Our forebears knew they were on to a good thing when in the late 1800s they began cruising down that most fabled of waterways, the Nile. In search of warmer winter climes, and armed with little more than a sense of adventure, they sailed in flotillas of dahabiyas – sailboats which relied on a favourable wind to propel them upriver. Those first eager sightseers would pave the way for the earliest package holidays.
By the end of the 19th century Thomas Cook, who had made his first foray into Egypt in 1868, had built a small empire organising holidays on steamboats along the river.
Now, passengers can take their pick of the world’s rivers and cruises, from a gourmet voyage on the Amazon to a safari cruise on the Zambezi. On board today’s ships there are butlers on call and spas in which to rejuvenate. Engine noise is barely discernible and passengers can savour some of the best cruise cuisine available.
Ashore, operators have unlocked the doors to private palaces and heritage buildings and secured tickets for premieres and nights at the opera. There are tasting tours to Trappist breweries and e-bikes for towpath cycles or more energetic rides. You can learn from a master of wine or a golfing pro.
Much has changed over the centuries, but the reasons river cruising is finding favour with more and more travellers have’t altered that much. An unhurried, often peaceful traverse through the heart of a country is a genius way to explore. On a river cruise, where you can always see the shore, stories are told on riparian beaches where locals pound washing at the water’s edge and children play in the shallows; in the cities, where joggers spring beneath Gothic spires and ducks potter on the muddy foreshore; and in river deltas where wild horses roam.
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History unfolds, not just in the perched castles and chocolate-box villages of the Rhine, but also in its ghostly Bauhaus factories and in the urban sprawl of the Yangtze.
So, what’s it to be… the Temple of Philae making an appearance as you sip your first coffee of the day, or a basking hippo at sundown? Let the river be your guide.
1. Round-the-world cruises
World Cruises − which circumnavigate the oceans over a three to four-month period − are popular with time-rich winter-sun seekers. But did you know that you can now cruise the world by river? “The world’s great waterways on one incredible bucket-list adventure” is how Mundy Cruising describes this five continents and 18 rivers holiday marathon, and it’s not far wrong.
Curating the itineraries of 16 cruise lines it visits 34 countries over 10 months – cruising the Rhine, Danube, Volga, Ganges, Yangtze, Mekong, Mississippi, Zambezi and the Nile and Amazon. The roll-call of sights is impressive, and includes the Taj Mahal, the pyramids, Machu Picchu and China’s Terracotta Warriors. Part of the holiday even includes an African safari, following a cruise on the Chobe river.
Last month Silversea Cruises unveiled a mammoth new 140-day round-the-world voyage, the first-ever cruise to visit all seven continents in one go when it sets sail in 2020, visitng 62 ports across 32 countries.
From £125,000 per person for a 295-day Around the World by River cruise including business-class flights, transfers and five-star hotels throughout (020 7399 7670; mundycruising.co.uk). Departs in July.
The ultimate guide to river cruises
2. Luxury stays on the Danube
If you’re a fan of luxury hotels and not sure if a river cruise is for you, a week on board the Crystal Mahler should convince you. The all-balcony, all-suite ship offers private butler service in all cabins and bathrooms roomy enough for double sinks. In the spring Mahler will sail on three, seven-night cruises between Budapest and Vienna, visiting Krems, Spitz, Linz, Melk (all Austria) and Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Dining is relaxed, with farm-to-table style menus served in several open-seating eateries.
From £6,910pp (0207 399 7601; crystalcruises.co.uk). Departs April 10.
3. Street food in Vietnam
Keen to know your pho from your bun cha? Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen will be leading a new a foodie tour of old Saigon next year, exploring the city’s street food. The walking tour is included on APT’s 15-day Vietnam and Mekong River Cruise on board the luxury ship, AmaLotus. The holiday begins in Ho Chi Minh City, lingering in the fertile Mekong Delta and concludes with three nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
From £4,195 per person for selected departures in July, August and September (0800 046 3002; aptouring.co.uk).
