Kerala backwaters cruise

Kerala Backwaters Cruise on the Vaikundam

By Heidi Sarna.

India is a vast country with a diverse geography. There are soaring snow-capped mountains, dry dusty deserts, tropical jungles and thousands of miles of coastline.

Many first timers to India do the Golden Triangle circuit in the north, visiting the historic and teeming cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, and the holy ghats of Varanasi.

For repeat visitors to India who want to explore a more remote part of the country, the long thin state of Kerala in southern India, with its 400 miles of shoreline along the Arabian Sea, is a great option.

india map

Kerala is in southern India. * Map:

Kerala is known for its backwaters, a network of canals, rivers and lakes popular for houseboating aboard the region’s traditional wood and thatched boats called kettuvallam.

kerala houseboat

We saw many other houseboats along the Kerala backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The barge-like boats were originally designed to transport rice, coconuts and spices to and from the ports of Kochi (also known historically as Cochin by various European powers) and Alappuzha along India’s Malabar coast, for centuries major points in the Europe-Asia spice trade.

Today, a Kerala backwaters cruise has come to be known as an exotic and off-beat travel experience for those who want to go deeper into India’s natural bounty and fascinating history and culture.

Kerala backwaters

The peaceful canals and waterways of the Kerala Backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala Backwaters

Heidi enjoying the golden hour along the scenic Kerala backwaters.

The Vaikundam

There are reportedly some 1,400 houseboats in Kerala’s backwaters, most with a few basic cabins, dining area, and sliver of open-air deck, that offer tourists short two- and three-day cruises.

The 18-passenger Vaikundam is a Kerala houseboat that stands apart from the crowd.

While it originally offered short cruises when it was launched in 2000, last year after an extensive renovation, Vaikundam began focusing on weeklong backwaters cruises that include narrow canals and shallow passages other boats can’t access.

18-passenger Vaikundam.

The 18-passenger Vaikundam. * Photo: Scott Anderson

I joined a cruise aboard the Vaikundam last October with my friend Harman; it was the kind of unusual quirky small-ship cruise that greatly appeals to me and I wasn’t disappointed.

Heidi and a friend

Heidi & her friend on a village walk in the Kerala Backwaters. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Constructed of teak, wild jack and jack tree wood, Vaikundam has a pleasantly rustic dining area, bar and lounge, and roomy open deck at the bow, all accented with Indian cotton fabrics.

Vaikundam's dining area

Vaikundam’s dining area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam's cozy bar area

Vaikundam’s cozy bar area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam's Interior bar and lounge area

Interior bar and lounge area. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

View from Vaikundam's viewing deck

View from Vaikundam’s bow. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Air-conditioned cabins are cozy with large windows and chunky wooden doors and furniture.

Vaikundam cabin view

The view from our cabin afforded water line views of the passing scenery. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Bathrooms are basic with marble-clad showers. Our beds were very comfy and we slept like logs all week.

Vaikundam cabin

Most of the cabins look like this, our rooms for the week. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam cabin door

The cabin door. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

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Cruising for Cruising Sake

A weeklong cruise on Vaikundam covers about 100 miles in total, between Kochi and Alappuzha, but not in a straight shot. The boat slowly zigzags at no more than four or five knots though the flood-prone backwaters, sometimes backtracking, to get to the most scenic areas.

Vaikundam cruising past a village on a Kerala houseboat cruise

A close-up view of village life from the Vaikundam. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

You’ll often feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, pushing through water hyacinths, and gazing out at the ubiquitous rice fields and stands of palm, mahogany, tamarind, banana, and betel nut trees.

One morning, we cruised down one particularly slender canal. At one point, those of us on the open-air bow had to duck so as not to be whacked in the head with a tree branch.

Vaikundam in the narrow Kerala backwaters

Vaikundam in a narrow canal. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We cruised for several hours each day, greatly enjoying the ride, and then tied up each evening for the night.

Typically, we enjoyed a village walk before dinner with our guide Kabir, treated to glowing orange sunsets nearly every time.

Kerala Backwaters cruise village walk sunset

A village walk at sunset. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Daily Excursions

One or two excursions each day were done by foot or mini-bus. We visited two Dickensian-like workshops, where metal mirrors and brass bells are made in the old ways — open flames, basic tools and craftsman sitting on the ground hunched over their work.

bell making

Bell making, the old fashioned way. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

On our daily village walks, Kabir pointed out the flora and birds as we walked past locals doing what their families have done for generations in Kerala’s backwaters — cleaning freshly-caught fish along the canal, beating laundry against rocks at the water’s edge and bathing in their white mundus (a Kerala-style lungi).

A woman cleaning freshly caught fish. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Along the way, we visited a boat building yard, where traditional kettuvallums are made by stitching wooden planks together with coir (coconut fiber) rope. Kabir also pointed out the many sail-like “Chinese fishing nets” that are a common sight throughout the backwaters, as are Kerala’s famous snake boats — long ceremonial (and one-time war) canoes now used for special occasions.

Chinese fishing nets in Kerala

Chinese fishing nets. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Traditional performing arts were weaved into the itinerary as well. One afternoon we got a fascinating insider look at the elaborate make-up and costume preparation that goes into a theatrical Kathakali dance performance — a mellow-dramatic dance form that tells stories from the Hindu epics.

Kerala performance prep

The elaborate preparation needed for a traditional theatrical Kathakali performance we enjoyed. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

traditional Kerala dance

This man did an amazing job in his role. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Another day we watched an age-old martial arts performance, called kalaripayattu, some segments with knives and spears. Mid-way through the cruise, a troupe of young girls and their teacher performed classical dances for us on the bow before dinner.

dance performance by a troupe of local girls

A dance performance by a troupe of local girls. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Throughout the week, Kabir framed the region’s history and culture by telling us about the Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims who came to Kerala to trade spices with the Arabs and Chinese, long before the Portuguese, Dutch, and British came to stake their claim in the lucrative business of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, chilis and more. And of course, the immigrants brought their religion with them.

village walk in Kerala with guide

Village walk with guide Kabir. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

guide Kabir

Our guide Kabir (in light blue) with our small group on a village walk. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Houses of Worship

In Kochi, we went inside the lovely 16th-century Paradesi synagogue with its beautiful Belgian glass chandeliers.

16th-century Paradesi synagogue

The lovely 16th-century Paradesi synagogue. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We also saw the 500-year-old Portuguese church where explorer Vasso da Gama was buried in 1524, and in Champakulam, admired the grand old St. Mary’s Basilica with its ornately painted wooden interior.

church Vasso da Gama was buried in in 1524.

Vasso da Gama was buried here in 1524. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Catholic churches were ubiquitous, with many being white-washed, and others painted in pastels.

Catholic church in Kerala

A Catholic church in Kerala. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We visited several of Kerala’s Hindu temples, most low and flat (in contrast to the tall colorful gopuram towers of some Hindu temples in southern India) with horizontal wooden planks and niches for small oil lamps.

Typical village temple in Kerala Backwaters

A typical village temple. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Pink temple in Kerala

Pink temple gates. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

One temple we visited had a resident elephant who lived under a tall open-sided shed. Its legs were chained and it was fed bundles of fresh grasses by its keeper; captive yet coddled. While it seemed cruel to foreign eyes to see the giant animal in shackles, Keralites revere elephants and for centuries they’ve been an important part of religious ceremonies and festivals.

temple elephant in Kerala India

A chained temple elephant. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Thuravoor Narsimha Hindu temple we visited at the end of the cruise near Kochi was the scene of such a procession. It happened to be an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, Pooram, and so we witnessed a dozen elephants adorned in gilded festival regalia being paraded around the temple grounds, accompanied by rhythmic drumming and the squawking of the clarinet-like nadasvaram. A bare-chested priest sat astride each elephant’s neck, and handlers or mahouts were at their beck and call. It was a sight to behold.

Kerala temple elephants

Festival day at the Thuravoor Narsimha Hindu temple near Kochi. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala temple elephants

An auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, Pooram, saw these temple elephants adorned to the hilt. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Daily Life

Maybe most appealing about our week on the Vaikundam, was being privy to a slice of real life along the banks of the backwaters and in the villages and small towns we visited. From markets and stores, to buskers and street vendors, to families and folks out and about on their daily commutes, India is a fascinating place for people watching.

balloon seller in Kerala

Balloons anyone? * Photo: Heidi Sarna

ice cream Arun in Kerala town

Heidi spots an ice-cream that sports her husband’s first name! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

colorful shop in Kochi

Colorful shops every where. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Kerala backwaters chilis

Chilis are ubiquitous! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

village festival in Kerala

Happening upon a village festival. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Avian Delights

For birders, the Kerala backwaters are cause for major delight. Our guide Kabir had an eagle’s eye for spotting birds in trees, flying overhead and fishing in the water. Passengers’ zoom lenses were out in full force.

Zooming in on the birdlife of Kerala backwaters

Zooming in on the birdlife. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

From fruit bats with a wingspan of a meter to brilliant kingfishers and bee eaters, flycatchers, larks, parrots and so many more, our avian friends swooped, called and flapped to and fro across Vaikundam’s bow.

Egrets, heron, ducks, and elegant snake birds (so named for their long thin necks) were easy to spot on excursions in small skiffs, which we enjoyed on more than one occasion.

Kerala birds

The Kerala backwaters are a birders dream. * Photo: Scott Anderson

One early morning we visited the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary on the edge of Lake Vembanad, which was carpeted in brilliant fuchsia water lilies. We traveled in a private sightseeing boat and the mini cruise was a bird and nature lovers’ paradise.

Kerala Backwaters bird life

A morning skiff ride was a bird lovers paradise. * Photo: Scott Anderson

Delicious Home Cooking

For many of us, the biggest joy was eating. A range of Indian dishes were served buffet-style on board, and there was also a delicious lunch and a dinner planned in local homes on shore.

South India’s beloved fresh fish, caught nearby and cooked whole, was always on the menu, from pearl spot to silver mullet, snapper, catfish and other varieties.

For anyone who craves some western comfort food, the chefs will happily comply. The beauty of a small-ship cruise like the Vaikundam, is that service is personal and flexible. “No” is rarely heard and there are few “rules.”

Vaikundam dining

Delicious spread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

There were excellent vegetable dishes made with okra, pumpkin, lentils and carrots, and Kerala rice served straight up or as steamed idly and puttu “cakes.” There was butter chicken, mutton dishes and the range of breads India is so well known for, including fried puri and parathas.

Dinner aboard the Vaikundam

Mealtime was happy time for all of us! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Vaikundam lunch in Kerala

Lunch is served. YUM! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

And Kerala’s famous coconut seemed to make its way into nearly everything. The delicious pickled chutneys and relishes were also a big hit with our group.

A full bar on board offers humble Indian wines (including the Sula brand), beers (Kingfisher) and soda (Thums Up) as well as spirits, all at a la carte pricing.

Even if you vow to yourself, you’ll eat less tomorrow, it won’t happen. We always intended to take just one helping at dinner, to skip dessert, to decline a mug of refreshing beer after lunch. Oh well!

mugs of beer on the Vaikundam

Cheers! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

But no, this was a cruise of going with the flow in more ways than one. It was about indulging our senses, all of them, in the sights, the sounds and the tastes of Kerala’s backwaters. And what a sensory adventure it was.

Heidi and Harman on a Kerala Backwaters cruise.

Wonderful memories waiting to be created on a Kerala Backwaters cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Cruising India’s Brahmaputra River. by Heidi Sarna

RELATED:  Adventures on India’s Brahmaputra River. by Judi Cohen



7-night Vaikundam cruises start at $2,950 USD per cabin per week (for two people) and include all excursions and meals.


You must fly in and out of Kochi, in Kerala; many flights from the US would connect through Delhi or Mumbai. Before the cruise, we stayed for two nights at the lovely Taj Malabar Resort & Spa in Cochin.

Taj Malabar Resort in Cochin, Kerala

The Taj Malabar Resort & Spa in Cochin. * Photo: Heidi Sarna


  • Water levels and tides can vary, so the itinerary will be somewhat fluid.
  • To visit temples, you must remove your shoes; many will allow socks, so bring extras if you prefer wearing them to being barefooted.
  • Women should dress modestly and not wear sleeveless or crop tops, or shorts; thin cotton tops are a good option as are cargo pants or leggings with long tops over them.
removing your shoes before going into temples

Removing your shoes is several times a day is par for the course. * Photo: Heidi Sarna


Kerala’s climate is tropical and so it’s warm and humid all year-round. There are two rainy seasons brought on by the seasonal monsoons, in June and mid-October, when there is typically rain for no more than a few hours a day (note the low-lying backwaters are prone to flooding). Temperatures year-round see highs in the 80s (F) and lows in the 70s (F).

Heidi and friends on Vaikundam

Happy campers aboard the Vaikundam. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Cruising Season

The main Kerala backwaters cruising season is October through April.

Money Matters

The Indian rupee (INR) is the official currency; credit cards are accepted in larger shops.

COVID-19 Travel Updates

From Vaikundam’s owner, Sanjay Basu, chairman of Adventure Resorts & Cruises:

“Domestic tourism is already ramping up steadily in India, while international in-bound tourism is expected to revive once a vaccine is available worldwide. The good news is that some vaccines are anticipated to come out by year-end 2020; and whenever the vaccines are available, we expect billions of doses to be manufactured in India where 60% of the world’s vaccines are made.

“I think that in the COVID and post-COVID times, small ships will be more attractive than ever as their smaller numbers along with proper SOPs (standard operating procedures) being followed will contribute to fewer health risks. The smaller numbers can be cross-checked prior to boarding to be infection-free with testing, and so a clean air bubble can be created on-board.”

For More Info

Contact Adventure Resorts & Cruises at

Kerala backwaters cruise

Chilling out and watching the scenery float by. * Photo: Heidi Sarna


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Yangtze Cruising

Yangtze Cruising, A Quarter Century Ago

by Theodore W. Scull.

Looking out from the 27th floor of the Jinjiang Tower hotel, Shanghai’s burgeoning new skyline looms over the shabby, low-rise river city I last visited in 1979. Shanghai represents new China on the move.

Happily, still remaining are the colonial-style buildings paralleling the Bund, fronting on an endless parade of green and white river steamers loaded with passengers bound for Nanjing, Wuhan and Chongqing — an eight-day upriver journey for the truly adventurous.

