River Cruises: 8 Scenic Trips Minus the Mega Ships

river cruises


Cruising doesn't have to be all about a week in the Caribbean on a monster city at sea. Who really needs to play mini golf or go rock climbing while setting sail, anyway? For a less intense overwater getaway, turn to river cruises. With less-crowded waters and shore excursions to intimate places, it's no surprise passenger numbers are up 15 percent annually on river cruises. Cruising doesn't have to be all about a week in the Caribbean on a monster city at sea. Who really needs to play mini golf or go rock climbing while setting sail, anyway? For a less intense overwater getaway, turn to river cruises. With less-crowded waters and shore excursions to intimate places, it's no surprise passenger numbers are up 15 percent annually on river cruises.

But, with 165 major rivers in the world – and countless more minor ones – choosing the right one can be intimidating. From a tour of French canals on a converted cargo ship to an Amazonian adventure through the flooded forests of Brazil, we've narrowed down eight of the best river cruises on the water.

River Cruises
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River Cruises: 8 Scenic Trips Minus the Mega Ships

Where: France

The Route: Sail on a 7-night cruise from Paris to Caudebec-en-Caux and back through the countryside of Northern France. Stops are made at charming French villages that were depicted by the Impressionists and at Giverney, Monet's home – Japanese bridge and water lilies included. Walk in the footsteps of the Allied forces along the beaches of Normandy, where WWII's D-Day Invasion took place, and see the site where Joan of Arc was martyred. Be sure to spend at least a day or two in Paris at either end of the trip.

The Ship: Named one of the world's "Top Small Cruise Ships" by Conde Nast Traveler's 2010 Reader's Poll, Uniworld's 120-passenger River Baroness was remodeled this year.

Perfect For: Hopeless romantics, history lovers, art enthusiasts

When to Go: Skip out on summer. Temperatures in Paris can soar and many places are closed as Parisians move to the beach.

The Price: Starting at $4,599

Where: Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and more

The Route: Each of these famous rivers meets in Germany, making the country the perfect starting point for a packed cultural tour of the surrounding countries. The Danube is Europe's most popular river for cruising, but countless cruise itineraries traverse these three rivers making stops at big cities and small towns along the way.

The Ship: Passengers don’t even need to leave their rooms to take in Europe's greatest rivers aboard the Avalon Panorama, a ship that features 11-foot-wide, wall-to-wall panoramic windows in each room that transform the suites into open-air balconies. Cruises range from five to 16 days.

Perfect For: First timers, passport stamp collectors, WWII buffs, beer drinkers

When to Go: Book during May and September to skip the summer crowd.

The Price: Starting at  $1,099

Where: Brazil

The Route: No roads lead to Manaus, the main launching point for trips through the Amazon rain forest that is only accessible by boat or plane. From here passengers choose their own adventures: Down the murky waters of the Solimões or along the reflective waters of the Negro. Both are completely different ecosystems. The former affords more of a chance to see Amazonian wildlife, but the latter promises interactions with pink river dolphins, piranhas, and an indigenous tribe. Both are a bird lover’s dream.

The Ship: The Grand Amazon run by Iberostar is the only floating hotel in the region. Take in the sights and sounds of the Amazon from private balconies or the pool on the sun deck. All guides speak Spanish, English and Portuguese, and are experts at animal spotting as the ship glides through flooded forests. A 7-day cruise provides an experience of both the Negro and Solimões, plus all the wildlife that comes with the two rivers.

Perfect For: Bird and animal lovers, adventure seekers

When to Go: The flooded forests are easier to traverse from December through March, while animals are easier to spot during the dry season from July through November. For the best of both worlds, visit during March, April, September and October.

The Price: Starting around $319 per night

Where: China

The Route: The most popular stretch of this 4,000-mile waterway connects Chongqing and Yichang, but the river also hits Shanghai, Yangzhou, Nanjing and more. The highlight of any visit is a meander through the Three Gorges area, an 80-mile stretch of misty cliffs and peaks.

The Ship: The only American cruise line on the Yangtze River is Victoria Cruises, and except when looking to see a specific city, the best itinerary is the Three Gorges Highlights cruise. Inaugurated in 2009, the 396-passenger Victoria Jenna is the company's new flagship boat.

Perfect For: Retirees or others with time to spare, history buffs

When to Go: June through August is hot while November to March is too wintry; the best months to visit are April, May, September and October.

The Price: Starting at $1,610 per person

Where: Vietnam & Cambodia

The Route: Pass through the lush rainforest, rice fields, floating markets, fishing villages and trade routes along the Mekong River, the 12th largest river in the world. Running from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the lower part of the river – through Vietnam and Cambodia – is more popular among tourists. Visit a Buddhist monastery, silk weaving village, royal palaces, fish farms and a floating market along the way.
The Ship: Take in the view from the sun deck of AMAWaterways' AmaLotus, a luxurious riverboat with 62 rooms – 90 percent of which have twin balconies. The line offers a 7-night cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City or a 16-day extended excursion.

Perfect For: Nature lovers, adventure seekers, aspiring photographers

When to Go: January and February are the best months, when heat and humidity are low – but shallow tributaries mean part of the journey may need to be traveled by road.

The Price: Available upon request

Where: Russia

The Route: The most popular route calls on two of Russia's greatest cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Cruisers will be able to take in Moscow's Kremlin and Red Square, as well as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg – plus a handful of charming riverside towns along the way.

The Ship: Viking River Cruises runs several ships along the Volga, but the 210-passenger Pakhomov is the latest to be completely refurbished for the 2011 sailing season. The company offers a 13-day "Waterway of the Czars" tour of the Volga that allows travelers to bookend their trip with a few days in each major city.

Perfect For: History buffs, wannabee royalty

When to Go: May to September is the best time to avoid both the crowds and the heat.

The Price: Starting at $2,596 per person

Where: Egypt

The Route: Mention famous rivers and the Nile immediately comes to mind. The longest river in the world at 4,130 miles, there are over 5,000 years of history along the banks of this sand dune and palm tree-lined river. Most cruises sail round-trip out of Cairo and hit some famous temples along the way.

The Ship: Egypt is such a rich destination that having expert interpreters on hand is a must. Hop aboard the Salacia run by Lindblad Expeditions – in combination with National Geographic – for a 10-day cruise and land tour package that includes a 4-night cruise led by passionate Egyptologists. Note: Though many lines have pulled out of Egypt due to the recent political turmoil, they should be returning soon.

Prices start at $5,190 per passenger

Perfect For: History buffs, antiquities aficionados, scientists & culture vultures

When to Go: The sun scorches from April through September, so avoid these months if possible.

The Price: Available upon request

Where: Throughout France

The Route: Originally built to transport goods, there are thousands of miles of canals throughout France that can be explored, albeit slowly: most ships meander through the waterways, and it can take up to a half hour to get through some locks. One region worth exploring is Burgundy, a crossroads since the prehistoric age that shows distinctive imprints from each generation gone by. Today, Burgundy produces some of the world's finest wines, and foodies will love the gastronomy of the area.

The Ship: The 12-person Nenuphar run by French Country Waterways is an old barge turned elegant floating hotel. Shore excursions include everything from wine tastings (included in the price) to hot air balloon rides (for an extra fee). Just be prepared to slow down on this off-the-beaten-path trip; the boat travels at a walking pace, meaning even those who take the Nenuphar's bicycles out for a leisurely ride down the towpath can outpace the boat.

Perfect For: Slow-paced travelers, wine lovers, foodies, families

When to Go: The weather is colder in April and October, but boats will be less crowded and lower priced. Peak time is May to September.

The Price: Starting at $5,095


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