Rolling down the river: six new river cruise itineraries for 2020 and beyond

River cruises have had a spike in popularity, with over 232,300 taken by British travellers last year — here's six to whet your appetite. 

By Sue Bryant
Published 24 Nov 2019, 07:00 GMT
River cruise in Budapest
Straddling the Danube, Budapest is a hotspot for river cruises and one of the stops on Shearing's new 16-cruise in June 2020.
Photograph by Getty Images

Emerald Waterways: Majestic Mekong

The contemporary Emerald Harmony is the newest ship on the Mekong, and offers cruises that explore the culture, history and scenery of Indochina.

Who: Emerald Waterways’ boutique-style ships deliver imaginative, inclusive itineraries without indulgences like butlers and all-inclusive drinks that would push the prices to five-star levels.

Where: The 84-passenger Emerald Harmony sails through Cambodia and Vietnam, each voyage bookended by stays in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. A real bonus is the small size of the ship, which allows it to sail right into the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, whereas bigger vessels dock some distance away and have to ferry passengers in by bus.

What: The southbound 14-night Majestic Mekong itinerary includes time to chill in arty, laid-back Siem Reap, gateway to the magnificent Angkor temples, as well as two days in buzzing Ho Chi Minh City. The ship sails from Prek Kdam, and follows the river as it meanders slowly south through Cambodia’s verdant countryside. Immersive experiences include a ride by ox cart to Oudong Temple, with a Buddhist blessing, while a day in Phnom Penh tells the poignant story of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. 

On board: Emerald Harmony embraces minimalist chic with Asian touches like sliding wooden screens, local art and potted palms. There’s a pretty pool with teak-effect decking and rattan loungers — a welcome respite from sightseeing in the heat. Meals are taken in the Reflections Restaurant, with Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes offered alongside international fare.

When: From £3,595 per person, departing 8 December 2020, including flights, three nights in Siem Reap, two in Ho Chi Minh City and seven full-board on the boat, including drinks with dinner and most excursions. 


APT: Majestic Myanmar

APT’s new itineraries on the Irrawaddy River combine a two-night stay in buzzing Yangon with a seven-night voyage to the picturesque city of Mandalay.

Who: Australian-owned APT is known for its imaginative river cruise tours and choice of four- and five-star ships that cater for a range of budgets.

Where: The trip starts with two nights in Yangon, followed by seven nights sailing from Magwe to Mandalay, taking in legendary spots such as the temple-rich UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan and the stunning wooden U Bein Bridge.

What: Myanmar, which is still relatively unspoiled, is a combination of stupendously beautiful temples and pagodas, rustic villages, buzzing markets and bucolic countryside. Take it all in as the broad Irrawaddy River carves a slow course south. Shimmering gold stupas festoon every hillside and in Bagan, some 2,000 red sandstone temples and pagodas are scattered across the floodplain. Climbing one of these to watch the sunset — with a camera to hand, of course — is highly recommended. Near Mandalay, there’s a late afternoon boat trip to see the incredible U Bein Bridge, the world’s oldest and longest teak bridge, its cargo of monks, tourists, cyclists and women carrying packages on their heads silhouetted against a fiery sky. 

On board: The 72-passenger Princess Panhwar embraces colonial style, with the bonus that every cabin has a French balcony. There’s a shaded sun deck from which to watch the passing scenery and one restaurant, Mandalay, serving international dishes alongside daily Asian specialities.

When: From £2,995 per person, departing 13 September 2020, including flights, two nights in Yangon, seven on board, drinks with meals, and daily tours and activities. 


Scenic: Into the Heart of Portugal

Late-season sunshine, stunning scenery and opportunities to sample the local produce mean Portugal’s Douro Valley is one of Europe’s most popular river-cruise regions.

Who: Scenic’s high-end ships include everything from butler service to bar drinks, a choice of excursions and fine dining.

Where: This 10-night voyage means a leisurely and detailed exploration of the Douro Valley, sailing from the lovely old riverside city of Porto to the sleepy Spanish port town Vega de Terron.

What: The scenery along the Douro Valley is ravishingly beautiful, with sinuous vine terraces following the contours of steep hills. Across the Spanish border, there’s a day in the ancient university town of Salamanca, its warm sandstone buildings glowing gold in the sunshine. There’s also a visit to the wonderful Côa Museum in the Upper Douro, one of the world’s most important sites of Paleolithic rock art. As well as kayaking and hiking, the cruise includes a private classical music recital at Porto’s baroque Igreja de São Francisco and a visit to the salt marshes of the Douro estuary to meet a local fisherman and sample the local speciality — fresh sardines grilled over an open fire. 

