River cruising has become so popular that companies are struggling to meet demand, writes Brian Johnston.
When I first fell in love with river cruising, I had only one fear - that my obsession with gliding through continental interiors would forever "doom" me to an over-indulgence of baroque palaces, apricot jam and string quartets on the Danube. Fortunately, I'm not the only one enamoured of floating hotels that drift from place to place without troubling me with trains, hunger or suitcases.
So many of us are now river cruising that cruise companies are scrambling to keep up. Every year, more rivers are navigated. What's more, established destinations have been enlivened with alternative shore excursions and specialised themes. Unconvinced travellers persist in perceiving river cruises as they were 20 years ago - an uninspiring meander on predictable, European rivers in the company of octogenarian Texan dentists and their better halves. But not only are river ships themselves now luxurious and sophisticated, shore excursions offer myriad alternatives to the slow-shoe cathedral shuffle with passengers increasingly more youthful. Listen to the naysayers and you'll miss a great travel treat.
But perhaps the greatest seismic shift in river cruising is that it's no longer just focused on Europe. In North America, for example, you can cruise right across the heartland of the United States from Chicago to New Orleans on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, linked by the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
Not exotic and adventurous enough? Consider destinations such as the Limpopo, Zambezi, Lake Malawi and Borneo's Kinabatangan River, which are ripe for cruise exploitation. Should a prolonged peace prevail, even Ukraine's Dnieper River could make a comeback.
Big rivers that currently have small-scale river cruising include the Mackenzie in Canada's Yukon, the Brahmaputra in north-east India, and the Gambia and Senegal rivers in West Africa.
Here, then, are eight magnificent cruises that demonstrate the variety and adventure of river cruising's brave new world.
TOTAL LENGTH 6437 kilometres
WHERE Peru and Brazil
THE CRUISE LINES Amazon Clipper Cruises; Amazon Explorer; APT; Aqua Expeditions; Avalon Waterways; Chimu Adventures
Many associate the Amazon with Brazil, and some ships do sail from the brash, jungle-sweaty Brazilian town of Manaus, but most cruises focus on the Peruvian Amazon. The journey along the sluggish, four-kilometre-wide river, which slurps through sticky rainforest, will have you feeling like Mr Kurtz. An endless flotilla of local ferries and canoes adds a human dimension, with every passing wharf a place of exchange for bananas, tins of food and gossip.
You embark at the ramshackle, motorbike-buzzing port of Iquitos. Then you sail through the looking-glass into a land where butterflies are plate-sized, monkeys hoot in the trees and toucans look like court jesters. Piranhas lurk, but you're more likely to see pink river dolphins skipping across your wake.
TOTAL LENGTH 731 kilometres
WHERE Botswana and Namibia
THE LINES Abercrombie & Kent APT; AmaWaterways; Bench International; Zambezi Queen
This is a more modest, though no less exciting cruise experience - no more than four nights, just 14 cabins on the sole ship, Zambezi Queen, no port calls, and a 25-kilometre stretch of water on which you potter back and forth to mid-river moorings. Yet it's undoubtedly the world's wildest, taking you through northern Botswana's palette of stunningly beautiful floodplains and papyrus-lined pools, through which the Chobe River wallows before it merges with the Zambezi.
Soon after, it tips over Victoria Falls, making this safari afloat invariably part of a longer land-based southern Africa journey. Kingfishers shimmer, pop-eyed hippos snort, elephants parade along the riverbanks and can occasionally be seen swimming across to river islands. You'll also see impalas and zebras, and giraffes feeding on acacias with rubbery purple tongues. Frogs provide a chorus for your sunset drink, and star-gazing from the deck is like a hallucination.
TOTAL LENGTH 2525 kilometres
THE LINES Active Travel; APT; Assam Bengal Navigation; Travel Indochina; Travel Marvel; Cruiseco
Ganges is an age-old trade artery whose riverbanks are cluttered with Hindu palaces and temples, Mughal forts, Hare Krishna communes, Buddhist monasteries and crumbling colonial outposts. Cruises run between Patna and Kolkata with the final stretch along the Hooghly River; a very few tackle the Upper Ganges between Patna and Varanasi during high waters.
The landscape is lush with mango orchards, rice paddies and spice plantations. Most of all, its people are the spectacle, sari-bright on river-washed ghats as they pray, wash and relax. Leave your sense of normality behind; India is a parade of many-armed gods, peculiar pilgrims and squatting tangle-haired gurus. In early morning, the devout wade into Holy Mother Ganges, cupping their hands and trickling water droplets against the sun as they murmur prayers in rituals thousands of years old.
TOTAL LENGTH 2170 kilometres
THE LINES Abercrombie & Kent; APT; Avalon Waterways; Belmond; Pandaw River Expeditions; Scenic Tours; Viking River Cruises.
Just a few years ago this was intrepid territory. Given the new ship launches here, it's now practically mainstream. And for good reason - the shimmering, shockingly green riverbanks of Myanmar's lifeline are an ever-changing spectacle of ox carts, orange-robed monks, rain-washed villages and gleaming golden temples that attest to a rich Buddhist heritage. In between, forests are dense with teak and mahogany trees in which pythons slither and gaudy parrots squawk.
Some cruises sail the river between Mandalay and Prome, others extend further south to Yangon. The 2000-odd crumbling ruins and pagodas of Bagan are a sunset spectacle; the ancient capital at Amarapura and modern-day equivalent at Yangon are other highlights. Everywhere you travel, Buddha statues have serene faces lost in shadow, bearing the stillness of ages and the distant expressions of yoga instructors.
