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5 luxury river cruises on wow-worthy itineraries

Oct. 04, 2022
13 min read
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River cruises are appealing for many reasons. I should know, as I’ve enjoyed dozens of them all over the world. Some of my favorites have been on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, India’s Brahmaputra and of course the storied waterways of Europe.

Travel by river is leisurely, convenient (no long tender rides to shore) and intimate — life on the water and along the riverbanks is practically just an arm's length away.

From a private balcony, through floor-to-ceiling windows or while soaking in a relaxing pool on deck, a luxury river cruise offers front-row seats to the history, culture and landscape of some pretty spectacular places. You can see castles, vineyards, temples and terraced rice fields close up.

What's more, on the world’s top river cruises, passengers can enjoy those postcard-worthy views while being catered to by doting staff, skilled chefs and expert guides.

“Luxury riverboats are like floating 5-star hotels, with the onboard expedition guides as your adventure concierges to plan each day, taking travelers' wishes into account,” says Todd Smith, president and founder of AdventureSmith Explorations.

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Here are five luxury, all-inclusive river cruises with amazing itineraries to consider for your next vacation splurge.

The Jahan, Heritage Line Collection (54 passengers)

The Lord Byron Suite in The Heritage Line's The Jahan, which cruises the Mekong River. HERITAGE LINE

Named after the legendary Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the spectacular white marble Taj Mahal in 17th century India to memorialize his beloved wife, The Jahan river ship has been designed with an extravagant and regal touch.

Inspired by the days of British India, The Jahan’s vibe is pure romance through the lens of Indo-Islamic art and architecture. Intricately carved wooden furniture, inlay work, artful lighting and multifoil arches transport cruisers back in time.

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The rich decor extends to The Jahan’s cabins, all of which have balconies, sitting areas and minibars. Four-poster beds are set with classic Indian-made quilts and pillows, while wall murals, stenciled ceilings and fabric-covered walls tie the rooms together.

The pair of 540-square-foot Noble Suites, each with a living room, are the most over-the-top of the accommodations. The Taj, one of these two luxury suites, even sports a second balcony with a hot tub. Up on deck guests will find a pool, and there's also a small spa, gym and steam room.

The dining room offers both buffet and a la carte options representing local southeast Asian dishes as well as continental choices. Once per cruise there is an alfresco barbecue up on deck under the stars; another evening, a cocktail party is held on the banks of the Mekong.

There are also expert lectures, morning tai chi and cooking classes, and in the evenings, film screenings and an apsara dance performance.

Cruising the Lower Mekong between Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, The Jahan visits remote villages, ancient temples, local markets and rice fields, as well as iconic urban sites, like the gilded Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

When sailing between ports, guests can relax on deck and take in both pastoral scenes and the bustling river life. On the several Mekong River cruises I’ve taken, it was interesting to observe folks fishing, farming and doing laundry, as well as watch the fascinating parade of commercial barges piled high with sand, timber and produce.

Mekong River cruise in Cambodia & Vietnam between Siem Reap & Ho Chi Minh, 7 nights from $3,610 per person in high season, October-March (all-inclusive, covering meals, guided excursions and local beer and house wine at lunch and dinner).

Belmond Lilas (8 passengers), Afloat in France

The Belmond fleet includes the 8-passenger Lilas, a new hotel barge offering an elegant and contemporary way to tour the Burgundian countryside and famed vineyards. BELMOND

Belmond is all about luxury travel, from African safaris and posh overnight trains to fancy hotels and high-end passenger barges in France. The Belmond fleet includes the Lilas, offering an elegant and contemporary way to tour the Burgundian countryside and famed vineyards.

Unlike many other French barges, Lilas has a light color palette and uncluttered modern decor, with large windows and wood detailing. All of Lilas’ four airy cabins have en-suite, stone-tiled bathrooms — one even boasting a bathtub (a rarity on a hotel barge). Each room has a king bed or two twins, a writing desk and large windows, which are also an uncommon feature on a hotel barge. Bathrobes, slippers, hairdryers and L’Occitane toiletries are on hand as well.