Victoria Cruises – The Beginning

In 1994, Victoria Cruises, a Sino-American joint venture, brought international standards to Yangtze River travel when the 154-passenger Victoria I entered service, followed a year later by Victoria II and then a third sister in September 1996.

Yangtze Cruising

Victoria I awaits its boarding passengers at Wushan. * Photo: Ted Scull

Most tourists to China want to visit several destinations such as Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Xian and Guilin, so Victoria Cruises concentrates on the Yangtze’s most scenic portion, the 870 miles between Wuhan and Chongqing, a trip of four nights downstream and five nights upstream.

The major attraction is the legendary passage through the misty Three Gorges, but the river journey also offers poignant insights into timeless rural traditions, small town life and frenzied industrial development of present-day China.

Victoria Cruising

Entering the The Three Gorges. * Photo: Ted Scull

We Literally Miss The Boat

On my early May cruise in 1995, most of Victoria I’s passengers settled into their floating home at Wuhan, while 20 others literally missed the boat because of a much-delayed connecting flight from Shanghai. My brother and I were in a real bind.

I noticed a small group of Americans nearby, mostly women, talking to their young Chinese escort, so I walked over and asked if they were hoping to sail on a Yangtze River cruise. With the answer “yes,” one member added that the guide does not know what to do. I quickly looked the group over and asked if they were from New York, and got a second “yes.” After a “me too,” I said I know what the next port is, and I will share it with your group, if you can convince the guide to take my brother and me. I then quickly added, “and charter a bus.”

One New Yorker, who looked to be in charge, went to the Chinese guide and very soon thereafter, she approached me and said, “yes.” The Chinese guide disappeared for a while and came back saying a bus will come soon. Well, in about an hour, giving us a chance to eat something, it arrived, a small airport-style transfer bus, and we started the process of packing ourselves aboard.

My brother and I said we would happy to sit at the very back, and after about a half hour, we were all seated, with everyone nursing a suitcase on their laps. We had a stack of bags to our left and right and two bags on our laps.

Chasing After the Riverboat by Bus … Overnight

We started out in the dark and soon the road devolved into a narrow bumpy partially-paved country road, with very little traffic, and when approaching a town, smoother paved sections appeared. We saw almost no one and very few lights. We made a couple of pit stops at public WCs — getting off and back on with much luggage to move was a major undertaking. However, everybody was being a good sport.

Dawn finally arrived and at about 7:30am we pulled up to a river pontoon landing in the ancient temple city of Yueyang. No boat to be seen, and I had a few moments of sheer panic. The Chinese guide spoke to a man standing on the pontoon, and he pointed out into the Yangtze and to the left. About 15 minutes later Victoria I appeared and hooted a few times announcing her arrival.

A few more line handlers arrived and the docking was complete. Almost immediately, the passengers began filing off to join a town tour, and 20 minutes later our little group boarded into an atmosphere of serenity, comfort and cleanliness.

Victoria Cruising

Passenger vessels carried many Chinese traveling from point to point along the river. * Photo: Ted Scull

Aboard at Last

The inviting standard-category cabins (70 of the 77 rooms) have twin beds set before a huge picture-window with sliding panels allowing the sounds of the river to waft through. Additional amenities included a writing desk, closed-circuit TV, adequate storage space for a non-dressy cruise, and a small bathroom with shower.

Victoria Cruising

Victoria I’s double-decked entrance lobby. * Photo: Ted Scull

Most passengers on this trip hailed from North America, including many Chinese Americans. Tour groups and independent travelers are assigned a choice of two or three tables at a single seating. Breakfast was a buffet with both Chinese and Western food, whereas the buffet lunches and served dinners consist mainly of Chinese dishes, marked by excellent ingredients but, with the exception of a few tasty sauces, rather bland fare.

Beer, soft drinks and bottled water are included at meals, and the Chinese staff provides willing service in the restaurant and bar and at the reception desk.

Victoria Cruising

A suite aboard Victoria I. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

Yangtze Cruising Lectures

During the day, two Americans gave informative lectures on Chinese history and traditions in the main observation lounge, and commentary continued on the open decks.

The Yangtze is south China’s principal highway, and the intense traffic includes tugs, barges, cargo ships, ferries, passenger steamers and cruise boats — all vying for room to maneuver along the constantly shifting channel. Victoria I’s pilot silently passed orders to the helmsman using a single finger and communicated with the oncoming, downstream traffic with one or two whistles. One whistle meant a request for a port to port passing and two, starboard to starboard. One whistle in return confirmed the request.

The Dam Under Construction & Consequences

At the smoky industrial town of Yichang, the boat passed through the Gezhouba Dam — China largest, rising 65 feet in a single lock — while hundreds of Chinese looked on from viewing platforms. This dam is nothing compared to the 600-foot-high Three Gorges Dam now under construction just upriver that, when completed, will alter the dramatic scenery and flood many historical sites.

Victoria Cruises

The huge dam under construction will eventually flood this riverside town. * Photo: Ted Scull

If everything goes as planned — and there is some doubt about this — by 2009, a reservoir will stretch back 370 miles, submerging 1,500 towns and village and 72,000 acres of agricultural land, and forcing resettlement of 1.3 million people. The controversial and grandiose project is expected to supply 15 percent of China’s electricity, control flooding, facilitate navigation by eliminating rapids, and boost China’s national pride.

RELATED: A Yangtze Cruising Adventure in 2018.  By Anthony Anderton.

Three Little Gorges

During the stop at Wushan, we made our way up a lively main street of shops and food stalls to high ground overlooking the junction of the Yangtze and Daning rivers. It is difficult to imagine that this busy scene will disappear when the city is demolished and the site flooded.

Victoria Cruising

A motorcycle built for five. * Photo: Ted Scull

At the far end of town, we boarded longboats that sputtered up through the Daning River rapids into the Three Little Gorges. When the strong currents threatened to stop our progress, two men poled mightily to maintain headway.

Victoria Cruising

Two men struggle to make headway up the fast-flowing Daning River, a Yangtze tributary. * Photo: Ted Scull

The steep cliffs are pockmarked with caves, some containing burial coffins, and a double line of square holes that once held wooden beams to support a plank walkway dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The Big Three Gorges

The main event of Yangtze cruising, the passage through the Three Gorges, extends over two days, and for the Chinese-American passengers, the gorges are the source of many legends, particularly of the Three Kingdoms.

Victoria Cruising

Heading into the The Gorges. * Photo: Ted Scull

The 47-mile Xiling Gorge once was considered the most dangerous of all. Numerous steamers came to grief in the rock-strewn rapids before a safe channel was blasted through in the 1950s. A temple, built 1500 years ago, and suggestive rock formations in the shape of a monkey, a man riding a horse, and another carrying luggage are silhouetted against the sky.

The 35-mile Wu Gorge’s sheer cliffs rise to green-clad limestone peaks often enshrouded in swirling mists, with the highest, Goddess Peak, resembles a woman kneeling in front of a pillar. Qutang Gorge is short yet dramatically flanked by 4,000-foot mountains that squeeze the river into a narrow canyon, inhibiting two-way traffic. A stone path carved into the rock walls once provided a narrow walkway for hundreds of trackers who dragged sail-powered junks and sampans up through the rapids.

Victoria Cruising

The fringing mountains rise high above the river valley. * Photo: Ted Scull

Farms & Life Overlooking the Yangtze

The Yangtze straightens, and the parallel slopes, radiant in the late afternoon sun, are dotted with orange and peach orchards, chestnut trees and small plots of wheat and corn. Farmers carrying produce in baskets yoked across their shoulders shared narrow paths with small herds of goats and children in school uniform returned to whitewashed, tile-roofed farmhouses.

Victoria Cruising

Mother and child. * Photo: Ted Scull

Beyond the attractive city of Fengjie, where stone steps lead up from the river landings to Ming Dynasty gates and short stretches of original city walls, a gritty scene appeared. Beneath a line of smoking factories, hundreds of coolies were loading coal into baskets and with rapid steps filed down to ships at the water’s edge, then returned uphill to repeat the process.

The Last Stop & The End

We stopped at Fengdu, known as the City of Ghosts, where a temple complex dates to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), much reconstructed following destruction by the Red Guards.

Yangtze Cruising

A Victoria Cruises lecturer tries out the merchandise in Fengdu. * Photo: Ted Scull

Disembarking at Chongqing, we found the city enveloped in fog, a natural phenomenon exacerbated by an appalling level of industrial pollution a deep valley.

Victoria Cruising

A seductively lovely sunset is “enhanced” by a high level of air pollution. * Photo: Ted Scull

A few short hours later, in a room at the Regent in Hong Kong, I looked through another huge window from a level not much higher off the water than the cabin aboard Victoria I. The harbor was as busy as the Yangtze, and the skyline over on Hong Kong Island is what Shanghai is aiming to duplicate.

A few months from now, both cities will be in competition under the same central government, following the British Crown Colony’s return to China.

Note: This Yangtze cruising article originally appeared nearly a quarter century ago in Cruise Travel, a bimonthly magazine that ceased publication in 2020. Additional copy totalling 400 words was added to the article for use on, but it largely remains as it was written in 1995.

Contact: American-owned Victoria Cruises operates seven riverboats with daily departures mid-March to the end of November between Chongqing and Yichang, 5 days/4 nights upstream and 4 days/3 nights downstream. Less frequent sailings in December and February. The Three Gorges are the highlights.

quirkycruise bird



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First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise

By Ted Scull.

Heading into my senior year in college, I had one empty slot to round out my final academic schedule. Sitting with a good friend one day, we both decided to study Russian, the language. We were bound for Europe in the months after graduation, and the professor, though known to be a tough taskmaster, also had a great reputation.

At the end of the first day of class when we had been introduced to the Russian alphabet and how the letters were pronounced, Dr. B. gave us our assignment. Be prepared for a quiz, and if you passed to his satisfaction, you could continue, otherwise you will have to find another course to complete your credits.

We attacked the task with relish and stayed up half the night testing each other, and the next day we returned to class and passed muster. A few fell by the wayside.

The language study included quite a lot of Russian history and politics, and I became so intrigued by the world’s other superpower, I decided to plan a trip there. After graduation from college, I had six weeks between a summer job and starting an academic year abroad in Paris. My friend Bob planned a motorcycle trip deep into Eastern Europe, and we would rendezvous in Paris in October.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR, named after a river in eastern Siberia.

Heading off to Europe

After graduation, I sailed over on the German liner Hanseatic and connected to the boat train for Paris where I stashed my belongings, those not needed for traveling east. At Gare de L’Est I boarded an overnight train for Prague, the start of a month and a half of travel. The next day, while I was beginning lunch in the restaurant car, we made a stop at Pilsen. Cartons of Pilsner beer came aboard, my favorite foreign beer at home.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Prague (Praha) Central Station. * Photo: Ted Scull

Arriving at Prague Central Station late in the day, I had failed to look up where my hotel was located. So, I showed the taxi driver the name, Esplanade, and we took a strange meandering route arriving at my destination about 15 minutes later. When I entered my hotel room, I looked out the window and what did I see – the railway station just two blocks away.

I stayed two full days, seeing the city on foot, and while a beautiful and intriguing place, it had nowhere near the bustle and excitement of Paris. The train to Vienna took just four hours and there I teamed up with another college friend and his new wife for a Danube River cruise all the way to the Black Sea and onward by overnight ship to Yalta.

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Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Vienna & Boarding the Riverboat

All travel from now was through Intourist, the Russian government travel agency. One either picked the tourist or first-class level and the hotel charge included three meals a day. It was only permitted to stay in cities on the Intourist list, and the major ones had a limit of five days. Yalta, an inexpensive resort town, permitted up to four weeks. For travel between most cities, you could choose to fly or take the train.

First Small-Sip Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR at a landing along the Danube, * Photo: Ted Scull

Two nights in Vienna revealed a stunning city of art, music and architecture, and its lively atmosphere would be hard to match in the Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Romanian and Bulgarian cities in route to the Black Sea.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Vienna where private palaces and grounds are opened to the public. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Soviet-owned riverboat Amur (named after a river is eastern Siberia) we boarded had been built on the Danube as one of a pair, qualifying as war reparations for the damage done to Russia in WWII. Its purpose was to bring foreign currency to an economically struggling Russia. The riverboat was white with a red stripe along the main deck and hammer and sickle on the funnel.

Passengers occupied three decks, one full deck of windowed outside twin-bedded cabins with private facilities, and a second higher deck with more cabins, an observation lounge, large windowed dining saloon, and a bar. A wraparound promenade allowed complete circumnavigations. Open space included a large portion of the top (navigating) deck and a small area at the bow one level below.

Danube River

The Danube River & the Black Sea.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Settling In

My first riverboat, fairly new and seemingly well-maintained, was a pleasant surprise, but then I had no idea really know what to expect. Upon casting off, we had some 60 passengers, about half capacity but then it was near the season’s end.

Dinner, however, got off to a shaky start. We were amongst the last to board, and there was no place for us to sit together at the long, shared table. As we knew no one and heard no English spoken among the others, we stood there looking helpless. Eventually one of the stewardesses came to our rescue, and I launched into my first attempt with Russian. She smiled patiently and moved around some chairs and set up a table for three off to one side. After that we would be assigned seats together at the main table. We did meet a few of the European passengers, but overall, not much English was spoken.

The food was decent and forgettable: soup, some sort of meat (occasionally fish), potatoes, and a vegetable for lunch and dinner. Breakfast offered a dollop of large lump red caviar, bread and a boiled egg. Drink choices were soda, beer and wine.

Our ports were Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Iron Gate (passage), Giurgiu, and Ismail.

The Iron Gate

The Iron Gate today has been tamed by a dam and locks.* Photo: Ted Scull

The real excitement began the next morning when we were underway. I had never sailed along a major river before, not even in a small boat, and this river was just amazing, taking us from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Black Sea, from democracies to Communist dictatorships. The era was the height of the so-called Cold War — for some, us against them, but it was more complicated than that. One could not simply say that Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania could be lumped together willy-nilly or that all four felt the same toward Moscow, capital of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Communist propaganda

Communist propaganda showing a heroic worker shoveling land mines marked US. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED: Mother Russia River Cruising.  by Ted Scull

Tricky Navigation

Back to the Danube. We were going with the flow and moving rather fast. From time to time we came up behind slower traffic such as powered barges and others that needed a tug to push or pull the load. They needed to be overtaken, and at the same time make sure there was enough room to pass, and taking into account the bends in the river, plus if anything was coming upstream.