TOTAL LENGTH 6300 kilometres
THE LINES APT; Avalon Waterways; Scenic Tours; Tauck; Uniworld; Victoria Cruises; Viking River Cruises.
China's mightiest river mixes 5000 years of history with the plunging, often misty Three Gorges. China's paradoxes are apparent at every river bend - you pass ancient towns that groan with temples and palaces, glittering cities sprout skyscrapers, and a vast inland scalloped with rice paddies.
Itineraries offer a range of lengths and river sections between Shanghai and Chongqing, and most include land extensions to Shanghai, Beijing and Xi'an.
Shorter cruises concentrate on the Three Gorges region and run between Chongqing and Yichang, on which a colossal dam provides an unusual shore excursion that will drop your jaw.
Most river cruises also decant passengers onto smaller boats to investigate the Lesser Three Gorges tributary, with its limpid green waters and dramatic, monkey-haunted peaks.
LENGTH 3734 kilometres
WHERE United States
THE LINES American Cruise Lines; American Queen Steamboat Company; APT; Avalon Waterways; Scenic Tours; Viking River Cruises
One of the world's biggest rivers is also one of the most romantic - who hasn't thought of running away to enjoy a Huckleberry-style summer lazing to buzzing dragonflies and the clunk of a paddle wheel?
The reality is rather more grown-up.
The Mississippi is dense with history - native American, explorer, Civil War and civil rights - and infused with the cultures of Africa, the Caribbean and colonial France and Spain. Its chief city, New Orleans, is chaotic, characterful and decadent, and surely provides the best nightlife of any river port.
Itineraries usually run from the Big Easy to either toe-tapping Nashville, country music capital of the known universe, or Memphis, the steamy Tennessee rock'n'roll town associated with Elvis and his peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
It's a journey with soul, and will give you something to sing about.
LENGTH 897 kilometres
THE LINES APT; Douro Azul; Uniworld; Viking River Cruises
There's beauty in this gurgling, golden river.
It meanders from the rugged uplands of Spain and tumbles through Portugal, hemmed by scenic gorges and terraces of vines. Cruise boats travel the 200 kilometres from Porto to Barca d'Alva on the Spanish border at a leisurely, lock-hampered pace.
Castles peer over the waters from brooding heights, and ancient farms cling to steep slopes; the river between Bitetos to Regua is possibly the most beautiful.
If you're a wine aficionado, you'll find this a terrific region. It's the world's oldest demarcated wine region, first established in 1756, and cruises start in Porto right by some famous port-wine lodges.
Because of the river's short length, a Douro cruise is a there-and-back itinerary, stopping at alternative sights along the riverbanks on the outward and return journeys.
Most include a shore excursion to the mediaeval, Spanish university town of Salamanca.
LENGTH 3692 kilometres
THE LINES APT; Imperial River Cruises; Scenic Tours; Uniworld; Viking River Cruises; Volga Dream
Not far out of Moscow, birch trees and picket-fenced dachas appear beyond your cabin window. It's a strangely domestic start to an epic journey through north-west Russia. Float past venerable towns such as Uglich and Yaroslavl, which pop with onion-dome churches and host markets rich with the smell of pickles and fat salami-style sausages.
Later, the landscape becomes flat and vast under a huge cloud-studded sky.
Linked canals, small rivers and lakes propel you through Russia's heartland, where dramatic sights appear. Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery is a fortified, lake-reflected complex featuring bejewelled icons of sloe-eyed saints.
On vast Lake Onega, Kizhi Island provides a World Heritage collection of picturesque wooden farmhouses, windmills and churches. As a fitting finale, St Petersburg is a study in contrast - seat of imperial power, hotbed of revolution, and a glittering, golden city of palaces, parks and ornate theatres.
FIVE MORE GREAT RIVER CRUISE DESTINATIONS
INTERCOASTAL WATERWAY, US
The alligator-haunted waterways that link America's south-eastern plantation towns blur the distinction between rivers, canals and saltwater bays. Cruises run between Jacksonville in Florida and Charleston in South Carolina; some extend as far as Rhode Island. Charming Savannah, with its decaying baroque mansions, magnolias and slow Southern pace, is a highlight.
COLUMBIA RIVER, US
Lewis and Clark "discovered" the Pacific Northwest in 1805, and its majestic landscapes are virtually unchanged - though with the pleasant addition of vineyards. The Columbia River slashes through the Cascade Mountains in a series of gorges and waterfalls, Mount St Helens volcano rears, and bear and elk roam the riverbanks.
Un-Cruise Adventures (un-cruise.com).
MEKONG RIVER, VIETNAM-CAMBODIA
Centuries-old cultures and booming new economies collide on this slow glide between My Tho and Kampong Cham. The ruins of Angkor Wat, rising from the jungle, provide one of those ultimate travel moments.
MURRAY RIVER, AUSTRALIA
Classic Aussie scenery and colonial history unfold on the Murray between Murray Bridge and Blanchetown, SA. Enjoy old frontier settlements, Aboriginal sites, cellar doors and homestead visits, and plenty of birds. Alternatively, the paddle-steamer Emmylou makes short journeys from Echuca in Victoria.
NILE RIVER, EGYPT
Many cruise companies have temporarily suspended operations on the Nile, surely the world's most fabulous river, which takes you on a journey through time as well as space. Cruise between Luxor and Aswan and drift past temples and tombs, corn and cabbage fields, and fiery dessert hills.
ABOUT THE WRITER Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Sydney-based Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland, Britain and China. A widely published writer and author, he is an avid skier, Sinophile and cruising devotee. His new weekly cruise column for Traveller begins this week.