When it comes to river cruises, you might think you know exactly what you're in for, but do you? Shandelle Battersby presents some of the best experiences you can have off the ship in between winding your way along the world's most interesting rivers.
ASIA: SILK ISLAND, CAMBODIA
WHAT: See traditional silk-makers at work
CRUISE WITH: Pandaw
There are many wonderful stops on Pandaw's eight- day "Classic Mekong" cruise from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, but the visit to Silk Island on Day 6 stands out as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Guests will sail up the Mekong/Tonle River convergence to Koh Dach, or "Silk Island", which offers a glimpse into rural Cambodian life not experienced by many tourists. Here, you can learn about the fascinating silk-making process, from the worms through to the weavers, and appreciate the time and skill that goes into this ancient craft, still carried out today on handmade wooden looms.
SOUTH AMERICA: PERUVIAN AMAZON
WHAT: Swim with pink dolphins
CRUISE WITH: Avalon Waterways
Avalon Waterways' 11-day exploration of Peru is a mixture of activities reached by air, land, rail and water, with the Amazon River component starting on Day 7 at Nauta. For the following three days you'll experience the wildlife wonders of one of the most famous rivers in the world, including the opportunity to swim with freshwater pink dolphins and fish for ferocious piranhas. You'll also be on the lookout for capuchin, howler, tamarin and spider monkeys, iguanas, sloths and a huge variety of birdlife including macaws, parrots and jacamars. A night safari will give you the chance to get up close to frogs, caiman, bats and boa constrictors.
USA: ST FRANCISVILLE, LOUISIANA
WHAT: The stories of inmates at Angola Prison
CRUISE WITH: American Queen Steamboat Company
The Mighty Mississippi is a busy waterway and you can experience it in style aboard the largest riverboat in the world, American Queen. Modelled on a traditional paddlewheel steamboat, it carries 436 cruisers. On its nine-day "Jewels of the Lower Mississippi" cruise from Memphis to New Orleans you can see historic Civil War sites, tour antebellum homes, experience Cajun culture and learn about the cotton industry. On Day 6 at St Francisville, you can visit the infamous Angola Prison, formerly America's most dangerous penitentiary and today the country's largest maximum security prison with more than 6300 prisoners. Tours include its historic first cellblock, Red Hat (1933), which saw 11 executions by electric chair, and a visit to the prison's largest chapel to hear current inmates share their stories of transformation during their incarceration.
EUROPE: BADEN-BADEN, GERMANY
WHAT: Soak in the waters of the Caracalla Spa
CRUISE WITH: Uniworld
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The German spa town of Baden-Baden is where you'll start a 12-day cruise on the Rhine and Moselle rivers through to Frankfurt. On Day 2 of the cruise you have the chance to explore the town further, the highlight being a visit to Caracalla Spa. These mineral-rich thermal baths whose healing properties were first discovered 2000 years ago by the Romans, today offer a range of both indoor and outdoor hot and cold pools, and have an extensive sauna complex which includes a bar area serving fresh juices.
AUSTRALIA: CADELL, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
WHAT: Winery by cruise boat
CRUISE WITH: Captain Cook Cruises
Here's a novelty — visiting a winery by cruise ship, aboard Captain Cook Cruises' PS Murray Princess on its eight-day "Upper Murraylands Cruise". This cruise, in and out of historic Mannum (90 minutes east of Adelaide) includes a visit to one of the few wineries accessible by river in South Australia. At Caudo Vineyard, on the Murray's Hogwash Bend at Cadell, guests will spend a pleasant morning enjoying tastings from the cellar door and exploring the winery's pretty gardens and orchards. You'll also visit (by coach) famous Banrock Station and its Wetland Centre near Kingston On Murray, experience an Aussie woolshed show and a bush tucker breakfast (additional cost), and visit one of Australia's most significant indigenous sites, the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve.
WHAT: Paint your own matryoshka dolls
CRUISE WITH: Viking River Cruises
You'll explore the "Waterways of the Tsars" on Viking River Cruises' 13-day adventure between St Petersburg and Moscow in Russia which takes in Red Square, the Peterhof Palace, a Soviet-era kommunalka (communal apartment), and a visit to an Uglich family home, amongst other highlights.
On Day 9 a local artist will teach you how to paint your own set of three Russian nesting dolls, or matryoshka, during a stop at the funny little tourist village of Mandrogi which was destroyed by German bombs in World War II and rebuilt by a St Petersburg businessman in the late 1990s. The village is now home to a vodka museum, a small zoo and a traditional banya, or bath house, which involves a dry sauna, steam bath, birch-broom massage and a quick dip into the very cold Svir River. "Complete purification" it may achieve, but this is not for the faint-hearted. Personally, we'd stick with the nesting dolls.