First Small-Ship Cruise

A twin funnel sidewheel towboat down bound on the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Barges and tows moved very slowly, and for the most part we were faster, bigger and more maneuverable. Cargoes consisted of coal, iron ore, rock, gravel, petroleum products, lumber and grain.

Following a few meets and overtakings, I began to realize that people actually made their homes on the barges. Clothes lines had laundry drying, some carried bicycles, and others an open deck for relaxing, attractively surrounded by plants.

Our vessel had an illustrated booklet of national flags so we could understand where the traffic came from or was going to. The Rhine-Main Canal was not open yet so southern Germany was as far inland as one could go.

During the day we passed the upbound sistership Donau with an exchange of whistles. Curiously, there were no cheers or waves between the sisterships, just people lining the railings. And we never saw another riverboat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

AMUR’s sistership DONAU (Danube) heading upriver. * Photo: Ted Scull


Our first port was Bratislava, a major city in Czechoslovakia, and before that a longtime German city with the name Pressburg. The Ottoman Empire attacked many cities along the Danube using it as the conquering route inland, but Pressburg never fell.

Because we were the only native English-speaking passengers on the boat, we were pretty much on our own, so we made our own way from the landing to the attractive city center and main square, churches that dated to the 14th and 15th century. Making a loop, we passed through small squares and along narrow lanes that led to wide boulevards. A fortified citadel towered over the city, but then there was not the buzz there is today.

Budapest (Two Cities)

Budapest was altogether different. Originally two cities, Buda and Pest were separated by the Danube, with the former overlooking the more important side with an imposing gothic-style Parliament modeled after the British counterpart fronting on the river.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Gothic-style Parliament building, modeled after the Btitish Parliament fronting on the Danube at Budapest. * Photo: Ted Scull taken aboard riverboat AMUR

Impressed by this architecturally rich city, we set out from the Pest side where riverboats dock today. Once a wealthy city, Budapest built the first subway in Continental Europe, had the first public telephone system and first telephone exchange, and stimulated by an order from the Parliament builders, the first mass production of light bulbs.

We zigzagged amongst the monumental buildings, many in Art Nouveau style, crossing to Buda on one suspension bridge to then climb up to the medieval battlements to a viewpoint overlooking the Danube. Winding back down, we took in the famous Gellert Hotel and its spa to then to cross back over a handsome suspension bridge decorated with tongue-less lion statues. The architect was said to have committed suicide when he saw the empty mouths at the opening ceremony.


For the stop at Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital, Marshal Tito, the dictator, did his best to keep the Soviet Union at bay. We tied up in a small cove off the main channel and had a bit of a climb to reach the city center. The city has foundations of many previous incarnations.

Belgrade experienced 115 major battles, and since Roman rule, has been completely destroyed 44 times, had 40 different names and served as a capital of five different states. It was a bit much to even try to take but a superficial overview in the time allotted.

First Small-Ship Cruise

It’s a bit of a climb from the Danube to the center of Belgrade. * Photo: Ted Scull

Drama at the Iron Gate

Continuing on down the Danube, we next came to the Iron Gate, a dramatic series of gorges created by the Transylvanian Alps crossing the river. The Danube changes its character to a rapidly flowing torrent with waters roughed up by its narrowing and dropping fast enough to create dangerous rapids. Our pace quickened, and I could sense tension in my body. To the left we passed a pair of steam locomotives standing by to haul the upriver traffic. Now, for safety reasons, that traffic had stopped to permit the downriver traffic to pass.

Today, the rapids have now been tamed by dams and locks providing safe navigation and hydroelectricity. The passage is scenic and safer but no longer genuinely dramatic.

Welcome to Romania (Not)

Cruising overnight, the Amur eased up to a landing marked Giurgiu, a river port with road access to Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Across the river was the port of Ruse in Bulgaria. Our crew had the lines ready to hand over to the Romanian receivers but they just stood there looking at us. With our boat now alongside the floating landing stage, the captain ordered the crew to jump ashore and tie up the boat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Landing station at Giurgiu, Romania before troops arrived to prevent going ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

The men hesitated, and then without any warning, a contingent of Romanian soldiers marched around both sides of the terminal and stood at attention. A Romanian officer yelled something across to our captain, now standing outside the pilothouse, first in Romanian (a Romance and not a Slavic language). There was silence, and the Romanian officer gave an order, and his troops lowered their weapons then took several thumping steps forward.

That was it, we were not welcome. Our captain rang the telegraph, and we moved off the landing and made a wide arc to dock at Ruse, across the river in Bulgaria.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ruse, Bulgaria’s most prominent government, a billboard to post portraits of heroic leaders. The red letters are a salute to the 9th of September. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not Wanted

The Romanian demonstration provided an official snub against Russia, something that increasingly became a pattern prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later. As the Bulgarian stop was scheduled for the upriver transit, nothing was planned, so we simply spent a few hours ashore wandering through a sleepy, medium-size Bulgarian river city.

With a full moon rising above the river, we proceeded in the growing darkness, and during the night, the Danube would turn north and then east through Romanian territory. In the morning we eased over to a landing at Ismail, a Romanian port about 50 miles in from the Black Sea.

RELATED:  Cruising the Danube River on the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan.

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube River with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Changing from a Boat to a Ship (Small)

The Amur pulled up astern of the small Soviet passenger vessel Kolchida. Those who were leaving here, including our trio, disembarked and walked forward a few hundred feet to the Black Sea ship and boarded for our one-night voyage.

We sailed about an hour later through the marshy, flat Danube Delta. There were lots of birds about and still enough evening light when the ship sailed out into the Black Sea for the overnight sail to Yalta.

The Kolchida on the Danube

The Kolchida.* Photo: Ted Scull

Chess, and the Winner Is …

Some Russians my age approached me asking, in Russian, if I played chess, and when I indicated yes, they set up a table at the stern. About a dozen others, college students returning home, surrounded the two players. Everything happened so fast, with my Russian opponent moving his pieces very quickly. I did not play that way. I concentrated as hard as I could and tried not to take too long, and after about 20 minutes, I had him in checkmate. I was not sure how it all happened. Did he let me win? Anyway, I was rewarded with a beer with the ship now rolling to the Black Sea swells.

Dinner was just passable as I assume all the ingredients had come from Russia, while the riverboat took on stores in Vienna its turnaround port. It would be an introduction to the Russian menus that would little from day to day and eventually became a non-topic. You just ate what was put in front of you. Then I took to my bunk, and in the morning, when I awoke, we were approaching a steep coastal landscape with Yalta sprawled at its base.

Yalta and Beyond

My friends stayed several days, and I remained in a seafront hotel for two weeks, as it was cheap and I could practice my Russian on anyone who would talk to me. My tourist level included a guide and car every five days, so I managed to see the site of the Yalta Conference and the Valley of Balaclava, the location for the charge of the Light Brigade, a battle between the British and Russians.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted atop a large hill overlooking Yalta and the Black Sea. * Photo: Tony Milbank

Leaving Yalta, I then another five weeks, traveling independently by train, and in between, a 21-day tour starting out in Moscow and then to Stalingrad (now Volgograd), followed by a two-day paddle steamer voyage to Rostov, Sochi, Kiev, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

First Small-Ship Cruise

Soviet sidewheel riverboat at a landing on the Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Again, on my own, by train to Riga, Latvia’s capital, Moscow, Warsaw and Paris where, in the latter, I resided for eight months. But that story is for another day.

RELATED:  Danube River Cruise with Aboard the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan. 

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Looking Back

My basic Russian came in handy when traveling on trains, trams, buses, seeking directions, ordering meals and having a minimal chat. Visiting the Soviet Union was time well spent, if not unsettling at times.

During the group tour, one member, a young English fellow who spoke fluent Russian, vanished about 10 days into the itinerary, and there was no explanation forthcoming from our guide.

Ted in Red Square

The author in Red Square, Moscow.

On the riverboat between Stalingrad and Rostov, some of us apparently fraternized a bit too much with the Russian passengers. We were relegated to one lounge and sat at separate tables at one end of the dining saloon.

When in Moscow, I meet some students in Red Square, and they invited me to their homes. Later, when I returned to the city by train, I was discreetly handed a message as I walked along the platform warning me that my friends would be arrested if I met up with them again.

Ted in Paris

The author on the Pont Alexandre III, Paris, named after a Russian czar,

Soon after settling in Paris, my friend from college, who shared the Russian language class, came to visit for several days. We exchanged stories and there were plenty. He then sold his motorcycle and headed home. We still connect all these years later.

My six weeks in the Soviet Union and eight months in Paris were life changing. I had grown up quite a bit by the time I stepped onto the pier in New York.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise Was Just the Beginning …

Beginning with the Danube just after graduating from college, I became smitten by rivers and river cruising. When I had the time and money, I began to collect them with subsequent travels: Rhine, Rhone, Moselle, Elbe, Soane, Volga, Don, Nile, Yangtze, Mekong, Amazon, and closer to home, St. Lawrence, Ohio, Mississippi, Columbia, Snake and less than an hour’s walk, the Hudson.

Every one is different and has stories galore to tell, and I find them all intriguing in their unique ways.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Pandaw’s colonial design fits well into the Mekong River setting. * Photo: Ted Scull

The growth of river cruising has been a phenomenon, adding a fabulous new way to see our world, and so much of it developed along rivers. They provided routes of discovery, development, conquest, retreat and travel before decent roads and steam railways.

Leisure cruising started first on the Nile in the late 19th century on a river that was the most important geographical factor in the development of early civilization.

Nile River cruise vessel

SS SUDAN recalls the early style of Nile River cruise vessels. 

Modern river cruising has developed so fast, especially in Europe, and the resulting competition has driven innovation and cruise ship-style luxuries. Travelers can still choose between the plain and fancy.

I happen to prefer the riverboats that don’t try to be the be all and end all of the latest luxury cruise package. I like to concentrate on the river, its scenic delights and commerce and to go ashore in ports to see what this river is responsible for.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Today’s much larger riverboats, seen here on Russia’s Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

My favorite riverboats have been the 1926-built Delta Queen, built for transportation, then a long life of cruising with a genuine link to the past, the outstanding replica stern-wheeler, American Queen, and Pandaw ‘s fleet of small-size boats with their fetching colonial atmosphere.

I would also be more than happy to sail again in the likes of the Amur, the riverboat that began my story. It gave me the initial entry into a new means of travel and the results are evident. I don’t know what happened to her, but her sister Donau has continued on for decades, most recently housing cyclists who sleep on board and cycle from a different port during the day.

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Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Active European River Cruises on the Rhine & Moselle

By John Roberts.

When it comes to the great rivers of Europe, those often enjoyed on a delightful river cruise, the Moselle is too often overlooked.

This stunningly gorgeous river is a tributary of the Rhine, and it’s notable for its terraced vineyards that grow some of Germany’s best Riesling.

The Moselle is also where I started my “Legends of the Moselle, Rhine and Main” river cruise with Emerald Waterways, embarking in the scenic upriver town of Bernkastel-Kues.

Our ship for the week, Emerald Destiny, would take us on a journey to the towns of Cochem and Koblenz before reaching the Rhine River. Then along this great waterway we would visit Miltenberg and Wertheim in the Lower Franconia region of Bavaria and continuing to Wurzburg and Bamberg as we traversed the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

European River cruises with Emerald Waterways

Sporty John alongside the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

The entire voyage was similar in many regards to the more than a dozen European river cruises I have enjoyed on the Rhine and Danube rivers, with walking tours of the towns and villages alongside hearty meals onboard the ship. We also had a full menu of castles, ruins, churches, terraced hillside vineyards and charming towns that provided wonderful eye candy as we sailed lazily along the winding rivers.

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The cruise on Emerald Destiny, however, differed in many important ways to me. I was particularly drawn to try this cruise because of Emerald Waterways’ new EmeraldACTIVE program.

Offered on all of Emerald’s European river cruises, the program offers a wide range of cruise entertainment and activities led by activity managers. Traditionally, river cruises have entertainment offerings that typically include a piano player in the main lounge each afternoon and at night after dinner, as well as a selection of guest performers who come onboard in certain ports to highlight song and dance styles from their region of Europe.

You might also have cooking demonstrations or an activity like a painting class.

However, the EmeraldACTIVE program delivers a more energetic vibe, ideal for families with kids as well as any travelers who are simply young at heart.

Each day, passengers were offered a broad array of cool things to do, from exercises to interactive entertainment, led by our engaging Activity Manager Harry Jordan, who hails from the U.K.

The ship does not have a piano player, by the way. I dove right in to participate in as much as possible, and in fact, I had one of the most fun cruises I have ever had — on the rivers,  or anywhere else, to be honest.

Great beer on a European River cruise

Cheers! * Photo: John Roberts

A Week on the Move

Bernkastel-Kues, our embarkation port, is a small town of just more than 7,000 residents that sits in the Middle Moselle region, the heart of wine-growing Germany. Highlights include the colorful half-timber buildings and the Medieval Market Square.

We kicked off our EmeraldACTIVE week with a 12-mile bike ride around the town and countryside. Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard, and passengers can sign them out for personal use in each port or on guided bike excursions led by local guides.

bicycling on a river cruise in Europe

Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard for personal use or guided rides. * Photo: John Roberts

We docked for an overnight on the bank opposite the bustling town and with the iconic Burgruine-Landshut Castle ruins looming overhead. The castle has been a ruin since a fire in the late 17th century, and Harry led a large group of passengers on a post-lunch afternoon hike to take in the views from high above the river and town. The hike was the second active endeavor of that first full day.

I was really liking the active nature of the cruise so far. I mixed in a morning run, as well, to round out my day.

jogging along the Rhine River

John works in a quick jog whenever he can! * Photo: John Roberts

The full scope of the EmeraldACTIVE program became clear during that evening when Harry, who is a trained singer and dancer, gave his “Not Quite Diamond” cabaret performance in the ship’s main lounge. Harry ran down a nearly complete list of all the Neil Diamond classics, teasing us until the very end when he feigned signing off for the night with one notable omission from his song list. Alas, the night was complete when we all joined in to a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline” before finishing off our cocktails and heading back to our cabins.