4. Golfing on the Albatross in France
If you enjoy the Open, here’s a way to combine a relaxing river cruise on the Seine, Danube or Rhine with the chance to hone your golfing skills with an expert. Amadeus River Cruises’ new golf departures next spring will be hosted by PGA teaching pro, Frank Adamowicz. Each sailing will include visits to four prestigious courses. At France’s Le Golf National, the much-lauded greens of the Albatross course await play. Wines from Europe’s famous growing regions will be flowing freely on board.
From $2,827 (£2,012) per person for a Seine cruise departing on October 25. Includes flights (0808 115 8312; amadeus-rivercruises.co.uk).
5. Fine food, art and fashion in Paris
Having ramped up the glam-factor on board its new ship Joie de Vivre with sumptuous fabrics, hi-spec marble bathrooms, a supper club and an impressive food-and-wine pairing cellar, Uniworld has delivered shore tours to match. Fashionistas will love a behind the scenes tour of the Opera Garnier (how are those costumes made?) , while art lovers will enjoy a guided walk through Île de la Cité and Latin Quarter, two neighbourhoods who streets have been graced by the likes of Matisse and Picasso, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among other artists and authors.
From £2,899 per person (0808 168 9231; uniworld.com). Departs December 6.
6. Explore Asia's two most beautiful rivers
If you’re going to fly long haul it make sense to maximise your time. This 16-day holiday bookends a week’s cruise on two of Asia’s most scenic waterways – the Mekong and Irrawaddy (Myanmar) – with hotel stays in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap (for the magnificent Angkor Wat). You could add a few nights in Bangkok or explore Hanoi and Ha Long Bay (Vietnam) during a pre-cruise stay, or tack on nights in Luang Prabang in Laos. The cruise is on the 18-suite all-balcony Avalon Siem Reap.
Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong cruise costs from £3,949 per person including home pick-up service, flights and two nights’ hotel accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City (0800 668 1843; avaloncruises.co.uk). Valid for selected departures in 2018 and 2019.
The world's most beautiful rivers
7. African safari cruise
Not a lot of river ships cruise on the African continent. The newest, African Dream, last year made its inaugural sailing on the Chobe and Zambezi rivers in December. This nine-day cruise through southern Africa begins in Johannesburg before visiting Lake Kariba and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Chobe National Park in Botswana and Namibia's Impalila Island. The intimate ship has eight suites, all with generous river views, and will feature a panoramic restaurant, lounge bar and rooftop terrace. Pack binoculars for possible elephant and other wildlife sightings.
From £3,713 per person; excludes flights (020 8328 1281; croisieurope.co.uk).
8. Cycling in the Black Forest
With its mirrored lakes and rolling hills, dense woodland and plentiful hiking trails, the Black Forest is one of Germany’s treasures. On Tauck’s new Rhine Enchantment itinerary from Milan to Amsterdam, passengers can join a guided cycle ride through the forest’s evergreen canopies, from the port of Breisach.
This is one of several fully guided cycling excursions and hikes being rolled out across Tauck’s luxury river-cruise portfolio and each ship now carries a fleet of bicycles available for independent exploration ashore. Yoga-inspired stretching classes and “healthy-choice” menu options are already available on board.
From £3,995 for 11 days; excludes flights (0800 810 8020; tauck.co.uk).
9. Wildlife on the Danube
The Danube river meanders for 1,777 miles from its origins in Germany’s Black Forest before emptying into the Black Sea in Romania at a point known as “Zero kilometre”, a Unesco-protected wetland area inhabited by wild horses, and home to hundreds of species of birds. Fred Olsen, which has just launched a river cruise programme on its ship, Brabant, offers a boat-tour excursion of the marshes, tree-lined lakes and networks of canals and lagoons of the Danube Delta from the pretty town of St Gheorghe. If you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of rare species such as the pygmy cormorant, or hear the call of an egret. The cruise also visits Budapest and Kalocsa in Hungary and the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
From £1,799 per person for a nine-night Eastern European Danube Discovery cruise departing May 4 and including flights (0845 314 3918; fredolsencruises.com).
