From the romantic Danube in Europe to the dramatic Yangtze in China, Peggy Lee and her husband Alan have sailed down many of the world’s most iconic rivers. An inveterate cruiser, the finance and HR director of urban greenery company Elmich has a soft spot for traversing rivers as the routes take her close to the sights without needing to leave the ship.
“When you cruise down the Danube or the Rhine, you can admire the view of quaint villages and towns along the river banks while sailing. In Portugal, as you travel down the Douro, you can even visit vineyards along the way,” says Lee, who enjoys seeing the world on a “moving hotel” without having to unpack on a daily basis or clear multiple immigration checks.
Smaller in size in order to navigate rivers, luxury river vessels typically have a capacity of around 120 guests or less compared to ocean liners, where even the most intimately sized ships generally have upwards of 300 guests. This means even more customised service on river cruises, such as chefs who will personally purchase specific ingredients to cater to passengers’ cravings, says Lee.
“After the pandemic, people do not necessarily want to be in crowds, so they like the idea of smaller ships and being constantly right next to land.”Ellen Bettridge, CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
The perks offset some of the downsides of compact river liners, like fewer facilities and entertainment options on board. There is also the lure of significantly easier access to land activities, compared to ocean cruises that can sometimes dock at distant ports, far from key attractions. “River ships dock daily so it is easy to go on land tours or explore the destination on your own to sample local cuisine or hunt down souvenirs that cannot be found elsewhere,” Lee observes.
Like Lee, a growing number of luxury travellers are gravitating towards high-end river cruises such as those offered by Aqua Expeditions, AmaWaterways, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises for a different aquatic experience.
Chang Theng Hwee, chairman of bespoke luxury travel agency Intriq Journey, says: “Compared to large ocean cruises, river cruises have a greater appeal to discerning travellers looking for more intimate and immersive experiences in key destinations. Programmes on board tend to be more edutainment, like destination lectures by experts.”
Uniworld, an all-inclusive river cruise line that offers voyages in 18 rivers across 26 countries, launched in Asia in 2012 with itineraries in Vietnam, Cambodia and India. In the first two years of its launch, it grew from a “couple of hundred” passengers to a few thousand, says chief executive officer Ellen Bettridge of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. Following the pandemic, it surpassed its 2019 bookings within the first quarter of 2023.
“Post-pandemic, people do not necessarily want to be in crowds, so they like the idea of smaller ships and being constantly right next to land — on a river you will always see land. Plus, since we dock every single day, guests also do not feel like they are ‘stuck’ on the ship,” says Bettridge.
Explorers have a unique opportunity to delve into the history of the region by visiting niche destinations that are off the beaten track. Says Bettridge: “Rivers are historically where trade happened. One of our most popular cruises is called Castles Along the Rhine where you visit little towns and places that you would probably not travel to when flying into a European city.”
The company additionally curates excursions that can range from small batch vinegar tasting sessions to cycling along the riverbank. And, to cater to a growing demand, it is introducing night stops for travellers to enjoy an evening in town before setting off to the next destination.
Noting that adventurous travellers gravitate to river cruises to enjoy easier access to off-the-beaten path destinations, Chang says some of Intriq Journey’s popular itineraries include the Amazon in Peru and the Yangtze as well as the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers in Asia.
Next, he predicts that a river adventure down the Ganges in India on cruise lines such as Pandaw and Uniworld is likely to be the next buzzword. “The Ganges river can be both exciting and luxurious. From the awe-inspiring Hindu temple complexes of Kalna to the colourful flower markets of Kolkata, a Ganges voyage delves deeply into the myriad charms of India’s culture,” he says.
After all, there is nothing like a cruise to take the guesswork out of a bucket list trip to an exotic destination. Says Bettridge: “It is all about ease. People work so hard and they deserve a good vacation. They deserve to be able to go out there and just relax and not have to worry about anything — and that is really what I think we do very, very well.”