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Have an adventure on the river with these recommended experiences
As the life-giving arteries of the planet, rivers play a crucial part in the water cycle by acting as drainage channels for nearly 75% of the earth's land surface. But they also offer incredible fun for cruisers, rafters, and adventurers - all of whom can connect with nature, spot all manner of wildlife, and watch history unfold as they travel through the heart of a country (and visit exciting places that roads just don’t go to). Here’s our round-up of the most epic waterways worth basing your next holiday around.
The Amazon, South America
The facts: The longest river in South America and the largest drainage system in the world in terms of the volume of its flow and the area of its basin, the 4,980-mile Amazon is slightly shorter than Africa’s Nile (a rivalry that has been going on for centuries). Named in the 1540s by Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana after conflict with a tribe whose female warriors resembled those from Greek mythology, this 300-feet-deep waterway winds its way through through six countries (Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil) before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The ecosystem here is as rich as you’d expect: more than 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species, 3,000 types of fish, 430 mammals, and 2.5 million different insects. It also produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen and is unsurprisingly nicknamed as ‘the lungs of the Earth’.
The fun: Best of Brazil & the Amazon does a stellar job of introducing small groups to this fabled river in 10 days. And while you’re unlikely to encounter spear-firing hunters or leaping jaguars, you will get to bed down in an eco lodge deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Further thrills include jungle trekking, day or night canoeing, and sailing along the Negro River to Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazonia. You’ll also pass the Renaissance-style Amazonas Theatre and the buzzy Port of Manaus before arriving at The Meeting of the Waters - the striking-looking confluence where the dark Negro River and the light Solimõe River flow side-by-side.
The Ganges, India
The facts: Worshipped by nearly a billion Hindus, the colossal Ganges (also called Ganga) is the longest and most famous river in India. Flowing for 1,569 miles from the Himalayan Mountains to the Bay of Bengal, it contributes to more than 25% of the country’s total water resources - even though it’s one of the most contaminated in the world. As a hub of religious activity, bathing in the sacred Ganges is an important part of Hindu pilgrimage; not least because it cleanses of sins and speeds the way to the attainment of nirvana. Expect to see hundreds if not thousands of devotees heading to the river to float small offerings such as rose petals, candles, and oils to the river goddess Mother Ganga, perform holy rituals such as cremations and ash scatterings, pray on the sand banks, and immerse themselves in the dishwater-coloured water.
The fun: North India Highlights takes you on a guided adventure from Delhi to Varanasi in nine days. Once you’ve exhausted some of the country’s most heart-stirring sights, you’ll stop in Varanasi - the sacred 3000-year-old city that’s the holiest in Hinduism. You’ll enjoy a walking tour of the maze-like streets in this hotbed of spiritual activity before taking a boat ride on the Ganges at sunrise to watch the light gradually illuminate the ghats and temples along the riverbanks. You’ll also see Hindus chanting and performing ancient bathing rituals in their quest for moksha (afterlife) and learn more about this soulful place where life and death come together.
The Mekong, Southeast Asia
The facts: From its source high up in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong snakes its way through six different countries (China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia) before emptying into the South China Sea. Given that it’s a staggering 2,703-miles-long, there’s heaps of vibrant scenery along its banks; most famously green rice paddies, water buffaloes, colourful fishing boats, floating markets, riverside communities with unique heritages, and pagodas and temples galore. With 16 Global 200 ecoregions identified by the WWF, not only is this ‘lifeblood of Asia’ the second most biologically diverse river in the world after the Amazon, but it’s also the planet’s most productive inland fishery (it accounts for up to 25% of the global freshwater catch and provides livelihoods for at least 60 million people).
