Traveling the great rivers of the world has always been an exciting and romantic option, mostly for the fairly well-heeled. But times are changing. Today river cruising is one of the fastest growing segments in the travel market, showing annual double-digit growth for more than a decade. 

“We grew more than 30 percent in 2012,” says Richard Marnell, vice president of marketing for Viking River Cruises, a pioneer and one of the leaders in the industry. “We expect that demand to continue to grow.” 

Companies are responding this year with additional cruise options, passenger-friendly ship designs, increasingly diverse itineraries, and more exotic destinations. “It’s an exciting time to be in the river cruising business,” says Marnell.  

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In 2013, options for river travel are plentiful and imaginative.

NEW SHIPS AND
INNOVATIVE DESIGNS

This year Viking will launch 10 additional Longships. Accommodating 190 passengers, the sleek and contemporary ships are scheduled to sail Viking’s most popular European itineraries. The state-of-the-art design of the Longships allows for a variety of cabin configurations, opening the door for travelers on a full range of budgets. “Since we’ve introduced the Longships, our business has exploded,” Marnell says. “The ship’s suites are the largest on the rivers, but the Longships’ design also allows for a variety of value-priced accommodations.” 

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises will launch the S.S. Catherine, one of the company’s largest ships, carrying 159 passengers along the Rhône and Saône rivers in Burgundy and Provence, France. Avalon Waterways will launch two new “suite ships” this year, featuring two full decks of ultra-spacious cabins to accommodate their often sold-out European itineraries. Ama Waterways will debut two vessels, a deluxe 139-passenger ship for European sailings and a newly-built, 108-passenger ship to accommodate its new Portugal itineraries along the Douro River. 

NEW ROUTES AND
EXOTIC LOCALES

Nearly every major river cruise line has expanded its list of itineraries, offering more choices, including cruises on new waterways and into different corners of the world.

Several operators will offer first-ever cruises on the Douro River through the heart of Portugal’s port wine producing region. Ama Waterways will debut 10- and 13-day itineraries, with stops in Lisbon, Porto, Vega de Terrón, and excursions into the countryside of the Trás-os-Montes region. 

Viking River Cruises will offer a new nine-day itinerary that includes two nights in Lisbon; a day in Salamanca, Spain (beyond the farthest navigable point on the Douro); and a night in Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage city. 

Cruise ships have been unable to sail on the Nile between Cairo and Luxor for nearly 20 years. However, early this year, this section on the world’s longest river was reopened by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism. 

“The reopening of this route enables travelers to discover the entire timeline of Egyptian history in just 10 days,” says Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent. “It provides a unique opportunity to explore completely different landscapes and rarely-visited sites along the Nile.”

Abercrombie & Kent offers a 10-day cruise between Cairo and Aswan. Prior to the reopening, cruise passengers were restricted to the Upper Nile; they began in Cairo, but had to fly to Luxor before sailing to Aswan.

Highlights on the newly-launched Nile River cruise include the rock tombs of Beni Hassan, dating some 3,000 years; the ruins of Tuna el-Gebel, which house thousands of mummies of falcons, baboons, and ibises; and the limestone temple at Abydos, the center of a holy city dedicated to Osiris, lord of the netherworld. Passengers will also stop in Tel El Amarna, the hometown of Queen Nefertiti and King Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun, and Sohag’s Red and White Coptic Monasteries, two of the best preserved monasteries from late antique Egypt.

Industry leaders Viking River Cruises and Uniworld are already taking reservations for their new 2014 sailings in Bordeaux, France. It’s the first time North American-based lines have entered the region, known for its world-class wines, artisan markets, scenic countryside, and chateaux.  

Viking’s seven-night cruise will begin and end in Bordeaux, a UNESCO World Heritage city, and include sailing on the Dordogne, Garonne, and Gironde rivers, with stops in Pauillac, a gateway to the Medoc wine route; Citadel of Blaye; St. Emilion, the oldest wine area in the region; and Cadillac. Uniworld will offer a similar eight-day itinerary. 

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), long closed to mainstream tourism, has recently opened its doors to visitors and is quickly becoming a hot destination. The country is blessed with natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. From 1044 to 1287 the kings built thousands of pagodas and temples along the Irrawaddy River; today hundreds can still be seen along the riverbanks.

Orient-Express has been a pioneer in the region for many years, operating its high-end Road to Mandalay riverboat on the Irrawaddy. This July it will launch a second river cruiser, the 50-passenger Orcaella, named after the dolphins that inhabit the Irrawaddy. The ship will operate seven- and 11-night cruises between Yangon and Bhamo. The vessel will also cruise the Chindwin River, passing extensive mountain ranges as it winds its way through western Myanmar, as far north as Homalin, just 30 miles from the Indian border.  

In 2014, Viking will launch its first-ever itinerary in Myanmar. The 16-day cruise will begin in Bangkok; then passengers will fly to Myanmar for a two-day stay in Yangon, before traveling the Irrawaddy through the heart of Myanmar. 

SPECIALTY CRUISES

Cruise lines will continue to expand themed itineraries as well as offer greater food, wine, and cultural experiences. In this country Lindblad Expeditions has partnered with Portland-based Food Alliance for a seven-day culture and culinary adventure on the Columbia and Snake rivers, highlighting the region’s vibrant local food and wine scene. American Safari will introduce an 88-passenger vessel this fall on the Columbia and Snake rivers; itineraries will follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, focusing on historical areas, with cultural presentations, guest speakers, reenactments, and guided history tours.

For a truly epic river journey, consider Lindblad’s 38-day cruise in South America. The adventure begins in Trinidad and ends in Buenos Aires, visiting eight countries along the way and traveling three legendary rivers: the Orinoco, Amazon, and Essequibo. Save the date (the cruise begins Sept.18, 2013) and your money (rates begin at $34,730 per person).