River cruises aren’t restricted to Europe, discovers Jane Archer

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I hate to rock your boat but if your idea of a river cruise is sedate city tours, Christmas markets and wine-tasting in Europe, your clients are seriously missing out on a watery world of excitement around the globe.

We’re talking rhino safaris on elephant back and moped rides around Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Not activities that will appeal to every river cruise client, maybe, but the stuff of dreams for anyone on the lookout for adventure. It also just happens to be linked to travelling on a river.

Europe’s rivers have made the headlines of late because many more vessels have launched there and many more Brits are cruising on them, but there are plenty of other waterways for clients to try: in Asia, India, South America and the US, where the American Queen Steamboat Company launched cruises on the Mississippi (Tried & Tested, right) in 2012 and, more recently, on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in America’s Pacific Northwest.

Soft adventures

All would suit loyal cruisers looking for exotic new experiences as well as folk who have never had a holiday at sea in search of soft adventure. They might find themselves fishing for piranhas on the Amazon in Brazil, riding a rickshaw or an ox-cart near the Ayeyarwady in Burma, or on the aforementioned elephant safari near the Brahmaputra River in India.

These river cruises blend a heady mixture of culture, history and wildlife, but as most companies package them with land-based tours, clients also get much more from their travels far from home.

Avalon Waterways, for instance, packages Lima, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco around three nights on the Peruvian Amazon, while Shearings Holidays is one of several companies that packages the Yangtze into a longer tour of China, adding Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an, to see the Terracotta Warriors. Prices are from £2,999 including flights in September and October.

In Cambodia and Vietnam, companies including Viking River Cruises and Avalon combine a Mekong river cruise with a few nights in Siem Reap, to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, and Ho Chi Minh City, where APT offers a thrilling guided tour of the city on the back of a moped. APT and Viking also have longer itineraries that also visit Hanoi.

In Burma, one of river cruising’s hotspots, clients can add a few nights in the former capital of Yangon. AmaWaterways, launching there in November, has 10 and 15-night itineraries on the Ayeyarwady and an optional post-cruise land tour with three nights in Inle Lake and one in Yangon.

Tried & tested: American Queen

What do Elvis, the American Civil War and a very big paddlewheeler have in common? Jane Archer has the answer

Call me sentimental but I felt gloomy as I left Graceland, the Memphis home of Elvis Presley, now a shrine to the King, visited by 600,000 or more fans a year. The man had it all: talent, money, an obscene number of flash cars and a private jet named Lisa Marie that was flown places on a whim. And it all conspired to kill him.

My tour was the start of a busy day of sightseeing in Memphis, the homeport of the 432-passenger American Queen, a giant paddlewheel steamboat operated on the Mississippi by the American Queen Steamboat Company.

The company’s core cruise, which I was taking, is a week on the Lower Mississippi sailing between Memphis and New Orleans and vice versa but it also sails the upper Mississippi and on the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.

All take you back to the days of Mark Twain thanks to the deliciously ornate Victoriana decor, while at each stop you learn about everything from the American Civil War to slavery. There are also themed cruises: Elvis, big band, gardens, ’60s music and more.

From Graceland, I went to Sun Studio, where Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and others recorded their hits; the Rock and Soul Museum; and the just-opened Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It was a great but hectic few hours so I was grateful we were sailing – or steamin’, in the paddlewheel vernacular – all next day so I could rest and get to know the vessel and some of my fellow steamboaters.

These were a majority of Americans, plenty of Australians and a smattering of Britons and other Europeans, all very friendly and for the most part of retirement age or older (I was told the summer attracts a younger crowd).

At each port a complimentary hop-on hop-off bus runs all day around the key sights – the highlights at each stop are clearly marked on a map – and there are optional afternoon excursions. I toured a battlefield in Vicksburg, learned the story of cotton on a plantation tour from Natchez and spotted alligators on a fun swamp tour from Baton Rouge.

Unusually for a river cruise ship, dinner was served in two sittings with assigned tables, so you are with the same passengers throughout the cruise. It’s not my preferred way to dine, but service was friendly, food was good, and then it was off to the Engine Room Bar, to hear Jay on the piano, Will on the guitar and watch the big red paddlewheel churn eerily through the darkness.

Sample price: From £3,185 for a 12-night Mighty Mississippi cruise tour departing November 20, combining two nights’ bed and breakfast each in Memphis and New Orleans with a seven-night full-board cruise including flights.

01223 568904

River cruise

Tried & tested: Mahabaahu

It’s the highest of the world’s major rivers, the fastest-flowing and with some of the deepest canyons. Jane Archer discovers a world of superlatives – and tigers – on a Brahmaputra River cruise

I watched in amusement – and with just a little disbelief – as crew from the Mahabaahu pole-vaulted onto a sandbank in the Brahmaputra and started securing the vessel’s ropes. This was our dock for the night despite the fact the sand was being washed into the rushing river at an alarming rate.

The Brahmaputra is the fastest-flowing river in the world, blazing such a fast trail through Assam that the landscape changes by the hour. Sandbanks come and go and water levels visibly rise and fall; Majuli, once the largest inhabited river island in the world, is now the second-largest, due to erosion.

Which all explains why a survey boat is guiding the Mahabaahu downstream on this exciting seven-night cruise from Nimati to Guwahati operated by Far Horizons India and sold in the UK through Perl River Cruises.

It is hands down the world’s most diverse river cruise. We visited ancient sites dating back to the 13th-century Ahom Kingdom, colourful Hindu temples and villages without electricity where westerners are such an unusual sight that the locals were excitedly taking our pictures. In the Mishing village of Luit Mukh, they put on an impromptu dance for us and all came down to the shore (landings most days were by small craft) to wave goodbye.

So far so great. But this itinerary also has an ace up its sleeve – Kaziranga National Park, 166 square miles of elephant grass and wildlife. We took a boat ride along the edge of the park one afternoon and spotted a Bengal tiger – yes, really, and given there are only about 60 of them in the park, the odds of that are pretty slim – and later went on an early-morning elephant safari to see rhino, wild elephants, vultures and deer.

Mahabaahu is a delightful vessel, not luxurious but comfortable and very friendly (it holds just 46 passengers) and suited absolutely to our voyage of discovery. The Indian crew could not do enough to look after us and the food never failed to impress.

Our overnight at the sandbank was impressive too. The crew built a gangway and next morning the daily yoga class was held on the sand. I went for a wander and saw the water level had risen and the sand was still crumbling at an alarming rate. It was time to move on to the next part of the adventure.

Sample price: From £1,575 cruise-only for a seven night sailing from Nimati to Guwahati departing February 8, 2015, including one night in Delhi.

01252 714477