The river-cruise boom is only ramping up in 2014, with the coming year set to usher in a brand-new fleet of revolutionary riverboats and innovative itineraries. We've scoured the world's waterways—from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America to right here in the U.S.—to reveal some of the year's most anticipated and inventive sailings, with an itinerary to suit just about every taste. Read on for our picks for the 10 best river cruises for 2014.
by Elissa Richard
What’s New: A new gem of a cruise line, value-minded Emerald Waterways is emerging this spring as the first new European river cruise line to launch in six years. Embark on their 182-passenger Emerald Star or Emerald Sky and enjoy the largest staterooms on the Danube, equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows (that can be opened with the flip of a switch); an alfresco bar and gelato station; and an indoor heated pool area with a retractable roof (it transforms into a movie theater come evening). Try their seven-night “Danube Delights” sailings between Nuremberg, Germany, and Budapest, with stops along the way in German and Austrian port towns, along with a call in Bratislava, where guests can attend a special home-hosted afternoon tea with a local family.
When to Sail: Cruises embark on June 28, July 5, 12, and 19; rates from $2,230/person, including transfers, guided excursions, ship Wi-Fi, gratuities, and onboard wine and beer with meals.
Where to Book It: Visit Emerald Waterways
What’s New: The American Queen Steamboat Company, which made a splash with its revival of Mississippi River paddle wheeler sailings in 2012, is heading west to tackle new terrain along the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Come April, cruisers can hop aboard the 223-passenger American Empress (the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi) for its seven-night “Columbia & Snake Rivers: Frontiers, Pioneers, and Vineyards” itinerary, anchored on the lands of Lewis and Clark exploration. Sample the best of the Pacific Northwest with port calls in Oregon and Washington; included in the rates are daily onboard history and culture lectures, as well as hop-on, hop-off shore excursions in each port.
When to Sail: Trips embark April 5 through November 8; rates from $3,797/person, including guided excursions, pre-cruise hotel stay (in Portland or Clarkston), and wine and beer with dinner.
Where to Book It: Visit American Queen Steamboat Company
Rivers and Rails of Africa
What’s New: Put a unique twist on the classic safari vacation by incorporating a river-and-rail component. In 2014, the plush 28-passenger Zambezi Queen will be chartered by AmaWaterways for several new African land-and-river trips, like their 12-night “Rivers and Rails of Africa” itinerary. Make a four-night game-viewing run along the Chobe River from the Zambezi Queen's home port in Kasane, Botswana, mooring overnight en route along the river's Namibian border. Guests can view wildlife from their private stateroom balconies; head out on smaller boats for up-close sightings of lions, giraffes, elephants, monkeys, and more; sign up for fishing excursions (in season); and visit a local Namibian village. Plus, tack on a three-night land tour of Cape Town with excursions to Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope; two nights in thunderous Victoria Falls; and a three-night train ride, for a Hwange Game Reserve safari, aboard the luxurious Rovos Rail.
When to Sail: Trips are available on select dates through November; rates from $11,995/person, including transfers, guided excursions, local wine and beer on the cruise, as well as all land-, train-, and cruise-based accommodations.
Where to Book It: Visit AmaWaterways
Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River
What’s New: Up-and-coming travel hot spot Myanmar is continuing the trend in 2014 with a slate of new river cruise options debuting on its Irrawaddy River. Come November, AmaWaterways is rolling out its new, 56-passenger, all-suite ship, the AmaPura, offering 10-night “Golden Treasures of Myanmar” and 14-night “Hidden Wonders of Myanmar” itineraries between Mandalay and Yangon, featuring onboard Burmese cultural performances.
Viking Cruises is also introducing a 15-night “Memories of Mandalay” Mandalay-to-Yangon (and reverse) itinerary aboard the 60-passenger Viking Mandalay or Viking Orient, which includes a land portion in bustling Bangkok and Yangon. Expect an onboard “culture curriculum” highlighting Burmese history, religion, folkloric performances, and more.
