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Most Unusual River Cruise Itineraries

Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Last updated
Nov 21, 2019

Read time
6 min read


Think of river cruising, and you likely envision the castles of the Rhine or the European capitals along the Danube. But there are far more exotic choices out there for those with an adventurous spirit and the desire to reach the farthest corners of the globe. Read on for our picks of the most unusual river cruise itineraries.

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Kapuas River

Kapuas River
Kapuas River (Photo: Pandaw)

Where Is It? The Kapuas River is the largest in Borneo, flowing over 700 miles through the Indonesian part of the island. A seven-night cruise sails between Tayan and Lanjak, a remote region that encompasses the heart of the rainforest.

Why Should You Go? Jungle hot springs and waterfalls, tribal cultures and exotic wildlife -- the rainforest is one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered Borneo orangutan.

Who Offers It? Pandaw, which specializes in river and small ship cruises in Southeast Asia, is currently the only operator. Voyages take place on Kapuas Pandaw, which carries 32 passengers.

Brahmaputra River

Brahmaputra River
Brahmaputra River (Photo: Jixin YU/

Where Is It? The Brahmaputra River flows through northeastern India, within sight of the Himalayas, and is home to all kinds of wildlife, including elephants, tigers, rhinos and water buffalo. Seven-night itineraries travel between Guwahati and Jorhat.

Why Should You Go? You'll get opportunities to spot all those animals, plus visit Shiva temples, small fishing villages and farm towns.

Who Offers It? A handful of operators use the luxury vessel M.V. Mahabaahu, including International Expeditions and Pandaw. The ship carries 46 passengers; activities include daily yoga.

Upper Mekong River

Upper Mekong River
Upper Mekong River (Photo: Tortoon Thodsapol/

Where Is It? Many experienced river cruisers have already looked into a Lower Mekong River cruise, which quite a few lines offer between Vietnam and Cambodia. But only a few lines explore the Upper Mekong in the Golden Triangle, the term for the region where Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) meet Laos. An 11-night cruise begins on the Laotian-Thai border, traveling through the UNESCO city of Luang Prabang to the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

Why Should You Go? In busy Southeast Asia, Laos remains sleepy and relatively untraveled. On the Mekong, you'll see rice paddies and small farms, Buddhist shrines and temples, birds and wildlife, and French colonial architecture in the larger towns.

Who Offers It? Pandaw (again!) is the main river cruise line exploring this part of the Mekong.

Sava River

Sava River
Sava River (Photo: Dreamer4787/

Where Is It? The Sava River runs through Croatia and along that country's border with Bosnia before meeting up with the Danube in Serbia. An 11-night cruise boards in Sisak, Croatia -- near Zagreb -- and visits small towns in Bosnia and Serbia before joining the more trafficked Danube to go on to Belgrade and Budapest.

Why Should You Go? The less traveled towns of Zagreb and Brcko in Bosnia remain bastions of 18th-century Austro-Hungarian architecture, while other towns along the route offer Orthodox monasteries, Slavic culture and Ottoman influences.

Who Offers It? The French river cruise line CroisiEurope begins sailing the Sava in 2017 on the 100-passenger Victor Hugo.

Guadalquivir and Guadiana rivers

Guadalquivir and Guadiana rivers
Guadalquivir and Guadiana rivers (Photo: kavalenkau/

Where Is It? Both located in southwestern Spain, the Guadalquivir and Guadiana rivers traverse Andalusia, yet do not meet up. So the few cruises that go there spend some time on both, and cruise the Mediterranean coast in between.

Why Should You Go? Some of Spain's most picturesque cities, including Cadiz, Seville, Granada and Cordoba, lie along the route, which is also famed for its gastronomy, traditional music and wine. Lesser known, but equally compelling, is Donana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Bioreserve -- an expansive salt marsh that's home to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

Who Offers It? CroisiEurope is currently the only line offering this itinerary on 176-passenger La Belle de Cadix. The vessel is built to sail both rivers and the Mediterranean coast.

