From blood-red waters to banks lined with fairytale castles, these rivers all offer something special.
1. The Kenai, Alaska, US
If sports fishing, canoeing and kayaking sound like the ingredients for a dream holiday there is no better place than the lush, rugged landscapes of the Kenai River. It runs 82 miles (132 km) westward from the Kenai Mountains, through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Skilak Lake, to the Pacific Ocean.
Salmon fishing is another of the main attractions, with one specimen caught here reaching the extraordinary weight of 97lb (44kg). It tends to get overcrowded during the peak fishing season – July and August – so consider a date closer to autumn.
2. The Irrawaddy, Burma
The country’s longest river takes in some of the most impressive sights of this fast-changing country. The Irrawaddy bisects Burma, rising among Himalayan glaciers and flowing freely for 1,348 miles across a wide alluvial plain into the Indian Ocean.
3. The Yangtze, China
The longest river in Asia rises from the glaciers of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and flows eastwards through 10 provinces before emptying into the sea north of Shanghai. While the riches of the Yangtze today come mostly from its mammoth hydroelectric potential, it has served China for far longer as a source of food and water for the irrigation of its rice fields. One of the most impressive sights along the river is the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station. More bucolic sights to be enjoyed from the deck of a river cruiser include Nanjing’s Purple Mountain.
4. The Rhine, Europe
The busiest and, according to many, the most picturesque waterway in Europe, the Rhine flows through six countries: Austria, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, The Netherlands and Switzerland. The 1,320 km (820-mile) river has shaped the history of Europe more than any other and its legacy is on its margins: Disneyesque castles and medieval fortresses bare witness to Europe’s belligerent past. The terraced vineyards of the legendary Lorelei Rock stretch are a Unesco World Heritage Site, and produce some fantastic rieslings.
5. Caño Cristales, Columbia
Often referred to as the “The River of the Five Colors” or “Liquid Rainbow”, this Colombian waterway in the province of Meta is a strong contestant for the most beautiful river in the world. From July to November the bed of the river features garish hues of yellow, green, blue, black, and red, due to the high concentration of algae. Caño Cristales is located in a remote area of Columbia and is not easily accessible by road. Until 2009 the site was effectively closed because the FARC guerrilla activity in area but adventurous tourist can now explore the area safely.
6. The Mekong, south-east Asia
Some of the world’s most exotic and fascinating destinations are touched by the Mekong, which rises in the Tibetan Plateau and runs through China’s Yunnan province, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying in the South China Sea. Some of Southeast Asia’s best destinations can be reached on a boat through the Mekong including Siam Reap for the Angkor Wat ruins and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s cosmopolitan metropolis.
7. The Douro, Portugal
Although its popularity has soured in the past decade, with development spoiling its banks somewhat, many towns along the Douro still preserve a certain late 19th-century aura. The bright morning light bouncing off the white houses, each of which are filled with tapestries and hand-painted tiles, takes you back to a time when the number of wine producers and the number of inhabitants in the region was virtually the same.
8. The Neretva, Bosnia and Herzegovina
This is a pristine emerald-green wonder that has yet to be discovered by the mainstream. It is one of the cleanest rivers in Europe – its water is of drinking standard from source until roughly the middle of its length. It is also one of the coldest: it’s source, in the Dinanic Alps, is more than a mile above sea level.
The city of Mostar, with its 16th century white stone bridge, is one of its most scenic stops and diving into the river from the bridge is a bit of a local obsession.
9. The Danube, Europe
The Danube is the Europe’s second longest river, ranking below only the Volga, in Russia. It crosses ten countries – Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine and Moldova – and serves some of Europe’s most historic cities.
As far as river cruising wars go, only the Rhine can match the Danube in terms of popularity. A typical itinerary will take you to Vienna, with its Art Deco cafes, where the likes of Frank Kafka was drank; Budapest, the Hungarian capital; and Bratislava, capital of Slovakia and a great stop for lovers of the outdoors due to its location in the foothills of the Carpathians.
10. The Spree, Germany
While the Rhine is favoured by tourists, the Spree should not be overlooked. It flows through the very heart of the old kingdoms of Saxony, Bohemia and Bavaria where the architecture remains so faithful to its medieval past that the BBC brought Peter Capaldi and company to the riverside city of Doksany, in the Czech Republic, to film the TV series The Musketeers.
11. The Nile, Egypt
The Nile is 6,695km (4,160 miles) from source to mouth but most cruises sail for three or four days between Aswan and Luxor, stopping off to see the temples at Kom Ombo, Edfu, and Esna. For the intrepid explorer, however, more immersive options are available. You can sail North from Luxor to Dendera and Abydos, which can take up to 12 days depending on how many shore excursions and nights in port are included. Longer cruises include visits to Sohag, El Amarna, Tuna El-Gabal, and Ashmunein, and end in Cairo, Egypt’s chaotic capital.
12. The Brahmaputra, China/India/Bangladesh
Rising in the Angsi Glacier of Tibet, the Brahmaputra meets India at Arunachal Pradesh, flowing southwest along the Assam Valley, and then south through Bangladesh.
13. The Chobe, Africa
This river rises in Angola, where it travels under the name of Kwando, before becoming Linyanti in Botswana and finally Chobe in Namibia, where it feeds into Zambezi. It is one of the wildest and most exotic rivers in the world, and passes striking examples of Africa’s diverse fauna and flora. On Botswana’s far northern border, the Kwando, Linyanti and Chobe river systems come together forming a watery mosaic of lakes, islands, channels and floodplains. The Chobe National Park, renowned for its vast herds of elephant and buffalo, sits on these margins.
14. The Ganges, India/Bangladesh
The most sacred river in India, the Ganges has been not only a spiritual guide but a lifeline to millions. Many former provincial and imperial capitals, such as Kannauj, Kashi and Allahabad, are located on its banks, while it touches some of India’s most famous sights, chief among them being Kolkata, also a former imperial capital, and Varasani, the holiest of the seven holy cities, immortalised by thousands of pictures of its riverside staircase, packed with Buddhists paying tribute to Lord Shiva. The Ganges rises in the western Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and flows south and east through the northern India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal.