Thinking about booking a river cruise but not sure what to expect? Here’s the Cruise International expert guide

There’s no feeling of hurrying on a river cruise and the time when you need to entertain yourself between visits is minimal. What’s more, rather like escorted tours, there’s usually something organised for free at each call. At the very least there are walking tours through towns and cities (all starting at the end of the gangplank) while there are often coach excursions, too, such as to Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace or to vineyards in southern France. Some cruise companies also include special experiences, such as classical concerts in extravagant palaces, authentic local meals with people in their homes or market tours with chefs.

In fact, a river cruise offers great value for money. As well as excursions, most river cruises also include at least wine with meals, if not all drinks.

But if you’re nervous about sailing on a big ship, an added advantage of river cruises are their size. Andy Harmer, SVP Membership and Director of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) UK & Ireland, says: “River cruise ships are much smaller than most ocean ships, providing a more intimate atmosphere and accessing the very heart of the world’s top towns and cities and off-the-beaten-track locations.”

On board you’ll generally find a big, comfortable lounge at the front of the ship, giving panoramic views whatever the weather. And on most evenings you’ll find entertainment, whether it’s a guitar duo, pianist or local musical troupe. Most ships also have a small gym and a spa. The top deck is given over to chairs and loungers, with some ships even having a small pool or whirlpool – Emerald Waterways’ Star-Ships feature an indoor pool under a glass roof, an area that converts to a cinema for the evening time.

Almost all rooms have at least a window, with most offering anything from a French balcony to a full balcony. Some ships, including Scenic’s Space-Ships, have a glass wall that folds back in the middle of the room and a retractable floor-to-ceiling window so that the whole room can be turned into an open-air retreat.

While the Danube and the Rhine might be at the heart of most people’s idea of river cruising, there is much more. And the Rhine itself offers beautiful segments as well as the full monty, all the way from the Dutch coast to the mountains of Switzerland.

Increasingly popular are Portugal’s Douro and the Gironde/Dordogne/Garonne in southwest France. These rivers all offer almost guaranteed sunshine and a chance to learn about (and sample) wines. France also offers fabulous itineraries on the Rhône and Saône in the east,
at the foot of the Alps and taking in the city of Lyon, more wine country and historic Avignon.

Yet what was once seen as a sedate holiday in Europe is fast transforming into a luxury adventure around the world. China’s Yangtze River combines ancient scenery dotted with traditional pagodas with a journey through the engineering marvel of the Three Gorges Dam and sometimes a visit to a panda sanctuary. Journeys are by modern ships and holidays are generally bookended by stays in Beijing and Shanghai, making them ideal for cruisers who enjoy taking time to get to know a city.

In Russia, equally modern ships traverse the Volga, a journey through the heart of a continent between St Petersburg, with its fabulous Hermitage museum and Winter Palace, and Moscow – both often with stopovers of two or three days. There’s also a boom in exotic destinations. The Mekong Delta, taking in Vietnam and Cambodia, has seen many new ships in the past several years, all of which are small and traditionally styled, mostly carrying between 30 and 60 people.

Similar ships operate in Myanmar, where the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers are growing in popularity, taking visitors through mystical landscapes where temples peep through the backdrop of ancient rainforests.

You can even sail along the Chobe River in southern Africa with AmaWaterways on board Zambezi Queen, with the chance to spot lions, leopards and more on safari. It’s a far cry from the genteel civilisation of the Danube and the Rhine, but a trip deep into a continent’s hinterland that has the same relaxed style and luxury.

As Andy Harmer says: “With most companies including excursions and day trips, river cruising will allow you to really get under the skin of destinations.”

Read part one of Guide to River Cruises.

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