Nick Dalton, co-author of new book The World’s Great River Journeys, selects the most enticing itineraries for the year ahead.

The Mekong

It’s boom time in Vietnam with more and more cruises on the river that snakes up through age-old scenery – jungle dotted with golden temples, water buffalo tramping the banks and workers in conical hats knee-deep in paddy fields.

There’s a great new cruise here from the summer. Emerald Harmony, a small-scale version of the contemporary Emerald Waterways modernistic Star-Ships that sail Europe’s rivers, takes to the Mekong in August. The craft, discreet and flat-bottomed, is one of few cruise ships that can sail from the heart of Ho Chi Minh City on the Saigon River into the delta and through channels to the Mekong (most cruises start a goodly drive from the city). From here, it’s the classic Mekong sailing, crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia, just short of Siem Reap (and the Ankor Wat temples), where there’s a three-night hotel stay.

The 15-day Majestic Mekong starts from £3,195pp, all-inclusive, with flights, departing regularly September- March (emeraldwaterways.co.uk).

The Douro

Viking river ship cruising down the Douro River in Portugal
Porto’s cobbled streets wind past colourful merchants’ houses in the medieval riverside district of Portugal

This sun-drenched river crosses Portugal from the Spanish border (only the Portuguese section is navigable) to Porto on the coast. 

There’s history all the way, from the Unesco-protected Vinhateiro vineyards that cloak the slopes to the Varosa Valley tributary with its historic stone bridge to the soaring 1,296ft-high Dom LuÍs I bridge in Porto, with views across the red roofs and the docks where barrels
of port used to be the main cargo. 

There are two nights docked here (after two in a hotel in Lisbon) with a city tour before setting sail for the border community of Vega de Terrón (and a trip to the Unesco-protected Spanish city of Salamanca). In between are many pleasures… the wine town of Pinhão, Barca d’Alva, where Castelo Rodrigo sits on a 2,200ft viewpoint, and Régua, with its contemporary, riverside Douro Museum. 

Viking’s four ships here are especially built short and shallow to cope with the river’s shallow waters and twisting course. No less luxurious, though, than Viking’s Longships on Europe’s bigger rivers. They carry just over 100 passengers in clean, cool Scandinavian style with lots of balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows in the lounge and restaurant.

The 10-day Portugal’s River of Gold from Viking departs regularly March to October, from £1,495pp for 24 and 27 March sailings 2020, including flights and wine with meals (vikingrivercruises.co.uk).

The Amazon

There are, in effect, two Amazons – the vast waterway towards the sea and the enclosed section in Peru, almost 2,500 miles from the ocean. The latter is perfect for cruise-and-stay trips, taking in the capital, Lima, and the ancient mountaintop city of Machu Picchu. This excursion combines five days in the wilds with a six-night cruise, much within Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, on Amatista Amazon, a classic wooden riverboat with local guides. There’s jungle everywhere, with caiman, river dolphins and manatees in the water, and woolly monkeys and sloths in the trees. Take a rainforest hike or a small boat up side channels, visit the local shaman and see gigantic waterlilies.

The 14-day Amazon Riverboat & Machu Picchu Adventure from G Adventures runs all year
from £2,929pp, flights not included (gadventures.co.uk).

The Rhône/Saône

red roofed buildings of Lyon in France with river in the background
The smart city of Lyon

These two rivers are the gateway to the south, drifting dreamily through Beaujolais, Burgundy and Mâcon wine country, passing through the smart city of Lyon and continuing to the ancient city of Avignon (passing the remains of its famed bridge) on to the edge of the Camargue. 

Here, the magic of the waters is bookended – with two nights in Paris at the start and a night on the Côte d’Azur in either Cannes or Monte Carlo as a finale. 

In between are spots such as hilltop Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the vineyard-coddled twin towns of Tournon and Tain l’Hermitage and the elegant town of Mâcon itself. Sample the wines,
the cheeses and sink into that southern French lifestyle.

The 11-day Burgundy and Provence – Paris to Côte d’Azur from Avalon Waterways departs on 7 April, from £2,679pp, including flights and home pick-up and drop-off, and wine with meals on on the cruise (avaloncruises.co.uk).

The Ganges

A river that dissects India from the Himalayas on the Chinese Border, to Bangladesh in the east, although few cruises touch the main river. Most use the Hooghly, not a tributary but a spin-off heading south to the Bay of Bengal. This starts just below the Farakka Barrage power station and goes to Kolkata, taking places such as Mayapur (home of Hare Krishna, with its vast temple complex, Murshidabad (former Bengal capital with the riverside Italianate grandeur of Hazarduari Palace) and Plassey (site of a great 1757 battle, where Clive of India’s victory set the tone for the next two centuries).

Ganges Voyager II exudes the spirit of the Raj with the elegant Governor’s Lounge and colonial East India restaurant. And new for 2019 is the complimentary wellness programme led by a resident yogi, celebrating holistic health with daily sessions and organic food. The 12-day Me to We & the Sacred Ganges trip from Uniworld starts in New Delhi then two nights at a tented retreat in Rajasthan for an immersion into rural life – Hindu prayers, Hindu lessons, sunrise yoga and farming.