Harry the cruise manager of Emerald Destiny

The multi-talented and multi-tasking activity manager Harry Jordan. * Photo: John Roberts

The EmeraldACTIVE program also features a lineup of fitness-focused sessions. Pilates took place outside on the Sun Deck; morning stretching classes were in the lounge; and yoga and aqua aerobics were conducted in the indoors pool area. (Emerald Destiny’s large indoor pool with a sun roof can be opened in good weather conditions.)

You also can enjoy petanque, a game similar to boules,  as well as golf putting competitions on the Sun Deck.

Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Pilates on the Sun Deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Activities for all Fitness Levels

AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer a wellness program and onboard wellness hosts, and that line’s programming is decidedly more challenging and aimed at exercise fanatics.

Related:  John’s QuirkyCruise article about his AmaWaterways fitness cruise.

But the Emerald Waterways program has more activities and a broader appeal — designed mostly to keep people entertained and interacting with one another.

The activity manager is essentially a co-cruise manager. The position adds a lot of value for passengers, says Ray Muehlbauer, corporate cruise director for Emerald Waterways.

“What our Activity Managers do is probably five main categories,” he says. “One is the EmeraldACTIVE program, supporting it together with the professional guides. That helped us massively because now we have the guides and someone from the ship who can help the guests and answer any questions.

Ray Muehlbauer

Ray Muehlbauer. * Photo: John Roberts

“Plus, all the wellness activities. We’ve had requests from people to be able to do morning stretch, yoga, Pilates and maybe some mild walking on the deck. On top of that, we do onshore activities (like the hike in Bernkastel-Kues) to show the guest a little more of the towns and cities. Maybe take them to a beer garden or something like that, or for bike rides, hikes, walks — whatever the city has to offer.

“When we’re cruising, we we provide nightly entertainment and game shows, trivia, karaoke, passenger talent shows and dance classes, you name it.”

I had fun doing  yoga, daily runs, bike rides, walks and hikes during the days in port. But it was indeed the daily afternoon and night-time activities that made this cruise a standout.

Most activities were well-attended, with more than a dozen passengers participating in the putting contests and Pilates sessions. The trivia sessions were packed and lively in the main lounge. A handful joined me as Harry led yoga and water aerobics classes.

Aqua Aerobics on a river cruise in Europe

Water aerobics is one of the many ways to keep fit and active on the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

That said, most passengers I mingled with didn’t book this cruise because of the focus on activities, though it was a bonus for many who enjoy being active and maintaining some daily fitness regimen.

The crescendo of the whole voyage, however, was the ship’s end-of-week disco dance party. Harry spun tunes as DJ, and the dance floor was packed with 70-plus people at a time. It was raining men, indeed — and women and crew members — as we were heaving and whirling all around the floor with arms pumping late into the evening.

entertainment on a European river cruise

Harry’s singing was a big hit! * Photo: John Roberts

The Week’s Itinerary

After leaving Bernkastel-Kues, it was on to Cochem, home of the imperial Cochem Castle and its majestic views over the Moselle Valley.

Cochem Castle on a river cruise

The beautiful Cochem Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I began my day with run along the river before joining the walking tour of the town and shuttle ride up to the castle, which I think has the most picturesque and iconic river views of any destination along the Moselle or Rhine Rivers. We were blessed with an especially sunny day, which made the image even more stunning.

European river cruise castles

Check out the view from the castle! * Photo: John Roberts

Europe river cruise excursions

Stunning Cochem views! * Photo: John Roberts

Emerald Destiny set sail at 1 p.m., and we enjoyed lunch and activities onboard as we journeyed toward Koblenz, which sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine. A few of us went out for an evening walk and a couple beers in Koblenz.

The next day, passengers rode the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress during a drizzly morning. I ran across a bridge crossing the Rhine and then up to the fortress before taking the cable car back.

At noon, we set sail for Miltenberg. This period of afternoon cruising took us through the Middle Rhine Gorge, always a highlight of a Rhine River Cruise, as you get to pass the famed Lorelei rock and dozens of historic villages, castles and ruins.

Sailing continued overnight and into the next morning before we arrived at Miltenberg for a city tour and short hike up to Miltenberg Castle. The ship then sailed and we would meet it later as in Wertheim. We were free to carry on with our adventures in these two splendid German towns.

Miltenberg views

Views from the Miltenberg Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I was able to break off for a quick run after our tour in Miltenberg, and when we arrived in Wertheim, I found a secluded hiking route up to the castle there. The weather was hot, and by the end of the day, after exploring the two cities, I was more than ready for a hearty dinner and cold beers back onboard Emerald Destiny.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner on board with a view. * Photo: John Roberts

Harry delivered his second cabaret act after dinner, sending us off the bed with the songs of the Rat Pack still on repeat in our heads.

Our ship arrived in Wurzburg harbor the next morning, and after a morning stretch session with Harry, passengers were off to tour the Wurzburg Residence — a UNESCO World Heritage site and a beautiful baroque palace — and a visit one of the country’s oldest and largest winery for a tasting session.

exercising on board a European river cruise

Harry’s morning stretch class was a great way to start the day. * Photo: John Roberts

We had free time to explore the historic old town area of Wurzburg, and many from our ship settled in for a glass of wine and snacks or a sausage at a café or wine bar near the Old Main Bridge (Alte Mainbrucke), while some ventured to the Market Square to pick up souvenirs and sweets.

We then sailed from late afternoon until the next morning until we reached Bamberg. During the evening, we enjoyed a festive time on Emerald Destiny with the farewell gala dinner featuring choices of Chateaubriand (roasted beef filet) or salmon and chorizo, followed by Baked Alaska for dessert.

Afterwards, dozens of people hit the dance floor as Harry played DJ for Disco Night. I have never seen such enthusiastic passenger participation on the dance floor. We worked up a sweat and sang along to familiar hits from the 70s and 80s.

In Bamberg, another city tour was on tap. The ship arrived after lunch, and we shuttled to town to explore the cathedral, a garden and other sights.

Bamberg visit on a Europe river cruise

Pretty Bamberg. * Photo: John Roberts

Bamberg's lovely gardens

Bamberg’s lovely gardens. * Photo: John Roberts

But the highlight on this day would a sampling of the city’s famed “smoke beer.” The stout dark brew owes its smoky flavor to the process that uses malted barley dried over an open flame. We all washed down a couple salty pretzels with the cold and flavorful beers.

beer and pretzels in Europe

Beer & pretzels in Bamberg * Photo: John Roberts

This unique taste of Germany was a pleasant way to toast the end of a great voyage with new friends — half of our week’s 170 passengers were from the U.S., with a quarter each from the U.K. and Australia.

The next morning, the journey would end in Nuremberg, and we would all go our separate ways, but with fond memories of a special trip.

Related: John’s QuirkyCruise article about his sporty Ponant & Backroads cruise to New Zealand.

Onboard Emerald Destiny

The ship carries up to 182 passengers in 92 staterooms (two solo cabins), and it basically owns the standard design you’ll find among almost every other European river ship. There are four decks, a Sun Deck up top, small gym, main dining room and a bar/lounge area that also has a small library and coffee area.

Emerald Destiny does Europe River cruises

The 182-passenger Emerald Destiny, on the left * Photo: John Roberts

But Emerald Destiny and all other Emerald Waterways ships are unique with a large indoor pool at the back of the ship. This space was my favorite aside from being out on the Sun Deck.

The pool area has loungers with soft cushions, foot stools and a bar. There is a swim-against jet in the large pool (4.5 feet deep), and the activity manager offers aqua aerobics classes in the water and yoga sessions on the pool deck. The roof opens above the pool when the weather is nice. The pool area also serves as a movie theater at night, as the water is drained and pool floor raised to provide more seating. A screen drops down, and a surround-sound system offers the perfect environment as you can watch select recent releases each night.

small pool on a European river boat

Emerald Destiny’s pool area is impressive. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge also offers plenty of comfy seating, and an area near the front of the lounge offers bar-style seating or tables so you can enjoy the views over cocktails or during lunch or breakfast. A small buffet is set up daily in the lounge for a lighter breakfast and lunch option.

pretzels on a river cruise in Europe

Snacks … pretzels of course! * Photo: John Roberts

An outside deck at the bow in front of the lounge is also available with a few lounge chairs, and this is a relaxing spot to enjoy the scenery as you sail or navigate locks.

Cabins are spacious and comfortable enough, with plenty of storage. Minibar drinks and snacks come with an added fee, but water bottles are replenished in your room as needed. You don’t have a full walkout balcony but a flexible indoor/outdoor space that converts with the touch of a button that drops down the glass to railing level so you can enjoy the fresh air and views.

cabin view on European river cruises

The view from John’s cabin balcony. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the Emerald Destiny’s public areas and cabins!

Meal Time

The main restaurant features a breakfast and lunch buffet with select featured menu items daily. The highlight of the voyage for many was the traditional Bavarian lunch feast put out as we sailed from Miltenberg to Wertheim. This featured sausages, pork loin, sauerkraut, spaetzle and pretzels — with servers circulating around the room handing out mugs of German lager at a furious pace.

beer mugs on a Europe river cruise

Mugs of beer were plentiful. * Photo: John Roberts

Dinner includes appetizers, soups, main courses (meat, fish and vegetarian choices) and desserts. Wine, beer and soft drinks are included in your fare for lunch and dinner.

Some of the delicacies we enjoyed: onion soup, mushroom risotto, forest mushroom cappuccino, trilogy of lamb, breaded hoki fish filet, pork tenderloins, poke bowl (tofu) and sliced duck breast and leg.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Desserts included panna cotta, pumpkin seed parfait and Black Forest cake.

I found the service to be excellent, and the crew always on the lookout for how they can help and ready with a friendly greeting and smile. This was a nice change from lukewarm hospitality I have seen on other river cruises in recent years.

I should note that the itinerary, sailing from the Moselle and on through to the Rhine-Main-Danube on the way to Nuremberg takes you through numerous locks and under low bridges such that the Sun Deck is off limits to passengers for most of the latter stages of the cruise. This could be a disappointment if you aren’t aware of this detail on these itineraries. However, Emerald Destiny handles this nicely by offering the pool area as an alternative, with wonderful panoramic views and an open roof to the skies above.

Next time you’re on an Emerald Waterways European river cruise, head out back to the pool, and you just might find me there again.

QuirkyCruise Review



In a nutshell, John says …

writer John Roberts

John Roberts

Why Go?
  • Emerald Waterways has carved out a space offering affordable and higher-energy fun river cruises.
  • The new EmeraldACTIVE program ensures passengers will always find an activity to keep them entertained and engaged.
  • The indoor pool (it transforms into a cinema at night) is a highlight of an attractive and comfortable ship, and service stands out.

At 182 passengers, the space-per-passenger ratio is a bit smaller than on the spacious boats of the luxury river cruise lines.

Video Overview:



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Uniworld's New Ships include the super deluxe Mekong Jewel

Uniworld’s New Ships

By Anne Kalosh.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, known for exquisitely appointed vessels, polished service, gourmet cuisine and inclusive pricing, will have a dynamic 2020.

The company is going to launch new vessels on the Mekong, the Nile and the Douro and will extensively re-do its Venetian Lagoon stalwart, River Countess, to be renamed La Venezia.

Uniworld also introduced an incentive for passengers to book a future cruise while on board, and a reward for travelers who recommend Uniworld to their friends and family.

All of Uniworld's vessels are all inclusive

Cocktails and wines are covered in Uniworld all-inclusive fares. * Photo: Uniworld

Mekong Jewel to replace Mekong Navigator

In Southeast Asia, the new, all-suite 68-passenger Mekong Jewel will debut Jan. 3, replacing Mekong Navigator to operate a 13-day Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & The Mekong itinerary between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, including Cambodia’s spectacular Angkor Wat temple complex.

The four-deck Mekong Jewel sports Uniworld’s characteristic glamorous décor, with sustainable, eco-friendly materials incorporated into the construction. The top Sun Deck has an inviting pool and outdoor lounge. There are two dining venues: a main dining hall and an alfresco restaurant. An indoor lounge, library, spa, gym, sauna/steam room, salon and gift shop round out the amenities.

Uniworld's New Ships include Mekong Jewel

The all-suite Mekong Jewel will debut in January 2020. * Rendering: Uniworld

Two 924-square-foot Royal Suites, facing forward on the top deck, have spacious balconies with hot tubs and ample lounging furniture.

Uniworld's New Ships include the super deluxe Mekong Jewel

Mekong Jewel’s pair of lavish Royal Suites have forward-facing balconies with hot tubs and ample lounge furniture. * Rendering: Uniworld

The pair of Grand Suites measure 551 square feet. The rest of the suites are a generous 339 square feet, some with balconies and some with French balconies. An elevator serves the three main decks.

Posh suites on Uniworld's New Ships

Mekong Jewel suites will be elegantly appointed. * Rendering: Uniworld

Sphinx on the Nile

In Egypt, the new, 42-suite vessel Sphinx begins Nile service Jan. 4. An eight-day cruise will feature in the 12-day Splendors of Egypt & The Nile program, round-trip Cairo, that includes the temples of Luxor and Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, Aswan Dam, Abu Simbel and the Temple of Esna.

Aboard the five-deck Sphinx, Egyptian artwork, fabrics and hand-carved furnishings will reflect the character of the region. Facilities include a main restaurant and an alfresco dining experience on the upper deck, a small pool, spacious lounge and a massage room.

All accommodations have French balconies. The staterooms range from 233 square feet to 285 square feet, while suites start at 344 square feet. There are 20 Grand Suites of 430 square feet, and four aft-facing Royal Suites of 495 square feet.

São Gabriel new on the Douro

In Portugal, the new 100-passenger São Gabriel will offer more lavishly appointed suites than Uniworld’s Queen Isabel, which it replaces starting in April.

Travelers will experience the UNESCO-designated Douro River Valley on an 11-day Portugal, Spain & The Douro River Valley program from Lisbon to Porto that highlights local culture and cuisine. An eight-day cruise-only version sails round-trip from Porto.

