India is certainly incredible, as its marketing tag proclaims, but it can be a little overwhelming, particularly for the first-time visitor. It's a huge and vastly varied country, one that has exerted a powerful attraction for adventurous travellers and colonising powers for hundreds of years. Today, river cruising is an increasingly popular way to explore many aspects of India's colourful culture, ancient history and fascinating village life. Well-appointed river ships provide a peaceful retreat from teeming crowds and insane traffic in the big cities.
The main cruise itineraries are on the Upper Ganges, Lower Ganges (also called the Hooghly) and Brahmaputra rivers, and they are often packaged with land tours. Key operators include Pandaw, Uniworld, APT, Avalon, Travelmarvel, Adventure Resorts and Cruises (ARC) and the Assam Bengal Navigation Company (ABNC). Australian cruise specialists such as Cruise Traveller and Cruiseco offer combined land and river cruise packages in India, while several smaller companies offer houseboat cruises in Kerala, south India.
Lower Ganges cruises are usually week-long round trips from Kolkata (Calcutta) and form part of Golden Triangle fly/stay/cruise packages. Golden Triangle land tours take in Delhi (India's capital), Agra (for the Taj Mahal) and Rajasthan (for the Pink City of Jaipur and Amber Fort). Passengers fly to Kolkata to board ships such as Ganges Voyager (chartered by APT), Ganges Voyager II (Uniworld), RV Rajmahal (Travelmarvel) and Pandaw's own Orient Pandaw and Katha Pandaw.
Along the Lower Ganges, ships visit places such as the historic terracotta temple complex in Kalna, the brass-making village of Matiari, Murshidabad, for excursions to Azimganj and Jiaganj to see local gold and silversmith workshops, and Mayapur, headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Starting in October this year, the 28-passenger Katha Pandaw will offer 14-night cruises from Kolkata to Varanasi, one of India's holiest destinations. Katha Pandaw follows Pandaw's Lower Ganges itinerary before continuing to the Upper Ganges, calling at Bateshwarsthan, Sultanganj, Mokama, Patna, Doriganj, Buxar, Ghazipur and Varanasi.
Cruises on the Brahmaputra showcase Assam's exotic wildlife, scenic tea plantations and views of the Himalayas, from where the river flows. Pandaw's 60-passenger Indochina Pandaw will sail week-long Brahmaputra itineraries from October. ARC and Cruise Traveller, among others, charter the 46-passenger MV Mahabaahu and ABNC operates the 24- passenger Chairadew. A major highlight is a safari trip around Kaziranga National Park.
Pandaw is also introducing ocean cruises in the Bay of Bengal's Andaman Islands next year, on-board the restored 1960s motoryacht MY Andaman Explorer. Itineraries include two new, 10-night expeditions that explore Burma's Mergui Archipelago and India's Andamans, departing in February 2020.
THE PORT Stavanger, Norway
WHO GOES THERE Celebrity, Costa, CMV, Cunard, Disney, Fred.Olsen, HAL, MSC, P&O UK, Princess, RSSC, Royal Caribbean, Saga, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking, Windstar.
WHY WE LOVE IT Stavanger is an intriguing blend of past and present. Its harbour is ringed with converted 18th-century wooden warehouses, while nearby is a striking modern bridge and the sleek Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The cathedral dates back to about 1100 and the town was a centre for shipbuilding, fishing and trade for many centuries. When oil was discovered in the North Sea in 1969, Stavanger became known as the oil capital of Norway; today it is a bustling, attractive city with a thriving cultural scene and well-preserved old town, Gamle Stavanger.
TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Ships dock in the heart of the city and the main attractions are within easy walking distance. The Norwegian petroleum and canning museums are much more inspiring than they sound and well worth visiting, as is the Stavanger Art Museum. You can happily while away an hour or so wandering the streets of Gamle Stavanger, admiring the immaculate 18th-century wooden houses, and the cathedral reveals Gothic, baroque, Romanesque and Anglo-Norman influences. History buffs can delve further into Norway's Viking past at the Archaeological Museum at the University of Stavanger. For souvenir shopping go to Stavanger Torvet, the market square. Local operators run boat trips to beautiful Lysefjord and the famous Pulpit Rock.
MUST EAT Check out waterfront Fisketorget, part fish market and part restaurant, for local fish and seafood specialties. Serious foodies might go for Michelin-starred restaurants RE-NAA and Sabi Omakase, while there's a variety of cafes, wine bars and eateries serving up international dishes. Just remember that nothing is cheap in Norway, including eating out, but the quality is superb.
NEED TO KNOW The Norwegian currency is the kroner, which is sometimes mistranslated into "crowns" in English. Almost all establishments accept debit or credit cards.
It will take 3 million labour hours to build Princess Cruises' 3660-passenger Sky Princess, which makes its maiden voyage in October 2019.
Evergreen Cruises & Tours is running an eight-day Flavours of Burgundy and Provence river cruise from Nice to Lyon, departing on July 27, 2019. Guests will be joined on-board Emerald Liberte by British Master of Wine Tim Atkin, American wine expert and talk show host Robin Stark, Canadian wine expert DJ Kearney and Australian Master of Wine Andrea Pritzker. The cruise features an impressive line-up of wine tastings, masterclasses and vineyard visits led by the experts, along with a Provencal wine-pairing dinner hosted by renowned French chef Fabien Morreale, an on-board cheese and olive tasting session and a visit to Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine cellars. Fares start from $4345 per person and include six different shore excursions plus exclusive events, gratuities and drinks with lunch and dinner. See evergreentours.com.au
CAPTAIN MAKES HISTORY
When Captain Serena Melani takes the helm of ultra-luxe Seven Seas Splendor next February, she will be the first woman in the cruise industry to captain a new ship as it leaves the shipyard to make its maiden voyage. Captain Melani began her nautical career at age 16 as a cadet, attending school in her hometown of Livorno, Italy, while working on cargo ships. She joined RSSC in 2010 and served as a bridge officer, navigation officer, safety officer and staff captain on Seven Seas Voyager, then became the company's first female Master Captain in 2016. "There is a growing number of very talented female captains emerging in our industry and we're proud to be pioneers for those women who aspire to lead the bridge," says Melani. See rssc.com
Cunard's popular Queen Elizabeth will return to Australia for a record 118 days over the 2020-21 summer, marking the line's biggest season in local waters. The season will also feature visits from Cunard flagship Queen Mary 2 and sister ship Queen Victoria during their world voyages, with the royal trio spending 49 days in Australian ports between them. Queen Elizabeth will sail more than 60 itineraries between November 2020 and March 2021 from Melbourne and Sydney, with cruises ranging from two-nighters between Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide to longer journeys around Australia and New Zealand. Highlights include a Royal Rendezvous with Queen Victoria in Sydney on March 1, 2021, and an overnight call in Auckland on December 31, 2020, to celebrate the New Year. See cunardline.com.au