Top 7 Global River Cruises

By Clark Norton
September 8, 2014
Dennis Cox/WorldViews

While European river cruising is red hot in popularity now, don’t overlook other river cruising possibilities around the world. Asia, Africa, South America, and North America all offer excellent river cruises, ranging from the exotic -- the Amazon, the Mekong, the Nile and more -- to U.S. rivers such as the Mississippi and the Columbia. Here are the top seven non-European river trips available today:

 

1. The Amazon

Amazon Cruise

The world’s largest river by volume, the Amazon stretches 4,000 miles from Peru east to Brazil’s Atlantic coast. The lower Amazon -- the segment that runs from the old frontier city of Manaus, in the heart of Brazil, to the Atlantic Ocean -- is wide and deep enough to attract some ocean-going, medium-sized traditional cruise ships.  

 

West of Manaus, the upper Amazon is more remote, adventurous, and suited to smaller, expedition-style vessels. River boats on the upper Amazon typically make frequent stops for passengers to board small skiffs or canoes and venture into villages or into the depths of the jungle, sometimes via little creeks that cut right through the dense vegetation.

 

Rainforest Hikes

Experienced guides, often native to the region, lead rainforest hikes in search of wildlife – howler monkeys, macaws, elusive sloths – and point out medicinal plants used by indigenous tribesmen. (You might even get to taste a coconut grub, or fish for piranha that the ship’s cook will grill for lunch). While cruising down the river, watch for pink dolphins, tropical birds, and monkeys skittering through the trees near the river banks.

 

Peru-based Amazon cruises typically start and end in Lima and are often combined with visits to Machu Picchu. Manaus-based Amazon cruises may include extensions to Iguassu Falls. The Rio Negro, a tributary that flows into the Amazon near Manaus, is another option -- so quiet you may not see another ship for an entire week. Don’t overlook Manaus itself, where you can tour an ornate 19th-century opera house that rivaled the finest in Italy. For the river cruise, come prepared for tropical heat and rain showers – and make sure your immunizations are up to date.

 

2. The Columbia and Snake

Snake River

If you live in North America, you don’t have to cross the sea to find prime river-cruising destinations. More than two centuries after the pioneering team of Lewis and Clark completed their expedition to the Pacific Northwest by following the Columbia and Snake rivers to the ocean, you can travel these same waterways – no canoes required.

 

But old-time atmosphere is still available: ship options include an authentic paddle-wheeler that seems to emerge right out of the 19th century. Seven or eight-day Columbia River Cruises typically start either in Portland, Oregon, or in Clarkston, Washington, which is on the Snake River some 350 miles to the east, along the Idaho border. But even if you start or end in Portland, your itinerary will still likely include sailing west to Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia empties into the Pacific.

 

Columbia River Gorge

The highlight of any Columbia River cruise, though, starts just east of Portland: the 80-mile-long Columbia River Gorge, a rock canyon framed by mountains and waterfalls, including Oregon’s 600-foot-high Multnomah Falls. Forming the border between Oregon and Washington, the gorge lies to the south of Washington’s Mt. St. Helens, the volcano whose last explosion in 1980 scattered ash and blew out trees across the area.

 

Farther east, possible side-trips travel to the cowboy town of Pendleton, Oregon, home of Pendleton Woolen Mills, or offer the chance of a jet boat ride through remote Hell’s Canyon, the deepest in North America, carved by the Snake River. The entire region is also rich in Native American cultural sites.

 

3. The Irrawaddy

Mandalay

The Irrawaddy River, which flows for 1,300 miles through exotic Myanmar (Burma), is Myanmar’s economic lifeline and an exceptional vantage point for viewing what is currently one of the most sought-after destinations in Southeast Asia. Myanmar, until recently shunned by the international community for its notorious human-rights violations and now opened up to the world, has been described as a “Buddhist wonderland.”

 

And because it was a mostly closed society for so long, it hasn’t changed much – yet. Some of the nomenclature has, however: Besides “Myanmar” replacing “Burma,” you’ll start your river cruise in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. (Be sure to arrive early enough to explore Yangon, where ancient temples mix with British colonial architecture).

 

The Delta and the River

Irrawaddy River cruises -- which typically run anywhere from one week to two or even longer if they include land touring as well -- exit Yangon via the Twante Canal, which leads from the Yangon River to the Irrawaddy Delta. Depending on the length of your trip, you may spend a few days days exploring small ports in the delta before embarking on the Irrawaddy itself.

 

Once on the river, you can visit archeological sites rich in ancient Buddhist artifacts, and view remnants of the colonial period – including forts dating from the second Anglo-Myanmar War in the mid-19th century. If you stop in Minhla, you’ll encounter a pagoda made of solid gold bricks, just one of many Buddhist pagodas, temples and monasteries lining the river. One crucial stop is Pagan (Bagan), a World Heritage Site and home to thousands of temples and monasteries.

 

River Road to Mandalay

Another is Mandalay – the country’s last royal capital and the center of Buddhist culture -- celebrated by Kipling and home to an array of colorful pagodas and monasteries. Irrawaddy cruises may end in Mandalay or travel roundtrip to Yangon. Some longer itineraries begin or end in Bangkok, Thailand, while others begin in Mandalay and travel north to Yangon.

 

4. The Mekong

Mekong

A Mekong voyage typically starts in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, with time to explore the city and outlying attractions such as the Cu Chi tunnels, a complex underground network built by guerrillas during the Vietnam War. Leaving Saigon, the cruises enter the back waters of the Mekong Delta, site of the world’s largest floating market at Cai Bei. You may have the chance to visit Vietnamese tribal villages before entering Cambodia.

