Ease of travel is one of the top reasons to cruise. Goodbye to planning headaches and worries about where to sleep. Settle in, unpack once, enjoy a carefree drink as you glide to your next destination. Farewell the nitty-gritty and hello holiday.
You have even more reason to river cruise. There is no such thing as a day at sea. Landscapes scroll past and you're often docked right in the middle of old towns or vineyards; everything is much closer than it is on an ocean cruise.
Some destinations can't be seen in a better way. The Amazon or Yangtze Gorges because they have few roads. The Rhine or Columbia because you get scenery on both sides, not just one riverbank. Bordeaux or Phnom Penh because arriving by water is so much more splendid than by land.
Small wonder river cruising has come surging back. Well, almost. The political situations in Russia and Myanmar have put the kibosh on some great river journeys, and China has yet to reopen its borders to tourists. Crystal Cruises went bust and Pandaw faltered, though this boutique company, which cruises interesting Asian rivers, has just announced a resurrection.
Thankfully most river-cruise companies have now returned their entire fleets to service and are reporting a surge in bookings and an interest in longer itineraries and destinations beyond river cruising's European heartland, such as Asia and America.
Companies such as American Cruise Lines, APT, Emerald, Travelmarvel and Viking are launching new ships this year; Viking is making journeys on the Mississippi for the first time and is also offering some river-ocean combinations. Or you can organise back-to-back cruises yourself from ports such as Amsterdam and Venice if you want the best of both worlds.
Most of all, river cruises offer variety: urban pleasures, village visits, old castles, new neighbourhoods, history and hikes, culture and cycling. Yet you can relax too. Sit up on deck, listen to the river gurgle, watch the world float by. Great sights arrive and you haven't made the slightest effort to get there. Here are some top river-cruise experiences to suit your style.
THE PLACE Temple of Kom Ombo, Kom Ombo, Egypt.
THE RIVER The Nile, cluttered with ruins and tombs on a journey that has you feeling like Indiana Jones.
TELL ME MORE The Nile has bigger, more impressive temples, but Kom Ombo bags a commanding clifftop location above a sweeping river bend. Wall inscriptions show crocodile-headed god Sobek, and macabre mummified crocodiles are stacked in a side building. No better spot to appreciate how the Nile River permeates every aspect of ancient Egyptian life.
DON'T MISS A felucca ride at Aswan upriver. The river gurgles between red desert hills and golden sandbanks, and dilapidated ruins rise from Elephantine Island.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Abercrombie & Kent's 10-day "Egypt & The Nile" cruise departs May and Sep-Dec 2022. From $11,190 a person, abercrombiekent.com.au
THE WINE AFICIONADO
THE PLACE House of Camus, Cognac, France.
THE RIVER The Gironde, Garonne and Dordogne, whose riverbanks are stitched with some of the world's most prestigious vineyards.
TELL ME MORE Cruises take you on behind-the-scenes tours, and at Camus – one of the largest and last-remaining family producers – a master blender in a barrel-filled cellar guides you through the art of cognac blending so you can make and bottle your own.
DON'T MISS Gazing from the honey-coloured ramparts of Saint-Émilion towards famous vineyards that produce top wines such as Petrus, Pomerol and Cheval Blanc. The World Heritage old town has oh-so-French cafes in cobbled squares where you can enjoy a glass or two.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Viking's eight-day "Chateaux, Rivers & Wine" cruise departs Apr-June and Sep-Oct 2022. From $3995 a person, vikingrivercruises.com.au
THE PEOPLE PERSON
THE PLACE Buddhist monastery, Oudong, Cambodia.
THE RIVER The Mekong, where you're never far from bustling streets, giggling kids, commuters on ferries and Cambodians with stories both uplifting and haunting.
TELL ME MORE River cruises facilitate interactions with locals through visits to small business, markets and village schools. A Buddhist blessing ceremony makes the otherwise inconsequential but colourful monastery at Oudong a moment to remember as saffron-clad monks chant – and chat.
DON'T MISS Friendly silk-weaving village Oknha Tey, where families produce stiff, elaborately patterned Khmer sampot silk. The weavers will show you how silk is extracted from cocoons, spun and then manipulated on the loom to produce fabric in peacock colours.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Travelmarvel's eight-day "Majestic Mekong" cruise departs July-Sep 2022. From $2095 a person, travelmarvel.com
THE ART LOVER
THE PLACE St Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy.
THE RIVER The Po and Venetian Lagoon. Art history squeezes into every corner of Venice and shore-excursion destinations Padua or Ferrara.
TELL ME MORE Privileged access to St Mark's after dark is a wondrous experience without the crowds. When the lights blaze out, a magnificence of Byzantine-style mosaic work in glittering gold and blue reveals saints, angels, prophets and a vast Christ Pantocrator. It's like sitting in a pop-up illuminated manuscript.