Departures October to March, from £6,595pp, all-inclusive but not flights (uniworld.com). 

The Danube

the sun sets over Vienna's skyline in Austria
The sun sets over Vienna’s skyline

Ah, not necessarily the Danube you were thinking of (the much-travelled stretch between Germany and Budapest, passing through Vienna), although there’s a touch of that. This one has something more, starting in Vienna and heading east it’s a different story, crossing Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia, before arriving in Serbia (or vice versa). From the elegance of Vienna, your vista quickly becomes the eastern European heartland of horse farms and Cossacks – there’s a horse show in Kalocsa, a chance to cycle to the Croatian town of Osijek on the River Drava. And then there’s a day in medieval Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, and beautiful Budapest – where the Hungarian parliament building is the iconic image of river cruising.

The eight-day Vienna-Belgrade cruise from Scenic departs on 31 March, from £2,295pp, all-inclusive, with flights (scenic.co.uk).

The Mississippi

Journey through the heart of America on the biggest paddlewheeler ever built. American Queen is a world of Victorian style with grand dining room, ornate theatre and a fabulous Western bar overlooking the red-timber paddlewheel. The river’s big, too, made famous in the stories of Mark Twain. The cruise starts in the rock ’n’ roll city of Memphis – but only after three nights in the country music capital, Nashville, and two nights in the city. The voyage takes you to New Orleans on the Gulf Coast, past antebellum mansions, pretty towns such as Natchez and through Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge. Included are visits to Elvis’s Graceland mansion, RCA Studio B, where thousands of hits were recorded and, the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with city tours.

The 16-day Journey on the Mighty Mississippi from Titan Travel starts from £4,399pp, including seven-night cruise and seven nights in hotels, wine with meals on the cruise, flights and home pick-up and drop-off (titantravel.co.uk). 

The Rhine

timbered houses line the Rhine river in France
Alsace’s timbered houses along the Rhine in France

Travel Europe’s greatest river with a cruise on Titan’s MV Serenade 1 across Germany from the city of Cologne, through France to Basel in Switzerland. But it’s not just the Rhine – in the town of Koblenz there’s a three-day detour along the dramatic Moselle, through Cochem with mighty Reichsburg Castle on its hill, snaking through tight bends and passing Calmont, reckoned to be Europe’s steepest vineyard, a 68-degree slope.

On the Rhine you pass through dramatic, narrow Lorelei Passage and visit Strasbourg (with an included excursion to the Black Forest). After reaching historic Basel you’re whisked off to Montreux for two nights before a journey on the Glacier Express, the little red train that takes a dizzying route through tunnels and over bridges, even dipping into the Rhine Gorge.

The 14-day Fairytale Castles and the Glacier Express from Titan Travel starts at £2,699pp. It includes a 10-night cruise plus two nights in Montreux and one in Chur, flights and wine with meals on the cruise (titantravel.co.uk).

The Nile

After a quiet period, Egypt is taking off again with Viking’s Pharaohs & Pyramids cruise being a regular sellout. The 12-day trip starts with three nights in Cairo, including a visit to the pyramids and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. No cruises depart from here so there’s a swift flight to Luxor where Viking’s sleek, modern Viking Ra heads off on the classic stretch of river, as far as Aswan – where a jaunt on a felucca, a traditional sailboat, is included. It’s a magical experience, the banks of the river fertile and green, the desert rising behind them. Ancient wonders are everywhere, not least on an included tour to the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens tombs. Pop into Luxor’s Winter Palace hotel for afternoon tea – it’s where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile.

Viking has regular Nile sailings from April to December; 2019 is mostly sold out, with 2020 cruises from £4,790pp (vikingrivercruises.co.uk).

The Yangtze

One of the Four Great Towers of China, the Pavilion of Prince Teng in the north-west of Nanchang, overlooking the great Yangtze.
One of the Four Great Towers of China, the Pavilion of Prince Teng in the north-west of Nanchang, overlooking the great Yangtze.

One long river, almost 4,000 miles, yet cruises stick to a stretch of a few hundred miles; it’s not that you can’t sail to Shanghai but the scenery is much farther upstream… the natural wonder of the Three Gorges, and the human wonder of the Three Gorges Dam, hilltop pagodas and mountains, feathery forests and ancient agriculture. 

Boutique Yangtze Explorer, only 124 passengers (and given a big makeover for this year), is one of the smallest but one of the coolest ships on the river, doing three-day downstream and four-day upstream trips. Included are sampan trips along side gorges, lectures in the
two-deck theatre, à la carte dining, cookery demonstrations – and exploration of the ancient carvings in White Crane Ridge Underwater Project, 130ft below the riverbed.

Sanctuary Retreats offers cruises from March to November, from $1,350pp (about £1,050), including meals, drinks, sightseeing excursions and onboard entertainment and activities (sanctuaryretreats.com).  

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