Finally, Sanctuary Retreats will unveil the brand-new, 42-guest, all-suite Sanctuary Ananda Myanmar this fall for a series of three- to 11-night itineraries to must-see and off-the-beaten-path sights across segments of the Irrawaddy River and its tributary, the Chindwin. Anticipate onboard cuisine developed in partnership with chef Michelle Bernstein and luxe onboard touches like a duo of pools and cabin butler service.
When to Sail: AmaWaterways sailings are available in November and December; rates from $4,899/person, including guided excursions and beer and wine with meals. Viking cruises run from August through December; rates from $5,000/person, including pre-cruise hotel stays in Bangkok and Yangon, flight transfers, guided cruise excursions, Wi-Fi, and beer and wine with onboard meals. Sanctuary Retreat sailings are available in November and December; rates from $2,244/person, including all excursions and local beer.
Aquitaine Itineraries from Bordeaux, France
What’s New: Navigate new reaches of French waterways this spring, courtesy of two fresh epicurean-minded offerings debuting in France's southwestern Aquitaine region. Viking Cruises is launching its seven-night, foodie-friendly “Châteaux, Rivers, and Wine” itinerary from Bordeaux aboard the 190-guest Viking Forseti, highlighting three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (like the Blaye Citadel); farmer's markets, truffle hunts, and oyster farms; and predictably, a wide sampling of Bordeaux's celebrated wines.
Or, look to Uniworld's new weeklong “Bordeaux, Vineyards, and Châteaux” sailing, running round-trip from Bordeaux and featuring calls at châteaux, wine estates, and charming towns like Bergerac and Saint-Émilion. Cabins aboard Uniworld's lavish 130-passenger River Royale come trimmed with handcrafted furnishings, French balconies, and L'Occitane bath amenities.
When to Sail: Viking sailings embark on select dates between March and December; rates from $1,856/person, including guided excursions and wine and beer with meals. Uniworld cruises run on select dates between April and November; rates from $3,199/person, including Wi-Fi, alcoholic beverages, guided excursions, gratuities, and ground transfers.
Seine Sailings in France
What’s New: Aquitaine isn't the only region of France to experience a river cruise revolution this year. The Seine is also ramping up river cruise activity with the debut of Scenic Cruises' new “Gems of the Seine” itinerary this July. Sailing round-trip from Paris, this 10-night voyage includes highlights like a private classical concert within the 16th-century Château-de-Champlatreux, as well as an excursion to the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy (2014 marks the invasion's 70th anniversary). Cruises sail aboard the 128-passenger Scenic Gem, custom-built specifically to navigate the locks and bridges of the Seine, and equipped with electric bikes and cabins touting private full-size balconies.
Or, try the brand-new 13-night “Cruising the Seine Plus Versailles, London, and Paris” offering by Tauck, which mixes a nine-night Seine river cruise aboard the plush 118-passenger ms Swiss Sapphire (well-appointed cabins come with marble bathrooms and French balconies) with a two-night luxury hotel stay in both London and Versailles. Expect standout excursions like a private dinner with live music at a château in Rouen, a vintage train ride through the Valée de L'Ouche, and a private visit and tasting at the Absinthe Museum.
When to Sail: Scenic Cruises itineraries embark on select dates between July and October; rates from $5,880/person, including transfers, guided excursions, ship Wi-Fi, alcoholic beverages, personal butler service, and gratuities. Tauck sailings depart on select dates between April and October; rates from $6,790/person, including transfers, guided excursions, alcoholic beverages, gratuities, meals on shore, and hotel stays in London and Versailles.
Chicago to the Big Easy Itinerary
What’s New: Explore the American heartland on Blount Small Ship Adventures' new 15-night “Chicago to the Big Easy” itinerary aboard the 88-passenger Grande Caribe. Traverse the nation this spring via the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois Rivers, with ports calls that propose access to historic battlefields, sprawling estates, cultural centers, and more. Cruise from Chicago (the sailing embarks from nearby Joliet) to more Illinois stops, and on through Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and finally New Orleans, Louisiana (the reverse itinerary is also available).
When to Sail: Cruises embark on May 15 and June 2; rates from $4,999/person (note a special current promotion touts two-for-one fares), including beer and wine with meals.
