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Exotic River Cruises gaining in popularity

An Avalon Waterways vessel sailing on the Nile
An Avalon Waterways vessel sailing on the NileAvalon Waterways

With ten new river cruise vessels debuting in 2014 and more on tap for 2015, this may be the perfect time to experience a river cruise. River cruises have traditionally been Euro-centric; those wanting to experience more exotic destinations had to go the large, ocean going route. However, in the last few years that has changed significantly with more and more companies offering cruises to unusual locales such as Myanmar, the Amazon, Egypt, Cambodia and other worldwide destinations.

An estimated 17.6 million North American travelers traveled by cruise in 2013, and the fastest growing segment in the industry is river cruising. River cruises go through quaint towns, rustic hamlets, valleys and gorges, and directly into the hearts of cities rather than docking out at the coast. Vessels of various sizes languidly slice through the waters and when you arrive at your historic destination - you’re already in town. No shuttle busses or taxis are needed; it’s just a short stroll to everything. Ancient temples and churches, open air markets, shops, museums, great restaurants and other attractions are steps away.

Myanmar is Opening Up

AmaWaterways and Viking River Cruises are both launching new itineraries to Myanmar in 2014. “I traveled there for the first time a couple years ago and was completely captivated by Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It is one of the most exotic destinations I’ve ever visited, filled with huge Buddha statues, massive temples covered with jewels and gold leaf, mystical landscapes, amazing food, and warm and friendly people,” said Kristin Karst, AmaWaterways, Executive Vice President and Co-Owner. “I found it to be an extremely spiritual and peaceful country, as well as an incredibly beautiful one.”

The main river in Myanmar, the Ayeyarwady (previously known as the Irrawaddy) has a long and colorful history. During the mid-19th century British Colonial era, this river was one of the world’s busiest waterways with thousands of ships carrying cargo and millions of passengers every year. Cruises usually begin or end in Mandalay or Yangon, a former royal capital known as the “Garden City of the East.” “Myanmar has been pretty much closed off from the rest of the world for nearly 50 years and its borders only recently re-opened. This makes for an amazing travel opportunity – the chance to experience this magical place while it is still largely undeveloped and off the beaten path,” said Karst.

Peru’s Amazon

Aqua Expeditions was the first adventure travel company to introduce five-star luxury cruises to the Amazon River in Peru. With its extraordinary flora and fauna, the Amazon is a once in a lifetime site to behold. Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO of Aqua Expeditions said, “We launched the M/V Aqua in 2008 and almost immediately demand exceeded supply. To meet that demand, we built its sister ship, the M/V Aria which began to sail the rivers of Amazonia in 2011.” These boats visit the Maranon, the Ucayali and the Puinahua - three powerful tributaries of the Amazon River’s headwaters. Avalon Waterways also offers luxurious Peruvian river cruises. Passengers will travel with seasoned naturalists on guided panga rides through the river tributaries, visit native communities and swim with pink dolphins. These types of cruises offer a glimpse into one of the most culturally and environmentally diverse regions on earth.

Russia and the Volga

Joe Maloney, Scenic Cruises’ Vice President, US Sales and Marketing said, “In 2012 Scenic Cruises introduced Scenic Tsar, the first ‘new-build’ ship registered in Russia in 25 years. There may be no better way to explore this country than via the Volga, Europe’s longest river. Departing from either St. Petersburg or Moscow, passengers will see the Church of Transfiguration on Kizhi Island, with its 22 timbered onion domes, and many intriguing sites in rural Russia, before heading back to the big city. “This was a key transportation route and one that’s played a significant role in Russian history and culture, but it’s something that not a lot of Americans have experienced. We give them very personal ways to connect with it.” Uniworld also offers an all-inclusive Moscow-St. Petersburg river cruise experience along a similar route.

The Mekong River

Today, a greater number of cruise lines are expanding into Southeast Asia exploring Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta. Guests will discover the over 300 ancient Khmer temples of Angkor Wat, visit the bustling Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, relax on beaches at Sihanoukville, experience the modern melee of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, see its old Cu Chi Tunnels and amazing floating markets. In the fall of 2014, Aqua Expeditions will begin sailing up and down the Mekong River, between the thriving cultures of the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam and Cambodia’s ancient ruins and colonial charms. Singapore based Pandaw Cruises offers many intriguing Mekong River itineraries.

Cruising up and down the Nile

Touring the Nile by boat is a must for all fans of history and Egyptology. Viking Cruises and numerous other companies conduct river tours and usually sail from Luxor, where visitors will first see the magnificent temples of Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and the temple of Hatshepsut among noteworthy sites. Luxury line Sanctuary Cruises takes visitors to the rare Abydos Temple, an ancient sacred city and center for worshipers of the god Osiris. Egyptologists onboard will help guests comprehend the magnificent temple of Karnak, which took over a thousand years to build, the temples of Esna, Edfu and the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile-god Sobek. Nile cruises are often shorter than on other rivers, incorporating visits to Cairo and the Giza Plateau where the Great Pyramids of Cheops, Kephren and Mykerinus and the mysterious Great Sphinx reside.

Other Exotics

A way to experience inland China is aboard a Yangtze cruise, the longest rive in Asia. For a unique land and river excursion, AmaWaterways offers a combination African safari and cruise on the Chobe River, which divides Namibia's Caprivi Strip from Botswana's Chobe National Park.

“Even places that you wouldn’t think of as “exotic” at first glance can easily become so on a river cruise, said Maloney of Scenic Cruises. “Smaller ships mean fewer passengers and greater accessibility to one-of-a-kind activities.”

c. Bob Ecker 2014