As well as tracing some of the world’s most storied landscapes, river cruises offer a convenient way to undertake itineraries that would otherwise be complicated and tiring. Vessels put into a different port each night, so passengers spend far more time ashore than they would typically on an ocean voyage. And aside from high levels of comfort and outstanding cuisine, the leading riverboats provide well-organized excursions and exclusive events, allowing passengers to have unique experiences and see unspoiled areas of a country that would otherwise be inaccessible.
In 2008, the first Aqua Expeditions boat, the Aqua Amazon, was the realization of a dream for businessman Francesco Galli Zugaro, who aspired to take travelers to extremely remote reaches of the Peruvian Amazon in unprecedented comfort and style. In 2011, he launched a second ship, the Aria Amazon. This 147-foot vessel underwent a complete face-lift in 2015. All 16 of the 250-square-foot cabins (four of which can be combined for family use) feature floor-to-ceiling windows and polished wooden floors. Wi-Fi is limited on board and rooms lack televisions, as passengers are encouraged to disconnect and focus on the extraordinary environment surrounding them.
Debuting this month is the new 20-cabin Aqua Nera ship, which operates alongside the Aria Amazon. At 322 square feet, its luxuriously appointed rooms are larger than those on the Aria. Spacious and comfortable lounges on both vessels provide congenial spots for relaxation and briefings, while other public areas include large Jacuzzis, spa cabins and gyms on the top deck. The cuisine served on the boats is overseen by chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, one of Peru’s culinary stars. Seventy percent of all ingredients employed by the kitchen are sourced from the Amazon.
Whether you choose to cruise aboard the Aria or the Aqua Nera, days are filled with small-group expeditions (for no more than eight people on the Aria and 10 on the Aqua) through Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and into the rainforest aboard custom-designed skiffs. While cruising or hiking through the forest, travelers often encounter giant blue morpho butterflies, as well as dozens of species of exotic birds, including elegant capped herons, gorgeous macaws and the stately, owl-like great potoo. Afternoons may be spent observing pods of pink river dolphins or fishing for piranha. And on night excursions, the glowing red eyes of spectacled caimans are frequently spotted.
Aqua Amazon & Aqua Nera
7-night expedition cruise: starting at $6,800/person (all meals, select wines and beer, twice-daily excursions and group airport transfers included).
The Aqua Mekong, an impressive 40-passenger ship, also owned by Aqua Expeditions, plies the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, the waters that connect Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat) in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. It comprises three decks, the first two devoted primarily to guest cabins, with the rear of the second taken up by the dining room. The top deck encompasses a lounge-bar, a screening room and a small library. At the stern is a fitness room, while in the bow is a shaded plunge pool. There are also two spa rooms offering Khmer massage and Vietnamese aromatherapy treatments.
Handsomely appointed with grass-cloth wallcoverings and raw-silk throws, the 20 spacious cabins come with ample closet space, huge windows and polished wood floors. Specifically request one of the eight suites that have balconies furnished with daybeds. The Aqua Mekong is renowned for its gourmet cuisine. Overseen by Michelin-starred chef David Thompson, whose restaurant Nahm in Bangkok is justly regarded as one of the finest in Asia, the kitchen turns out superb meals that showcase locally sourced ingredients.
The boat has four aluminum launches, each with capacity for 10 passengers. Excursions and activities vary according to the time of year. When water levels are high (August through November), outings may include meetings with local farmers and Buddhist monks in Vietnam and rickshaw tours around Long Khanh island. And when the water is low (December to July), more time is spent on the Cambodian stretch of the Mekong, a rural and scenic area largely untouched by tourism. Activities then include biking, hiking and kayaking. Of course, much of the pleasure of a Mekong cruise comes from simply lounging on the deck as Southeast Asia — with its painted storks and pied kingfishers, rice barges and huge drifting rafts of purple water hyacinth — slides gracefully past.
7-night expedition cruise: starting at $7,700/person (all meals, wines and spirits, group transfers between vessel and meeting point, and laundry included).
Despite having just four cabins and relatively simple furnishings, the Belmond Hirondelle excels on the culinary front, with food and service just as elevated as those on Belmond’s other six barges. Public areas include a teak deck ideal for reading and alfresco lunches, as well as a combined lounge-dining room featuring hardwood floors, brass sconces, windows with wooden Venetian blinds and a paneled ceiling with a large skylight. Cabins, all similar in size, are snug but comfortable, with small windows, soft carpeting, Empire-style wallpaper and prints of Burgundian landscapes and towns.