10. Get fit on a wellness cruise
Continuing the wellness theme AmaWaterways’ seven-night cruise along the Seine leaves no stone unturned. Rise early for morning stretches and then take advantage of yoga instruction, circuit training and cardio and core-strengthening classes. Menu options run to gluten-free and vegetarian dishes as well as crystal-infused “detox water.” The seven-night cruise will visit key sites along the French river including Monet’s Gardens of Giverny, the Normandy Landing Beaches and Richard the Lionheart’s former home, Chateau Gaillard. Excursions include a cycling tour of Rouen and a hike in Les Andeleys.
A Wellness River Cruise on AmaLyra’s Paris and Normandy sailings (through November 2018) costs from £2,178pp including daily wellness programme excursions and use of on-board bicycles (0800 320 2336; amawaterways.co.uk).
11. Jazz in America's Deep South
Any holiday to the American South worth its salt should inspire memories of sultry nights sipping bourbon, gracious southern hospitality and big helpings of jazz. Going one step further, this 13-day Telegraph Tour features an exclusive performance and cocktail reception with award-winning jazz singer Clare Teal. Journeying from Memphis to the Crescent City via historic Vicksburg, Baton Rouge and Nottoway Plantation, the tour includes in-depth visits to Beale Street and Graceland. In Memphis passengers board the paddle steamer American Duchess for a cruise to New Orleans.
From £4,995 per person including flights, departing October 20 2018 (0333 220 1310; telegraph.co.uk/tt-jazzcruise).
12. Five-star cruising in Russia
Next year sees more options for cruising the rivers, canals and lakes that connect Moscow and St Petersburg than ever before. APT is returning to luxury river cruising in Russia with two departures this May and July on the MS Kronshtadt, while Scenic has cruises on the Volga between Moscow and Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). The 15-day Imperial Russia itinerary visits Ulyanovsk, the city where Lenin was born, and includes two nights in Moscow and two in Volgograd.
Viking Cruises’ 11-day itinerary travels the Dnieper river through Ukraine between Kiev and Odessa (but no longer visits Yalta or Sevastopol which are in the area of the Crimea annexed by Russia).
Cosmos is offering cruises from St Petersburg to Moscow aboard the MS Chernishevsky, which includes a visit to Uglich, a 12th-century village on the Volga river, and city tours of Moscow and St Petersburg.
From £1,649 per person including flights and home pick-up service (0800 440 2797; cosmos.co.uk).
13. Indulge in posh Peruvian cuisine
Mention the words “chef Schiaffino” in the Peruvian city of Lima and stomachs will start to rumble. This year, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino will join passengers on board the stylish Aria Amazon, where passengers can sample some of the indigenous Amazonian ingredients that are championed by the acclaimed Latin American super chef.
On the menu? Heart of palm soufflé, scallops with umari (fruit), Amazon huatia potatoes, grilled freshwater fish or plantain and yucca gnocchi. The 16-suite ship has a river-facing jacuzzi and carries four English-speaking naturalist guides.
The four-night gastronomy cruise hosted by the chef on the Aria Amazon costs from $5,100 (£3,632) per person. Valid for selected departures in September and and October. Excludes flights (firstname.lastname@example.org).
14. Enjoy a spa at sea in France
Sign up for some hands-on cooking instruction; pamper yourself with a hydrating River Breeze facial or throw a cocktail party in your spacious suite while soaking up La Belle France. Scenic’s new on-board cookery programme on the Seine, Scenic Culinaire, introduces the tastes and flavours of French cuisine during on-board demonstrations.
The refurbished Scenic Diamond and Sapphire boast new Royal Owner’s suites (47 sq m/506 sq ft) and a sundeck vitality pool and salt lounge – a wellness area inspired by the micro-climate of salt mines. New Scenic Enrich experiences for 2018 include Chateau Agassac in the Medoc region of France – one of the oldest wine-making houses in the region, it is also the venue for a private evening concert.
From £2,245 per person for an eight-day Bordeaux Affair cruise including door-to-door transfers. Departures from April 2019 (0808 231 9181; scenic.co.uk).
15. Myanmar short cruise
Cruise along the Irrawaddy, one of Asia’s great rivers, on board the Indo-China Pandaw, exploring riverside villages, local markets and incredible scenery. The four-night cruise runs from Bagan to Mandalay. Valid for selected departures from August 2018.