Tisza River

Tisza River
Tisza River (Photo: Fat Jackey/

Where Is It? Another alternative to the Danube in Central Europe, the Tisza runs through eastern Hungary. A nine-night cruise on the river visits Tokaj -- world famous for dessert wines -- and towns on the Great Hungarian Plain before passing onto the Danube in Serbia.

Why Should You Go? While plains don't sound as scenic as forests, the Tisza is known for its birdlife and you'll be able to see how the vast majority of Hungarians live. Authentic Hungarian food, spiced with hot paprika and quite distinctive within Europe, is also a draw.

Who Offers It? Yet again, CroisiEurope is the sole operator of this cruise, also on Victor Hugo.

Chindwin River

Chindwin River
Chindwin River (Photo: Sanctuary Retreats)

Where Is It? Myanmar, aka Burma, has seen an influx of river cruises on its largest river, the Irrawaddy. But for the "been there, done that" crowd, sailings on the Chindwin, a tributary that goes north toward India, is considered more scenic.

Why Should You Go? Gold-domed pagodas, cave shrines, forested foothills, rice paddies and insight into remote village life are the main draws. Most cruises also stop in Mawlaik, a colonial town that was once home to the Bombay Burma Trading Company.

Who Offers It? Sanctuary Retreats offers sailings on the Chindwin on its luxury vessel, Sanctuary Ananda, as does Belmond on Orcaella and Pandaw on two ships, Kalay Pandaw and Zawgyi Pandaw.

Thai Binh and Red River (Vietnam)

Thai Binh and Red River (Vietnam)
Thai Binh and Red River (Vietnam) (Photo: Le Tu/

Where Is It? While Vietnam's Halong Bay is well-known to international travelers (and a frequent stop for ocean cruises), few people can name the river that empties into the delta. It's the Thai Binh, which flows into the Red River to Hanoi.

Why Should You Go? Hanoi is a must for history buffs curious about the Vietnam War. The 10-night sailings also visit mountain towns, Buddhist temples, Ba Vi National Park and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Duong Lam, an ancient rural village that has been preserved.

Who Offers It? Pandaw began offering cruises on the Red River in 2016; more mainstream operators such as AmaWaterways have expressed interest in going.

Red River (United States)

Red River (United States)
Red River (United States) (Photo: Sean Pavone/

Where Is It? A tributary of the Mississippi, the Red River branches off in Louisiana, heading north toward Shreveport. Stops include the Old South towns of Natchitoches and Alexandria.

Why Should You Go? Highlights include off-the-beaten-track plantations, delicious Louisiana cuisine and the historic French-influenced architecture of Natchitoches; the city has a famous Christmas celebration featuring more than 300,000 lights and 100 displays along the riverbank.

Who Offers It? A new cruise company founded in 2016, French America Line, is offering holiday sailings on the Red River on its sole vessel, Louisiane.

St. Johns River

St. Johns River
St. Johns River (Photo: Sean Pavone/

Where Is It? Flowing from Florida's Ocala National Forest north to Jacksonville and Amelia Island, the St. John's River is the largest in the Sunshine State and home to more than 200 species of birds, including the bald eagle.

Why Should You Go? Old Florida plantation homes, wildlife (alligators, anyone?) and bird life make up the rural part of the cruise, while stops in St. Augustine and tony Amelia Island offer more touristy pursuits.

Who Offers It? American Cruise Lines is currently the only line sailing this itinerary, on its 100-passenger vessel, American Star.

Senegal River

Senegal River
Senegal River (Photo: Dereje/

Where Is It? Located in West Africa, the Senegal River runs from St. Louis, a colonial town on the Atlantic Ocean that was once the capital of French West Africa, inland toward the Sahara Desert. The old-fashioned Bou El Mogdad has been on the route for 65 years; it's been running seven-night cruises for tourists since 2005.

Why Should You Go? Most cruises start with some time in Dakar, a modern city with a fantastic live music scene featuring Afro-jazz. The cities along the route have French colonial architecture and forts, and you'll also pass through the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Who Offers It? Tour operators such as From Here 2 Timbuktu offer passage aboard an 80-passenger ship.

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