Discover our pick of the best luxury river cruise lines, and find out what ships offer superior service, magnificent ships and exceptional cuisine for your next high-class cruise.
Luxury comes as standard on the cleverly named Space-Ships from Scenic, one the best luxury river cruise lines. There’s butler service, free excursions, unlimited complimentary drinks, enrichment events and no gratuities to pay. Virtually everything is included, even the therapeutic Salt Therapy Lounge in the Zen-like spas that is a feature of some ships. More are being installed in the rest of the European Space-Ship fleet during refurbishments this year.
Scenic appeals to passengers who like to be active, which is why there are daily excursions with an active theme, while onboard wellbeing coaches also run daily yoga and stretching sessions.
Scenic Azure is among the latest European Space-Ships, custom-built in 2016 for the Douro in Portugal. Although it has just 96 passengers, like other Scenic ships it has a choice of dining options: from the main Crystal Dining Room to Portobellos, a speciality Italian, the Table La Rive’s six-course degustation menu for Diamond Deck and suite guests, room service for all or snacks in the River Café with the option to eat outdoors on the Panorama Deck.
Also launched in 2016 were 68-passenger Scenic Spirit, which cruises the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam, and 44-passenger Scenic Azure, built specifically for the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and featuring a resort-style pool, spa and wellness centre.
Scenic Tsar was the first new-build river ship to be launched on Russia’s waterways in 25 years when it set sail in 2013, and takes just 112 passengers in boutique style.
WOW factor: E-bikes are available for independent explorers to cycle around.
*An eight-day Delightful Douro cruise on Scenic Azure, round trip departing 6 November, starts from £2,390pp, based on two people sharing, including flights and all-inclusive benefits (0808 115 5455; scenic.co.uk).
Belmond offers the chance to escape, even from other cruise passengers, with a custom-made itinerary on a chartered barge in France. Not on cramped long boats but wider Dutch barges that have been so elegantly refurbished that some include heated pools, while others have antiques.
They offer accommodation ranging from two generously proportioned cabins with en suites for a maximum of four people, to six cabins and a capacity of 12. These ultra-relaxing getaways also come with a crew to welcome you on board with Champagne and supply hotel-standard meals in the sumptuous dining rooms.
Belmond has seven barges on French waterways in the Champagne region, Provence and on the Canal du Midi, offering itineraries that can be tailored to passengers’ interests – anything from playing golf to visiting some of the finest vineyards in the world.
There’s a week-long Grand Crus tour in Burgundy that includes tasting special wines, onboard cooking classes and trips to sample artisan cheese or go truffle tasting. Large groups can even charter two or three barges and children over 12 are welcome.
WOW Factor: Incredible service.
With a 21-strong fleet of floating boutique hotels, Uniworld is the river cruise line most associated with opulent luxury. Its ships are like stage settings; SS Maria Theresa features the baroque-style interior of a Hapsburg palace to put you in the mood for sailing on the Danube, and SS Joie de Vivre’s Parisian bistro-café décor and French art enhances your experience of the Seine.
Uniworld ships are all-inclusive with free-flowing wine with meals and drinks in the bar all day, including Champagne and cocktail receptions before dinner. Even the standard staterooms have the style of a classy hotel with bedside switches to open the curtains so you can see the view before rising. More switches lower or raise the full-length floor-to-ceiling window to create a balcony inside your room and the bathrooms have marble heated floors and L’Occitane toiletries.
Immaculate service is also a hallmark, with butlers to bring you your heart’s desire, and there’s free onboard wifi, no gratuities and daily excursions are included. These may include wine tastings in top chateaux, private art gallery viewings with Champagne or guided tours on the ship’s bicycles – activities perfectly suited to one of the best luxury river cruise lines.
With a main dining room large enough for one sitting, plus alternative smaller venues to eat in, the ships also feature a conservatory that has a resistance pool and spa by day, converting to a cinema or dance floor at night – as well as entertainment every evening in the lounge.
WOW factor: Real Murano glass chandeliers.
*An eight-day Burgundy & Provence cruise on SS Catherine, from Lyon to Avignon, departing 28 July, from £2,599pp, based on two sharing, including Titan’s VIP door-to-door service, flights, transfers and excursions (titantravel.co.uk; 0800 988 5873).
American Queen Steamboat Company
With two paddle-wheelers sailing the Mississippi, one on the rivers of America’s Pacific Northwest and a new ship coming to the Deep South in 2020, any of these authentic vessels will take you transport you to the era of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
The flagship American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built and despite her modern plumbing and amenities has retained the highly polished wood and brass décor of a Victorian riverboat. There’s a large collection in the Mark Twain Gallery library and a two-deck Grand Saloon that stages high-energy cabarets – with ragtime, bluegrass and good old rock ’n’ roll in the Engine Room Bar.
American Queen and American Duchess sail the Upper and Lower Mississippi, with plenty of music-inspired excursions in New Orleans and Memphis, plus tours of the antebellum mansions that line the river. Tales of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone are brought to life along the rivers of the Cumberland and Tennessee, while American Empress has a unique collection of Gold Rush and Native Alaska artefacts on show as it sails along the Columbia and Snake rivers out west.
