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Floating Down the World's Great Rivers
As with anything else, fashions change in tourism too. Before WWII, to board an ocean-going liner generally meant that you were using the ship to transport you from one country to another. Today it means that your holiday time has come around and you are about to take a leisure cruise.
It is a similar story when it comes to traffic on the great rivers of the world. In pre-war days, rivers were just another highway, with heavily laden barges acting as trucks or freight trains do today. But with the advent of freeways and huge trucks, barge traffic has become unfashionable. What has taken its place on the world's rivers is the tourist ship which, traveling at a leisurely pace and making frequent landfalls for sightseeing, offers its participants a new, generally comfortable and often fascinating dimension to their holiday travel.
Some rivers, like the Amazon and Yangtse are exotic and, for most, hard to get to. Others, like the Rhine, Rhone and the Danube, are relatively quiet -- more relaxing than exciting. And when it comes to selecting the right ships on which to travel, there is also often a substantial choice from which to pick, and the difference between one or the other can determine whether you will have a fantastic trip or a ho-hum experience. Here are some of the rivers -- and the best ships -- you might like to consider for your next holiday.
Even though Strauss used quite a bit of poetic licence when he called the Danube 'blue', it is nevertheless the most romantic of rivers, rising in Germany and flowing gently past Austria, the Czech and Slovakian Republics, through Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania to eventually empty into the Black Sea.
There are many ships that ply the Danube, but perhaps the most interesting...and least crowded...is the River Cloud, a vessel that also covers other great rivers linked to the Rhine and Main through the artificial connecting canals that now join up so many of Europe's waterways. One of the most fascinating journeys that can be taken on this ship is the 'Road of Kings and Emperors' which starts in Nurenberg, goes past Regensburg and along the Main-Danube canal.
The journey continues to Lower Bavaria and Passau, entering the Danube to call at Linz, Melk, Durnstein and Vienna. The next stop is Bratislava, the capital of newly independent Slovakia, the trip finishing in Budapest where passengers disembark.
The River Cloud has only forty-nine cabins, with a maximum of ninety-eight passengers, though some ships this size carry twice this number. The vessel has air conditioning, satellite communications and luxurious cabins. There is a sun-deck, a library, a boutique, hairdresser, fitness center, sauna, bar and even a putting green, as well as single-sitting dining in a fine-dining-room fitted with teak, brass and rosewood in 'Orient-Express' style. The ship has organized sightseeing at all the stops and is making an excellent name for itself in Europe.
For those who want something quite different and off-beat on the Danube, the tiny Marjorie might be just the thing. The Marjorie only holds a maximum of eight passengers, but offers gourmet cuisine, cabins large enough to have a double bed, and outstanding personalized sightseeing on its leisurely three- or six-night cruises from Vienna to Passau, or reverse. The Marjorie carries a bicycle for each passenger in case anyone wishes to ride through the lovely Austrian villages at which the ship stops. These stopovers are off-beat and take in such sights as Austria's oldest theater at the village of Grein, winetastings at vineyards, with a visit to the wine-college at Durnstein. Castles, abbeys and museums are also on the itinerary.
The very mention of this river will get every romantic's adrenalin flowing. Follow the path of Cleopatra's barge as she sailed past the timeless temples that line this fabulous river to rendezvous with Mark Anthony. Every day on the Nile brings deals on cruises, new delights and new surprises. Egypt is not a country to tour with an inexperienced operator. But the top-notch ones will not only consider passenger safety as being paramount, but will ensure that the food is safe and of excellent quality, the sightseeing is with outstanding guides who know their subject extremely well, and only the very best and safest boats and hotels are used. For example, the MS Sunboat ll, lll & lV have a very limited number of outward facing, air conditioned double cabins and itineraries that will take you to the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum and Temples like Luxor, Karnak, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Denderah and Abydos. Unless you like very hot weather, we recommend that you take this trip between November and March when the weather is relatively cool.