DON'T MISS Ferrara, once an independent duchy, was for centuries a hotspot for musicians and artists and has a lovely, mostly Renaissance old town in which to lose yourself.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Uniworld's eight-day "Venice & The Gems of Northern Italy" cruise departs Apr-Oct 2022. From $2999 a person, uniworld.com
THE GARDEN LOVER
THE PLACE Monet's Garden, Giverny, France.
THE RIVER The Seine, a lovely pastoral river that glides through landscapes celebrated by artists and tended by generations of gardeners.
TELL ME MORE If the pink house, Japanese garden and lily pond with its humpbacked bridge look familiar, no wonder. Claude Monet lived and painted here and frequently reproduced his garden on canvas. Gardeners will love the cultural connection, riot of flowerbeds and poppy-filled borders shaded by blossom trees.
DON'T MISS Château de Malmaison belonged to Empress Josephine, who had a love of roses. The gardens have a collection of more than 150 varieties, and heady perfumes waft from lush blooms.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Botanica's 13-day "Gardens of the Loire Valley & Seine River" cruise departs May 29, 2023. From $12,295 a person, www.botanica.travel
THE HISTORY BUFF
The mighty Mississippi. Photo: iStock
THE PLACE Vicksburg, Mississippi, US.
THE RIVER The Mississippi, where you get a snapshot of American history from the Civil War to the civil-rights movement, leavened with the toe-tapping story of jazz and rock music.
TELL ME MORE Vicksburg is an elegant mansion-studded town, and the nearby battlefield saw a pivotal moment of the Civil War in 1863. Ironclad gunboat USS Cairo, moored on the river, is a further curiosity.
DON'T MISS Oak Alley in St Francisville, one of the quintessential plantation homes of the American South, where your Scarlett O'Hara moment is tempered by the story of the slavery that kept the cotton growing and lawns so green.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Viking's "Heart of the Delta" cruise departs June-July and Oct-Nov 2022. From $6495 a person, vikingrivercruises.com.au
THE GRAND VOYAGER
THE PLACE Belogradchik, Bulgaria.
THE RIVER The Lower Danube, which offers longer distances, bigger gorges and more brooding history than its more domesticated Upper Danube counterpart.
TELL ME MORE Begun by the Romans and added to by Bulgarians and Ottomans, Belogradchik is now a romantic ruin in a splendid landscape of unusual rock outcrops backed by snow-covered mountains. The setting stirs the soul, and you're far from Europe's most-tramped tourist sites.
DON'T MISS Another Bulgarian fortress, Tsarevets, which crowns Veliko Tarnovo, former capital of the nation's medieval rulers. Swallows swoop as you can gaze over the countryside and the town's Byzantine-influenced church domes.
MAKE IT HAPPEN APT's 15-day "Voyage through the Balkans" cruise departs on Nov 2, 2022, and Mar 15, 2023. From $6795 a person, aptouring.com.au
THE PLACE Tain l'Hermitage, France.
THE RIVER The Rhone unabashedly produces all the cliches of southern France, from sun-soaked cafe terraces to lavender fields, vineyards to old-town markets.
TELL ME MORE Tain l'Hermitage is the hometown of Valrhona chocolate, which is enough reason to visit. But it also sits at the Rhone's most scenic spot where the river narrows and vineyards rear, backed by a blue smudge of Alps. Hoof up the hills to a tiny chapel and enjoy the view across the river to castle-topped Tournon.
DON'T MISS If you're ever going to steal a kiss, do it in Arles, a pretty Provence town of kickback cafes, meandering streets and a sunlit, arty vibe.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Scenic's 11-day "Spectacular South of France" cruise departs May-Oct 2022. From $6995 a person, scenic.com.au
THE NOVELTY SEEKERS
THE PLACE Iskcon Temple, Mayapur, India.
THE RIVER The Ganges is a river for the jaded traveller. Its banks showcase a parade of sights – palaces, temples, colonial relics, spice plantations – and its river-side populations challenge you with crowds, religious beliefs, noise and endless energy.
TELL ME MORE Iskcon Temple is the world headquarters of the Hare Krishnas. Plunge in among orange-robed, chanting devotees who crowd the enormous modern edifice on the riverfront. There's always something going on, and deities clad in silken finery are spectacularly colourful.
DON'T MISS Kalna, where 108 royal terracotta temples dedicated to Shiva sit in two concentric circles. Despite being important Hindu sites, they retain an aura of stately tranquility.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Avalon Waterways' seven-day "Spirit of the Ganges" cruise departs Sep-Nov 2022. From $5137 a person, avalonwaterways.com.au
THE WANT-IT-ALL TYPE
THE PLACE Germany's Corner, Koblenz, Germany.