Lilas travels slowly and easily between Lyon and Auxonne along the Saône River and the canals that intersect with it, including the Canal du Centre and the Canal de Bourgogne. Travelers can relax on classic wooden deck chairs or have a luxuriant soak in Lilas’ small pool at the bow for zoom-lens views of Burgundy’s landscape sliding by. There's also a spacious, light-filled lounge just inside.

Meals are served either inside or out on deck and feature the culinary ministrations of a private chef, who prepares dishes that incorporate regional produce and meats procured from local markets, from duck breast to cote de bouef aged 60 days, accompanied by lemon tart with local blueberry coulis. Fine Burgundian wines and rich French cheeses complete the indulgent menu. The diet definitely starts next week.

Each day visitors can spend several hours ashore touring the region’s famous vineyards and medieval sites. There's the breathtaking 15th-century Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, which was once a hospital, and the magnificent 12th-century chateau at Rully as well as historic Dijon, the center of mustard-making for centuries. Pedaling along the waterways on one of the bicycles carried on board is another appealing option.

Six nights between Lyon and Auxonne from 52,288 euros ($52,130) for private charters up to eight passengers (all-inclusive, covering meals, guided excursions and open bar).

Aqua Nera (40 passengers), Aqua Expeditions

Suite on the Aqua Nera through the Peruvian Amazon River. AQUA EXPEDITIONS

For lovers of wildlife, remote places and awe-inspiring nature, an Amazon River cruise has few rivals. And it’s not only the sights that will leave an impression. On my first Amazon River cruise years ago, it was the beautifully haunting sounds of the rainforest that struck me, with animal calls echoing across the canopy and the sound of rain dripping on leaves adding to the ambiance.

The mighty Amazon starts in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Peru and flows east on a 4,000-mile course towards the Atlantic Ocean. While some Amazon River cruises focus on the eastern end, near Manaus, Brazil, Aqua Expeditions bases its two luxury river boats, including Aqua Nera, on the upriver waters near Iquitos in northeastern Peru.

The ship plies the placid waters of the lush Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, an expansive natural wonderland of flooded forests, freshwater lakes and canals. (Being in Peru, you’re also relatively close to capital city Lima along with Cusco, the jumping-off point for trains and treks to the archaeological wonders of Machu Picchu, which you can visit before or after your Amazon cruise.)

During days out on the river, Aqua Expeditions’ team of naturalists take the helm of Aqua Nera’s four launches, each of which carries just 10 passengers, assuring an intimate, small-scale experience as they motor through the tributaries of the Amazon looking for wildlife. Guides point out rare creatures like giant otters, pink river dolphins, Amazonian manatees, yellow-spotted river turtles and huge pirarucu fish (also known as paiche or arapaima) in the water. Meanwhile, up in the trees, boisterous howler monkeys and rainbow macaws make their presence known. Other excursions include kayaking, swimming and visiting a rural village.

With a 1:1 crew-to-passenger ratio, guests are pampered both on excursions and on board. There are 20 suites spread across two decks, each measuring 322 square feet with floor-to-ceiling windows for views that put you within inches of the river. Eight of them are connecting, making them convenient for families. The elegant modern decor of the suites and public spaces features soothing dark woods, rattan, leather and fabrics in organic tones.

In addition to a plunge pool at the stern, sunbeds and an alfresco dining area and bar on the outdoor top deck, there are a spa treatment room, a small gym, and even a billiard room and screening room. The bar and dining room have sweeping river views of their own and menus come courtesy of one of Peru’s top chefs, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who creates dishes based on native Amazonian foods such as fermented ají negro sauce and paiche.

Peruvian Amazon River round-trip from Iquitos, Peru; three nights from $4,230 per person; seven nights from $9,870 per person (all-inclusive, covering meals, guided excursions and open bar).

American Queen (417 passengers), American Queen Voyages

American Queen sailing through Memphis. AMERICAN QUEEN VOYAGES

American Queen truly stands (or floats) apart from the crowd of other riverboats plying the waterways of North America. Designed as a tribute to the glory days of paddlewheel travel, this very special riverboat has a big, red working wheel, old-fashioned fluted stacks and dangling ramps extending from the bow.