Who you take the trip with is more important in Egypt than in most other countries for two reasons. Firstly, an experienced tour operator will have the ability to keep you away from the places where you might be at risk from Islamist extremists. Cheap tours cut corners and use the type of public transport most easily targeted. The most careful and experienced operators keep their groups small and know which areas to avoid. If you travel with an outfit like Abercrombie & Kent, your biggest risk will be the Cairo traffic when you try and cross the road. The chances of being targeted by terrorists in such a case are smaller than if you were an independent tourist visiting London, New York or Paris!
And the other bonus of traveling with a top operator ...while still taking all the normal precautions such as drinking only bottled water and avoiding unwashed salads... is that you are likely to escape a much more prevalent danger -- the 'Pharaoh's revenge', otherwise known as Egyptian dysentery.
Abercrombie & Kent are extremely careful to inspect and select those restaurants that will minimize this risk.
It is for the above reasons as well as the overall quality of their tours that we do not hesitate to particularly recommend them. If you eat the wrong food and get laid low in Egypt it can ruin your whole trip. One has to experience uncontrollable dysentery when hours away from the nearest toilet to really understand the depths of despair.
The Mississippi gathers the catchment waters for about 45% of the land area of the U.S.A. Songwriters write songs and musicals about it, crooners croon about it, and it's no wonder that books are written about it.
The Mississippi is not only the greatest river in the United States, but has some of the country's most romantic and interesting cities located along its path. In its early history, flat-bottomed paddle steamers that could navigate the river's shallows were the major form of transport up the center of America, carrying people, produce, and all kinds of materials to inland settlements.
In recent years this hustling, bustling waterway has become quite an attraction, and the most popular form of tourist transportation along the Mississippi today is by replicas of yesteryear's paddle steamers -- large, gaudy, raucous, and fun rather than luxury.
There are three especially famous and recommended Mississippi steamers, The Delta Queen, The American Queen and the Mississippi Queen which offer a host of voyages ranging from 2-12 days and covering the American South. Cabins are large, comfortable and air-conditioned and the owners, rather than trying to make these trips exclusive, endeavor to make these voyages as much fun as possible, covering not only the Mississippi but also, on other voyages, the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Arkansas and Atchafalaya Rivers. Ports of call include New Orleans, Memphis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, St. Paul, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Tulsa and Galveston.
These ships are famous for their entertainment which includes New Orleans Dixieland contemporary jazz, Memphis Blues and St. Louis ragtime with cabarets, vaudeville-style floor shows and dancing to Big Band melodies. The cruise takes you to the gracious America of yesterday, with its big plantation houses and an atmosphere straight out of 'Gone With the Wind.'
Smaller than the other rivers mentioned here, the Rhone and its adjoining canal system takes you into the very heart of France. The ideal vessel for such a journey is the converted barge, and one of the best of these is the 'Napoleon', with comfortable cabins, a neat lounge and an easy-going pace.
This ship takes a maximum of twelve passengers through the romantic countryside of France. The canals pass sleepy vineyards, sundrenched landscapes, and historic villages of what was once the center of Roman France. A six-day barge trip will take you through the wine area of Tournon, the lovely city of Montelimar, the Roman theater and Triumphal Arch at Orange, and the markets and vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
You will visit the ancient Papal seat of Avignon, and marvel at the Pont-du-Gard, the Roman aqueduct which, restored by Napoleon, is one of the best preserved in the world. Other off-boat excursions will be equally exciting -- the ancient Roman ruins at Glanum and St. Remy, and the marvelous cliff-top village of Les Baux which looks down on the rich, herb-perfumed plain which is the fruitbowl of France.
Not only is the 'Napoleon' a marvelous and intimate way of seeing Provence, but you will also enjoy a gourmet tour that will have you coming home as an expert on the best that French cuisine bourgeois has to offer. The same agents that operate the Napoleon also have a marvelous range of other barges in areas like Burgundy, the Eastern Loire, the Saone, the Seine, the Yonne and barge-cruising in Holland, Belgium and Britain.