THE RIVER The Rhine has variety, from Dutch flatlands to the rugged castle-topped Rhine Gorges, lively cities to wine villages, Germany to France, art and history to Black Forest hiking.
TELL ME MORE The Rhine and Moselle rivers meet magnificently at Germany's Corner an arrowshot from cruise docks. Walk along kilometres of riverside promenades and explore Koblenz which, though soaked in history, is also lively with university students.
DON'T MISS The massive bulk of Ehrenbreitstein, one of Europe's largest fortresses, looms over the river. It's worth ascending by cable car for its views rather than its brutal architecture.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Emerald Cruises' eight-day "Jewels of the Rhine" cruise departs May-Oct 2022. From $4295 a person, emeraldcruises.com.au
FIVE MORE GREAT RIVER-CRUISE SIGHTS
CHATEAU DE VILLANDRY, LOIRE RIVER, FRANCE
The Loire has both bijou and extravagant chateaux at every bend. Villandry isn't about the rather plain and forbidding building, however, but its grounds, which are a superb example of formal French design. Wander past clipped hedges, topiaries, flower-filled parterres, ponds, fountains and an elaborate vegetable garden planted by colour. chateauvillandry.fr; croisieurope.travel
THREE GORGES DAM, YANGTZE RIVER, CHINA
The Three Gorges are renowned for scenery of the type seen on scroll paintings, but also showcase the staggering contrasts of China's long history and modern transformation. The world's biggest dam is a gobsmacking sight on an excursion to its viewing platforms and visitor centre; cruise ships also navigate the colossal locks. en.hubei.gov.cn; wendywutours.com.au
MATEUS PALACE, DOURO RIVER, PORTUGAL
Though the Douro is short, it features gorges and steep vineyards dense in historical sights. This miniature baroque palace hunkers under cypress trees and is reflected in ponds. Porcelain steps link its formal garden terraces. Its glorious setting high above the river is especially superb when autumn colours splotch the hillsides. casademateus.com; tauck.com
CHANTICLEER POINT, COLUMBIA RIVER, US
The scenic highlight of this river is the Columbia Gorges, gushing with waterfalls, dense in pine forests and backed by the snow cone of Mount Hood volcano. While splendid from the river, don't miss an excursion to clifftop Chanticleer Point for an elevated view over one of river cruising's great sights. traveloregon.com; americancruiselines.com
GREEN VAULT, ELBE RIVER, GERMANY
Medieval and baroque old towns and "Saxon Switzerland" landscapes are reasons to cruise this compact river, but the most staggering sight is this 18th-century collection in Dresden's royal palace. Everything from crown jewels and objects d'art to plates, necklaces and horse bridles are encrusted in a bedazzlement of gemstones. gruenes-gewoelbe.skd.museum; vikingrivercruises.com.au
FIVE AMAZING SIGHTS FROM AN OCEAN SHIP
MILFORD SOUND, FIORDLAND, NEW ZEALAND
The long journey in and out by road is no way to enjoy Milford Sound. Kick back on a cruise ship's deck and admire it in ease. Waterfalls plummet off cliffs high enough to crick your neck, while behind rise the snowy Southern Alps. Rainforest and mist soften the ruggedness. Some ships also sail Doubtful and Dusky sounds. fiordland.org.nz; rssc.com
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA
You can visit most ports by land, but some have such stirring maritime history they demand a sea approach. Halifax overlooks one of the world's largest harbours, dominated by a key British Empire naval fortress. Ships docks near Pier 21, where a million immigrants arrived in Canada, as documented in a brilliant museum. Windy, seagull-patrolled promenades put a spring in your step. discoverhalifaxns.com; celebritycruises.com
GLACIER BAY, ALASKA, US
With few roads and a terrain that sees mountains, glaciers and islands collide, the only easy way to see Alaska is by ship. Scenery is seldom less than awesome and Glacier Bay pulls out all the stops. Mountain peaks stab the horizon, chunks of ice broken off immense blue glaciers float past, and humpback whales huff. travelalaska.com; hollandamerica.com
GRAND HARBOUR, VALLETTA, MALTA
Sail-ins are a highlight of cruising, nowhere more so than in Malta, where Fort St Elmo marks the dramatic entrance into this great harbour. Battlements and turrets rise all around, topped by huddled houses and bulging church domes, a sight barely changed since the Knights of St John created the Renaissance fortifications in the 16th century. visitmalta.com; silversea.com
KING GEORGE RIVER, KIMBERLEY, AUSTRALIA
Only a Zodiac excursion from an expedition ship gets you into this 12-kilometre gash in the Kimberley. Sandstone cliffs change colour from orange to red as the light shifts. Where the gorge ends, twin falls plummet 80 metres off the escarpment, shimmering with rainbows. Your Zodiac noses up close enough for spray to splatter your amazed, upturned face. australiasnorthwest.com; coralexpeditions.com