Avoid the sea. Explore the world on a river

Sea cruises can be a drag - take to the river instead. You'll learn more and tour a country without changing hotels.

As Tonnages break the 100,000 barrier and passenger lists top 3,000, cruise ships for the world's oceans are growing more monumentally grandiose and opulent by the year. By the turn of the century, half a million Brits will be spending holidays on board ships the size of floating cities, rivalling the world's top hotels for wanton pomp and splendour.

Anyone for sight-seeing? Hardly, when there are gyms, swimming pools, jacuzzis, beauty salons, aromatherapists, casinos, discos, cinemas, theatres and dozens of other entertainments on offer. If you thought going on a cruise meant getting away from it all, you had better think again. These days, to go to sea can mean condemning yourself to a long and outrageous binge.

Which might be a very important reason to take to the riverways of the world instead. The advantage of rivers is their limited size: there is no room for ballrooms or theatres. Most vessels on European waterways carry a maximum of 150 passengers, only occasionally rising as high as 300 on the Russian Neva waterways and lakes.

Secondly, the scenery on a river cruise is a hell of a lot more interesting. Instead of waking up to panoramas of briny nothingness, from a river you never lose sight of land. Forget anonymous views of beaches; from a river you see some of the world's greatest cities from right inside the digestive tract - from Vienna and Amsterdam to Cairo and Shanghai.

The idea seems to be that river cruising is more educational than indulgent. A little too quiet perhaps? One punter I spoke to, Diana Pepper, just back from a cruise up the Douro River in Portugal with Voyages Jules Verne, admitted this might be a factor. "A river cruise is basically a way of getting round a country very, very slowly without the hassle of having to change hotels," she explained. "You do get that delightful calm feeling of being on water, and it was perfectly comfortable. It wasn't quite a cruise cruise though. Not a real one."

No, but floating along a river does allow you to get on to dry land at least once or twice a day. Instead of endless ritzy buffets in dining halls the size of aeroplane hangers, you can dare to eat in local bars and restaurants. While your ocean-going friends idle in air-conditioned casinos you can be strolling the cobbled streets of Oporto, Budapest or St Petersburg.

The fact is that there are a lot more interesting places beside rivers than beside seas. Cruising from the North Sea into the heart of Europe? No problem: cruises from Amsterdam to the Swiss and Austrian Alps along the Rhine are already available. The concept of sailing into continents rather than away from them can be bizarre. A journey up the Nile, for example, passes through hundreds of miles of sheer desert. Further east, it is possible to take cruises up the Yangtze from Shanghai, deep into the interior of China.

This is not all. In September 1992, a section of canal between the German towns of Bamberg and Kelheim was opened, allowing cruises for the first time to transfer from the Rhine to the Danube, via the Main. Cruises from Cologne to Vienna already straddle both rivers. By the year 2000 there are likely to be cruises from the North Sea to the Black Sea, via the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania.

From the Black Sea, theoretically, you could then cruise up the Volga all the way to Moscow and St Petersburg - finally emerging into the Baltic Sea. "Sadly though," says Sissie Chan of Swan Hellenic, "you won't be able to complete the loop across the North Sea on the same boat. The ship that can cruise rivers and oceans has not yet been built."

Except in the case of the Amazon, that is. The world's largest river is so wide and deep that as far as the fabulous jungle city of Manaus, a thousand miles from the ocean, it is possible to cruise on a regular ocean going ship. Ballrooms included.

FACT FILE

The Rhine and Danube

Next year KD River Cruises (01372 742033) will be organising holidays. This year, four days on the Rhine cost from pounds 695, while 10 days on the Danube started at pounds 1,395.

The Nile

In March 1988, Swan Hellenic (0171 800 2200) offers a 16-day cruise on a small, five-star boat from pounds 1,995. Portland Direct (0990 004400) offers seven days in November from pounds 549.

The Amazon

Princess Cruises (0171 800 2468) offers a 17-day cruise from Buenos Aires to Manaus, from pounds 2,845. P&O (0171 800 2222) have a 17-day cruise from the Caribbean to Manaus, from pounds 1,995. Fred Olsen (01473 292222) have a 37-day cruise from UK to Manaus, from pounds 3,640.

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