Besides nonstop scenery from the river, the trip includes visits to vineyards, villages and historic sites. A full-day motor coach excursion takes travelers to Spain’s Salamanca, called “Golden City” for its tawny, sandstone buildings, and the home of Spain’s oldest university.

The four-deck São Gabriel has a top deck pool, sunbathing and shaded area. A lounge, shop, restaurant, spa and gym are spread across other decks. Butler service will give passengers the option to dine at any time.

São Gabriel is one of Uniworld's new river builds

The living area of a São Gabriel suite. * Photo: Uniworld

A deck of all lavishly appointed suites includes four midships Grand Suites of 307 square feet and a dozen suites that measure 220 square feet. Staterooms range from 135 square feet to 156 square feet, with one deck of staterooms all offering French balconies.

São Gabriel is a new Uniworld river boat

São Gabriel will bring lavish suites to the Douro River. * Rendering: Uniworld

River Countess to transform into La Venezia

River Countess, the vessel that was struck by an out-of-control MSC Cruises ship, MSC Opera, while dockside in Venice last June, returned to service in early September following repairs. Over the winter, it is undergoing a complete redesign to emerge as the 130-passenger Super Ship La Venezia on March 27.

The vessel sails an eight-day round-trip Venice itinerary, Venice & The Gems of Northern Italy, and is featured in a 10-day program that begins with two hotel overnights and touring in Milan and a visit to Verona. The cruise explores destinations around the Venice Lagoon, and one day gives the choice of a visit to Bologna, the culinary capital of Northern Italy, or the UNESCO-designated Ferrara, a beautifully preserved Renaissance city.

La Venezia is one of Uniworld's new ships

The Venice Lagoon and Po River are served by River Countess, which will emerge after a refit as La Venezia. * Photo: Uniworld

With décor inspired by Northern Italy, La Venezia will introduce two new Grand Suites of 302 square feet. Each can sleep three people. Four other suites measure 214 square feet, and one of them connects to a stateroom with French balcony next door. All the rest of the accommodations are 151 square feet. Fourteen of those have French balconies, and four of those are connecting.

An Italian kitchen on the upper deck will be among the three dining venues. A top deck lounge, a library, fitness center and spa round out the facilities. An elevator serves all three decks.

Uniworld's New Ships include the newly renamed La Venezia

La Venezia (formerly River Countess) features regional cuisine and will have an Italian kitchen on the top deck. * Photo: Uniworld

Floating deposit

Uniworld recently improved its onboard booking discount program by introducing a floating deposit concept. As before, when travelers book their next cruise while on board, they can lock in a three percent discount. Now, when they put down a $500 deposit, they don’t have to decide on the exact cruise until later.

This offer is combinable with regular River Heritage Club loyalty member benefits and any other offer available at the time of final booking. (Credits for onboard bookings go to the passenger’s travel agent of record.)

Referral rewards

A new benefit for River Heritage Club members is the referral incentive. Travelers who refer a friend or family member to Uniworld will receive a $100 credit per person toward their next cruise, and the friend or family member will receive a $100 credit per person on their first cruise.

There is no limit to how many referral credits a River Heritage Club member can receive, and credits are combinable with existing member benefits.
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French canal cruising

French Canal Cruising: My French Love Affair

Crew, Excursions & Paris!

By Elysa Leonard.

Crazy Crew Crush

The staff on a small-ship cruise, especially a barge cruise carrying only six passengers, is a vital ingredient for a memorable holiday. French canal cruising is all about being coddled while inching along the canals of gorgeous France soaking up all the amazing scenery, history, cuisine and wine.

Aboard the six-passenger Esperance, our crew comprised Captain Corey Shelley; Chief Steward, Deckhand, and Hostess, Helen Toy; and Chef du Cuisine, Jean Luc Poulet. This trio worked like a well-oiled machine. They knew their roles and worked together to make sure we were safe, happy and well-fed, anticipating what we needed before we did. 

Read Part 1  of Elysa’s French Love Affair with Barge Cruising.

Mathias Giles, Barge Owner & Host Extraordinaire

The owner of Esperance, Matthias Giles, was also a big part of the experience. He met the boat at each docking point, providing any needed supplies and supplemental groceries for Chef Jean Luc. He pitched in wherever he was needed, from giving us the skinny on a wine choice during a pre-dinner tasting to making sure the table settings were always perfect. Mathias always had a smile and a story and had a unique way of making us feel at home on his luxury hotel barge.

French canal cruising - Esperance owner Mathias Giles

Mathias Giles. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Rex, Our Fearless Guide

Our tour guide for the week was Reitze Lemstra, a.k.a. Rex. On a barge cruise, the land excursions are just as important as the journey on the canal. Each day, Rex would arrive in a luxury van where the barge was docked. He’d share stories about the history of the place we were visiting, always with a comical twist that would lead to a van filled with laughter.

He was extremely knowledgeable about the places we visited, the wines of the area, and the history of both. During the drive, he would prep us on what to expect, and then he would join us on each tour, answering questions and pointing out the important parts. By the end of the week, I knew I would miss these daily excursions with Rex.

French Canal Cruising- Reitze Lemstra

Tour Guide Reitze Lemstra of the Esperance! * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Captain Corey Shelley, Our Captain

We learned different history lessons from Captain Corey Shelley. Unfortunately, Corey didn’t share any poetry with us even though he is a direct relative to the famous English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley!

Captain Shelley knows the community who lives along the banks of the Canal du Midi very well as he has spent many seasons navigating there. He gave us the inside scoop on what life was really like along the canal. He knew many of the boat owners and lock keepers and told us stories about the canal and the Esperance. Captain Shelley even showed us a few of his recent barge renovation projects as we traveled along the canal.

It was remarkable to see how he got our barge through so many tight spaces without a single mishap. Good thing he never let me take the wheel!

french canal cruising- Corey Shelley

Our Captain, Corey Shelley at the helm! *Photo: Helen Toy

Helen Toy, Our “Jane” of All Trades

But it was Helen Toy, our steward, deckhand and hostess, who seemed to be the glue that held it all together. She quickly learned our preferences and seemed to always be right on hand. I dubbed her “the fairy” because she seemed to fly around the barge, cleaning, pouring wine, setting a table, throwing a line to the lock-keeper, and translating for us. She was always where she was needed, and everything she did was with a smile or a sweet giggle.

French Barge Cruise - Helen Toy, Stewardess and Deckhand

Helen Toy ready for anything! * Photo: Corey Shelley

Chef Jean Luc Poulet, Our Chef de Cuisine

Food is a big part of French canal cruising, and on this trip, Chef Jean Luc Poulet was always working in the galley to make sure we had the very best cuisine. Many of the dishes required meticulous prep work that could take a few days before creating one of our memorable courses. Daily, he was up on deck planning his menus, visiting local markets, or spending many early hours in the small barge galley. 

French canal cruising - Chef Jean Luc Poulet

Chef Jean Luc graciously teaching some new cooking techniques to CIA student Samantha * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Cooking Lessons with a French Flair

My daughter Samantha, a student at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, was eager for the chance to learn from a seasoned French chef and he was encouraging, kind and willing to share his knowledge with her. It made for a very special experience that she will never forget.

French Canal Cruising- Samantha Leonard

Samantha getting ready to learn from Chef Jean Luc Poulet. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Samantha helped Chef Jean Luc with several dishes, but his biggest lesson for her was teaching her how to completely debone a guinea fowl and then help to stuff it for one of our main courses.

The Excursions 

The southern French countryside was the embodiment of beauty, charm, and of course history. Whenever I visit Europe I am always impressed with, well, how wonderfully old things are.

Our celebrated colonial history in the United States pales in comparison to centuries-old European villages where history seems to be steeped into every cobblestone. Some buildings and ruins we visited on this trip date back more than 1,000 years.

French canal cruising is an ideal way to get a taste of France’s impressive heritage.

Day 1: The Village of Penzenas

The first day of touring, Rex took us to the charming village of Penzenas, lined with tiny cobblestone streets and unique shops. To get there, it was a 30- to 40-minute drive from where the barge was docked the night before. 

French canal cruising- Village of Penzenas

Pretty Penzenas. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

We had time to browse and wander the streets and found beautiful flowers, tiny doors and plenty of presents to buy. I was happy to find a local craftswoman and brought home a gorgeous hand-painted pendant necklace. 

Rex also took us to a spot where we could get into a royal chariot. It was indeed a seat fit for a king or a queen.

French Canal Cruising-King's Chariot

Elysa Leonard in the King’s Chariot. * Picture: Samantha Leonard

Day 2: Olives & Panoramic Views

Day two was the highlight of the trip. We visited the olive groves of  L’Oulibo, a mill producing high-quality olives and olive oils, based in Bize, Minervois since 1942.

French Canal Cruising- French Olive Groves of L’Oulibo

Our tour and lessons about the olive groves of L’Oulibo. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

We took a guided tour of the olive groves and learned about the pressing process and then got to taste the olives and the oil. It was tricky to pick a favorite, they were all so good!

French Canal Cruising-Olive Oil Tasting

Olive Oil Tasting – Samantha Leonard *Photo: Elysa Leonard

After tasting our fill of olives and oils, we headed to the ancient city of Minerve. Rex stopped above the city so we could take pictures, and then we headed down the mountain to this stone covered village for a visit.

French Canal Cruising-Village of Minerve

The hills above the village of Minerve, southern France. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

French Canal Cruising- Village of Minerve

City of Minerve. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

It was breathtaking, with narrow cobblestone streets and tiny shops set up in buildings dating as far back as the 13th century. We walked through the city, stopped for coffee and then headed back to the luxury barge ready to relax, wine, and dine.

Coffee break in the village of Minerve, southern France

Coffee Break in Minerve *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Day 3: The Narbonne Market

The biggest attraction for this excursion was the market in Narbonne. The wrought iron and glass beauty dates back to 1901 and it’s one of the treasures of ancient Narbonne, at one time long ago, an important Roman seaport.

Narbonne Market Hall on a French canal cruise

Narbonne Market Hall. * Photo: Didier Descouens

The produce, cheeses, meats, and fish were exceptional. We decided to give Chef Jean Luc a break and bring back items from the market to share for the appetizer course that evening.

Narbonne Market - southern France

Fresh French produce. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Everyone brought something, including cheeses, fresh fruit, olives and grilled watermelon steaks with feta cheese that were made by the Canadian Chef Travis Quin Olfers. It was fun to share stories of our day over our combined appetizers from the famous Narbonne Market.

French Barge Cruise - Esperance - Chef Travis Quin Olfers

Chef Travis Quin Olfers prepping his grilled watermelon appetizer. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Day 4: Carcassonne Castles

Castles have always impressed me and citadel of Carcassonne was no exception. It is located on a hill on the right bank of the River Aude, in the south-east part of the city. It’s actually not just a castle but a medieval citadel with more than 2,500 years of history. Through the ages, it has been occupied by Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Crusaders.

Carcassone citadel, southern France

A bridge through the citadel of Carcassone, southern France *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Exploring the citadel of Carcasonne, southern France

Samantha & Elysa exploring the citadel of Carcassone. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

It is also reportedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom and the similarities are apparent. The views and structures were stunning. It was a 30-minute drive to Carcassonne from where the barge was docked and we had a great day of touring!

Rex showed us sections of the walls and how the different components marked time. You could see how the wall structure had changed and improved over time and how the older sections had been built with more primitive building materials. Amazingly the entire large complex still stands strong.

Citadel of Carcasonne - historic walls

Visiting Carcassonne and viewing the ancient walls and structures. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Day 5: Our Final Excursion 

We left Esperance in the evening this time, after enjoying a day cruise on the Canal du Midi, and drove to Villeseque des Corbieres, a small village in southern France about 45 minutes away from where Esperance was docked for the night. 

Mathias was taking us to meet a chef and friend, Stephanie Asco, who had invited us for dinner at her home. 

This evening was the perfect example of the kind of experiences offered on an intimate barge cruise. As graciously as Mattias had welcomed us onto his luxury barge and treated us like honored guests, he was now thoughtfully ushering us into a friend’s home for dinner. 

Esperance Luxury Barge Cruise - Excursions

Special dinner off-site at Chef Stephanie’s home. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Stephanie had a large wooden farm table set for our dinner and we felt as if we were already old friends.

French Barge Cruise - Special Chef's Dinner Excursion

Special Table at Chef Stephanie’s home for dinner. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

The dishes she served were family-style, with a starter of baked mussels followed by the main course, a rice dish similar to Spanish paella. She had cooked it on a neighbor’s grill, because of the large size of the pan. The dinner ended with a luxurious dark chocolate mousse and there was plenty of wine to enjoy throughout the dinner.

French Chef Stephanie Asco's baked mussels appetizer

Delicious appetizers at Chef Stephanie Asco’s home. *Photo: Samantha Leonard

Main Course at French Chef Stephanie Asco's dinner

Pièce de résistance —French Paella at Chef Stephanie Asco’s home. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

That night when we returned to Esperance, the crew had adorned the walkway to the barge with lights and balloons. It was lovely.

After a nightcap on board, we retired to pack and get ready for our departure to the train station the next morning.

Luckily for Samantha and me, we had a few days left of our French canal cruising adventure. We were returning to Paris to see the sites and take a day trip to the legendary Palace of Versailles.

Our Bonus Days in Paris

The four-star XO Hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood, very close to all the top attractions and walking distance to the Arch de Triumph and Champs de Elysee. Other major tourist spots were just a quick train ride away. These few extra days in Paris were our chance to see the sites. It didn’t seem right to leave so soon, Samantha had never been to Paris and we had a lot to see! 

XO Hotel - Boutique Hotel in Paris, France

XO Hotel – a boutique hotel in the heart of Paris, France. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Paris Day 1

After a long train ride to Paris from Narbonne, we kept a low profile our first night. We had a quick bite to eat at a local cafe and called it a day.

The XO hotel was quaint and friendly and was a good base for our touring activities. The rooms were on the small side, but in line with most hotels in Europe. The vibe was friendly and there was a happy hour from 7-9pm and a full breakfast in the morning that was included with our stay.

I would stay at this hotel again and would recommend it to others. 

XO Hotel Wine Bar Paris, France

Samantha enjoying a glass of wine at the XO Hotel Wine Bar. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

Paris Day 2

Day two we explored by foot, walking to the Louvre, and then the Eiffel Tower. With little to no French language experience, we learned to navigate the train lines and figured out the line to get us to the Palace of Versailles the next day.