“The American Queen is simply the best replica steamboat that money could buy. From the riverbank, the public sees a palatial showboat that resembles a multi-layered wedding cake. Within, the rich interior design is High Victorian, evoking opulence with lavish details including fine antiques and high-quality replicas,” says maritime expert Ted Scull, co-founder of

The dramatic, two-deck-high J.M. White Dining Room is straight out of a film set, with its fanciful white filigree woodwork, huge gilded antique mirrors and wall tapestries. Keeping to the extravagant theme, the Grand Saloon takes its design cues from a small-town opera house, complete with classic theater-box seating and a pair of chandeliers with gas-style lamps hanging from a plaster ceiling embellished with twinkling stars.

American Queen’s variety of cabins are done up in elaborate Victorian style and include rooms with private verandas as well as a number of popular cabins with “open verandas” that have direct access to the public promenade and the river views beyond.

The Owner’s Suite takes the cake, however, as the largest room (348 square feet), with a huge, 670-square-foot private balcony with French doors. It also boasts 11-foot vaulted ceilings, a separate living room and butler service. Eight “Paddlewheel Staterooms” also feature floor-to-ceiling windows facing the big red wheel for those who would get a kick from this quirky view.

Complementing the one-of-a-kind look and feel of the American Queen is an impressive repertoire of nostalgic activities and entertainment. Passengers are treated to jazz, Big Band and Dixieland concerts, as well American musical revues and even old-timey tunes on a calliope. Lecturers and naturalists set the tone for the itinerary and the “riverlorian” (aka cruise director) spins tales about each day’s landscape and ports of call.

When it comes to dining, that too leans on tradition, with choices like prime rib, fried oysters, stuffed catfish, seafood gumbo — and, of course, Mississippi mud pie.

The upper and middle Mississippi between St Louis and Minneapolis is a particularly scenic stretch compared to the lower Mississippi, where levees built to curtail flooding block the views in places. Along this route, passengers can enjoy the varied landscape of dramatic palisades, sweeping expanses of farmland, and riverside towns and cities like Mark Twain’s boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, along with Bettendorf and Dubuque in Iowa.

Mississippi River cruise between Minneapolis and St Louis, seven nights (plus one hotel night), starts at $2,699 per person (all-inclusive, covering meals, guided excursions and open bar).

SS Sphinx (84 passengers), Uniworld

The S.S. Sphinx cruising along the Nile River. UNIWORLD

Uniworld’s posh, all-inclusive riverboats focus mostly on Europe, but they also cruise rivers farther afield, including charters aboard the S.S. Sphinx along Egypt’s legendary Nile.

A festive riot of colors, textures and patterns, the S.S. Sphinx is a celebration of the region’s rich art and culture. There are two elegant dining venues (one indoors and the other al fresco), plus an attractive lounge, small gym, massage room and even a small pool on deck.

All accommodations, ranging from 233 to 460 square feet, have French balconies and walls covered in rich blue fabric to complement patterned carpets in an equally vibrant palette. Nearly every square inch of the interior showcases the work of local artisans and materials, from sumptuous Egyptian textiles to ornate, hand-carved wooden furniture, ceilings and door panels. Arabic coffee sets, brass lamps with beaded shades, and inlaid furniture add to the vibe.

Maybe the decor goes overboard, but in a land of monumental pyramids, temples and royal tombs, the S.S. Sphinx seems to fit right in.

Speaking of the sights on hand, passengers can visit landmarks including the sprawling ruins of the Karnak and Luxor temples, the gigantic twin Colossi of Memnon statues and the ancient burial grounds of Egyptian royalty in the Valley of the Kings.

A typical 12-day package starts and ends in Cairo and includes a seven-night cruise round-trip from Luxor, plus two nights pre-cruise and two post-cruise in Cairo at a luxury hotel, typically the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza. During the days in Cairo, guests spend time on a guided tour of the famed Egyptian Museum to admire its collection of pharaonic artifacts, including treasures recovered from the tomb of King Tutankhamun. A day spent in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, is also a must, to lay eyes on the ancient pyramids of Giza and the iconic Sphinx.

The “Splendors of Egypt & the Nile” itinerary with seven nights aboard S.S. Sphinx and four nights in a Cairo hotel starts at $6,199 per person (all-inclusive, covering meals, guided excursions, open bar and domestic airfare).

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.