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See Treasured Sights on a River Cruise

From Germany to the Amazon,
these dozen itineraries showcase diverse cultures

By Elizabeth Armstrong

Vacations Magazine: See Treasured Sights on a River Cruise
River cruising is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry, drawing passengers with well-designed and comfortable small ships (many with private balconies now) and carefully crafted sightseeing programs. Also attractive is the inclusive pricing, as shore excursions, wine and beer with meals, and entertainment and enrichment activities often are covered in the upfront rate.

Below are 12 standout trips from top operators. You can follow the provided links for additional details on itineraries, including departure dates, rates and a slew of special discounts and promotions, or call the river cruise specialists at Vacations To Go, (800) 510-4002.

1 Cruise the fabled Danube River on the AmaPrima, which earned the highest marks of more than 280 riverboats rated in the recently published "Berlitz: River Cruising in Europe," the first river travel guide from the 136-year-old company. Filling out spots No. 2 through No. 11 are 10 more sister ships from the AmaWaterways fleet.

The AmaPrima is one of several AmaWaterways vessels that sails "Melodies of the Danube," eight days of exploration between the Hungarian capital of Budapest and Vilshofen, Germany. It's outfitted with multiple dining venues (including a chef's table setting), a heated pool with swim-up bar and bicycles for pedaling through the countryside or towns like Passau, Germany, established more than two millennia ago at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. From $2,599 per person.

2 Spurning the Industrial Revolution and seeking inspiration in nature, the poets, composers and painters of the 18th- and 19th-century Romantic movement gravitated to the lovely Rhine River. They were particularly enamored of Germany's Middle Rhine, a stretch between Rudesheim and Koblenz that's crowded with clifftop castles and still considered the most scenic part. Their tributes to the Rhine helped popularize the waterway and led to the introduction of tourist steamboat service in the 1820s.

Avalon Waterways hits all the highlights on the eight-day "Romantic Rhine." Participants are introduced to wine towns laced by cobblestoned streets, impressive castle ruins and the hideout of the legendary Lorelei, the siren once said to lure sailors to their deaths upon the rocks near St. Goarshausen. From $2,449 per person.

3 Wines take center stage on Bordeaux sailings, which navigate the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and the Gironde estuary in southwestern France. Travelers on "Chateaux, Rivers & Wine," an eight-day meandering from Viking River Cruises, have plenty of opportunities to sample a variety of vintages: sweet Sauternes, full-bodied Margaux and St. Emilion, dominated by merlot and cabernet franc grapes.

Balance the imbibing with explorations of such sites as the 17th-century fortress in Blaye, the old harbor in the fishing town of Cadillac and the Garonne port city of Bordeaux. Your host is the Viking Forseti, one of the line's many new "Viking Longships," with solar panels and eco-friendly hybrid engines, an onboard herb garden and the Aquavit Terrace, a place for alfresco dining at the bow. From $3,349 per person.

4 Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection inaugurated its newest ship, the S.S. Catherine, this spring in the French city of Lyon, from which it now sails Rhone and Saone river trips (or the reverse from Avignon). The boat's interior reflects the company's dedication to distinctive, sumptuous decor: a Murano glass chandelier in the reception area, a mosaic-tiled and heated pool and a safari-inspired lounge with plush, leopard-print banquettes.

The eight-day "Burgundy & Provence" features your choice of included shore excursions. You can join a guided bike tour along the Rhone banks; investigate the narrow lanes of Lyon's historic district, called St. Jean; listen to an organ concert at St. Vincent Cathedral, the 12th-century structure that anchors Viviers; or kayak the Gardon River, which meets the Rhone, while in Avignon. From $3,199 per person.

5 The Elbe River flows from the mountains of the northern Czech Republic through Germany to the North Sea. It's somewhat overshadowed by the popular Rhine and Danube, but Viking sees potential here and is building two 98-passenger ships specifically for navigating the route.

On the 10-day "Elegant Elbe" trip, participants visit the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Worlitz, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising manicured, English-style gardens and an 18th-century, neoclassical palace built for a German prince. Other German highlights: Wittenberg, where you'll see Martin Luther's home and the church where he is said to have nailed the 95 Theses in 1517 and launched the Protestant Reformation, and the Meissen workshops that have produced fine porcelain since 1710. The voyage also passes between the tall, sandstone peaks of an especially scenic area dubbed Saxon Switzerland. From $5,049 per person.

6 "From Paris to the Norman Coast," a Seine River cruise from French company CroisiEurope, starts off on a romantic note: During the "welcome aboard" cocktail party, your riverboat makes an evening sail through the heart of Paris, past illuminated landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral. Highlights of the rest of the five-day trip include Rouen's magnificent cathedral, the picturesque port town of Honfleur and the seaside resort of Deauville, a chic retreat for Parisian high society in the late 1800s.

CroisiEurope is one of Europe's largest river cruise lines, a 38-year-old, family-run operation headquartered in Strasbourg, France. The company is reaching out to the U.S. market, hoping to draw American travelers to its expansive fleet of ships where onboard meals lean toward French fare and the crews speak multiple languages (including English). From $910 per person.