The gardens of Versailles

The gardens of Versailles. * Photo:

Paris Day 3

Day three was our day to visit the Palace of Versailles. We realized that we would not have time to see it all. It is a huge property and there were garden tours, palace tours, bicycle rentals and golf carts that included an automated drive-yourself-tour. 

It was a beautiful sunny day, which we had not unfortunately experienced on our barge cruise. We really wanted to stay outside and enjoy the day so we opted for the golf cart tour of the grounds.

My daughter Samantha was happy to drive the cart and the auto tour worked nicely, telling us where to go and what we were looking at. It lasted for 90 minutes and told us stories about each place we visited. We noticed many Parisian families had opted for a day trip to the Versailles gardens for a picnic lunch.

Palace of Versaille - Gardens by Golf Cart

Golf Cart Garden Tour, Palace of Versaille. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

When we returned we grabbed dinner at another cafe that was near our hotel. It was easy to find a nice cafe for dinner in Paris, they seemed to be on every street corner.

Paris Day 4

This would be our last day in Paris before heading back to Virginia. We discovered the hop-on hop-off Batobus ferry from one of the passengers on the Esperance, who told us it was a great way to get around Paris to see the sites.

The Batobus open-air ferry travels up and down the River Seine. For a fixed price for the day, you can get on and off as you please to visit Paris’s iconic treasures. If you are there for two days, the cost goes down. 

Batobus Tickets Paris France

Batobus Boat Tickets on the Seine River. A great way to see the sights of Paris, France. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

We went to visit Notre Dame that day and it was so sad to see what was left of the burned structure. When we had first arrived at the Esperance we had found out about the fire, it had happened while we were on the cruise.

However, we were heartened to see that the restoration work had already begun and we look forward to going back and seeing Notre Dame in all of its beauty once the work is complete. 

Notre Dame - after fire

Notre Dame under construction after the tragic fire. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

While we were there, Samantha was approached by an artist who wanted to paint her picture. It was well worth the time and cost, as we now have a hand-drawn caricature of her to remember our visit.

Artist portrait sketched outside of Notre Dame

Samantha having her portrait sketched outside of Notre Dame. *Photo: Elysa Leonard

The length of our visit was perfect as an add-on to the cruise. I think if we could have switched the trip and visited Paris before the cruise, it would have helped with the jet lag, so I would plan to do this prior to the cruise instead of after. Before or after, just make sure you tack on a few days to see beloved Paris. It is a gorgeous city with plenty to do and see.

The Skinny on Barge Lady Cruises

When you book a cruise with Barge Lady Cruises, they take care of all the details. They pair you up with the best barge cruise to fit your style, personality and budget, rating their barges from three to six stars. And they’re also very good at helping you find the best hotels for pre- and post-cruise stays in the region. Stephanie Sack, the daughter of the original Barge Lady, helped us to find the perfect hotel for our extra few days in Paris. Our time in Paris was excellent.

I highly recommend working with the Barge Ladies to find the exact barge trip that fits your family and trip specifications. Stephanie knows the routes, owners, and barges first-hand and can make sure your trip is exactly as you wish.

French Canal Cruising with Stephanie Sack

Stephanie Sack, marketing wizard at Barge Lady Cruises. * Photo: Elysa Leonard


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Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruise in Ukraine

By Gene Sloan

I am sitting at the very front of the Viking Sineus, in the glass-lined Panorama Bar, looking out over what may be the most tranquil stretch of water in all of Europe. For the past few hours, we have been steaming northward on the Dnieper River from Dnipro, a Ukrainian city of nearly one million people, toward the bustling Ukrainian capital of Kiev (pop. 2.9 million), and I have yet to see another ship of any size.

No barges, no tankers, no day boats carrying tourists. We have passed a few small fishing boats, but nothing like the numbers you see on other European rivers. It seems even the locals have forgotten about this 1,400-mile-long waterway.

Viking River Cruises on serene Dnieper

Ukraine’s serene Dnieper River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Rising in the Valdai Hills of Russia and flowing southward through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, the Dnieper is one of the longest rivers in Europe — longer than the Rhine and Seine combined. But it’s little visited by Western tourists, or anybody else for that matter, and barely used for commerce.

That always has been the case to some extent. But it’s even more so now that Ukraine is embroiled in a Civil War-like conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s far-eastern corner. That has scared some tourists away, not that it should.

As of this year, the Dnieper is home to just one overnight cruise vessel of any note — the one that I am aboard. As recently as two years ago, when there were more worries about the intentions of the Russia-backed separatists, even this ship wasn’t sailing.


Even in the best of times, the Dnieper isn’t considered an A-list river destination. Meandering through the relatively non-descript central part of Ukraine, past low-lying farmland, forests and Soviet-built industrial towns, the waterway lacks the romantic scenery of the Danube, with its vineyard lined Wachau Valley, or the medieval charm of the Rhine. Nor is it a gateway to Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. If that’s what you’re after, this probably isn’t the trip for you.

But a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine on the Dnieper has its allures. Most notably, it offers a window onto Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, who have managed to maintain an identity despite centuries of invasion and domination by outside powers.

If you’re curious at all about this long-suffering, only-recently-independent country of 45 million, if only because you’ve been hearing so much about it lately in the news, a trip on Viking Sineus can be eye-opening.

In addition to historical sites dating as far back as the 11th century, when Kiev was at the center of the mighty, Viking-founded Kievan Rus federation, the “attractions” you will see include faded Soviet monuments, Stalinist Empire-style apartment complexes and other remnants of the Soviet era (until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union), plus artifacts from the recent conflict in the east.

One moment in you’ll be looking at an 18th-century cathedral, the next moment walking through a display of bombed-out vehicles from the eastern Donbass region.

The trip also will give you a chance (unofficially, without the assistance of Viking River Cruises) to visit one of the world’s most unusual (and poignant) sites: The still-radiation-contaminated nuclear disaster zone that is Chernobyl. It’s just a two-hour drive from where the ship docks in Kiev. (More details at the end of the article.)

In short, this is a bit of an outlier when it comes to European river cruises. As quirky cruises go, it may be one of the quirkiest of them all.

Viking River cruise Ukraine sign

Hey mom … we’re not far from Baltimore! * Photo: Gene Sloan


Viking Sineus is operated by Viking Cruises, but it isn’t a typical Viking ship. Nearly all the line’s 60-plus river vessels in Europe are of the same modern “longship” design that began rolling out in 2012. But Viking Sineus is one of a handful of Viking ships that dates back far earlier — all the way back to 1979! It also has an unusual history that, for a history lover at least, is part of its allure.

Viking River Cruises

The 196-passenger Viking Sineus was built in 1979. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Built in East Germany during the height of the Cold War and originally named Mikhael Lomonosov, the vessel initially served as a getaway for high-level Soviet apparatchiks (or so the story goes). It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that it entered the Viking fleet.

The good news is Viking Sineus doesn’t feel like it dates to the 1970s. In fact, while its exterior is a bit Old School, its interior looks almost new. That’s because Viking recently revamped Viking Sineus in a major way, gutting and rebuilding cabins and public spaces with the same modern Scandinavian design found on the longships.

The massive overhaul of Viking Sineus took place in 2014. But due to the recent conflict in Ukraine, the vessel only resumed sailing in 2018. Given its schedule is seasonal, that means there only have been about 20 voyages since the ship emerged from its makeover.

Viking Sineus docked. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Cabins & Public Rooms

If you’ve cruised on a Viking ship before, you’ll feel right at home on Viking Sineus. Its 98 cabins are similar in style to those found on the longships, with light walls, streamlined furniture, big televisions and modern bathrooms. Two-thirds have balconies.

The author’s balcony cabin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

For the most part, the public areas are stylish and comfortable. If they have a flaw, it’s that the main lounge, the Sky Bar, is too small to accommodate the number of passengers who arrive at cocktail hour for drinks and nightly port talks. While the crew brings in extra chairs for the occasion (jammed edge-to-edge in rows facing the stage), it’s not a particularly pleasant place to kick back before dinner.

Viking Sineus also has a far smaller top-deck lounge space than the longships. Not that this is a problem. We saw few people heading up top during our voyage.

As is typical for Viking ships, there is no fitness center, spa or hair salon on board. Nor is there a laundry room, though laundry service is available through your room attendant for a somewhat hefty extra charge (185 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $7, for a blouse; 225 hryvnia, or about $9, for trousers).

Viking Sineus does have a small library with books and games tucked between the rows of cabins on Deck 2. There’s also a small shop selling nesting dolls and other Ukrainian crafts.

a library Viking River Cruises

The library/game room on board. * Photo: Gene Sloan


When it comes to mealtimes, there essentially is just one option on Viking Sineus, the 196-seat Kiev Restaurant. Located at the back of the ship on Deck 3, the room offers open seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a well-distributed mix of tables for two, four, six and eight. If you’re a couple looking for privacy, you’ll have no problem finding a table for two. But there are plenty of bigger tables, too, if you’re a larger group or eager to share a meal with new friends.

Breakfast and lunch in the Kiev Restaurant are buffet style with additional a la carte items available from servers (made-to-order breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, buttermilk pancakes and French toast; lunch brings cheeseburgers, hot dogs and a changing lineup of specials such as a pulled-pork sandwich and beef ragout). In the one exception to the one-eatery situation, early and late risers will also find coffee, tea and pastries in a corner of the Panorama Bar.

Ukrainian Favorites

Dinner in the Kiev Restaurant is a table-served affair with changing three-course menus. The highlight of the menu every night is the “regional specialties tasting” — a starter, entrée and dessert that offers a taste of local Ukrainian cuisine. A typical night might bring classic Ukrainian red borscht as a starter, followed by local butter fish with a celeriac purée and a Ukrainian plum cake.

Viking River Cruises

A classic Ukrainian red borscht was served, of course. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dinner menu also offers a rotation of two non-Ukrainian entrees each night, plus two starters and a dessert. These dishes are mostly Continental, ranging from braised beef with an onion sauce and mashed potatoes to seared pike perch with creamy vegetables and glazed beets.

In addition, as is typical on Viking ships, an “always available” section of the menu at dinner offers a classic Caesar salad as a starter and three traditional entrees: beef tenderloin, poached Norwegian salmon and roast chicken. Always-available desserts include Crème Brulée, a cheese plate, a fruit plate and ice cream.

In general, the food on Viking Sineus is quite good, and the Ukrainian dishes stand out. My favorite dish of the trip was the Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes that appeared on the regional-specialties menu early in the voyage. Slow-cooked and beautifully glazed, the meat just fell off the bone and boasted a wonderful, stew-like favor.

Viking River Cruises dinner

The Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes. * Photo: Gene Sloan

As is always the case on Viking ships, beer, wine and sodas are available during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. Just be warned that the included wines, locally made in Ukraine, are relatively basic. For those who crave something swankier, a selection of extra-charge wines is available, too.

Of note, the entire dining room and bar staff, as well as nearly all other crew on board, is made up of local Ukrainians, most of whom live in the cities the ship visits. Only the captain, program director, hotel director and maître d’hotel are from outside the country (including Italy and Germany).

This lends a wonderful authenticity to the on-board experience, as if we are staying in a local hotel. The (all-female) dining and bar staff — nearly all young, energetic and outgoing — have a good command of English and are happy to talk about life in their native country. Ditto for the excellent front desk staff.


For 2019, Viking Sineus is operating one-way voyages between the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Kiev. The northbound version of the Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, starting in Odessa, includes a short passage across the Black Sea before the vessel reaches the mouth of the Dnieper and heads upstream to Kherson, Zaporozhye, Dnipro, Kremenchug and Kiev. The southbound version of the trip does the same in reverse.

Viking River Cruise Ukraine itinerary

The itinerary.

For 2020, Viking is tweaking the itinerary by adding a visit to nearby Romania to the beginning or end of every trip. Instead of Odessa, the northbound version of the newly named “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour will begin in Bucharest, Romania, with a two-night hotel stay. Tourgoers then will transfer via a long bus ride to Tulcea, Romania, where Viking Sineus will be waiting to take them across the Black Sea to Odessa and the Dnieper cities of Kherson, Zaporozhye and Kiev. The southbound version of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine will offer the same in reverse.

Note that, for 2020, stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug are being dropped.

Here, a day-by-day look at the northbound version of the itinerary as it is offered in 2019:


If you’ve heard anything about Odessa, you’ve probably heard that it’s home to the Potemkin Steps. The soaring granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is the city’s iconic attraction. It’s also the best way to reach Viking Sineus if, like me, you arrive for your cruise a day early and spend the night in Odessa’s historic center. The ship docks right at its base.

Walking to Viking Sineus from a nearby hotel, I find myself offering an homage to Battleship Potemkin’s legendary massacre scene as I bump my 40-pound suitcase down the stairway’s 192 steps (you can avoid the steps by riding the adjacent incline railway for less than $1). I am pushed on not by Cossacks with fixed bayonets but by a crowd of tourists.

Viking River cruise in the Urraine

The granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Over the coming days, I discover Odessa is more than the Potemkin Steps. Founded by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1794, the once-wealthy Black Sea port city entices with a faded grandness. Rows of tree-lined boulevards are lined with elegant but often crumbling Art Nouveau, Baroque Revival and neoclassical buildings, including the spectacular Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.

VIking River Cruises stop in Odessa

Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.* Photo: Gene Sloan

As we are told during an initial tour, Odessa was one of the most important cities of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, smaller in size only to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. As a major and wealthy trading port for centuries, Odessa, not unlike Alexandria in Egypt, was very international.

Pearl of the Black Sea

Called the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” it was a key warm-water port for Russia well into the 20th century, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Viking Sineus remains docked in Odessa for the first three nights of my Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, allowing plenty of time for exploring. As is typical with Viking river sailings, every day brings at least one included excursion, starting with a walking tour that hits the highlights of Odessa’s historic district.

Viking River Cruises

Odessa’s historic district. * Photo: Gene Sloan

In addition to visiting the Potemkin Steps, we ramble down lovely, pedestrian only Primorsky Boulevard, located at the top of the stairway. We stroll pedestrian only Deribasivska Street, the main shopping corridor, and stop at City Garden, where I mimic the locals by snapping a selfie with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. I have no idea who he is, but it seems like the thing to do. (Well ok, let’s find out!