This river is to China what the Mississippi is to the United States. Because the Chinese have decided to build a giant dam to control flooding and drought in the lower reaches of this river, this is a very good time to take a Yangtse cruise -- before the dam makes this impossible.
The ordinary river steamers that ply this river, going up the Three Gorges to Chonquing ...formerly known as Chunking, the Nationalist Chinese Head-quarters in their fight against the Japanese in WW ll... are too crowded and uncomfortable for the average tourist from a more developed country. But if you explore the Yangtse on one of the Regal China Cruises boats, these offer relatively comfortable cabins with good amenities, and stop for regular sightseeing. During 1997 a far more luxurious ship, the M.S. East Queen will come into operation and replace the Regal China ships in the operator's itinerary.
The best trips combine a journey on the Yangtse with a visit to the terra-cotta armies of Xian, the regional center of Guilin, the once-western-dominated metropolis of Shanghai, and the Imperial Capital of Beijing. The Yangtse section of the journey starts at Chonquing from where your ship will take you through the Devils Gate Gorge and then through the six mile long Qutang Gorge, the banks of which are sheer cliffs that rise 3,900 feet above the river. Continuing the journey, your boat stops at many regional towns set between the gorges to enable you to experience local sightseeing to pagodas, markets and village life, continuing past more gorges to eventually end your Yangtse journey at Wuhan.
We do not recommend taking the normal mass transportation river steamers used by locals as comfort and facilities on these are at an absolute minimum and on the minus side of basic.
While some of the cruises described earlier are on busy and crowded rivers, those that yearn for a tryst with nature in areas that see few travelers will pick the Amazon, the most adventurous and challenging of all these rivers, and one which the average tourist is not likely to see. Near its mouth, the Amazon is so wide that the curvature of the earth ensures that the far bank is over the horizon.
Many species of birds only exist on one bank, being unable to fly the distance it takes to cross this mighty river. The huge difference in water levels between the dry and rainy seasons also means that this river is exceptionally hard to navigate, and only a few small, shallow-draft vessels equipped to quickly lower inflatable motorized dinghies are suited to make this 2,000 kilometer journey for tourists.
We took our trip on the Polaris, a ship designed to take specialized adventure-travel journeys like this in comfort. And relative comfort is what one needs on the Amazon, because the extremely high humidity and temperatures encountered here all year round mean that the birds and other wildlife of this amazing and relatively unspoiled region can best be seen in the first and last three hours of daylight. In the upper Amazon we came across Indian villages whose only contact with outsiders was when the Polaris visited twice a year, so much so that the village chief expressed amazement at the humans who, he thought, were banished to a lifetime of sailing on these waters.
Our journey took us from Iquitos, on the headwaters of the Amazon, past Leticia in Colombia and down to Manaus, where at the turn of the century the rubber boom made people so wealthy that they could afford to build an Opera House and bring Caruso over to sing there. It was only the stretch from Manaus to Belem, a town on the Atlantic end of the Amazon that was more heavily populated, but even here toucans, macaws, sloths, pythons, and capybaras ...rodents the size of a large dog and that make marvelous pets... were just some of the fascinating wildlife we experienced each day.
There are only two companies that operate such small and comparatively luxurious exploration vessels in this area, and we strongly recommend that you choose one of these rather than the luxury liners that travel to Manaus from the Atlantic almost without stopping, giving their passengers absolutely no opportunity of exploring this last unspoiled natural wonder of the world.
Both the Polaris and the Explorer are ships small enough to get into tiny tributaries and launch motorized inflatables. The "mother ship" is at anchor while the inflatables are exploring the branch waterways, and as soon as the day heats up and the wildlife takes a siesta, the inflatables return to the mother ship, are loaded on board, and the former sets sail while passengers rest in air- conditioned comfort. At that time each day, the expert naturalists give lectures on the wildlife, villages, eco-system and so on. There is usually a ratio of one naturalist to every dozen passengers, so the Amazon trip is also a wonderful learning experience.