Where to Book It: Visit Blount Small Ship Adventures
The Amazon à la Ecuador, Peru, or Brazil
What’s New: Discover the wilds of the Amazon from the comfort of a plush ship, thanks to a slew of new river cruise offerings in 2014. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, Anakonda Amazon Cruises debuted in July with a series of three- to seven-night itineraries embarking from Coca, Ecuador, aboard the luxurious 36-passenger M/V Anakonda. Explore the remote and pristine regions of Yasuni National Park and the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, for nature encounters led by a naturalist guide and meetings with local indigenous people, or simply take in the passing landscapes from the comfort of one of the vessel's two outdoor Jacuzzis.
Moving on to the Peruvian Amazon, International Expeditions is kicking off a new 6-night “Amazon Riverboat & Rainforest Lodge” itinerary, which combines a stay in an upscale rain forest lodge with a 3-night cruise from Iquitos, Peru (aboard the 2013-debuted, 31-guest La Estrella Amazonica), permitting guests to experience two distinctly different Amazonian habitats. Guests can expect plenty of hiking, kayaking, and cultural encounters (including a shamanic blessing ceremony), all navigated under the leadership of an expert naturalist guide.
Or, look instead to the Brazilian Amazon, and get your sports and nature fix in one fell swoop, thanks to Rainforest Cruises' special June itineraries, slated to coincide with World Cup matches. These 4-night riverboat sailings kick off in Manaus, Brazil, the only FIFA World Cup host city set within the Amazon rainforest. Dock overnight in port to catch one of four matches (note that due to FIFA restrictions, game tickets must be booked independently), like U.S. versus Portugal (on June 22), then head out on a naturalist-led cruise aboard the 24-passenger Iracema or Victoria Amazonica for Amazonian excursions like piranha fishing, jungle walks, and nocturnal caiman safaris.
When to Sail: Anakonda Amazon Cruises sail year-round; rates from $1,600/person, including guided excursions and ground transfers. The new International Expeditions itinerary is available April 11, August 8 and 12, and November 7 and 11; rates from $3,298/person, including guided excursions, evening onboard cocktail receptions, laundry service, some gratuities, ground transfers, and rain forest lodge and pre- and post-cruise hotel stays. Rainforest Cruises World Cup-timed itineraries are available on select dates in June; rates from $1,999/person (book by 3/31 for 15-percent off)—match tickets are available at guests' own expense.
Mekong River between Cambodia and Vietnam
What’s New: Aqua Expeditions, known for its luxurious small-ship sailings in the Peruvian Amazon, is expanding its reach to Asia this fall. The company's brand-new, 40-passenger Aqua Mekong will begin a series of three-, four-, and seven-night itineraries along the Mekong River, running segments between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and Mỹ Tho, Vietnam (near Saigon). Guests can survey scenes of river life, from pagodas and Buddhist monasteries to floating markets and stilted villages. Rooms on the lavish ship come equipped with Asian-inspired cabins finished by floor-to-ceiling windows and private balconies; an onboard swimming pool and spa beckon, as does the gourmet Khmer and Vietnamese cuisine whipped up by the ship's Michelin-starred chef.
When to Sail: Cruises embark starting in October 2014 and will run year-round; rates from $3,000/person, including transfers, guided excursions, ship Wi-Fi, and onboard wine and beer.
Where to Book It: Visit Aqua Expeditions
From the North Sea to the Mediterranean
What’s New: Explore Europe from north to south, from Amsterdam to Avignon, courtesy of value-minded French river line CroisiEurope's new “Across Europe: The Best of the Rhine and the Rhône” nine-night itinerary. Port calls include stops throughout Germany and France; don't miss an outing to Germany's UNESCO-protected Aachen Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in Northern Europe (note that guided shore excursions cost extra). The 144-passenger MS Léonard De Vinci (which sails the Rhine leg of the trip) and the 158-passenger MS Van Gogh (which sails the Rhône leg)—transfers in between the two ships are made at Strasbourg—come equipped with a lounge and dance floor, as well as a large sundeck with plenty of deckchairs, primed for a front-row perch to the passing European landscapes.
When to Sail: Cruises embark on April 22, May 17, and June 27; rates from $2,061/person, including transfers and alcoholic beverages.
Where to Book It: Visit CroisiEurope