Viking River cruise stop in Odessa

Selfie time with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Still, perhaps my favorite Odessa site is the opulent statue of Catherine the Great (known as the Monument to the Founders of Odessa) – if only for the story that goes with it. Erected in 1900, the statue was ripped down in 1920 by the anti-Tsarist Bolsheviks, only to be put back just 12 years ago by the Ukrainians. Take that, Soviets!

World War II Sites

In another included tour, we descend into the Odessa Catacombs, a renowned network of subterranean tunnels under the city and its outskirts where Soviet partisans hid during the war. Our guide, Nadya, shows us where the partisans slept, ate and fought to the death with German-allied Romanian soldiers who were sent into the labyrinth-like lair to flush them out.

Odessa Catacombs on a Viking River Cruise

Odessa Catacombs. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Originally excavated in the 19th century as part of limestone mining operations, the tunnels supposedly stretch for more than 1,500 miles, only a small portion of which is open to the public.

A half dozen other excursions offered by Viking during our stay include a visit to Odessa’s sprawling Privoz Market with the ship’s chef, a brandy tasting at the local Shustov Cognac Museum and a night out to the opera. All come with an extra charge.

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I round out my visit with an included tour to the Odessa Fine Arts Museum. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky, you probably haven’t heard of any of the Ukrainian and Russian artists whose work is on display. But the building itself, a former neoclassical palace, is impressive, and the art is a window onto the Ukraine of old.


Today is the day we finally begin working our way up the Dnieper. During the night, Viking Sineus has traveled eastward along the coast of the Black Sea from Odessa to the mouth of the waterway — nearly 100 miles. The ship already is well inland by the time most passengers awake.

At first blush, our only stop for the day, the small port city of Kherson (pop. 300,000), doesn’t look like much — a mishmash of decaying, graffiti-splashed buildings that might best be described as forlorn. But for a history nerd like me, it’s beguiling.

As our guide for the day, Lena, points out, Kherson was founded in 1778 by Russian prince Grigory Potemkin, the famed lover and lieutenant of Catherine the Great, and it hides intriguing pieces of his story.

Potemkin Again

We start a two-and-a-half-hour tour with a stop at the central park Potemkin ordered built, fittingly home to a soaring statue of him. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks tried but failed to topple the statue with two tractors — a metaphor, perhaps, for the movement’s struggle against capitalist ideals. Another stop brings a visit to St. Catherine’s Cathedral, also built under Potemkin’s watch and now his final resting place.

Viking river cruises in Kherson, Ukraine

The Potemkin statue. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Catherine the Great, who dispatched Potemkin this way to develop the region, famously traveled down the Dnieper to see how he was faring (supposedly past hastily constructed “Potemkin villages” designed to show progress). You can see the chair in St. Catherine’s Cathedral where she sat during her visit.

Viking River cruises to Ukraine

Catherine the Great’s chair. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Our touring also brings us to the aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II — the all-female band of Soviet aviators who terrorized Hitler’s invading army with daring tactics. They were known for cutting their engines during bombing runs and gliding to their targets so they wouldn’t be heard coming.

Viking River cruise in the Ukraine

The aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A final stop delivers us to the Monument of Glory, a World War II memorial that is classically Soviet in style — that is, taller and more triumphant than all reason. But I have spotted something even more alluring at the end of the adjacent park: A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. It takes a little hustle, but I make it there and back in our allotted 12 minutes of free time.

Viking River cruise to see Soviet-era tanks

A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. * Photo: Gene Sloan

By lunchtime, Viking Sineus is churning northeast on the Dnieper on its way to its next stop, Zaporozhye.


If you’re a lover of engineering marvels, you’re in for a treat this day. Just be sure to be up early. As it approaches Zaporozhyre, Viking Sineus must traverse one of the deepest river locks in all of Europe. Located at one of the biggest hydroelectric dams on the Continent, the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the lock raises the ship 108 feet — nearly 11 stories.

Viking River cruises Ukraine cruise

The lock at Zaporozhyre rises up almost 11 stories. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dock for Zoporohyze is just north of the lock, and within minutes of passing through it, we are touring the city.

An industrial center of 700,000 people known for steel, aluminum and aircraft engine production, Zoporohyze isn’t a place you go to see grand monuments, historic sites or charming neighborhoods. What it offers is a glimpse of everyday life in a typical Soviet-era Ukraine city.

Heading into town by coach, we parade down eight-mile-long, six-lane-wide Sobornyi Avenue, which our guide bills as the longest central boulevard in all of Europe. As dreary as it is meant to be grand, with a succession of blocky, Stalin-era buildings, it is lined in places with loudspeakers that once spouted out Soviet propaganda.

Notably, a road sign declares we’re just 234 kilometers (about 145 miles) from Donetsk, a key city at the edge of the Donbass region where pro-Russia separatist forces have been battling against the Ukrainian military since 2014. Barely mentioned on Western newscasts in recent years, it is a simmering struggle that has left around 13,000 people dead. Our stop in Zaporozhye is about the closest we will get to the conflict zone. In theory, we could drive to it in a few hours, and that’s a bit surreal to contemplate. But the reality is that, in terms of this cruise, it’s a world away.

During a stop at Zaporozhye’s central park, I ask a young barista at a coffee stand about the situation. She tells me she and her friends initially were worried the Russia-backed soldiers might continue westward right into Zaporohyze. But things have settled down, and the worry has dissipated, she says. The bigger issue now, she says, is that it’s become hard to get an apartment, since so many Ukrainians from the East have fled this way and filled them up.

Viking River cruises

Coffee carts in Zaporozhye’s central park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Talking to locals such as the barista offers a snapshot of the struggle that is life in Ukraine. She tells me she makes the equivalent of about $17 a day, and that’s quite good, she says. The typical person she knows makes about $250 a month. Ukraine, you will learn on a visit here, is incredibly poor by Western standards, in addition to having suffered terribly from war and famine over the past century.

After our short tour of the city center, we head to Zaporozhye’s main tourist attraction, a reconstructed Cossack fort on Khortytsia, an island in the middle of the Dnieper. Intertwined with Ukrainian and Russian history, the Cossacks were centered here from the 16th to 18th centuries. Later in the day, we return to the island for a display of Cossack horsemanship.

Viking River Cruises

The reconstructed Cossack fort. * Photo: Gene Sloan

From the Cossack fort, there is a great view of the entirety of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, which itself is a site with a significant history. Hailed as one of the great achievements of Soviet industrialization, it was the third largest power plant in the world when it opened in 1932, just behind the Hoover Dam and Wilson Dam in the United States. During World War II, retreating Red Army soldiers dynamited the dam to keep it out of German hands, resulting in a tidal surge that killed as many 100,000 people.


As noted above, Viking will be dropping stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug in 2020. As a result, I won’t go into great detail about our visits to the two destinations, other than to say that Dnipro, in particular, was intriguing. Once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program, it was for many years a secretive “closed city” that was off limits to foreigners. It only opened to outsiders in the 1990s.

In Dnipro, I sign up for a wonderful (and quirky!) extra-charge tour to the Aerospace Museum, where we ogle once-classified artifacts of the Dnipro rocket program while a retired engineer talks us through the city’s role in building an intercontinental missile that could hit the United States.

Viking River cruise visit to Dnipro

Dnipro was once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The stop is paired with a visit to what is roughly translated as the “Technical Museum Time Machines,” an oddball temple to retro-cool, Cold War-era cars, toys, video games and other memorabilia.

Our visit to Dnipro also brings an included tour to the city center, where we survey the small but display-packed National Historical Museum. It harbors everything from 2,500-year-old stone idols found in the region to Cossack clothing and weapons.

Just outside, a more timely, open-air exhibit labeled the “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine” is filled with bombed-out vehicles, bullet-ridden road signs and other poignant reminders of the conflict just down the road.

Viking River cruises museum visit

The open-air “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine.” * Photo: Gene Sloan


Viking is saving the best for last by devoting the final two days of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine to Kiev. The Ukrainian capital is by far the most vibrant, stylish and historically interesting city in the country. Built on hills overlooking a bend in the Dnieper, it offers iconic attractions such as St. Sophia’s Cathedral — a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with 1,000-year-old frescoes and mosaics — and lovely squares and parks for strolling. There’s also plenty of restaurants, bars and other nightspots.

Visiting Kiev on a Viking River cruise

And another angle on stunning St. Sophia’s Cathedral. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Kiev also is the place where the story of Ukraine’s recent struggle finally comes into focus. One of the sites we visit during an initial tour of the city is Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square that was at the center of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Peaceful now, it was for several days in 2014 the site of dramatic clashes between protestors and government forces that ended with the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (now in exile in Russia). Makeshift memorials with pictures of the 100-plus people killed during the conflict line the area.

Approaching Kiev aboard the Viking Sireus

Approaching Kiev. * Photo: Gene Sloan

We approach Kiev on a perfectly sunny afternoon, and our program director, Oliver, ushers us to the top deck of Viking Sineus for a celebration. Leaning on the railings, we marvel at the golden spires of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a walled monastery complex once home to 2,000 monks.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine in Kiev

Kiev’s walled Pechersk Lavra monastery complex. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Later, we will descend by candlelight into its subterranean caves, dug by the priests that lived there as hermits. The labyrinth-like complex still holds their mummified remains, laid out in glass coffins.

Kiev has quite a bit to offer, enough for Viking to operate an overlapping mix of seven different tours during our two-day stay. Many are built around themes such as Jewish Kiev or Ukraine During World War II. But I make a last-minute decision to skip nearly all these outings to spend a full day visiting what may be the region’s most intriguing (and disturbing) destination: The site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

I Chose Chernobyl

Just 62 miles north of Kiev, the radiation-contaminated area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, has been open to visitors with permission on a limited basis since 2011 — as long as they don’t stay long.

While mainstream tour operators such as Viking don’t offer excursions there, several local companies in Kiev will take small groups into the area for several hours at a time, handling the required paperwork and smoothing things over at checkpoints.

Along with two other Viking Sineus passengers, for $99 USD a piece, I sign up for a visit with a company called Solo East, which picks us up in a van right at the ship for the two-hour drive to the exclusion zone.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking River cruise

All aboard for the Chernobyl Express. * Photo: Gene Sloan

At the first checkpoint, we are issued radiation detectors that will monitor our exposure, although the official word is that it will not be significant (if we follow the rules). At the same time, we are told not to touch anything or sit down, lest we contaminate ourselves. There still is plenty of radiation around.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine

Radiation detectors are a must. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A bit to my surprise, we can motor right up to the melted-down reactor, which recently was covered in a new (and supposedly safe) containment structure. But the most gripping part of the experience is wandering through nearby Pripyat, the small city built to house the power plant’s workers.

Ukriaine Viking River cruise stops in Kiev

If I was standing here 33 years ago, I’d be dead. The dome behind me is the new containment structure over the melted-down Reactor #4. The amount of radiation released during the accident was 400 times the level of the bomb over Hiroshima. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Once home to nearly 50,000 people, it was evacuated in two days after the disaster and is now a ghost town on an epic scale. We shuffle down its eerily quiet main streets, empty of people — past government buildings, a hotel, a movie theater, a stadium and the small amusement park with a yellow carousel that is shown in so many Chernobyl documentaries. It’s all slowly crumbling and being retaken by the forest.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking river cruise

Pripyat was abandoned. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Viking Ukraine cruise

Pripyat was evacuated in just a few days, including this amusement park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Given the terrible impact that the disaster had on the people of the area and beyond (recently recounted in the five-part HBO series Chernobyl), it’s a heavy experience. But it’s also enlightening. And that may be the best way to describe this river cruise in its entirety.

From stories of man-made famine in the Soviet era that left millions dead to World War II devastation to more recent struggles, we hear a lot that is sobering on this trip. But we also leave with a better understanding of a place that, despite it all, seems to be moving forward.


For 2020, Viking plans 10 departures of its new “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour starting on May 28. The final sailing ends in early October. Including the added Bucharest stay, the trips will be 11 nights in length — one night longer than this year’s itinerary.

Fares for the trips start at $3,799 per person, based on double occupancy, with the rates including lodging, most meals, tours during every stop, and beer and wine with dinner.

The northbound version of the itinerary can be extended with a three-night pre-cruise stay in Vienna and/or a three-night post-cruise stay in Istanbul that are priced at $649 and $1,199 per person, respectively. Passengers on the southbound version of the trip have the same two options in reverse. There also are pre- and post-cruise Romania tours available for $799 per person.

Visit Viking  for more info on a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine.

Gene SloanGene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Check out Gene’s other insightful articles for Danube River cruise on AMAWaterway’s new AMA Magna.





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Brahmaputra River cruise tips

Brahmaputra River Cruise Tips.

By Judi Cohen.

Few travelers go to India for just one week unless you live in a neighbouring country. Our recent India adventure was nearly one-month long, with a Brahmaputra River cruise scheduled in the middle.

➢Click here for Judi’s story about her recent Brahmaputra River cruise.

➢And check out Heidi’s article about her Brahmaputra River cruise with the same company, Far Horizon Tours.

Here’s are some tips to make the most of your Brahmaputra River cruise and the time you spend touring India before and after. Our pre-and post-cruise travel in India was based based on my own research and knowledge of India from previous visits, combined with with the assistance of local Indian tour companies.

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Bring Small Notes

Carry small denomination rupee notes in good condition to buy local handicrafts from the villagers on the excursions. Note that torn or ragged notes may not be accepted.

Brahmaputra River cruise tips include bringing small notes

Carry small denominations or Indian Rupees (INR) for shopping and haggling. 100 INR is about $1.40 USD. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Embrace Change

Be flexible and accepting of the changing weather and itinerary. Our itinerary changed many times due to thick fog that either delayed our morning sailing, or prevented it entirely, one time necessitating a full day on the ship. The ship can only sail during daylight hours due to the challenging river conditions.