On board: Part of a partnership with National Geographic, this cruise is escorted by photographer Krista Rossow, who’ll give talks and workshops. The 96-passenger Scenic Azure was built specially for the Douro, with light-filled rooms, a pool on deck and a choice of restaurants offering gourmet Portuguese specialities.

When: From £4,720 per person, departing 22 September 2020, including 10 nights on board, tours, free bar and flights. 

Following relaxed travel regulations, Egypt is back on travellers' itineraries and a trip along the fabled River Nile is a spectacular — not least iconic — way to discover the country.
Photograph by Getty Images

Shearings and A-ROSA: The Spectacular Danube to the Black Sea

A river cruise is the easiest way to string together the intriguing cities and dramatic scenery of the Balkans, sailing all the way to the Danube’s marshy delta.

Who: Shearings offers relatively affordable river cruising in Europe in partnership with German-owned A-ROSA, a line known for its bright, informal, all-inclusive ships and innovative ideas, not least Europe’s first hybrid-powered river boats, coming in 2021. 

Where: This 16-night cruise covers 1,400 miles from Austria to the Black Sea via Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania as the Danube cuts through the Carpathian Mountains to the wide open plains and endless skies of the steppes.

What: Big-hitting cities like Vienna and Budapest give way to lesser-known ports as the ship heads east, among them the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and Ruse in Bulgaria, all faded grandeur and leafy squares. The Iron Gates Gorge, with Romania on one side and Serbia on the other, is 83 miles of plunging cliffs and densely forested mountains, while further east, the many fingers of the river’s vast delta are home to extraordinary bird life. 

On board: It’s hard to miss the 186-passenger A-ROSA SILVA, thanks to a pair of giant, scarlet lips emblazoned on the bow. Unlike some river cruise lines, A-ROSA’s vibe is young, fun and casual. There’s a sauna, a heated pool and bicycles to borrow. All meals are buffet and all drinks are included.

When: From £3,569 per person for a 16-night cruise, departing 11 June 2020, including flights, one night in Munich, all meals and drinks on board and four shore excursions. 


Crystal Cruises: Legendary Rhine 

A week on Crystal Bach, sailing the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam, offers many opportunities for cultural immersion.

Who: Crystal Cruises’ four riverboats offer true opulence along the Rhine and Danube. 

Where: Crystal Bach offers seven-night cruises between Amsterdam and Basel, stopping at popular ports such as Strasbourg, Rüdesheim, Koblenz and Cologne.

What: Excursions are included every day and range from a private organ recital in Strasbourg Cathedral to a cycling tour and a trip to Keukenhof Tulip Gardens near Amsterdam. More lavish offerings include a helicopter tour over the Neckar Valley and a private cheese tasting in Amsterdam.

On board: The Palm Court is the social hub of the ship, a chic cocktail bar with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, silvery blue decor and a pianist at a baby grand. The Waterside restaurant has plenty of tables for two and snacks are available at the Viennese-inspired Bistro Bach. The ship even has a small swimming pool, gym and massage room and a fleet of bicycles for passengers who want to burn off some calories on the towpath.

When: From £3,766 per person for a week sailing from Basel to Amsterdam, all-inclusive on board, flights extra, departing 3 April 2020. 


Uniworld: Splendours of Egypt & The Nile

Egypt is firmly back on the cruising map and Uniworld’s new SS Sphinx, launching early 2020, promises to be one of the most luxurious ships on the river.

Who: Uniworld’s signature is high-end, all-inclusive cruises using individually designed ships, each reflecting the culture, colours and textures of the region in which it sails. 

Where: This 11-night trip packs in the sights, with four nights in Cairo and seven on the Nile, sailing from Luxor to Aswan and back. 

What: As well as taking in the temples of Karnak, Luxor, Kom Ombo and Philae, and the Valley of the Kings, this voyage includes extra adventures. There’s a birdwatching cruise, a felucca ride and afternoon tea at the grand Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile

On board: The opulent, 84-passenger SS Sphinx will have three dining venues, a swimming pool and massage room. Every suite has a French balcony and decor features Egyptian artwork, hand-carved wood furnishings and luxurious local fabrics.

When: From £5,665 per person, round trip from Cairo, departing 1 February 2020, including flights, two nights at either end in Cairo, staying at the Four Seasons, and seven on board, all-inclusive. 

Published in the Cruise guide, distributed with the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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