While ocean liners are hardly butterflies, they have a habit of flitting carelessly between countries, often visiting several within a week. A river cruise, however, takes its (relatively few) passengers to the heart of a country, the aim being to seduce with dramatic, ever-changing vistas and evocative insights — cruises for the connoisseur, if you will.
Because of its many different micro-cultures and magnificent backdrops, Europe is where river cruises thrive. So much so that the number of launches is getting ridiculous: earlier this year, Viking River Cruises launched 16 ships in 24 hours across three countries — which means it’s easy to find your perfect itinerary, whether on the sleepy sun-soaked Duoro (ten days from £1,645), the grand, cultured Rhine (eight days from £1,195), the wilds of the eastern Danube (11 days from £2,195) or on almost any waterway in between. While Viking offers all-round everything for a middle-of-the-road price, those looking for luxury need look no further than Uniworld River Cruises, which takes a six-star boutique approach to river cruising and is constantly praised for its gourmet food. Uniworld can float you from Amsterdam to Istanbul in just under a month (from £8,049; there are shorter trips, too).
For culture, Martin Randall rarely disappoints. Next year their Danube cruise is all about Schubert, with nine concerts by Wigmore Hall performers in architecturally appropriate surroundings (20–27 August, £3,140 all inclusive). Intriguing routes in Europe are being added all the time — in 2015, the Loire Valley (currently only cruiseable on day excursions or classic hotel barges that entertain not more than six people) sees the launch of Croisi-Europe’s MS Loire Princesse, a favourite with the French. The first cruise vessel with cabins — 48 of them — to travel the valley of chateaux and vineyards, it has a six- to eight-day itinerary which includes Angers, Ancenis, Nantes and Saint-Nazaire. The latter leg features contemporary art installations, so watch out for the half-submerged La Maison dans la Loire at Coüeron and what appears to be the skeleton of a giant sea snake on the beach at Saint-Brevin-les-Pins.
All this is not to say exotic river cruises aren’t booming too, with relatively untouched Burma opening up to visitors and becoming exponentially more popular. Having operated the Road to Mandalay along the Irrawaddy since 1995, Belmond (formerly Orient Express) is the undisputed king of this tea-coloured river, and next year will be celebrating its 20th anniversary with an impressive list of photography, wildlife and military history experts (prices start from £1,640 for a three-night cruise). Meanwhile their newer, smaller boat, the Orcaella, launched last year, cruises the temple-studded Chindwin river (seven nights from £3,560 per person). Or you could try out the new kid on the block — Amawaterways launches the 56-passenger AmaPura in November, and 16-night cruises along the 1,350-mile Irrawaddy start at £4,000.