved reliefs and imposing statues. Facing them across the Nile, the west bank initially looks barren, but its treasures are underground. Here, in the Valley of the King and the Valley of the Queens, you’ll discover subterranean tombs with brightly painted murals and hieroglyphs, so fresh you can hardly believe they’re more than 2000 years old.
Aswan’s chief attractions are the unfeasibly pretty island temple complex of Philae and the 3.8km-long Aswan High Dam, an extraordinary feat of engineering. It’s from here you can also add a visit by road or air to the massive rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, where 20m high statues of Ramesses II stare out across Lake Nasser.
Many itineraries include a pre-cruise stay in Cairo to check out the Pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx, and museums packed with mummies and gilded grave goods.
Book it: Viking Cruises’ 12-day Pharaohs and Pyramids 2024 itinerary starts from AUD10,795 (S11,600) and includes three nights in Cairo and an eight-day cruise plus a trip to Abu Simbel. viking.com
The mighty Mississippi flows through the Deep South, linking some of the most historically significant towns and cities in the region. Cruising here is an evocative experience, particularly if you’re rolling on the river in an old-fashioned paddlesteamer with a red wheel, black smokestacks and white gingerbread-house trim, with a jazz band on board – you’ll almost expect to bump into Mark Twain. American Queen Voyages has four such ships, sailing itineraries on the lower and upper Mississippi.
Lower Mississippi cruises run between the cities of Memphis and New Orleans, bookending the journey with some of the South’s best music and food. In the former you’ll want to hear the blues on Beale Street, visit the Sun and Stax recording studios, eat barbecue and pay your respects to Elvis at Graceland. The soundtrack to the streets of New Orleans is jazz, particularly in the historic French Quarter, where you can choose a tour theme to suit your interests, from history or food to voodoo and vampires.
You’ll find attractions fitting a host of historical themes as you sail between the two, from the rise of the Civil Rights movement in Cleveland to Civil War battlefields at Vicksburg. Stops in small towns reveal antebellum mansions and former cotton plantation houses – American Queen Voyages has an exclusive agreement with Nottoway, the largest still standing in the South.
Book it: American Queen Voyages nine-day Memphis to New Orleans Lower Mississippi cruise 2024 departures start from AUD5067. journeybeyond.com
Meandering all the way from Tibet to the South China Sea, the Mekong is still a working river, and on cruises here you’ll not only see historic sites , but also get an insight into the lives of the communities who live on its banks. Cruises on the Lower Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia will showcase some ancient history – including the breath-taking temple complex at Angkor, dating back to the 9th century – alongside the more recent past, with sights related to the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime making for crucial, if heart-rending, viewing.
APT’s luxurious new ship the Mekong Serenity has launched on the river, cruising eight-day voyages from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap and offering butler-serviced suites with balconies, an Indochinese restaurant and a greenery-draped pool.
Starting in Cambodia, you’ll watch the sunrise over the massive pinnacles of Angkor Wat, learn about ancient silk-production processes in Oknha Tey, be given a Buddhist blessing at a monastery in Oudong and in Phnom Penh visit the sobering Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Across the border in Vietnam, you can visit the tunnels used by the Viet Cong in Cu Chi, but there’s beauty as well as the more bleak side of history to discover; traditional stilted houses and floating markets, ornate palaces, Cao Dai temples and French Gothic cathedrals. Bring clothes that cover shoulders and knees for temple visits, and don’t forget your mosquito repellent – particularly if you sail in the May to October wet season.
Book it: APT’s 13-day Vietnam and Cambodia Highlights itinerary features an eight-day Mekong cruise plus stays in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh and starts from $7395 for sailings in 2024. aptouring.co.nz
Beginning and ending in Paris, Avalon Waterway’s Seine cruises will leave you plenty of time to discover the City of Light, checking off iconic sights including the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and Les Invalides museum, where you can see Napoleon’s tomb.
The voyage northwest towards the English Channel is packed with relics of the past, with the opportunity to visit Napoleon’s Chateau de Malmaison, Richard the Lionheart’s ruined castle and the giant cathedral and the site of Joan of Arc’s martyrdom in Rouen. You’ll gain insight into great French artists, visiting Monet’s garden at Giverny, where he spent the last 30 years of his life painting his famous waterlilies, and Auvers-sur-Oise, where you’ll find Van Gogh’s grave and the house in which he died.
The highlight for many visitors comes at the cruise’s midpoint, with a special excursion to the World War II landing beaches where on D-Day the Allied forces mounted the largest seaborne invasion in history, beginning the liberation of France from Nazi occupation. Museums, cemeteries and memorials give background and detail to the events, and catalogue the tragic extent of the loss of life.
Book it: Avalon Waterways’ eight-day Paris to Normandy cruise starts from $6502 for sailings in 2024. avalonwaterways.co.nz