Experience River Cruising
See the sights along nine famed waterways while sailing aboard a well-appointed ship
By Andy Dimond
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)There's no better way to get to the heart of a country or region than by river cruise. Historically, many of the world's great cities rose up along these important waterways, so there's no shortage of amazing cultural sights. Whether you're interested in seeing the fairy-tale castles of the Rhine, the wilds of the Amazon or the eternal monuments of the Nile, a river cruise can take you on an extraordinary journey that is affordable, safe and easy.
For convenience and value, it's hard to beat a river cruise, says Troy Bringle, vice president of the tours and resorts division of Vacations To Go, which represents every major river cruise operator at its site, www.RiverCruise.com. "You'll only unpack once, and each day you wake up in a new city," he says. "Ships often dock in the heart of town, and a complimentary shore excursion usually is offered at each port. Plus, your meals are covered in the cruise fare, sometimes even including wine with dinner."
With the exception of Amazon cruise ships, which are oceangoing liners, most river vessels are low-lying, intimate affairs that measure just a few decks high. In Europe and on the Nile, they typically carry no more 200 passengers, while Yangtze ships sometimes accommodate up to 300. They are well-appointed, comfortable and attractive. Large picture windows in the restaurants and lounges frame passing scenery, and there's usually a sundeck for 360-degree views. Jacuzzis, beauty salons and pools are among amenities found aboard newer ships.
Below are nine storied rivers that can be explored by boat. To browse itineraries for these waterways and more, visit www.RiverCruise.com, or call the river cruise specialists at Vacations To Go, (800) 510-4002.
The Rhine River originates in the mountains of Switzerland and flows through Germany and the Netherlands to the North Sea. If traveling in that direction, a typical cruise itinerary would begin in Basel, Switzerland. A major intellectual center since the Enlightenment, Basel has close to 40 museums, among them a museum of fine arts featuring works by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and a sizable Hans Holbein collection.
Strasbourg, on the border of Germany and France, offers a fascinating blend of the two cultures. There's a picturesque variety of canals, wooden houses and awe-inspiring cathedrals. The crowning glory of Heidelberg, farther into Germany, is its magnificent red sandstone castle perched in the hills overlooking the river. Heidelberg is also one of the world's oldest college towns and helped shape many of the most important movements of thought, from the Reformation to German Romanticism. Cologne is perhaps best known for its Gothic cathedral, which took 600 years to complete and is considered one of the world's most beautiful buildings.
Amsterdam typically is the northern terminus of Rhine cruises. Here you can see Anne Frank's house and the Van Gogh Museum, or simply stroll along the famous canals.
The Danube River traverses the heart of Europe, through beautiful Old World capitals, valleys of vineyards, farmlands and villages. Several types of Danube cruise packages are available, covering various segments of the river. Following are some of the typical starting and ending points for Danube sailings.
Regensburg was one of the German cities least damaged in World War II and as a result boasts a preserved medieval core, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nuremberg was the heart of the Renaissance in Germany and is known for its hilltop castle and thick walls that encircle the old quarter. It also has one of the country's most famous and largest Christmas markets, visited by passengers on many winter river cruises.
Vienna is famous for its classical music heritage and its historical importance as seat of the Hapsburg Empire. Continuing eastward, the next major city is Bratislava, the lively Slovakian capital with an eclectic jumble of Gothic, baroque and art deco buildings. In Hungary, Budapest is actually two cites: hilly Buda on one side of the Danube, and flat Pest on the other. Budapest also can claim one of the richest collections of historic architecture in Europe, and cruise ship visitors often visit Matthias Church in the Castle District and take in views of the city from the Fishermen's Bastion.
Some itineraries cruise both the Rhine and Danube, which were connected with the completion of a canal in Bavaria in 1992.
Volga River cruise packages travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow or vice versa. St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia, and the biggest draw is the Hermitage, one of the world's elite museums and home to the largest collection of paintings ever assembled. St. Petersburg is a distance from the Volga; most river cruise routes follow a series of rivers, lakes and canals to connect to the Volga, while a few itineraries fly guests to the ship.
If your route from St. Petersburg to the Volga is by boat, you will likely stop at Mandrogi, a reconstructed 18th-century village that aims to portray Russian life as it was in those far-off days. If your itinerary includes a flight, you will meet up with the Volga at Volgograd, formerly called Stalingrad and the site of one of history's bloodiest battles -- more than 1 million Russians died here in World War II in efforts to halt Adolf Hitler's eastern advance. Passengers visit the battlefield, now marked by "The Motherland Calls," which was the largest statue in the world when completed in 1967.
Stops along the Volga include Ulyanovsk, whose most famous son was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Tours visit the Lenin House and Memorial Complex to learn more about one of history's most influential figures. Mementos of another era can be seen in Kazan, the capital of the Tatar Empire, a fearsome fusion of Mongol and Turkic cultures whose khans dominated much of today's Russia for centuries. Many Volga River cruises also visit Kostroma, with its 18th-century radial plan of streets that fan out like spokes from a central hub. You'll also find medieval peasant homes and the gold-domed Ipatievsky Monastery here.
In Moscow, sightseeing excursions lead to the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral and Red Square, the heart of the city and one of the world's most impressive public spaces. Next door is the Kremlin, which means "fortress" but is more like a city unto itself. Here you'll likely visit the Armoury Chamber to view its collection of royal jewels, ceremonial vestments and carriages.
The Saone and the Rhone
Voyages of the Saone and the Rhone rivers often are combined into one vacation that explores southeast France. The Saone flows through the Burgundy region, while the Rhone is the main river of Provence. These waterways travel through less urbanized areas than the other European cruises described here. Rather, the emphasis is often on the vineyards and culinary delights of the French countryside.