From $1,596 (£1,135) per person; excluding flights (020 8326 5620; pandaw.com).
Note: The Foreign Office and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all but essential travel to some parts of Myanmar due to ongoing conflict and warns terrorist attacks are likely to take place in the country. See the full FCO travel advice for more information.
16. Venice as you've never seen before
Snaking across north-east Italy from the Alps to its delta south of the lagoon, the Po is one of Europe’s most unsung waterways and offers a completely different perspective of La Serenissima, the city that was built on the lagoon.
The trip on the MS Michelangelo is bookended by nights in Venice (spent on board), and includes short cruises through the lagoon to Murano and Burano, before entering the Po Delta proper. Ports of call include Polesella, Taglio di Po and Chioggia where there is an optional hike along the Strada del Vino dei Colli Euganei, a wine route in the Euganean Hills.
From £1,499 per person departing July and August 2018 including flights and door-to-door transfers (0800 988 5873; titantravel.co.uk).
17. Battlefield barge tours
For a more intimate commemorative experience, consider travelling on a hotel barge. The 12-berth Panache sails on the Canal du Nord (inaccessible to larger vessels) right through the First World War battlefield area. The canal itself was the scene of the Battle of Canal du Nord in September 1918.
For one part of the journey the barge cruises under the New Zealand Engineers Bridge, which was built in a week in 1918 under continuous German fire. Passengers will also experience the three mile-long Ruyaulcourt tunnel, near the Somme. The barge offers soothing snapshots of the Picardy countryside.
From £3,590 per person for a six-night, all-inclusive cruise (01753 598555; gobarging.com).
18. Christmas market cruise
Small cruises are heaven sent for solo travellers; and never more so than at Christmas, when there’s jollity and company on tap. Explore the storybook villages and towns and fairytale castles along the Rhine Valley on this three-night river cruise before strolling through the atmospheric Christmas market in Rudesheim.
From £489 per person departing from London and other UK airports on selected departures in December (0330 037 2226); telegraph.co.uk/tt-festive-cruises.
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19. The best of the Rhine
Capture the beauty of the scenic Middle Rhine region, encountering dramatic castles, cliffs and fortresses and quaint wine villages and towns, including optional excursions to Bonn, the Ahr Valley and Reichsburg Castle. The eight-day cruise runs from Cologne to Rudesheim.
From £899 per person for selected departures in May, June, July and September for 2018 and 2019 (saga.co.uk).
20. Ancient temple tours in Egypt
As well as being one of the world’s most magnificent open-air museums, the Nile is Egypt’s life source. Farmholds share the riverbank of northern Africa’s great irrigation system with 5,000 years of history writ large in temples, tombs and pyramids (there is currently no FCO advice against travel to Cairo and the tourist areas along the Nile river including Luxor, Qina, Aswan, Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings). Time permitting, opt for the long cruisefrom Cairo to Luxor that takes in Lower, as well as Upper Egypt.
Riviera has a cruise on the smart MS Movenpick Dakarum, which pairs classic sights such as the temple at Karnak and the Valley of the Kings with guided tours of the rarely visited archaeological city of Amarna, the mysterious temple dedicated to Osiris, god of the dead, at Abydos and one of Egypt’s best preserved temples, at Dendera.
The Wonders of the Nile cruises - 11 days (Cairo to Luxor) costs from £2,240pp; while the 15 day cruise (Cairo to Aswan) costs from £2,875pp. Includes flights and transfers; excludes visa. (0333 122 8660; telegraph.co.uk/tt-nile); See gov.co.uk for the latest FCO travel advice.
Browse Telegraph Travel’s selection of river cruises in Europe and beyond with itineraries on the Rhine, Danube, Rhone, Douro, Moselle, Seine, Po and Volga, as well as the Nile, Mekong, and Ganges. Our collection includes cruises from a range of trusted partners including AmaWaterways, Arena Travel, Avalon Waterways, Newmarket Holidays, Riviera Travel and Uniworld. telegraph.co.uk/tt-river-cruises