While Europe remains the most popular river cruising destination in the world, it is by no means the only place to take this kind of journey. In fact, river cruises are available all around the world, from North America to Asia and back again. The trick is knowing where to look.
Here are five of our favorite non-European river cruise adventures that are perfect for first-time and experienced cruisers alike.
The Pacific Northwest’s Columbia and Snake Rivers
Stretching between Oregon and Washington State, river cruises along the Columbia and Snake rivers offer up the best that the Pacific Northwest has to offer. Most of these trips begin in the craft beer capital of Portland, Oregon before continuing on to the lush city of Astoria, named after tycoon John Jacob Astor, who recognized the importance of having an outpost on the Pacific to conduct trade with Asia.
But the scenery changes from Pacific Northwest rainforest to prairie plains as cruises head further east, pressing on into Washington State. Largely following the trail of the famed explorers Lewis and Clark, river cruises push on as far east as Hell’s Canyon, with its towering cliff faces and murderous rapids. It’s an appropriate name, as it is both North America’s deepest river gorge and the disastrous overwinter location of John Jacob Astor’s 1811 Overland Expedition. The journey that most ships now make in three days took overland expedition commander Wilson Price Hunt nearly three months.
The history here may be younger than its European or Asian counterparts, but it is no less fascinating. Two hundred years ago, these lands were largely uncharted and undiscovered. Coming here was a dangerous, life-threatening ordeal that many early explorers never recovered from. Merriweather Lewis, so disturbed by what he had seen and done on his own overland expedition, chose to end his own life in 1809.
Today, the Columbia and Snake rivers are one of North America’s most beautiful river cruise destinations, and offer a striking look at just how far we’ve come in such a short period of time.
The Mighty Mississippi
One of the most iconic river cruises you can take in the United States is a journey along the 2,320-mile (3,730 kilometre) Mississippi. Bordering and or running through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, these river cruises cover a decent amount of ground over the course of a week, with many river cruise lines like American Cruise Lines and the American Queen Steamboat Company offering departures that alternate between cruising the upper and lower Mississippi.
It is because of the river’s extreme length that river cruise lines operating on the Mississippi can offer cruises of varying lengths. It’s even possible in some cases to book an Upper Mississippi and Lower Mississippi river cruise back-to-back, creating journeys that could be as long as three weeks in some cases.
This is the river to hit up if you’re into music. Theme cruises are excessively popular here on the Mississippi, with cruise lines offering up Big Band river cruises, Jazz river cruises, bluegrass-themed departures, and voyages focusing on the music of the 50’s and 60’s.
Unsurprisingly, history factors hugely into these departures. Expect to see voyages centered around art and architecture, Civil War history, Mark Twain, and of course the history of the Mississippi itself.
The Mississippi is arguably America’s Danube, and should be on every river cruiser’s bucket list.
Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River
It’s only recently that “mainstream” tourism has come to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Once largely closed-off to the Western world, Myanmar now welcomes them in droves – but getting around Myanmar on your own can be exceedingly difficult. There are few Western-style hotels, and the ones that are there charge a premium for their services. Navigating Myanmar’s bizarre domestic airports can be a tricky challenge without a personal guide, and roads start and stop with little logic.
That’s where a river cruise along the country’s legendary Irrawaddy River comes in. AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways and Scenic are a few of the lines that offer combination river cruise and land tour packages here. Viking River Cruises offered a wonderful program in Myanmar, but sadly the company has said that it will not offer this tour for the 2017 river cruise season. However, you can still jump on its sailings between now and December 2016.
What does Myanmar have to offer? Culture, and plenty of it. Think of it as Thailand or Cambodia if someone ran the clock back 40 years. Untouched by mass commercial tourism, Myanmar offers an amazing insight into a country on the brink of change, with centuries-old traditions pushed up against modern technology and innovation.
Myanmar’s sights are every bit as breathtaking and imposing as other countries within Asia. There’s the massive Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, which dominates the city’s skyline and is the largest Buddhist site in the country. Wrapped in gold, it catches the sunlight in a surrealistic way, and remains beautiful during the traditional nighttime candlelight ceremonies.
Then, there’s the temples of Bagan – all 2,200 of them. In historic times, there were as many as 10,000 temples and pagodas here. Today, this is a must-see site on any river cruise along the Irrawaddy.
If you want to explore a destination before the rest of the world finds out about it, a voyage through Myanmar is the one to take.
Cambodia and Vietnam along the Mekong
A river cruise along the Mekong River offers an amazing look at two very different countries with complicated histories. Most river cruises will operate between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, with differing stops along the way. One place that all river cruises call on, however, is Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. While it is filled with numerous beautiful sites, like the Royal Throne Hall, Silver Pagoda, and the National Museum, Cambodia’s dark past under the murderous reign of Pol Pot is on display here more prominently than in other places, with visits to the Killing Fields and the hard-to-stomach Tuol Sleng S21 Detention Center included (but not mandatory) on nearly every river cruise.
But the rest of the journey is far happier, with visits to Buddhist temples and major sites, like Cambodia’s breathtaking Angkor Wat, which serves as the largest religious monument in the world at 162 hectares, or 402 acres, in size.
What exists today is a modern country with some of the friendliest people you can expect to meet. Visits are paid to traditional floating villages, and small, out-of-the-way townships where life still exists as it always has. Both River Cruise Advisor’s Ralph Grizzle and myself have been here on separate cruises, and both of us feel that this is one of river cruising’s most impactful, memorable, and culturally-meaningful destinations.
Egypt’s Nile River
Yes, Egypt is back – slowly but surely – and there are plenty of wonderful reasons to want to take a river cruise along the famous Nile River. At 4,160 miles, the Nile is the longest river in the world. It flows from Lake Victoria through Uganda, Sudan and terminates in Egypt at the Nile Delta and eventually empties into the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt is still a complex country to visit independently, which is what makes a river cruise so convenient. All air, land and sea arrangements are taken care of by the cruise line, and most river cruises combine an extensive overland program as well that typically begins in Cairo before continuing on to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, where most river cruises embark for the journey down to Aswan. Return flights to Cairo allow for more in-depth explorations of the treasures that surround it, including the famous Pyramids of Giza.
To be sure, a trip down Egypt’s Nile is for the adventurous, experienced traveller who is able to recognize some of the political and social turmoil that has affected the country as a result of the Arab Spring Uprising back in 2012. The rewards for making the journey, however, are immeasurable.
The world is filled with wonderful river cruise destinations outside of Europe. The question is: where do you want to go first?