While the rivers of south-east Asia already attract thousands of cruisers every year, the spotlight is now turning to India as another up-and-coming river cruise destination that is overflowing with culture, history and astoundingly scenic countryside.
Until recently, the small, specialist Assam Bengal Navigation Company was almost the only organisation offering cruises on India's Ganges, Hooghly and Brahmaputra rivers. Its two charming, 24-passenger vessels and their fascinating itineraries in Assam and West Bengal proved so popular the company built a third ship, RV Rajmahal, which started operating on the Upper and Lower Ganges this year.
Rajmahal is larger than its fleetmates, at 50 metres long with 22 cabins accommodating 40 passengers, and sails between Farakka and Patna (the Upper Ganges) and between Kolkata and Farakka (the Lower Ganges, also known as the Hooghly). The cabins all have french balconies and, as on its smaller sister ships, there is a saloon, dining room, spa and large sundeck.
Canberra-based Active Travel (activetravel.com) organises cruises on all three Assam Bengal Navigation Company ships and Travelmarvel (travelmarvel.com.au) offers cruises on Rajmahal as part of its extensive range of land-cruise holidays.
Cruise specialist travel company Cruiseco (cruising.com.au) is now taking bookings for its 2015-16 India land-cruise packages, which include a 10-night voyage from Kolkata to Patna on another new river ship, RV Ganges Voyager.
This vessel will raise the level of luxury another few notches. It is 56.5 metres long and has 28 cabins that range from butler-serviced suites to spacious balcony cabins.
Cruiseco's full 27-day Authentic Asia: India program takes you from Kolkata to Mumbai, a journey packed with extraordinary sights and experiences, such as vibrant Varanasi, the magnificent Taj Mahal, the pink city of Jaipur and the desert fortress of Jodhpur. Accommodation is in opulent hotels, such as the Taj Gateway in Varanasi, Imperial in Delhi and Taj Mahal Palace and Towers in Mumbai.
There are departures scheduled for February, March and November 2015 and 2016 and some cabin categories are already fully booked, so interest is keen.
If you have never visited India before, this sort of land-cruise holiday is an ideal way to sample the diverse delights of the subcontinent.
PRINCESS CRUISES: DIAMOND PRINCESS
LAUNCHED: 2004; refurbished in November 2010 and given a $30 million refurbishment in March-April this year.
PASSENGERS & CREW: 2700 passengers, 1100 crew.
ACCOMMODATION: Diamond Princess has 1353 cabins, ranging from large suites to interconnecting family suites (two), balcony, window and inside cabins (740 of all the cabins have balconies). There are 27 wheelchair-accessible cabins.
REGULAR HAUNTS: Japan, until October 2014; based in Sydney and cruising around Australia, New Zealand and Asia from October 2014 to April 2015.
PERFECT FOR: Couples and singles over 50.
DINING: Five main dining rooms offer a mix of fixed and flexible times. More casual are the Horizon Court buffet, Trident Grill for burgers and hot dogs, and poolside Prego Pizzeria. The three extra-charge specialty restaurants are the new Japanese Kai Sushi, Sabatini's and Sterling Steakhouse.
PARTYING: The ship has a good choice of bars and lounges. Beer aficionados can enjoy the Wheelhouse Bar and smokers can retreat to the Churchill Lounge.
DOING: The Princess ScholarShip@Sea Program offers up to 40 classes, , from computers to wine-tasting and zumba. There are four pools, a gym, spa, theatre, casino, shops and a library.
DID YOU KNOW? The new 818 square metre, indoor-outdoor Japanese bath complex is based on the traditional onsen bath experience. Features include two types of sauna, a hydrotherapy pool and an invigorating cascade of hot water.
THE DETAILS: Diamond Princess cruises between Sydney and Fremantle in November 2014 and February 2015. Fares start from $1799 for a 12-night cruise departing from Sydney on November 16 and visiting Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Albany and Bunbury. Fares for the 28-night circumnavigation of Australia start at $3999. Phone 13 24 88, see princess.com.
OFFER OF THE WEEK
MSC Cruises' 21-night "Around the Boot" package includes an 18-night cruise around the Mediterranean on the family-friendly MSC Fantasia. It starts with a round trip from Venice visiting Greece and Croatia; the second leg visits Turkey, Malta and Sicily and finishes in Italy. Return flights with Emirates, departing Australia on October 24, 2014, and accommodation in Venice are part of the deal, which starts at $4459. Phone 1300 028 502, see msccruises.com.au.
SEABOURN is offering free upgrades to veranda suites on two Seabourn Quest South America cruises. The 15-night cruise from Miami to Manaus, departing on October 25, starts at $5999 and visits several Caribbean islands before cruising the Amazon for five days. The 20-night Manaus-to-Buenos Aires voyage leaves on November 9 and starts at $6999. Phone 13 24 02, see seabourn.com.
P&O CRUISES has a four-night winter break on the Pacific Pearl, round-trip from Sydney to Moreton Island in Queensland from a bargain $449 (quad share) or $579 twin share. It leaves on August 28. Phone 13 24 94, see pocruises.com.au.
If you're planning to sample some specialty restaurants on your next cruise it's a good idea to find out if you can book an alternative dining package before you board. On Celebrity Solstice, for example, a three-dinner package that includes meals at Murano, Tuscan Grille and Silk Harvest costs $85 a person. Fantastic value compared with city restaurants - but many cruisers believe the increase of extra-charge restaurants means that standards in included restaurants are going downhill. What are your thoughts?