This river is the very soul of Russia. While the traffic on the Volga is heavy with industrial barges, it is made more so by commuter hydrofoils and custom designed cruise ships similar to those plying the Rhine. But the Russian equivalents are erratic in quality and cuisine, so the ship that we recommend here is the Sergei Kirov. In spite of its Russian name, it was built in Germany and is under impeccable Swiss hotel management. A Scandinavian chef ...using ingredients flown in from Switzerland and Scandinavia where necessary... ensures good food and ambiance. The package which includes this has the added attraction of three days in Moscow before boarding the Sergei Kirov which then sets sail for a leisurely cruise to St. Petersburg.
After taking in the sights of Moscow that vary from the Red Square to the K.G.B. headquarters, the cruise stops in towns like Uglitsch, a small picturesque town of wooden houses that was founded in 1148. The ship stops at other towns like Yaroslavl, Goritsky, and Kizhi Island which gives the passenger a unique opportunity to see the 'real' rural Russia. The thirteen day package ends with three full days in St. Petersburg, the jewel in Russia's crown, where participants will visit the magnificent Hermitage Museum, the lavish Winter Palace and the Pavlovsk Palace. There is also a hydrofoil ride to the Summer Palace of Peter the Great located further along the Neva River, and much, much more.
The Sergei Kirov, one of the largest and most modern vessels on the Volga, carries only English speaking passengers, and there are daily lectures on Russian art, history and culture for its 245 ...max... passengers. The ship is air conditioned, and each cabin has private shower facilities, refrigerator, wardrobe and shelf space. A spacious sundeck, two elegant dining rooms, two cocktails lounges ...each with piano bar and dance floor..., ensure your maximum comfort.
Burma ...now called Myanmar... has been out of bounds for decades, but is now slowly opening up to tourism again. James Sherwood, president of the U.K. based group of companies that leases containers to the shipping industry, operates the cross channel hovercraft and ferries, owns the legendary Orient Express train in Europe, and its E. & O. equivalent in South East Asia, as well as operating some of the finest luxury hotels in the industry, wanted to introduce luxury travel on the Irrawaddy.
To do this, he purchased and totally refurbished a Rhine steamer of somewhat the same style as the River Cloud mentioned above, and took it to the Far East by piggy-backing it on a larger ship.
Here again, our advice is to take a package that will also allow you to explore the fascinating sights of Yangon ...the new name for Rangoon.... Just seeing the Shwegadon Pagoda is worth the whole trip to Yangon. Then you will fly to the riverside port of Pagan, where you will board the 'Road to Mandalay' which is the only modern cruise vessel on this river at this time.
Kipling, who made Mandalay famous through his poetry and song never actually visited this river-port. If he had done so, he would have realized that there were no flying fishes ...which are ocean fish... hundreds of kilometers upstream, and while the sun comes up 'out of China', there is no bay for it to cross.
Nevertheless, Mandalay with its misty treelined streets, its trishaws, its overladen buses with burgundy-robed monks sitting on the roof and its beautiful children is a marvelous place to visit. Sagain, the main river-port for Mandalay, with its hillside dotted with snow-white pagodas, is breathtakingly beautiful.
Some people may not wish to visit Myanmar because of the human rights problem there, while others take the view that the best thing for the population is to have a flow of foreigners who can observe and report on what's going on. That is an individual choice you have to make and I am sure that some will prefer to delay their trip until a democratic government is in power.
Bear in mind, however, that with Asia being Asia, very few governments have a squeaky-clean record in human rights. But even we who live in countries that are considered completely 'free' must sometimes look at our own glasshouses before throwing stones.
One thing is sure about Myanmar. Here is a country that is yet unspoiled by tourism and over-development, and the wise tourist may choose to see it right now, before it's too late.
Unless you're lucky enough to be there when the River Cloud is on one of its rare Rhine voyages, arguably the most interesting cruise down the Rhine is by Swan Hellenic's vessel Rembrandt van Rijn. This ship also operates excellent 10-day cruises from Basel in Switzerland to Arnhem in Holland.