 

Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat

The Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, features French colonial architecture and an opportunity to visit the grim Killing Fields and detention camps of the Khmer Rouge, which formed one of the darkest eras in Southeast Asian history. Back on the river, you’ll pass towns such as Kratie that recall the French colonial period, and also have opportunities to view river dolphins, wats, temples, monasteries and pagodas.

 

Cruises typically end in Siem Reap, Cambodia, gateway to Angkor Wat, the legendary and ornate 12th-century complex of stone structures that’s the world’s largest religious monument. Some cruises include extensions to Hanoi or Bangkok, or reverse the itinerary, starting at Siem Reap.

 

5. The Mississippi

Mississippi Cruise

America’s most storied river, the Mississippi flows more than 2,300 miles through America’s heartland, bordering ten states from northern Minnesota to Louisiana, before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Meaning “Great River” in the Ojibwe language, the Mississippi connects cities as varied as New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis and Minneapolis, and has served as the economic lifeline for all the communities that lie along its banks.

 

The river has also been celebrated in literature, theater and song (Samuel Clemens, who hailed from the river port of Hannibal, Missouri, took his pseudonym Mark Twain from his days working on a Mississippi river boat).

 

New Orleans to Memphis

Mississippi River cruises offer a chance to explore the mighty waterway in a relaxing environment – perhaps even on an authentic paddle-wheeler. The most popular segment is on the southern Mississippi, between New Orleans and Memphis.

 

Besides those two bookend cities – both known for their blues and jazz music and regional cuisines – a lower Mississippi River cruise offers opportunities to tour Civil War battlefields and antebellum plantations while gliding past riverfront towns boasting Victorian-era mansions.

 

Northern Mississippi River cruises typically travel from St. Louis to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, stopping at Hannibal, Missouri, several cities in Iowa, and LaCrosse, Wisconsin, before disembarking in Minnesota. Some Mississippi cruises also take in other rivers such as the Ohio – which leads through Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana to Cincinnati – as well as the Cumberland and the Tennessee, which branch off the Ohio to the south. Itineraries generally run seven to eight days.

 

6. The Nile

Nile Evening Cruise

In the 19th century, explorers such as Sir Richard Burton and John Speke risked their lives searching for the source of the 4,250-mile-long Nile, which eventually empties into the Mediterranean in Egypt. But today you can explore a section of the timeless river, the world’s longest, on comfortable multi-deck tour boats that all have open upper decks for easy viewing of the passing panorama.

 

Nile cruise boats start in Aswan, located just north of the Aswan Dam, a controversial project completed in the 1960s to control flooding along the Nile -- which supplies most of Egypt’s water. The cruises continue north along the Nile to Luxor, the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes and one of Egypt’s premier archaeological sites.

 

The ruins of the Luxor and Karnak temples are immense, leading this to be called the “world’s largest open-air museum.” Across the river lie the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, containing the tombs of many of the ancient pharaohs.

 

Nile Sights

Between Aswan and Luxor, the Nile is mostly rural, and its banks contain most of the fertile land in all of Egypt. On the river, feluccas – traditional Egyptian boats – float by, steered by men in long flowing robes, while village children play along the riverbanks.

 

Other stops include the temple towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, which are mere warm-ups for the splendor of Luxor. Itineraries typically last four days and usually include an extension to bustling Cairo, home to the Giza Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the extraordinary Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.

 

7. The Yangtze

Yangtze Cruise

The Yangtze River flows for nearly 4,000 miles through the heart of China, offering a relaxing way to escape China’s traffic-choked streets and urban air pollution. But you won’t miss out on China’s two major cities: your cruise itinerary will start either in Beijing, China’s capital, or Shanghai, its most vibrant city. Yangtze River cruise itineraries typically include multi-day visits to both on either end of the river voyage.


If you start in Shanghai, you can explore both old colonial-era Shanghai, along the waterfront Bund District, as well as the ultra-modern new city (using your ship as hotel and restaurant). Once on the cruise itself, the itinerary may include a stop in the ancient Chinese capital of Nanjing and another at Suzhou, known as the “Venice of the East” for its network of canals.


Three Gorges

The cruises all stop at the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydro-electric dam project. While extremely controversial during its construction because it displaced more than a million people -- as well as flooding archaeological sites and altering the landscape of the scenic Three Gorges -- it's still an engineering marvel.

The ship then sails through the Three Gorges, which, though flooded by the dam, remain a scenic wonder. Passengers disembark at Chongqing for their flight to Beijing, where sightseeing includes the 15th-century-era imperial Forbidden City, huge Tiananmen Square -- regarded as the center of the Middle Kingdom -- and a trip to see part of the Great Wall, which lies outside the city. Most itineraries total 11 to 16 days, with about nine of those on the river itself.




Photo credits:

Amazon: rat-racer, flickr; Columbia and Snake: John Christopher, Panoramio; Irrawaddy: Jice Baroudeur,  Panoramio; Mekong: Adam Jones, flickr; Mississippi: Franz Neumeier, flickr; Nile: Melanie Feuerer, flickr; Yangtze: Mulligan Stu, flickr. 

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Comments
By Samantha Scott
January 22, 2016 at 6:37 PM
These sound amazing! I'd love to do the Nile, and the two US ones. So much history to see!
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