River cruising in Asia is becoming a popular option for thousands of Aussies who are looking for a trip that doesn't require flying halfway across the world. Several international companies operate river cruises on the Mekong (Vietnam and Cambodia) and, increasingly, in Myanmar.
The main players are APT, Avalon Waterways, Scenic Tours, Uniworld and Viking. Pandaw River Expeditions is an established operator in the region; it has 10 ships plying the picturesque waterways and recently launched two more super-shallow-draft vessels (Kalay Pandaw and Kindat Pandaw) especially designed for exploring the hard-to-navigate reaches of the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers north of Mandalay.
Aqua Expeditions, best known for its Amazon River ships, is operating a new ship, the 40-passenger Aqua Mekong, on the Mekong, and uber-luxe company Orient-Express' boutique ship Orcaella joined its sister ship The Road To Mandalay in Myanmar last year.
Australian cruise company Cruiseco launched its custom-built Cruiseco Adventurer in Vietnam in 2012, and this year its second ship, the 56-passenger Cruiseco Explorer, will set sail in Myanmar in October.
Steve Lloyd, chief executive at Cruiseco, says the new ship is a significant milestone for the company. Cruiseco Explorer will operate in Myanmar on the waters of the Irrawaddy, Upper Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers.
"We continue to draw on our extensive experience to ensure that the Cruiseco Explorer's design will appeal to our customers."
The 58-metre, two-deck ship will have 28 luxurious cabins, all featuring polished timber floors, ensuite facilities, and either floor-to-ceiling french windows or full private balconies. Traditional in style, the ship will have a sun deck, lounge and bar, and restaurant. The restaurant will be on the main deck and the menu will feature a fusion of traditional Burmese and Western cuisine.
"The Cruiseco Explorer is about more than travelling in style," says Lloyd. "It's our aim to be able to contribute to the country's infrastructure and share the local people's lives with our passengers
in an equal and open way.
"Our crew on the Cruiseco Explorer is extremely knowledgeable on local culture and history, and we will continue to only employ staff members who come from the region as we work to offer shared experiences between our passengers and the Burmese people."
VICTORIA CRUISE LINES: VICTORIA JENNA
LAUNCHED: 2009. Victoria Jenna, pictured, is the newest and largest river cruise ship on the Yangtze owned by US-based Victoria Cruise Lines.
PASSENGERS & CREW: Passenger capacity 378 (double occupancy); crew 180.
ACCOMMODATION: Victoria Jenna has 189 cabins, of which 140 are superior cabins, 35 executive suites, three deluxe suites and two Shangri-La suites. All have balconies.
REGULAR HAUNTS: Victoria Jenna sails on China's Yangtze River, upstream and downstream between Chongqing and Yichang.
PERFECT FOR: Couples, singles, older families.
DINING: The Dynasty Dining room seats up to 350 passengers in a single open seating and there's an alternative venue on the top deck called the VIP Club, which offers a la carte dining.
PARTYING: There are three bars and two lounges where you can enjoy a few social drinks - or perhaps play mahjong - but this isn't a big party ship.
DOING: On board, absorb local history, art and Mandarin lessons, take tai chi classes, or enjoy some pampering in the Oasis beauty salon. On shore, tour excursions are included in your fare.
DID YOU KNOW? Passengers in the three levels of suites have access to an exclusive suite deck that offers concierge service and complimentary dining in the VIP club.
THE DETAILS: Helen Wong's Tours 17-day Supreme China itinerary includes 11 nights' five-star accommodation, four nights on Victoria Jenna cruising between Yichang and Chongqing in an executive suite, and domestic flights. Prices start at $7990; phone 1300 78832, see helenwongstours.com.
OFFER OF THE WEEK
Cruiseco is offering a top-value 20-night fly/cruise/stay package from Sydney to Honolulu on Radiance of the Seas, departing April 19, 2015. Two nights' accommodation in Waikiki and one-way flights to Sydney or Brisbane are included in the 18-night cruise (10 sea days). From $3925; phone 1800 225 656, see cruising.com.au.
SCENIC TOURS has added an extra 10-day river cruise in Myanmar on the Irrawaddy Navigator sailing between Mandalay and Yangon, departing November 5; book by March 31 for a $700 airfare credit a couple. Phone 1300 723 642, see scenictours.com.au.
PRINCESS CRUISES is offering a 13-day Kiwi round trip from Sydney on Sun Princess departing October 30, calling at the Bay of Islands, Auckland, Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Dunedin and Fiordland National Park. From $1799; phone 13 24 88, see princess.com.
Next time you're on a cruise starting or finishing in Hong Kong, why not spend a few days in neighbouring Macau?
The former Portuguese colony has much to offer, from heritage-listed European buildings and picturesque plazas from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to marvellous Macanese cuisine, totally over-the-top casinos and a championship golf course. Macau is about an hour by the TurboJet high-speed ferry from Hong Kong.