The barge’s itinerary along the Marne River through Champagne, from Épernay to Couvrot, is especially tempting. At numerous small locks along the way, it is possible to disembark and walk along the canal — the barge moves at approximately the same speed as a pedestrian — or to head deeper into the countryside on a bicycle. Excursions include a visit to the Moët & Chandon Champagne house in Épernay; the Abbaye d’Hautvillers, the final resting place of Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon; and the imposing Cathédrale Saint-Etienne in the Gothic city of Châlons-en-Champagne. A walking tour of Reims culminates in a sampling of chocolates in a local patisserie.
By the time passengers return to the boat each afternoon, it has usually moored for the day. Guests are served aperitifs and canapés before dinner. The food aboard is consistently superb. Wines, too, range from excellent to sensational, and not a dinner goes by without at least one Champagne premier cru. The small size of the barge ensures that crew members get to know passengers’ preferences and habits very quickly. In 2021, the Belmond Hirondelle is available only for private charters, but single-cabin bookings are offered for journeys in 2022.
7-night cruise from Épernay to Couvrot in 2022: starting at $4,900/person (all meals, beverages and return transfers from Paris included).
The Crystal Mahler was launched in 2017 as one of Crystal River Cruise’s Rhine Class ships, a category with “all-balcony, all-suite, all-butler” accommodations. With room for 106 passengers, the Mahler offers a waterside restaurant and a Viennese-inspired café, as well as a glass-enclosed common area for evening entertainment. The finest lodging is the 759-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath Crystal Suite, which is augmented by a separate living-dining area with a carved marble fireplace. Wellness facilities include a spa room, a fitness center and a heated indoor pool with a glass roof. Culinary classes and “destination enrichment” lectures are regular events. Passengers can connect to an audio guide as they stroll along the 360-degree promenade watching the patchwork of vineyards, storybook towns and medieval castles pass by.
Tempting trips offered from Budapest include a seven-night westbound expedition through Hungary to Vienna, Dürnstein and Melk in Austria and Passau and Vilshofen in Germany. The voyage includes private classical concerts in the Belvedere Palace, tours of the Imperial Schönbrunn Palace, exclusive wine tastings at Schloss Gobelsburg, helicopter tours over the Wachau Valley and guided walks along the riverbanks in Passau, also known as the City of Three Rivers, where the Danube, Inn and Ilz all meet. This is a journey that combines history and art with unforgettable scenery.
7-night cruise from Budapest to Vilshofen: starting at $3,700/person (all meals, wines and spirits, and airport transfers included).
A Nile cruise has long been one of the classic experiences of travel. Long stretches of the river have changed little over the centuries, and the landscape has a memorably timeless quality. Lounging on the sundeck, watching the ancient scene slide past, can be an almost meditative experience. Your choice of boat is crucial, and in almost every respect, smaller is better. Many of the bigger vessels disembark large numbers of passengers simultaneously, which often results in the archaeological sites being overwhelmed. Smaller boats, such as the Oberoi Zahra, can time their arrivals to avoid the crowds.
The Zahra is an intimate 236-foot-long riverboat that delivers high levels of sophistication, comfort and service. Its 27 elegant cabins showcase a contemporary décor with features such as picture windows and linen-covered walls. The most luxurious accommodations are the ship’s two suites, which have private decks with Jacuzzi tubs and direct access by private stairs to the top deck, where the swimming pool and a bar are located. The Zahra’s dining room features fore and aft walls of translucent onyx. Other onboard amenities include a media room, a small spa and a gym.
The vessel offers cruises from Luxor to Aswan that take four or seven nights to cover the approximately 135 miles. Shore excursions, led by highly qualified Egyptologists, include tours of the magnificent Ptolemaic temple of Horus and Sobek in Kom Ombo and private sundown visits to the Dendera temple complex. Note that this ship does not allow children under the age of 7.
4-night cruise from Luxor to Aswan: starting at $2,100/person (all meals, two one-hour massages and return airport transfers included).
Christened in 2014 by Catherine Deneuve, the 159-passenger SS Catherine is one of the most opulent to cruise along the Rhône and Saône rivers through Burgundy and Provence. From the lobby, a glass-walled elevator leads guests to one of the 80 staterooms. Ranging in size from 162 to 410 square feet, these accommodations feature silk wallcoverings, Savoir beds with handcrafted headboards and original artwork. Recommended Category 1 (Deluxe Balcony) cabins on the Camargue Deck are augmented by private open-air balconies, which can be turned into enclosed conservatories at the click of a switch. Other facilities include the Serenity River Spa, as well as a fitness center where complimentary exercise classes are offered.
