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We’re standing on the deck of a river cruise ship in northern India. It’s 4am and we’re munching fresh bread rolls and sipping coffee in the cold.

Shortly, we’ll disembark for an elephant camp where we plan to go hunting for tigers (cameras only, of course). Afterwards, we’ll be camping on an island where we’ll build a bonfire and have the most amazing curry feast, followed by fireworks.

For decades, river cruising was the sedate elderly cousin of the mighty ocean fleet. Today, with itineraries in Africa, Asia and South America, it’s anything but.

The breadth of experiences is extraordinary. And its time has come.

The pandemic may have halted the fleet, but now, as cruisers consider their options, river looks extremely enticing. Here’s why.

/ It really is hassle-free

Even in a post-COVID age, you can travel across borders knowing your cruise line is taking care of the health regulations, correct documentation, masks and tests. You’ll unpack only once and be transported to some of the world’s most fascinating towns with historic connections you thought were fairytales.

And you only have to walk down the gangplank to sample regional food or meet the locals. All this in an atmosphere of camaraderie among the 200 or so guests that you just don’t get on a big ship.

/ Wonderful destinations

River ships really do go to places others can’t. That trip to India was on the Brahmaputra River. The Amazon, the Chobe River in Africa, the Yangtze in China – these are all adventurous locations that a river cruise can transport you to, mostly in the lap of luxury. And then there are the amazing river systems of Europe.

/ Luxury is all included

From Scenic’s white-gloved butlers to Viking’s Owner’s Suites, and from Avalon’s river-facing beds to Uniworld’s over-the-top decorations, river ships are amazing pieces of maritime architecture.

And today, there are chef’s tables for fine dining and paired wines, cooking schools, spas and swimming pools all tucked into exactly the same space, at least in Europe. (Each ship must pass through the intricate system of locks and are the same length.)

Australian Glen Moroney of Scenic created the craze for balconies, thanks to his revolutionary ‘space ships’. And Viking’s longships, Europe’s biggest fleet, have perfected outside dining.

/ The ever-changing world outside your window

Amsterdam to Budapest is one of the world’s most popular river routes, but it’s still an amazing experience (go in spring when few are around to witness it). As you relax, your ship takes you from Holland to Germany – the Rhine Gorge is probably the most beautiful stretch – Austria for Vienna and the white horses and the Wachau Valley, and into Hungary for Budapest. Remember, you only unpacked once.

/ Perfect for immersive cultural experiences

Your tour guides all come from the town or city you’ve docked in. So they are not only experts, but part of the local culture. You’ll get to have lunch or dinner (or both) on shore and see markets and shops. Often, you can pack in tours that take in cooking schools, wineries and exclusive concerts. I could hardly believe one cruise line’s boast that a Viennese orchestra would play for us in the concert hall, but they did, and they took us for drinks afterwards.

/ Small luxury ships

Most river ships take a maximum of around 200 guests and a crew of around 50. So you’ll soon get to know your fellow travellers. There is a briefing over cocktails each evening, and entertainment, although that might just be a piano man. Many lines provide bikes, cruise directors, wellness managers, activity managers – even kayaks. There will be three or four decks, depending on the vessel, and some have beauty salons, fitness centres and spas.

/ No problems with sea sickness

There are no waves, no sudden movements – just the gentle swaying of the vessel. The flat-bottomed ships provide a perfectly pleasant ride.

/ Value proposition

River cruising is good value. For a start, most provide all food, wine with meals and even transfers from the airport (a big bonus today, when so much regulation can trip up the unwary traveller). Guides, shore excursions and just being there is important, too. Some include air travel –
even business class for the luxury lines – and lines like Avalon specialise in booking stays in cities at either end of your cruise, or even a land segment followed by another river cruise.