I'm often asked why river cruising has become so popular, and my answer is always to wonder why has it taken so long. For centuries rivers have been an irresistible lure to traders, travellers and dreamers who wonder what's around the next bend. And before railways and surfaced roads, they provided the easiest way to get around. That hasn't really changed. A decent bed, good meals and reliable transport are the main concern of travellers, and river-cruise ships offer all three in one well-organised package.
Besides, river cruising is getting ever better. Innovative design has given ships more space and quieter engines. Sophisticated decor and extra luxuries (coffee machines, butler service, balconies) have turned cabins into boutique hotel rooms. Passengers are younger and more adventurous, shore excursions more varied, shipboard dining more sophisticated.
What I love about river cruising is that you float into charming villages that ocean liners can never reach, and admire landscapes draped in vineyards and castles rather than empty ocean. Decks are an opera-house box from which to view the drama of centuries, with the added delights of a 360-degree view and waiters serving cocktails. Ships dock a stroll from the heart of fine cities such as Budapest, Bratislava or Bordeaux, where you can visit gargoyle-studded cathedrals or just kick back in a cafe.
Follow rivers any other way and you get one-sided views. River ships envelop you in the scenery. Destinations such as America's Columbia River, Germany's Rhine Gorges or the Iron Gates on the Lower Danube are at their splendid best from midstream. Other rivers are simply troublesome as an independent traveller. Journeying overland along China's Yangtze River is hot and tedious, and you miss seeing much of its best section, the rugged gorges celebrated for centuries in poetry and painting.
And yes, you could travel from Moscow to St Petersburg by overnight train if you want to see your own reflection in the window. I'd rather be on Lake Onega in the sunlight, tucking into blueberry pancakes and watching wooden church domes appear as Kizhi Island floats effortlessly into view.
Truth is, the best part of river cruising is being off the ship. One day you're in a walled old town, next day a big city. The day after, with no trouble at all, you wake to gentle countryside of polders, church steeples and chewing cows, and that's the magic of river cruising.