River cruises: Gently down the stream

Forget ocean voyages where all you see is the sea. River cruises offer an up-close view of the world's most impressive sights

What's the attraction?

There is no law that says a cruise must involve a ship as big as Liechtenstein. Or oceans. For those who value good things in small packages, the river voyage is a happy prospect. Shorn of the climbing walls and 10-screen cinemas of the mega-liner, a journey down one of the planet's major rivers stands as a stately process, where the focus is on the scenery sliding past the window. It is a type of holiday that can be taken in any number of locations – a short hop away in Europe, a long leap away in South America or Africa.

Germany's glory

The Rhine is Western Europe's great river. A 766-mile behemoth, it slices through seven countries from its source in the Swiss Alps to its date with the North Sea beyond Rotterdam. It is the poster boy of European river cruises, thanks to the 40 Unesco-listed miles of the Rhine Gorge (between Bingen and Koblenz in southern Germany), where walls of rock frame the water, and ruined castles perch on cliffs. Swan Hellenic (0844 871 4603; www.rivercruises.swanhellenic.com) has an eight-day trip from 3 September that covers this stretch en route from Cologne to Basel. The price starts at £1,595 per person full board, including flights.

Balkan beauty

If the Rhine is too obvious, the Danube is a more mysterious option – a sinewy East European course that cuts across 10 countries on its 1,777-mile path, from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Viking River Cruises (0800 319 6660; www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk) runs a regular 11-day "Passage To Eastern Europe" break that charts the section between Budapest and Bucharest, and ticks off Croatia (the city of Osijek), Serbia (Belgrade) and Bulgaria (the former capital Veliko Tarnovo) as well as Hungary and Romania. Prices start at £1,895, including flights, transfers and most meals.

Holy water

No river quite captures the spirit of a place like the Ganges. India's holy waterway rises in the Himalayas and channels through to the Bay of Bengal some 1,560 miles later, passing through sacred cities such as Varanasi. Hindus personify the river as the goddess Ganga and believe that bathing in the waters can cure ills or liberate deceased loved ones from the cycle of life and death. Noble Caledonia (020-7752 0000; www.noble-caledonia.co.uk) has an 18-day "Journey Along the Ganges" travelling downriver from Delhi to Kolkata. There is a departure on 6 October and also in January and March 2012; from £4,595 per person full board, including flights.

A Latin lady

That it is only the world's second longest river (after the Nile) hardly dims the Amazon's majesty. You can pay tribute to South America's 3,976-mile matriarch (or her Peruvian curves) via Aqua Expeditions (00 51 1 368 3868; www.aquaexpeditions.com). The launch of the company's 16-cabin M/V Aria this month sounds a note of luxury (on-board gym, gourmet food) on a river that has traditionally been the domain of less opulent operators. Seven-night cruises start at US$5,950 (£3,967) full board. KLM (0871 231 0000; www.klm.com) flies direct to Lima via Amsterdam Schipol; return fares from Heathrow start at £784.

Into Africa

The Nile itself is the cruise kingpin and after months of instability, Egypt is starting to tempt tourists back. Go now and you can enjoy reduced prices and tourist numbers. On the Go Tours (020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com) offers two-night cruises on board traditional feluccas, between Aswan and Edfu as part of longer itineraries.

For the chance to spot wildlife from your cabin, rather than ancient landmarks, consider Botswana, where the Zambezi Queen (00 27 21 438 0032; www.zambeziqueen.com) offers wild adventures – not on the Zambezi, but on the Chobe as it dissects Chobe National Park. This means the chance to see lions et al from a 14-suite boat rather than a 4x4. Three-night cruises start at 9,800 South African Rand (£840) full board. The cruise is offered as part of longer itineraries by specialist tour operator Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; www.expertafrica.com).

A Far Eastern foray

Anyone seeking distant currents might hear the misty call of the Mekong. Here is a river of dark tales – killing fields and bitter warfare – but also of wonderful jungle setting, as it swerves 3,050 miles through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) runs a 14-day "Mekong Odyssey" package that trawls the latter two countries. This includes a seven-night cruise to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and the city of Kampong Cham. Its land element heads to Angkor Wat and Ho Chi Minh City. Prices from £3,045, including flights and transfers.

What Google will tell you...

"River cruising is a very different experience, on much smaller ships. And with scenery on both sides, and the vessels stopping right at the heart of the cities and towns along the river, these [holidays] are a great alternative to city breaks and coach tours.

"The increasing popularity of river cruising can, in many ways, be attributed to the increasing ease by which we can reach these cultural, scenic and historic areas." – The Passenger Shipping Association ( www.discovercruises.co.uk)

What Google won't tell you... until now

"If you want Vegas on the high seas, or a ramped-up romp with non-stop entertainment, a river cruise is most likely not going to be your cup of tea," advises John Deiner, of the cruise reviews website Cruise Critic ( www.cruisecritic.co.uk). "But if you want a relaxing holiday that lets you take in a number of destinations with a minimum of effort, you really can't beat it. Simply unpack once, and enjoy the ride. Yes, it attracts an older crowd. But with the launch of a slew of new ships, that is likely to change. Plus you can't beat the value, especially if the line includes sightseeing tours."

Who said that?

* "For king-like rolls the Rhine/And the scenery's divine/And the victuals and wine/Rather good." – CS Calverley (19th-century poet) , 'Dover To Munich'

* "It was to be a picnic on a gigantic scale. The participants... were to scamper about the decks by day, filling the ship with shouts and laughter." – Mark Twain, 'The Innocents Abroad'

* "I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river is a strong brown god." – TS Eliot, 'The Dry Salvages'

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