I’ll never forget where I learned to drink like a Cossack. It was on a river cruise. In Ukraine.
I’m a longtime fan of river voyages. They slice right through the heartland of a country or even a continent, with unique cultures waiting nearby on the river’s bank. ( Na konya, I learned, is a Cossack toast, meaning “on to the horse.” Would you learn that on a sea cruise? Probably not.)
So I’m not surprised that river cruises are now exploding in popularity. They’ve become the fastest-growing part of the cruise industry. In fact, in 2013 alone, some 14 new river ships are scheduled to debut.
Why so popular? Folks are looking for new travel experiences. River cruises fill the bill. Adds Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association, “Today’s river cruise industry is distinguished by innovative companies that are investing in exciting new ships and succeeding in reaching more diverse guests, including younger travelers, families, and avid cruisers looking for an entirely different experience.”
And the most popular continent for river cruising? Europe, by far, with its Danube, Rhine and Volga Rivers. Other continents also have their fair share of celebrated river cruises: Africa’s Nile, Asia’s Yangtze and North America’s Mississippi.
But there are other intriguing river voyages out there, lurking under the radar.
So, river-cruise devotees, here’s a cheat sheet on some of the lesser-known river trips, one per continent.
Where: Chobe River, on the border of Botswana and Namibia.
Lowdown: Animals and zoo expert Jack Hanna called it “a must” trip.
Highlights: See hippos, elephants, wildebeest and more from the ship’s deck (or even while lying in bed in your cabin) on this four-night river safari in Chobe National Park, home to one of Africa’s largest concentrations of animals. Within a short stretch of the river, there’s a huge amount of game and tour options. So, while there’s not a lot of actual cruising — some have called the ship a “floating hotel” — you’ve got a front-row seat for nonstop wildlife viewing, whether in the river or on the banks. Itinerary also includes visits to villages, game viewing by smaller boat and vehicle, as well as fishing on the river.
Ship: The elegant 28-passenger MS Zambezi Queen features 14 staterooms, each with a private balcony,
Details: The cruise runs year-round and comes bundled as part of 16- or 19-day Africa land programs. Costs: from $8,995 to $13,995. Pricey, but if you’re thinking about an African safari anyway, the trip deserves attention.
More info: AmaWaterway: www.amawaterways.com/ships/zambezi-queen or 800-626-0126.
Where: Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Lowdown: An itinerary — a time machine, actually — for sitting back in a deck chair and watching the essence of old Burma unfold. It’s so exotic you can’t help but feel you’re a long way from home. The 1,300-mile river is a lifeline of the country — all the major Burmese kingdoms set their capitals along its banks. When Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem The Road to Mandalay over a century ago, he was talking about this river.