The Virtuoso Guide to river cruising in Asia, Americas and Africa
River cruising is one of the most thrilling ways to see the world. With so many cruise lines to choose from, it pays to have expert advice and insights from a Virtuoso luxury travel advisor.
River cruising remains one of the fastest growing cruise sectors among Australians, who are attracted to this leisurely way of seeing the world by the small ships, intimate settings, educational experiences and high levels of luxury.
We sat down with nine experts – cruise specialists from a collection of the country’s finest Virtuoso agencies – to talk trends, spotlighting the in-demand river cruise lines, the hottest itineraries, the most popular destinations, and their all-time favourite experiences.
A Virtuoso luxury travel advisor that specialises in cruising will always provide unbiased advice and the expertise to match you with the best ship and itinerary that suits you.
For the Virtuoso Guide to European river cruising, click here
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The best of river cruising in Asia
Highlight rivers: Mekong, Irrawaddy
Cruise lines: Aqua Expeditions, Scenic, Pandaw, Belmond
Following the Mekong
A popular cruise route in Asia is along the mighty Mekong as it winds through Vietnam and Cambodia, journeying between Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) and Phnom Penh or Siem Reap (Cambodia). This scenic path follows the footsteps of King Jayavarman, who sailed here in the late 12th century to build the Khmer empire – the jaw-dropping temples of Angkor included.
It’s here that Rossi Hudson embarked on a seven-night Aqua Expeditions itinerary that she raves about. “Aqua Mekong is architecturally designed and pure luxury. The food features local produce with a menu designed by Australian chef David Thompson. The skiffs whisk you off to explore areas other ships can’t reach, and the guides are incredibly knowledgeable. Cycling with a guide through local villages, visiting markets and interacting with the locals is a real highlight.”
Clarke recommends the same journey on Pandaw’s seven-night ʻClassic Mekongʼ itinerary. “The Mekong River is a highway for the region – there’s always something going on, either on the water or the banks. You visit towns and temples during the day, and come back to the comfort of a small river ship.”
Cruise along the Irrawaddy
Southeast Asia’s other legendary waterway is the Irrawaddy, stretching from north to south through Myanmar. Pandaw and Belmond offer expeditions on the river, as does Scenic with its 11-day ʻLuxury Irrawaddyʼ itinerary. This journey between Yangon and Mandalay has many highlights, a tour of the temple ruins at Bagan among them. The luxe Scenic Aura stops in riverside towns, visits monasteries, and docks amid temples in Mandalay.
The Strand Cruise explores the same river in serious style, offering true insights into the sights and sounds, myths and legends of Myanmar. There are two- to four-night journeys available on the 25-cabin ship: the four-night Bagan to Mandalay itinerary begins or ends at the newly UNESCO-listed ruins of Bagan, with the ancient and atmospheric capitals of Ava, Mingun and Mandalay along the way.
The best of river cruising in the Americas
Highlight rivers: The Amazon, Mississippi, Columbia, Snake
Cruise lines: UnCruise, Aqua Expeditions, American Queen
Aside from all the wonderful wildlife (the river is an important ecosystem for fish and migratory birds), the colossal 3,782-kilometre-long Mississippi offers a front-row seat to some of the South’s most fascinating towns. P
enny Spencer suggests taking it all in from the comfort of an American Queen Steamboat Company cruise ship, “showcasing the rich Southern history, culture and hospitality in a luxurious inclusive package”. The nine-day ʻNew Orleans to Memphisʼ journey is on paddlewheel steamboat American Queen. “Delicious regional cuisine is served in the gracious dining areas, and the links to jazz, blues and rock are reflected in the onboard entertainment.
A visit to a Creole plantation in Nottoway, the Rosalie mansion in Natchez, and Civil War historic sites in Vicksburg are highlights.”
Neil Kirby also loves the journey, saying it represents “Southern hospitality at its finest. The complimentary hop-on, hop-off ‘steamcoaches’ in each port are a great way to see historic plantations and fascinating Civil War sites.”
The scenery morphs into canyons and rapids as you move into Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, where small-ship line UnCruise Adventures journeys along the Columbia and Snake rivers. With a focus on wilderness, wildlife and culture, you can hike, cycle, kayak, raft rapids, and then reward your hard work at one of the region’s acclaimed wineries, breweries or cider houses. Says Spencer: “With specialised departures for foodies or the more active, this is a fantastic way to explore the rugged northwest states of the USA.”
American Queen © American Queen Steamboat Company
The mighty amazon
There’s perhaps no American river – North or South – quite as immortalised as the Amazon, the planet’s mightiest in terms of volume and width. From its headwaters high in Peru’s Andes, it courses at least 6,400 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean, passing through Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil along the way. Its banks support the largest rainforest on Earth, home to one in 10 of the world’s known species.
The diversity makes for an unforgettable seven-night ʻAmazon River Cruise: Peruʼ with Aqua Expeditions, according to Kirby. “Fishing for piranha, kayaking with pink dolphins and trekking though the world’s most bio-diverse rainforest,” are among the daily highlights, he says. “Aqua limits each sightseeing group to just eight people, giving you an almost private experience in the Amazon.”
The best of river cruising in Africa
Highlight river: The Nile
Cruise lines: Uniworld, Sanctuary Retreats
The longest river in the world, the Nile has starred in more movies than Michael Caine – Death on the Nile, The Jewel of the Nile, and Princess of the Nile among them. This 6,650-kilometre-long waterway is like a snapshot of northern Africa, traversing more than 10 countries before draining into the Mediterranean.
Upscale tour operator Abercrombie & Kent takes over Art Deco-styled Sanctuary Sun Boat IV for its expeditions on the waterway, which focuses on Egypt. “Egypt is back as flavour of the month,” says Melinda Gregor, who recommends A&K’s nine-day ʻNile in Styleʼ itinerary. “There’s no better way to see the country’s amazing temples,” she says. “See Kom Ombo temple right on the banks of the Nile, and watch the sun set as a traditional felucca sails by.”
Kirby experienced Egypt with Uniworld, saying that its 12-day land-and-cruise ʻSplendours of Egypt & the Nileʼ package is the ultimate way to “absorb so much history in such a short amount of time. A cruise on the Nile is an experience 4,000 years in the making.”
Cruising the Nile with Abercrombie & Kent