There is something romantic about a river – whether it’s the tree canopy of the Amazon, bearing birds and reptiles, bending low to kiss the water, or the never-ending hard current of the Mississippi, moving boats and men and ink from the pens of Twain and Faulkner.
Travelers have been drawn to them for thousands of years, and while looking at a river from its banks is lovely, to live on the currents for a week or more is the journey of a lifetime.
Here are seven of the world’s best riverboat journeys
The Irrawaddy, aboard The Road to Mandalay
Rudyard Kipling penned the poem “Mandalay” without ever actually going to Mandalay. You can go now, however, thanks to the ease in tension and rise in tourism for Myanmar. The most iconic way to visit this tropical country of temples is to cruise the Irrawaddy River with The Orient Express. The Road to Mandalay is an 82-passenger ship, built in 1964. The world-renowned vessel has a feel of timeless luxury – from afternoon tea service on the piano deck to the elegantly appointed cabins with stunning, hand-cut jade tilework.
The Orient Express offers multiple adventure packages for Myanmar and allows for additional port stops. Rise early to wander the markets of villages like Shwe Kyet Yet, take in the breathtaking history of Bagan’s sprawling temple complexes and dine on traditional, Shan cuisine. The sunsets off the deck silhouette ancient pagodas, and while you are guaranteed a great gin and tonic, if you are lucky you might also catch a glimpse of the rare Ayeyarwaddy dolphins splashing along the stern.
Price: Starting at $2,520 for three nights
The Mississippi River, aboard the American Queen Steamboat
Playwrights, musicians, artists and authors have had a love affair for generations with the grand old Mississippi. She’s as American as apple pie (with a side of baseball), and the best way to travel her curves is aboard an authentic steamboat. The American Queen is the top operator out of the mere handful that exist, and with new ownership, this ship came out of a four-year retirement in 2012.
The company offers cruises on the river’s upper portion, visiting towns like St. Louis and St. Paul, but our pick is their Lower Mississippi route, which sends you from the barbecue joints of Memphis down to the sin and revelry of New Orleans. You hit historic ports of call in between like Helena, Ark., for shopping along their charming Cherry Street and Natchez, Miss., where you can dine on fried catfish and work on your Southern drawl while touring antebellum mansions.
The 400-foot paddlewheeler you call home for this tour has an array of dining rooms with lavish feasts plated by acclaimed Chef de Cuisine Regina Charboneau. There’s also a Mark Twain impersonator, historians lecturing on topics like steamboat history and the regional culture, as well as nightly song-and-dance performances in the Grand Saloon.
Price: Starting at $3,495 for 9 days
The Yangtze River, aboard the Yangzi Explorer
Boasting an onboard fitness center, a theater, a full-service spa, 124-passenger capacity and the ability to boast that every cabin comes with a private balcony, it’s probably hard to even leave this ship to explore the wonders of China. The five-day journey sends travelers from Yichang to Chongqing, with jaw-dropping views of China’s epic gorges.
There’s the Xiling Gorge – one of the most spectacular in the world – the Three Gorges Dam, Wu Gorge, and Qutang Gorge. A rustic longboat poled by Tujia boatmen ferries you on smaller tributaries to spot wildlife in the rich forests, and golden hair monkeys are easy to spot on the cliffs. Guests learn about traditional Chinese arts and cooking techniques via visits to villages like Fengdu and Wanzhou.
Price: Starting at $1,190 for five days
The Nile, aboard the Zein Nile Chateau
The Nile carves more than 4,000 miles through the cradle of civilization, but the heart of this behemoth waterway resides in Egypt.
Hundreds of years ago, men traveled the river in dahabiehs, long wooden boats rigged with special triangular sails called lanteens. Elite tour company Abercrombie & Kent has revived the old commerce vessels for travelers of the modern world, outfitting their brand-new Zein Nile Chateau with panoramic windows for striking views, a cigar lounge and library, a sun deck with an oasis pool, outdoor shower and an open, Arabian-style sky lounge for star gazing. The only thing it doesn’t come with is the noise from a motor.
Aboard this floating hotel, you visit the expected destinations of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, but then continue onward to The Temple of Horemheb, carved into the riverside rocks at Gebel Silsila, and El-Kab, the pre-Dynastic capital of Upper Egypt with tombs and temples dedicated to the vulture goddess, Nekhbet.
Price: Seven-night charters from $29,600 for up to 12 guests.
The Rhine, aboard the Super Ship Antoinette
Floating down The Rhine on Uniworld’s journey means connecting with your inner child. You know, the inner child that secretly loved Dungeons & Dragons but is now mature enough to enjoy a great glass of Riesling. The trip takes guests from Amsterdam to Basel, over a seven-day course littered with ancient castles and beautiful vineyards.
It begins in Medieval Breisach, the gateway to the Black Forest, and heads along the Alsatian Wine Road. Rolling hills and fairytale cottages pass you by as great French and German wines flow aboard the magnificent S.S. Antoinette. The luxury liner’s staterooms and suites offer every amenity one expects, and a few that you might not – like full open-air balconies that, with a touch of a switch, can be encased in glass, creating enclosed conservatories.
Price: Starting at $2,399 for seven nights
The Danube, aboard the Swiss Sapphire
Why fly over Eastern Europe when you could glide through it? Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Cesky Krumlov, Bratislava, Budapest and the Wachau Valley are all accessible on a trip down the Danube. Tour operator Tauck River Cruising starts the journey in the Czech Republic with two days in Prague and a grand dinner at the 16th-century Lobkowicz Palace, as well as a fantastic send off over two days in Budapest.
In between, guests enjoy the amenities: 300-square-foot suites with Wi-Fi, flatscreen televisions and floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto French balconies. Day trips take you ashore to ogle the Baroque architecture of Salzburg, Austria, the quaint cobblestone alleys of the medieval Wachau Valley and the wonders (and pastries) of Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava.
Prices: 12 days starting at $4,490.
The Amazon, aboard the M/Y Tucano
If you are the type of traveler who prefers to get up close with nature, in a setting that’s more adventure than leisure, the Amazon is your river and the M/Y Tucano is your ship. You begin in Manaus on the Rio Negro tributary, the fifth-largest river in the world, and venture into the exotic Anavilhanas Archipelago, which is the largest river island system on the planet.
During the nine days aboard, night cruises allow for amazing views of the constellations – with great cocktails and a few Samba lessons thrown in for good measure – and you disembark for daily excursions into the rainforest, where wildlife includes toucans, black caimans, anacondas and spider monkeys. You will explore Lago Janauari Ecological Park, a flooded varzea forest known as Rio Jaueperi and weather permitting, experience the thrill of hiking in the forest after dark.
Each of the nine cabins is equipped with air conditioning, private baths and large windows to keep a constant eye out for pink river dolphins.
Price: Starting at $3,455 for nine days