Journeys aboard the SS Catherine include a 22-day trip from Bordeaux to Avignon, a 15-day expedition from Paris to Avignon and an eight-day journey from Avignon to Lyon. This last trip offers passengers the opportunity to visit the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, take pottery classes in Viviers, tour wine cellars in Tournon and enjoy gastronomic excursions in Lyon. Chocolate tastings at the Valrhona factory can also be arranged.
8-day “Burgundy & Provence” Cruise: starting at $3,000/person (all meals, wines and spirits, and ground transfers included).
Debuting this year, the SS São Gabriel is Uniworld’s newest ship. Designed to cruise Portugal’s narrow Douro River, it accommodates 100 passengers in 50 river-view staterooms. All guest lodgings come with butler service and are lavishly decorated in styles and color schemes that reflect the surrounding region. Opt for a Suite or Grand Suite on the Azores Deck, as these have balconies and more-spacious living areas. (Classic and Deluxe accommodations have small fixed windows.) Amenities include a restaurant serving regional specialties and a wellness spa. The menu of onboard activities includes cooking classes and sommelier-led Port tastings.
In 2022, the eight-day round-trip Porto voyage will be of particular interest. Stops at the Douro Museum in Peso da Régua, dedicated to the region’s winemaking traditions, plus the Quinta do Seixo Port estate for a vineyard hike and private tasting, are likely to be especially memorable. Walking tours of Porto itself and the town of Guimarães, a UNESCO World Heritage site, will provide other highlights along the way.
SS São Gabriel
8-day “Douro River Valley” cruise in 2022: starting at $4,700/person (all meals, wines and spirits, and ground transfers included).
Russia is a fascinating but challenging destination. It is easy enough to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg on your own, but travel by road to most other interesting sites and towns can be a slow and arduous experience. In total, Viking Cruises has five ships that sail along Russia’s Volga and Svir rivers, plus Onega and Ladoga lakes. The Viking Rurik offers 98 lodgings, a sundeck, a library and a restaurant serving classic Russian cuisine. Accommodations feature picture windows and sliding glass doors opening to private full-size verandas. (Avoid Deluxe Staterooms, as they are snug at 142 square feet and lack terraces.)
Viking’s 13-day “Waterways of the Tsars” cruise leads passengers to hard-to-reach but spectacular places like Kizhi island, a UNESCO World Heritage site on Lake Onega, to see the stunning wooden Churches of the Transfiguration and the Intercession. Optional tours include home visits with local Russian families. Vodka- and wine-tasting sessions are regularly hosted aboard.
13-day “Waterways of the Tsars” St. Petersburg to Moscow cruise: starting at $5,500/person (all meals, wines and airfare included).
The 14-cabin Zambezi Queen does not offer traditional river cruises. Instead, the vessel makes two-, three- or four-night excursions along roughly 15 miles of the Chobe River, which forms the border between Botswana’s Chobe National Park and Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, returning to the same mooring each evening. Here, the flat land encourages the slow-moving river to spread out into numerous small side channels, creating a wetland environment rich with life. Designed with huge floor-to-ceiling windows, the ship uses eco-friendly water jet propulsion, as well as solar panels. The four master suites have corner locations and terraces large enough for two deck chairs and a table; standard suites come with narrow Juliet balconies. All cabins feature small shower-only baths. The top deck offers unobstructed 360-degree views of the Chobe, an area teeming with wildlife.
Excursions include water-based safaris, game drives and fishing outings. Even in the rainy season, the river draws numerous animals to its banks. Myriad birds can be spotted, crocodiles lounge on the shore, pods of hippos splash into the Chobe with surprising speed, and elephants play in the river and spray themselves with water. On the three-night cruise, passengers have the option to tour a school in a local village. The Zambezi Queen is owned by the Mantis Group, but AmaWaterways, the well-known luxury river cruise company, sells nights on board as part of many of its extended Africa packages. For example, AmaWaterways’ “Stars of South Africa” journey includes three nights in Cape Town, followed by four nights aboard the Zambezi Queen, then two nights in Victoria Falls, two nights in Johannesburg and three nights in Kruger National Park.
3-night cruise: starting at $2,100/person (all meals, wines and airport transfers included).