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.”
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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.
Highlights: Countless Buddhist temples and pagodas lining the river. Chanting of saffron-robed monks coming from shore. Men and women wearing traditional longyis, a sarong-like garment. Oxen hauling goods. Children playing outside thatched houses. Women washing clothes in the river. A special stop is the ancient royal capital of Bagan, with more than 2,500 temples erupting over a vast plain, where the local time is the 13th century.
Ship: Orient-Express’ luxurious 82-passenger The Road to Mandalay river cruiser boasts some of the best cuisine, Asian and European fare, I’ve ever found on a ship.
Details: Five itineraries offered, from 3-11 nights, running from $2,520 to $10,080.
More info: www.orient-express.com/web/rtm/road_to_mandalay.jsp or 800-524-2420.
Where: Murray River, in southeastern Australia.
Lowdown: Deeply tied to local Aboriginal culture, Australia’s principal river (total length is around 1,600 miles) winds through many of Oz’s natural glories.
Highlights: There’s a bit of everything on this itinerary. Watch for grey kangaroos, wombats, tortoises, egrets and more from the deck. Standout scenery is gorges, red gum forests, towering limestone cliffs. Stops at historic port towns and at one of Australia’s most significant Aboriginal archaeological sites. An Aussie barbeque in a bush setting on the banks of the river. Guided nature walks. Some cruises include visits to the Barossa Valley, home of the country’s world-famous vineyards and wines.
Ship: The 120-passenger PS Murray Princess, a working paddlewheeler built specially for the Murray River and with Australian crew.
Details: Three different itineraries offered, year round: 3-, 4- and 7-night cruises, with prices ranging from $632 to $3,183, per person, double occupancy.
More info: Captain Cook Cruises, www.captaincook.com.au/ (Click on “Murray River” section.)
Where: Dnieper River, in Ukraine.
Lowdown: At 1,420 miles, the Dnieper is Europe’s fourth longest river (after the Volga, Danube and Ural). It travels right down the middle of this 1,000-year-old country.
Highlights: It’s hard to imagine a river with a more complex history. A top memory is the capital of Kiev, speckled with gold-domed churches and monasteries. Kiev was also the capital of the medieval Rus Empire, the cradle of Russian culture. (Several passengers told me they took the Dnieper itinerary to round out what they’d learned about Slavic civilization on a cruise of Russia’s Volga.) A special feature of the 12-day itinerary is the visit to Zaporozhye, ancestral home of Ukrainian Cossackdom, a militaristic society that lasted from the mid-1500s to 1775, Here, passengers take in a performance of the fabled Cossack horsemanship, capping it off with traditional snacks and vodka drinking, another fabled Cossack skill. The program winds up the Ukraine experience with the Black Sea ports of Sevastopol, Yalta and Odessa.
Ship: The Viking Lomonosov features 102 outside cabins with picture windows that open. A treat: Feasting on Chicken Kiev while watching the countryside of Ukraine unfurl through the ship’s dining-room windows.
Details: Cruises operate from April through October. Prices begin at $2,438, per person.
More info: Viking River Cruises: www.vikingrivercruises.com/rivercruises/ukraine-dnieper-odessa-kiev-2013/itinerary.aspx or 800-304-9616
Where: St. Johns and Tolomato Rivers, Northern Florida.
Lowdown: Some say the St. Johns River was Florida’s first tourist attraction since the waterway was traveled by 19th century holidaymakers on the hunt for warm-weather paradises. With its celebrated history and wildlife, the 310-mile-long St. Johns was designated one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998.
Highlights: Called the “Great Rivers of Florida,” the itinerary includes historic river towns (such as Green Cove Springs with its reputed healing waters), plantation houses, and a chance to see more than 200 species of birdlife. Alligators, too. There’s also an evening spent on Lake George (the St. Johns River flows out of the lake), which borders the Ocala National Forest.
Ship: The 49-passenger American Glory, built in 2002, features open seating for all meals. Cuisine is American with regional specialties. Some cabins offer private balconies. Guest lecturers include ecologists, naturalists and environmentalists. American crew.
Details: Cruises run in March, April, November and December. Prices for the 7-night itinerary range from $3,750 to $4,950, per person.
More info: American Cruise Lines: www.americancruiselines.com or 800-460-4518.
Where: Marañon and Ucayali Rivers, in Peru.
Lowdown: When the Marañon and Ucayali tributaries meet in the easternmost corner of Peru, they form the Upper Amazon. This expedition cruise explores these headwaters and other smaller tributaries. This is deep rain forest cruising with naturalist guides.
Highlights: Roaming the waterways of the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, one of Peru’s largest protected areas, which features a huge diversity of animals and plants. Over 60 percent of Peru’s birds reside here. During the 10-day trip, visit small villages, fish for piranha, encounter sloths, howler monkeys, caimans and more. Except for olive oil and balsamic vinegar, Delfin II ’s chef uses only local ingredients.
Ship: The 28-passenger Delfin II offers outside suites, outdoor observation areas (with bar, sofas, chairs, even hammocks), and 10-person skiffs which carry passengers on expeditions into even smaller tributaries.
Details: Cruises are offered year round, beginning at $5,870, per person, double occupancy. (Note: in low-water season, if some of the very small tributaries are not navigable, hikes in the area are done instead. Low-water season is generally July-December.)
More info: Lindblad Expeditions: www.expeditions.com/Destination44.asp?Destination=334 or 800-397-3348.
Yes, there are rivers on the frozen continent. But, I was told by Steve Wellmeir, director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), “I would not include Antarctica as a continent with viable river cruising prospects for tourists.” He adds, “Of course, there are always those wanting to be the first to do something in Antarctica, so nothing would surprise me.”
Indeed, as more folks discover the appeals of river cruising, who knows where the next itineraries will pop up?