The exception to this is Lyon, the third largest city of France, at the convergence of the Saone and Rhone. Considered the capital of French cuisine, Lyon also is prized for its silk. Survey the remains of a Roman city atop Fourviere Hill, and wander the maze of medieval alleys in the Old Town.
Towns frequently visited along the route include Macon, where walking tours stop at the Wooden House, a picturesque half-timbered Renaissance home; Avignon, temporary seat of the Roman Catholic Church in the 14th century, where you can see the Palace of the Popes; and Arles, which inspired many of the canvases of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne.
Running east-west through Portugal, the Douro Valley is most famous for its wines, and that is the emphasis of most cruises through the region. Douro River tour guests usually spend a couple of nights in the capital, Lisbon, and travel north by bus to Porto. Located at the mouth of the Douro on the Atlantic, Porto is the nation's second largest city, and its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a Romanesque cathedral dating to 1110.
There's not as much distance to cover on Douro itineraries, which leaves plenty of time for wine tastings. Specifically, port -- that sticky-sweet, fortified dessert wine. It's fortified by the addition of brandy. This originally was done to help the wine keep longer, but locals found they enjoyed port too much to stop drinking it once more modern preservative methods were invented. Guests visit Regua, where port wine is produced, and the wine academy at Pinhao.
You'll find some impressive sights in the Douro Valley, too: the 14th-century Benedictine monastery at Alpendurada, the 13th-century palace compound known as Vila Real, and the old farmhouses, vineyards and rolling hills along the river.
The mighty Amazon River is the world's largest by volume, estimated to make up a fifth of the world's total river flow. This gives the Amazon an extra advantage -- it can accommodate oceangoing cruise ships. Several major cruise lines combine a Caribbean or South American voyage with a sailing on the Amazon in Brazil. Most Amazon cruises begin or end in the city of Manaus, chief port of the river.
Amazon River cruises emphasize the natural wonders of the rain-forest ecosystem and the riotous diversity and density of its flora and fauna. From squawking parrots to prowling jaguars to butterflies bigger than your head, there's no telling what your shore excursion guide might show you.
There are opportunities to interact with the indigenous peoples of the area as well. For instance, in the Indian village of Boca da Valeria, you can barter with the locals, trading whatever you've got for their handicrafts. Another highlight of an Amazon journey is the "wedding of the waters" at Santarem, where the deep blue flow of the Tapajos River runs alongside the milkier Amazon for several miles without mixing.
At more than 4,100 miles, the Nile generally is considered to be the world's longest river. Ancient Egyptian civilization was completely based on the Nile, and the country's geography, its economy, even its way of looking at the world was shaped by the rhythms of the river.
Cruises of the Nile are part of longer itineraries that also spend time touring on land. Trips usually begin in Cairo, where the Egyptian Museum preserves many of the nation's artifacts and the Khan El Khalili bazaar bustles with activity. Tour guests drive to Giza on the outskirts of Cairo for close-up views of some of the most recognizable monuments of Egypt, the pyramids and the Sphinx. From Cairo, travelers will fly to either Luxor or Aswan to board their river ship.
Aswan is notable for the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970. Luxor offers the impressive Luxor temple complex built by Ramses II. Luxor is across the Nile from the Valley of the Kings, where for nearly 500 years Egyptian pharaohs were buried. This is where Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. King Tut's tomb still is open to the public, but other tombs with more impressive decoration are also in the area. The temple of the only female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, with its unusual terraced layout, is set in the cliffs a little farther upriver.
Other sights along the Nile include Kom Ombo, home of a Ptolemaic temple dedicated to both Greek and Egyptian gods, as well as an older structure built to honor Sobek, the crocodile god. The cities of Edfu and Esna, farther north, contain a shrine to Horus and a variety of Greek- and Roman-built structures, respectively.
Yangtze River cruises are part of longer itineraries that travel from Shanghai to Beijing, or the reverse. China's most populous city, Shanghai became famous as an adventurous, cosmopolitan melting pot in the 1930s, but it lost this glamorous reputation during the Communist revolution. Recently, however, the city has experienced a renewed vitality, and a stylish, high-tech skyline has sprung up amid the traditional Chinese architecture, colonial buildings and art deco relics of the '30s golden age. Key sites for visitors are the waterfront Bund district, Yuyuan Garden (one of the country's finest, dating to the Ming Dynasty) and Xintiandi, a restored pedestrian enclave that now features upscale shopping.
From Shanghai, tour guests fly to Wuhan or Yichang to meet their riverboat. (Travelers starting in Beijing join the boat in Chongquing.) On the Yangtze, the Three Gorges region is a much anticipated sight, where soaring cliffs dwarf the river. Passengers disembark to visit the Three Gorges Dam, finally nearing completion after decades of planning. While a controversial project, it remains a staggering site, spanning nearly a mile and a half. The 18th-century Shibaozhai Temple, a 12-story pagoda that clings to the side of a cliff, is another prime attraction.
Back on land, the tour stops at Xian, eastern terminus of the Silk Road. It's home to the famous terra-cotta warrior statues, uncovered by the thousands in perfectly ordered rows in 1974.
Beijing is experiencing its grand debut as a global city, having just hosted the Olympics. The most famous sight in Beijing is the Forbidden City, the world's largest surviving palace complex. And nearby is Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world. One excursion featured by cruise operators is a rickshaw ride through the narrow, rambling alleys known as hutongs. Another must-do for visitors to Beijing is a night at the famed Peking Opera.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 510-4002 for current rates and details.