7 Mark Twain would feel right at home on the American Queen, which ambles along his beloved Mississippi River, and the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, too. The American Queen Steamboat Co. has created more than a dozen themed itineraries for this ship, including a Civil War study, fall foliage celebrations and trips that honor two Southern traditions, bourbon and bluegrass.

Usher in the yuletide season with the eight-day "Old-Fashioned Holidays," either round-trip from New Orleans or one way from the Big Easy to Memphis, TN. Visit riverfront towns and antebellum homes dressed in their festive best and, from the decks of the Queen, keep an eye out for towering bonfires illuminating the levees, a south Louisiana custom. On board, guests indulge in Southern-flavored holiday fare and participate in tree-trimming competitions. From $2,549 per person.

8 See America's Pacific Northwest as adventurers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark surveyed it in 1805: wild and beautiful. The Columbia River follows the Washington-Oregon border before veering north to connect with its largest tributary, the Snake River, near Pasco, WA. Its most stunning feature is the Columbia River Gorge. Eighty miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep, it is the only sea-level course carved through the Cascade Mountains.

Cruise through the gorge and view other spectacles -- like 620-foot-tall Multnomah Falls -- on the eight-day "Columbia & Snake Rivers" with American Cruise Lines. Comfortably settled on the Queen of the West paddle wheeler, guests travel to Astoria, an Oregon town filled with Victorian architecture and, just to the south, a re-creation of Lewis and Clark's winter headquarters at Fort Clatsop. You'll also have a chance to peer into the caldera of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and sample vintages on a Washington winery tour. From $3,810 per person.

9 The mighty Yangtze River slices through China, cutting a nearly 4,000-mile path from the mountains of Qinghai Province to the sea at Shanghai. Wendy Wu Tours, which specializes in travel to China, incorporates a four-night cruise into its two-week "Majestic Yangtze" vacation. Your ship passes through the Three Gorges, towering limestone cliffs carpeted in deep-green foliage. Get an up-close view of the workings of the Three Gorges Dam, which is nearly a mile and a half long. You also can visit a "relocation village" that was built to house families who fled the Yangtze's rising waters, a result of the dam's construction.

The tour incorporates other must-see destinations. Stand on the Great Wall, study the life-size terra-cotta warriors -- each with a unique facial expression -- at Xian and greet the pandas that inhabit a Chengdu sanctuary. You'll also spend days sightseeing in Beijing and Shanghai, which bookend the trip. From $3,040.

10 Avalon starts the new year with the January debut of the Avalon Siem Reap, which will carry just 36 passengers on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. The 18 suites will have wall-to-wall windows that slide open to transform the stateroom into a large, open-air space.

The 14-day "Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River" ferries travelers between the Thai capital of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, combining hotel stays and river travel. You'll gain a unique insight into cultures and communities along the way: Meet a farmer, silversmiths and silk weavers, and participate in a water blessing led by monks. Visit a school and a fish farm, take a cooking class and observe the transactions at a floating market. You'll also spend more than a day at Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia, which provides plenty of time to photograph elaborate structures like Bayon Temple, adorned with many carved stone faces, or the Ta Prohm ruins, snarled in tree roots. From $4,009 per person.

11 British poet Rudyard Kipling immortalized Myanmar's Irrawaddy River as "the road to Mandalay," a place of sunshine, palm trees and "tinkly temple bells." You can listen for those bells yourself at spiritual shrines featured throughout the 14-day "Golden Treasures of Myanmar" by AmaWaterways. Yangon's golden Shwedagon Pagoda is thought to be the most sacred Buddhist pagoda among the people of Myanmar, and the U Min Thonze Pagoda in Sagaing houses more than 40 painted Buddhas cloaked in gilded robes against a shimmering backdrop of glass mosaics. Salay has several dozen monasteries, including the 19th-century Yoke Sone Kyaung that's embellished with intricate wood carvings, while Bagan boasts the remains of about 2,000 ancient religious structures.

AmaWaterways' brand-new AmaPura, debuting this November, will travel the fabled route through this country formerly known as Burma. Onboard life incorporates regional cuisine and cultural offerings, like a traditional Burmese puppet show. From $5,339 per person.

12 Join low-key expedition company G Adventures in pursuit of exotic wildlife along the Amazon River in Peru. Naturalists on board for the nine-day "Amazon Riverboat Adventure" give talks on the flora, fauna and people of the region, then lead excursions to the sights, typically in motorized skiffs.

You'll have three days in Peru's biggest national park, the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, where you may spot brilliantly plumed macaws, petite squirrel monkeys and unhurried sloths. An outing after dark seeks bats, black caimans and capybaras. Also spend time in the company of a local shaman, who'll describe how the residents of the Amazon use its plants for healing. There are opportunities to canoe, swim and, if you dare, fish for piranha, a mainstay in the diet of the Amazon's indigenous people. While relaxing on the ship's decks, keep an eye out for pink river dolphins. From $2,449 per person.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2014. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 510-4002 for current rates and details.

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