River cruising has burgeoned in recent years, and its massive appeal continues to grow thanks to an increasing number of luxurious, intimate ships that can access off-the-beaten-path ports along with an ever-expanding list of itineraries featuring dreamy (and, often, under-the-radar) destinations. Here are four rivers that make for a remarkable river cruise.
Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Photo courtesy of Amawaterways
Vietnam and Cambodia
Operating mostly year-round, river cruises to the region often take in Vietnam’s iconic cities of Hanoi, home to more than 600 pagodas and temples; Sa Déc, an agricultural trading center with floating markets brimming with handmade goods; and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), a bustling metropolis where you’ll find the historic city hall, Reunification Palace and old opera house as well as an eclectic mix of modern shops and restaurants.
Daily excursions in Vietnam may include such memorable experiences as joining a lesson in making traditional Vietnamese rice paper, visiting ancient temples and monasteries (where you may even receive a monk’s blessing), and venturing on a traditional sampan to shop at a floating marketplace. Other special experiences include taking a trishaw (pedicab) ride through the pulsating streets of Hanoi and perusing Ho Chi Minh City’s lively Ben Thanh Night Market or one of the many evening cafés.
Among the must-do excursions in Cambodia is a visit to Siem Reap’s Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The jungle-entwined complex features the legendary Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest religious monument, and other ruins of the Khmer Empire that ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries. Other top stops are Cambodia’s vibrant capital of Phnom Penh, where tuk-tuk tours take you along tree-lined boulevards fringed with Angkorian architecture, and a silk island where the ancient art of silk-weaving is alive and well.
The Viking Ra navigates the Nile River. Photo courtesy of Viking
A cruise along the Nile through Egypt is a bucket-list experience that checks all the boxes, from pyramids and palaces to temples and tombs. Many cruises begin in Cairo and visit Luxor, Qena, Esna, Aswan and Edfu, with onboard Egyptologists who draw back the veil of mystique across this storied land. While delving into the past, you’ll also discover the country’s dynamic present, uncovering contemporary culture at every turn.
A sphinx in Luxor, Egypt. Photo courtesy of African Travel
Imagine gazing in awe at the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and the last ancient wonder still standing—dating back some 4,000 years. And envision a visit to the tombs of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings and Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens; the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri; the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak; and the Philae Temple complex in Aswan. Also picture yourself perusing the exhibits of ancient artifacts at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum; exploring Aswan’s High Dam, which lays claim as the world’s second-largest artificial lake; strolling the ancient capital of Memphis, home to the colossus of Ramses II, and touring Cairo’s Abdeen Palace.
Other highlights often include sailing on a felucca (a small wooden sailboat) to fragrant botanical gardens, browsing a colorful spice market, and attending a galabeya party (in which participants wear traditional Egyptian dress).
One tour operator, African Travel, can also extend a Nile River cruise to Egypt with a safari into other African destinations, including Botswana.
African Travel guests can venture on guided walking safaris from Chindeni Bushcamp, a luxury tented camp in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Photo courtesy of African Travel
CHOBE AND ZAMBEZI RIVERS
When most people think of travel to the southern part of Africa, they think safari. But pairing a safari with a river cruise on the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers as they course through Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana offers the best of both worlds, on land and on water.
The Zambezi (meaning “Great River” in the language of the Tonga people) runs about 2,200 miles from its source on the Central African Plateau before tipping into the Indian Ocean. Along the way, it’s interrupted by rapids and by the one-mile-wide, 360-foot-high Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
AmaWaterways’ game-viewing excursion on the Chobe River; Photo Courtesy of Amawaterways
Draining through the Zambezi, the tranquil Chobe River forms the northern boundary of Chobe National Park in Botswana, where it snakes through swampland and around lush islands. The Chobe is world-renowned for its density of wildlife, including a spectacular concentration of elephant herds on the river during the dry season (from March through November) as well as high concentrations of buffalo, hippos, crocodiles, birds and more.
Along with amazing wildlife viewing and seeing UNESCO-designated Victoria Falls, journeys on the Zambezi and Chobe often feature visits to Chobe National Park, African village tours, mokoro (dugout canoes) excursions and riverbank picnics. Your cruise-safari may also include a jaunt to South Africa, where you can retrace the footsteps of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, ascend Cape Town’s soaring Table Mountain via cable car and explore Greater Kruger National Park. Enjoying a Boma dinner under the stars, in which people gather around a fire pit to cook, eat, socialize and sing, is the perfect way to cap off any day of a cruise safari.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ Aria Amazon sails the Amazon River in Peru. Photo courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
Wending some 4,000 miles from its headwaters in the snow-capped Andes Mountains of Peru before pouring into the Atlantic Ocean on Brazil’s northeastern coast, the mighty Amazon River is a sight to behold. While the Amazon rivals the Nile River for the title of the world’s longest river (the debate stems from a question about the exact location of the Amazon’s source), it is inarguably the world’s largest river by volume, and a cruise along this superlative waterway provides a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
An Amazon River cruise tour often begins in Peru’s lively capital of Lima, where iconic sights include colorful colonial architecture, the bohemian district of Barranco, and the Monasterio de San Francisco, which houses catacombs and a library of 25,000 texts from the 16th to 20th centuries. After a capital tour, many travelers will journey into the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, usually departing from Iquitos (its largest city) with a naturalist guide, who will point out the amazing array of flora and fauna and lead a jungle walk.
A visit to Peru’s Machu Picchu is among the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of an Amazon River cruise. Photo by Emperorcosar/Stock.Adobe.Com
Skiffs are a popular mode of transportation for sailing the Ucayali and Marañón Rivers, the two major tributaries of the Amazon River. Bounded by the confluence of these two rivers, the five-million-acre Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in Loreto, Peru’s second-largest protected natural area, teems with more than 1,000 species of animals—including pink dolphins (also known as Amazon River dolphins)—and nearly as many species of wild plants. The reserve is also home to oxbow lakes, where you can go canoeing and, if you dare, fish for piranhas. Travelers may also be invited to visit with the indigenous communities who live on the riverbanks to learn about their culture.
Back on land in Cusco, the starring attraction is the awe-inspiring citadel of Machu Picchu, the “lost city of the Incas.” Exploring the temples, palaces, terraces, monuments, complexes and aqueducts of the Inca Empire is the capstone to most any Amazon cruise. As Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, is quoted as saying, “Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.”