The fun: The 17-night Vietnam and Cambodia Mekong River Discovery includes a seven-night cruise on the mighty Mekong River. Departing from My Tho Port in Vietnam’s Tien Giang province, highlights include the river-land town of Cai Be for its French Gothic cathedral and bustling port area, Sa Dec for its mansions and merchant’s homes, and Tan Chau for its floating villages and silk factory. Further ports of call include Phnom Penh for its dazzling Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Koh Chen for its silverware and copperware workshops, Oudong for its huge Buddhist monastery, and Kampong Chhnang for its pottery and terracotta earthenware.
Hudson River, New York
The facts: With its source at the poetic-sounding Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondack Mountains, the Hudson River runs for 315 miles before emptying into Lower New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Although named after English explorer Henry Hudson who sailed here for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, these waters were already a major travel route for the Mohicans and Munsee Native American tribes (the Lenape tribe called it Muhheakantuck, meaning river that flows two ways). Nowadays, the waterway draws crowds to its Hudson River Historic District - a 32-square-mile National Historic Landmark that extends 150 miles above the tip of Manhattan and wows with a flourishing farmer’s market scene, farm-to-table restaurants, excellent wineries, and landscapes that inspired the acclaimed Hudson River School of Painters.
The fun: Connecting Poughkeepsie in Dutchess County with the Lloyd and Highland in Ulster County, the 1.28-mile-long Walkway Over the Hudson offers 360-degree views of the river and the breathtaking surrounds from a height of 212 feet. Open daily from 7am until sunset (weather depending), it is free year-round and easy accessed from Manhattan (roughly 90 minutes by train or a two-hour drive). Those booking a New York State holiday should plan to spend a few hours visiting both sides of the riverbank to marvel at magnificent mansions, incredible old estates, historic battlefields, apple orchards, and some of the country’s oldest vineyards.
The Yangtze, China
The facts: Asia's longest river begins in Tibet’s Tanggula Mountains and flows for about 3,915 miles before emptying in the East China Sea, watering more than 700 tributaries along the way. Translating as “child of the ocean" (although the Chinese call it Chang Liang, meaning long river), the Yangtze is the largest water system in China - with nearly one-third of the population living in its 448-million-acre basin. The scenery is amazingly diverse; not least because the river traverses 11 provinces and cities from west to east, including Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan, Yunnan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Shanghai. It’s also home to the controversial but awe-inspiring Three Gorges Dam - the world’s largest dam project that serves three functions: flood control, hydroelectric power production, and ship navigation.
The fun: Starting in Beijing and ending in Shanghai, Classic China with Yangtze Cruise and Chengdu introduces small groups to the wonders of this colossal country in 17 days. Sailing on the sophisticated Victoria Selina, itinerary highlights include visiting the Three Gorges Dam and passing through its five-level double lock system, sailing through Xiling Gorge (the longest and deepest of the Three Gorges), floating along the Shenny Stream - one of the Yangtze’s tributaries. You’ll also cruise along the jaw-droppingly beautiful Three Gorges, and enjoy a shore excursion to Shibaozhai - the 200-metre hill topped by a rather famous red temple.
The Kenai, Alaska
The facts: Given that world-class fishing goes hand-in-hand with any Alaska trip, the Kanai River is legendary for its prolific (and world record-breaking) runs of Sockeye, Pink, and Coho Salmon as well as populations of trophy-sized Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden. Commonly divided into three distinct sections (upper, middle, and lower), the river starts at Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing and continues to run 17 miles downstream through the Chugach National Forest and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge before entering into the massive glacial Skilak Lake. The last six miles of the upper Kenai descend into what the Kenai Canyon, a spot most popular for its beautiful scenery and Class II to III rapids. The Lower Kenai flows from Skilak Lake for 50 miles before emptying into Cook Inlet - home to the cosmopolitan port city of Anchorage.
The fun: Alaska & Kenai In-Depth - Small Group Tour offers an epic five-night adventure in Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Highlights include travelling along the 127-mile Seward Highway taking in views of the craggy Chugach Mountains, waterfalls and sparkling glaciers, getting up close with Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield, and wildlife-watching (keep your eyes peeled for bears, orca whales, sea lions, puffins, seals, mountain goats, and more). Further thrills include a full-day ranger-guided wildlife cruise around Resurrection Bay, a full-day floatplane tour into Lake Clark National Park & Preserve for bear viewing, and kayaking in Kachemak Bay.