Dining throughout ranges from steak dinners to regional specialities, such as hot beignets and French toast, delivered with typical all-American service, while Luxury Suite guests have butlers, in-suite afternoon tea and pre-dinner canapés plus breakfast and dinner on their own verandas if they so choose. American Queen and Duchess both have small gyms and there’s a rather lovely spa on American Queen.
WOW factor: The Elvis Presley peanut butter and banana waffles.
*A 16-day Journey on the Mighty Mississippi on American Queen from Memphis to New Orleans, departing 4 December, starts from £4,399pp, based on two people sharing (0800 988 5873; titantravel.co.uk).
Sweet dreams are guaranteed on Avalon’s fleet of 15 Suite Ships sailing Europe’s rivers – with Avalon Envision launching in April on the Danube. Smaller colonial-style ships explore India’s Ganges and the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The 100-plus passenger Suite Ships have two decks of larger-than-average Panorama Suites with wall-to-wall windows that create an extraordinary open-air balcony, although there’s a lower deck with very small windows.
On board the atmosphere is relaxed, with casual dress the norm. Some have a whirlpool and loungers on the sundeck, with al-fresco lunches at the Sky Bistro, free seating at meal times in the main dining room, or more intimate dining in the Panorama Bistro.
The Mekong ships carry just 36 guests each with twice as much public space as other ships that sail between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap; while the Ganges Voyager takes 56 and has floor-to-ceiling windows in the cabins, lounge and dining room, with an open-air lounge at the back.
Avalon holidays begin with a home pick-up, and the price includes flights, transfers, wine and beer with lunch and dinner plus excursions and free wifi. Read our Avalon Waterways Rhine cruise review for more information on what cruising with Avalon is like.
WOW factor: Beds face the window for river views.
*A 15-day Colourful India and the Ganges River cruise on Ganges Explorer, departing regularly in September, October and November, from £5,559pp, two sharing (0330 058 8243; avaloncruises.co.uk).
Low-key luxury and the promise of in-depth exploration of the places everyone wants to see is how AmaWaterways has made its name. It’s not ostentatious and definitely not blingy, but offers outstanding facilities and all ships have included exercise and relaxation classes.
AmaWaterways has an impressive fleet of 19 river ships in Europe including AmaMagna, which launches on the Danube in May. An additional two ships, specially built for the River Douro, operate in Portugal, and there’s the AmaDara in Vietnam and Cambodia, while the magnificently colonial Zambezi Queen sails on the Chobe River through Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
On AmaMagna guests will be able to personalise their cruises, signing up for fitness classes, but will also be escorted on hiking and biking tours and enjoy one of the biggest spas on any river ship. There’s even a water sports platform with a Sundowner boat for complimentary evening river excursions. Golf fans can join the Concierge Golf Programme to experience top-level European golf courses aspart of their holiday and all AmaWaterway’s usual included features.
These range from free excursions, drinks with meals, wifi access and in-suite films to a choice in dining venues – the main restaurant, Chef’s Table speciality restaurant and La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs’ exclusive dining experience. There are also snacks in the lounge.
WOW Factor: On some ships there is a pool with a swim-up bar.
*A seven-night Romantic Danube cruise, from Vilshofen in Germany to Budapest in Hungary, departing 5 May, starts from £3,084pp, based on two people sharing (01246 819819; bolsovercruiseclub.com).
Highly commended as Best River Cruise Line at last yearʼs British Cruise Awards, Emerald Waterways was the first river cruise line to feature indoor pools that could be converted at night to become a cinema.
The innovative brand also charters luxury yachts to sail around the picturesque Dalmatian coast and Med. At its heart though Emerald Waterways is a river cruise line and its eighth Star-Ship, Emerald Harmony, joins the Southeast Asia itineraries this year, sailing down the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The Star-Ships are all contemporary cool, and smart but relaxed. Staterooms are understated chic, but Emerald Harmony fuses Asian style with modern design.
Emerald Waterways has two more traditional river ships – four-deck MS Rossia for the Russian waterways, plus the refurbished MS Hamees in Egypt. Chartered from Mövenpick, it is one of the largest five-star ships on the Nile and has a pool on the sundeck.
WOW factor: The barbecue area on the sundeck.
*A 15-day Majestic Mekong cruise on Emerald Harmony, from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, departing 10 December, from £3,195pp, based on two people sharing and including return flights (0800 0690 6987; emeraldwaterways.co.uk).
Since launching in 1999 as an African safari-lodge specialist, Sanctuary Retreats has branched out into boutique river cruising, offering some of the most sumptuous experiences on the River Nile in Egypt, China’s Yangtze and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. The recently restyled Sanctuary Sun Boat IV has 40 spacious suites fit for a photoshoot, while the smaller, 32-cabin Sanctuary Nile Adventurer has Instagram appeal with its deck-top curtained cabanas.
In China, Sanctuary Yangzi features some of the largest cabins and suites on the river and an exceptional Oriental-themed spa. Included are excursions to see the pandas at Chongqing Zoo, plus onboard enrichment lectures, such as cookery classes. Dining is à la carte for both Chinese and continental cuisine; house wine and local beer is included.
WOW Factor: Lectures include Chinese foot reflexology and traditional medicine.
*Choose from three, four, seven or eight-night itineraries between Aswan and Luxor (sanctuaryretreats.com).
For more river cruise inspiration, read our top 10 river cruises 2019.
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