If their schedule also doesn't fit yours, then try the more mass-tourism oriented ...but nevertheless quite acceptable... KD ships operating from Strasbourg in Alsace to Amsterdam. The KD Line is considered to be the 'mother' of all river cruising because, though others had operated small river steamers for tourists in earlier days, the KD Line pioneered the specially constructed, long and relatively narrow river-ships that have made this method of travel so popular.
Strasbourg in Alsace is renowned for its cuisine -- strictly French-based, but with a strong overlay of German ingredients. Spend a little time in Alsace first before boarding, and get to know, and love, the ambiance of this fabulous corner of Europe. Once on board the modern ship you will be comfortable, though it would be an exaggeration to call the cabins spacious.
As you sail down the Rhine, picture-book villages, with their own historic castles, will be passed and you may wonder who can possibly drink all the wine produced from the myriad vineyards that line the river banks. You soon find out ! The ship stops at some of these wine villages and half of Europe seems to be in each, drinking, eating, drinking, shopping, drinking, just wandering around and then drinking more before loading the car up with extra cases of wine and heading home. One cannot help hoping that at least one person in each car will be a teetotaler!
Cologne with its beautiful Cathedral precedes a part of Germany that is a mix of industrial and rural, but even this is both interesting and picturesque. The days pass all too quickly, and soon the boat docks at Amsterdam.
The agents for the River Cloud are Special Expeditions, 720 5th Avenue, N.Y., 10019, USA.
Ph.1.212.765.7740; Fax 1-212.265.3770.
The agents for Marjorie are Abercrombie & Kent, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Illinois 60521, USA.
There are lots of options here, but our choice would be the most experienced travel company, Abercrombie & Kent.
In USA, Abercrombie & Kent International, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Illinois 60521, USA.
Ph. 1-708.954.2944; Fax 1-708.954.2814
According to experts the three best vessels are the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen, and the American Queen. All three vessels are operated by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., 30 Robin Street Wharf, New Orleans, LA, 70130-1890, USA.
Ph. Toll Free from USA 1-800-543.7637; Fax 504-585-0694. From Asia, Ph. 126.96.36.19955; Fax 188.8.131.5255
In USA, Abercrombie & Kent International (520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Illinois 60521, USA) are booking agents for the Napoleon and a whole range of other barges in Europe.
Ph. 1-708.954.2944; Fax 1-708.954.2814
In USA, Abercrombie & Kent International, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Illinois 60521, USA.
Ph. 1-708.954.2944; Fax 1-708.954.2814
For enquiries about the Polaris, contact Special Expeditions, 720 5th Avenue, N.Y., 10019, USA.
Ph.1-212.765.7740; Fax 1-212.265.3770.
For The Explorer, the only other Amazon vessel we recommend, contact Abercrombie & Kent International, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Illinois 60521, USA.
Ph. 1-708.954.2944; Fax 1-708.954.2814.
Abercrombie & Kent International, 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Illinois 60521, USA. are booking agents for The Sergei Kirov.
Ph. 1-708.954.2944; Fax 1-708.954.2814.
The Road to Mandalay' vessel is owned and operated by:- Orient Express Co., Sea Container House, 20 Upper Ground, London, SE19PF, U.K.
Ph. 44.171.805.5060; Fax 44.171.805.5907.
If the River Cloud of Special Expeditions ...see 'The Danube'... does not have a program on the Rhine at the time you want to go, the best ships for this journey are the ships of the KD Line, Frankenwerft 15, 50667 Cologne, Germany.
Ph. 184.108.40.2060; Fax 49.220.882.29.
Swan Hellenic, another operator that covers the Danube, Volga, and Rhine is a subsidiary of the English P & O Company. To get their brochures and details, contact your travel agent or Swan Hellenic, 77 New Oxford Street, London WCIA 1PP, U.K. Fax 44.171.831.1280 or their General Sales Agent in Sydney, Australia, Mary Rossi Travel, Suite 3, The Denison, 65 Berry Street, Nth Sydney, 2060.
Ph. 61.2.9957.4511; Fax 61.2.9929.6326.
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.