The Chobe and Zambezi, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana
The facts: The fourth longest river in Africa after the Nile, Congo, and Niger, the 1,6777-mile Zambezi winds through six countries on its journey from its source in the Mwinilunga District (close to the border where Zambia, Angola and the Congo meet) to the Indian Ocean. Eventually, it hits the Chobe River and becomes the point that four countries meet (Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) before flowing another 50 miles down towards Victoria Falls. While the Zambezi is most famous for its remarkable game viewing, unique river safaris, and exciting watersports, the Chobe River that flows along Chobe National Park’s northern boundary is one of the greatest places in Africa to see elephant herds (during the dry season you can marvel at these magnificent creatures drinking, bathing, and playing by the river).
The fun: Located opposite Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools Reserve and spread across both sides of the Zambezi River, Lower Zambezi National Park is a massive wildlife sanctuary where most of the game is found along the valley floor. The best time to visit is from June to September, but all lodges and canoeing operators are open from April to November. Chobe National Park also offers plenty of exciting activities and attractions besides elephants, including walking safaris, bush picnics, game drives, and serene river cruises. Don’t miss the popular Serondela area for the park’s floodplains, mopane forests, and the highest concentration of wildlife.
The Mississippi, USA
The facts: Flowing from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to Louisiana before draining into the Gulf of Mexico, the 2,350-mile Mississippi also flows through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Named by the Anishinaabe people as Misi-ziibi (meaning great river), this important route for trade and travel has historically been the dividing line between North America’s eastern and western states. Nowadays, it is one of the world’s major river systems in terms of size, biological activity, and habitat diversity. Home to 260 species of fish, 326 species of birds, and 50 species of mammals, these waters are also where 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson invented the water skiing in 1922 by famously skimming the waters of Lake Pepin - a wide part of the river near Lake City in Minnesota.
The fun: Self-Drive Louisiana & Mississippi - Jazzy Jambalaya Adventure is an eight-night, fly-drive holiday that takes you to several towns and cities around Louisiana - the Bayou State at the end of the Mississippi River where the waters join with the Gulf. Sightseeing highlights include New Orleans for its walkable French Quarter and charming Garden District, Baton Rouge for its striking antebellum landmarks and historic monuments, and Natchez for its beautifully preserved mansions and unique southern hospitality. You’ll also get to spend time in Lafayette where the distinct French Canadian culture was introduced by Acadians from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and eastern Quebec in the mid-1700's.
River Kwai, Thailand
The facts: Winding its way through Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province, the River Kwai (meaning buffalo river) rewards with extraordinary scenery; think cascading waterfalls, dramatic gorges, deep pools, soaring rapids, and rugged mountains. But it’s most famous for its connection with David Lean’s multi-million-dollar epic The Bridge on the River Kwai - the 1957 Oscar-winning movie about British POWs during the Japanese occupation of Thailand. Also known as the Death Railway Bridge, this is the river’s biggest draw - although it is it somewhat of a misnomer because the bridge is a replica and built for the movie by acclaimed set designer, Don Ashton. The original track is now a walkway and there are excellent memorials and museums for visitors eager to learn more about this harrowing historical event.
The fun: Overnight at The Float House River Kwai is a private, two-day guided tour that takes you to Kanchanaburi - the third-largest province that has a poignant place in the country’s history. Highlights include the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum, the War Cemetery (where a percentage of the 13,000 POWs and 100,000 native labourers are buried), and the legendary bridge that has been immortalised in print and film. You’ll also enjoy a boat ride to Mon Tribal Village to watch a traditional dance show before spending the night at Float House River Kwai Resort - a boutique-style hotel that actually floats on the peaceful river.