Dress in Layers

In Assam, the weather can change from a low of 2C degrees to a high of 25C degrees daily (or in Fahrenheit, from the 30s or 40s on up to the low 80s). I started the day at Kaziranga wearing a merino wool underlayer, a sweatshirt and a puffy down jacket (below), and ended the day in a T-shirt.

jeep safari in Kaziranga

Judi and her family on the jeep safari. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The tender rides to and from the ship were quite windy and cool requiring a sweater or jacket. With the strict baggage weight restrictions on many internal flights in India, packing layers can save considerable money in excess baggage fees.

A big lightweight scarf comes in very handy, and can be used as a shawl for warmth, a head covering, sun protection, a fashion statement and even a skirt!

Bring Sun Protection

Sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat — by midday it gets hot and very sunny.

Brahmaputra River cruise tips include hats and sunscreen

Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must for any visit to India. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Use Insect Repellant

Apply it before excursions, particularly those to Kaziranga during the elephant-back, Jeep and boat safaris, as well as for late afternoon excursions to villages.

Embrace Authentic over Luxury

MV Mahabaahu provides an authentic Indian experience in terms of food, hospitality and accommodation. It is by no means a Crystal or Silversea luxury experience, but in my view the authenticity is what made it so special for me.

bamboo gangway to the Mahabaah

The gangway to the quirky Mahabaahu. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Wear the Right Shoes

Bring comfortable and sturdy walking shoes (preferably closed) and a collapsible walking stick (if you like) to help with the mildly challenging climb up on the sandy dunes when arriving by tender on the daily excursions.

Stow Socks

To enter a temple or mosque in India, you must remove your shoes. Carry socks if you don’t want to go barefoot! Though, keep in mind, some temples don’t allow any kind of foot covering at all, including socks.

Many guides will hand out wet wipes before you put your shoes back on, though keep in mind, wet wipes are not bio-degradable. Which brings me to the next tip.

Brahmaputra River cruise tips include bringing extra socks and small travel towels

Shoe storage outside of a temple. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Carry Small Cloth Towels

Way more eco-friendly compared to wet wipes, which wind up in the garbage and polluting our beaches and waterways, wipe your feet and hands throughout a visit to India with light cotton handkerchiefs, washcloths or small thin travel towels (like this QuirkyCruise Turkish towel below!). Wash them out each evening and use again the next day!

bring small cloth towels for your visit to India

More eco-friendly that wet wipes, carry a couple of small cloth travel towels with you to India. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Do You Need a Lift/Elevator?

Check with the cruise line to make sure their lift is working on the ship if you will be requiring it. It was broken throughout our sailing unfortunately.

Drink Only Bottled Water

And wash your hands often, on and off the ship.

Pack an Open Mind!

Oh yes…and bring your best camera to capture the incredible wildlife in the sky, along the river, and on the land.

Brahmaputra River cruise tips include an open mind

Open your mind and heart to all the riches of India! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Definitely Travel in India Before & After the Cruise


Our 23-day itinerary started with Varanasi, the most sacred city on the Ganges River. We stayed on the river, high atop the ghats at the 5-star Brijrama Palace at a nightly cost of approximately $350 USD per room.

Brahmaputra River Cruise Tips include visiting Varanasi

The 5-star BrijRama Palace sits at the top of the ghats. * Photo: Judi Cohen

From our hotel we watched Mother Ganges come alive in the morning, observing the Ganga aarti ceremonies at night at the Dashashwamedh Ghat when the priests, waving oil lamps, lighting incense and blowing conch shells, would put the river to bed. We went out on a small wooden boat to place small lamps with flowers in the river. We also walked freely through the narrow laneways near Manikarnika, the main cremation ghat that operates day and night.

Funeral pyres burned brightly in full view of the passing boats on the river and we stood and watched wondrously for hours, absorbing the chaotic local commerce and rituals of death.

Brahmaputra River cruise tips

Funeral pyres on the Ganga. * Photo: Judi Cohen

This was my third visit to Varanasi and I could easily go back again and again.

We then flew to Kolkata for two nights at the Oberoi Grand Hotel at about $250 USD per night.

We visited three remaining synagogues, hidden behind street level shops. A handful of Jews live in Kolkata today, and services alternate among the three synagogues. The original congregant’s prayer books and shawls are still in the tiny cubbyholes in the seats.

Brahmaputra Cruise Tips include a visit to Kolkata

A Kolkata synagogue. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We enjoyed the sprawling flower market with its fragrant smells and rich yellow and saffron colors. The opulent Queen Victoria monument was a sight to behold with thousands of Christmas lights twinkling under a full moon.

Visiting Mother Teresa’s “Missionaries of Charity” in the heart of Kolkata was a highlight. Seeing the small room with the desk and bed that Saint Mother Teresa did her work from was an emotional and moving experience.

The poverty we saw in Kolkata underscored the remarkable nature of the work being done at the Missionaries of Charity’s “Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center” today and the unthinkable disease, hunger and suffering that Mother Teresa would have seen and tended to.

Brahmaputra River Cruise tips

Mother Teresa was of Albanian decent and moved to Calcutta, India when she was 21, joining the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. * Photo: Judi Cohen


As our fabulous cruise on the MV Mahabaahu came to an end, our land-based adventure, designed by me and organized locally by Peirce and Leslie ( was just beginning!

Building this cruise into our longer Indian holiday was a very good decision. We all flew to New Delhi to celebrate New Year’s at the Leela Palace at about $300 USD per night, and spent the next eight days in colorful Rajasthan visiting Agra, Jaipur, Jodphur and Udaipur.

Raas Hotel Jodphur is a great add on to a Brahmaputra River cruise

The atmospheric Raas Hotel Jodphur. * Photo: Judi Cohen

My husband and I along with our friends, Valerie and Howard, capped off the trip with three days in Mumbai touring with Perfect Travels and Tours.

A stay at Mumbai's Taj Mahal is a Brahmaputra RIver cruise tip

The iconic Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We stayed at the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel at about $350 USD per night before flying back to Toronto on a direct flight.

Brahmaputra River cruise tips

Until next time …

Click here for Brahmaputra River cruise booking info.

QuirkyCruise Review



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Special offer on barge cruises that include wine

Canal Cruising in France:
Drinking It All In Aboard the Grand Victoria.

Text by Christina Colon. Photos & wine picks by Peter Barnes.

After a few glorious days in Paris, my partner Peter and I were ready to embark upon our first barge cruise adventure. Leaving from the Gare de Lyon, second-class tickets on the national train line TGV (the French equivalent to Amtrak) entailed comfortable seats, a table, armrest and an outlet.

Traveling through the countryside at 168 mph was relaxing, and to see the rolling hills dotted with cows and rustic farms felt like speeding through a French impressionist painting.

Starting in Chagny

In Dijon we were greeted at the station by Lynn, tour guide extraordinaire, waiting for us in a shiny black Mercedes van. She is a fully-trained sommelier and knows everything there is to know about all things wine. Her California girl smile and friendly nature instantly put us at ease as she navigated expertly through 60km of wine country to the tiny port of Chagny.

Here our Burgundy canal cruise aboard the Grand Victoria would commence and cover nearly 100km (about 60 miles) over 6 days along the Canal du Centre and the Saône River; it would end in Auxonne.

QuirkyCruise readers can avail of 20% off full-boat charters booked by Jan 1, 2020, with code QC2020.

Grand Victoria Canal cruising in France

The elegant 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Immediately on arrival we were greeted by Edward, Cindy and Angus (a frisky Lhasa Apso), owners (and mascot) of the Grand Victoria.

Edward (also the captain) is a font of information about everything from the history of French winemaking to competitive skydiving. Their son Alex looks right at home swabbing the decks and pulling ropes, a job he takes quite seriously.

Grand Victoria crew

Grand Victoria’s passengers and crew say “cheese!” * Photo: Peter Barnes

Once across the miniature gang plank, we were introduced to the rest of the crew. Leticia, the French-speaking hostess who speaks impeccable English, greeted us with her signature broad smile, warm demeanor and glass of Moët & Chandon.

Moët & Chandon while Canal Cruising in France

Christina enjoying a glass of Moët & Chandon aboard the pretty Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

The chef, Phil wasted no time showing his culinary aplomb with some amuse-bouche (tasty treats) before we slowly started down the narrow verdant waterway. Canal cruising in France was definitely pleasing our palates already.

Canal Cruising in France: The Boat

The Grand Victoria feels more like a river yacht than a barge, though it has the typical dimensions and interior of other 5-star canal barges. Built in the 1980s, to the specifications of the heiress to the DeKuyper liquor fortune, it was designed for her private travel around Europe. The current owners redecorated after a gut renovation in 2015.

With amenities in abundance, it boasts a well-stocked bar, deck furniture, chic lounge, and elegant dining area. The eight original staterooms situated near the front of the vessel down a short but narrow half staircase were reduced in number to three. All of them were enhanced in size, allowing for a king-size bed (or two XL twins), double sinks, a full shower and ample storage room. Voila! Three couples can definitely travel in style.

As our cruise began, we settled in and  lapped up our posh surroundings, reclining on the plush outdoor furniture while Edward stood at the helm in the wheelhouse.

driving the Grand Victoria

Edward at the helm of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

We glided silently forward under a canopy of black locust trees festooned with fragrant white blossoms and the occasional mistletoe. Birds chirped on cue.

Extra thick insulation in the hull blocks out any external sounds, making for a quiet restful night’s sleep. Unlike regular cruises in open water, there is no rocking aboard this steady shallow-drafted canal boat since the vessel remains stationary at night, only cruising during the day.

No engine hum, no sudden jolts, and the only sound in the morning are those chirping birds. Ahhh, the joys of canal cruising in France.

Canal cruising in France on the Grand Victoria

The peaceful canal view from bow of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

Locks & More Locks

After traveling a short distance we stopped at the first of many locks which allowed us to drop a vertical distance of approximately 20 feet with as little fuss as riding an elevator. The mechanism is quite fascinating; two dams create a chamber just big enough for the boat to fit inside, which is filled or drained to meet the water level of the next stretch of canal.

VIDEO:  The ups and downs of the Burgundy locks.

These waterways, built to transport products, are something of a relic. Today they are used almost exclusively for recreational boating, including 50 similar floating hotels.

Canal Cruising in France: Delightful Dining

Dinner was a perfect balance of formal and casual with the dishes being served by Leticia, assisted at times by Cindy. For each course, Phil would appear and describe each course, all of which were amazing without being overly pretentious. Since we were cruising with two other couples, every dinner was a social event.

Grand Victoria dining on a Canal Cruising in France

Dinner on the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

On the first night, we were joined by Edward and Cindy, but on subsequent meals, dinner was set for just the guests, although Edward always presented and poured the daily vintages. Our appetizer of scallops pan seared in a brown butter sauce paired well with the local white, while the main course of fresh lamb over a puree of cauliflower was served with the local red.

Another night was a delicious pan roasted duck with Asian slaw and honey soy reduction.

Roasted duck aboard the Grand Victoria

A delicious pan roasted duck. * Photo: Christina Colon

Each meal was based on what Phil procured at the local market and what was fresh and in season.

VIDEO:  See Phil in action putting the final touches to a delicious gourmet dish of pork tenderloin, pork belly and potato croquettes.

If watching Phil prepare the meals in the kitchen was like watching an artist at work, his fresh bread and selection of cheeses were like the mat and frame of his masterpiece.

French cheese on French barge cruises aboard the Grand Victoria

Chef Phil’s exquisite French fromage was out of this world! * Photo: Peter Barnes

French cheese on Grand Victoria

And more to-die-for French fromage! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Grand Victoria cheese board

Cheese is one of the many highlights of a Grand Victoria cruise, as you can see! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: The Glorious Wine

Since wine makes up the most important export of the Burgundy region it comes as no surprise that they take their wine tasting, drinking and winemaking very seriously. Perhaps needless to say, wine (and cheese!) is a major reason to choose canal cruising in France.

wine tasting while Canal Cruising in France

Peter tasting one of many excellent wines during the 6-night Grand Victoria barge cruise, this one at the Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Christina Colon

Edward explained that in this region there are only two varieties of wine produced. The red wines are pinot noir and the whites are chardonnay. There is no mixing of grapes or alchemy of these varietals. Nor is there any mechanization of the process that has been done by traditional means of hand harvesting for over 900 years.

Application of fertilizers, pesticides or any other enhancements is strictly prohibited by law, and even the number of grapes produced by each vine is limited to a maximum of seven bunches. While quantities are low, quality is king.

So even in years where frosts, draught other environmental factors can wipe out a significant portion of the harvest, these rules are strictly enforced. Surprise inspections are an everyday part of the process.

French vineyards

Burgundy’s legendary vineyards. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Stops Along the Way

Most days we left promptly after breakfast to do our tours and tastings, then either ate lunch in town or returned to the boat for a light meal. Afternoons were spent inching along the canal, getting to the next port. Thus activities involved lounging on the deck, watching the scenery go by or riding a bike to meet the boat at the next destination. The boat was always docked overnight.

Chagny to Auxonne map

The author’s itinerary, from Chagny via the Canal du Centre then along the Saône River to Auxonne. * Google Maps

The tiny town of Fragnes felt somewhat frozen in time, with sleepy lanes, quiet shops, tidy parks and colorful gardens in front of sturdy stone houses. The main industry appears to be local boat tourism as evidenced by several small rental or private boats occupied by family groups.

Almost as sleepy was the town of Chalon, the highlight of which was a visit to the weekly market with Phil to peruse the fresh produce (look no plastic!), cheeses and cured meats.

fresh produce in port in Chalon

The fresh produce of Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

the cheese of Chalon

Delectable cheeses in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

This revealed a decidedly elderly populace, all wielding baskets or pulling their little bubby carts filled with Tupperware and re-useable tote bags.

The local grocery store had a stunning variety of excellent wines at rock-bottom prices.

Chalon wine market

If only we had more space in our luggage! * Photo: Christina Colon

The other quiet spots where we tied up for the night were Seurre, which offered abundant and multilingual signage describing the sleepy stories of the sleepy architecture. And Auxonne (where the cruise would end), the site of an ancient waterside fort today used as a playground by local youths. We saw numerous defaced plaques and coats of arms that date back to the French Revolution.

Fortress wall Auxonne on a French barge cruise

The fortress wall of Auxonne. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Vineyard Visits

Chateau de Pommard, a short drive from Chagny, is a postcard perfect vineyard that offers in-depth narrated tours of the vines, soil types, wine presses, wine cellars and of, course wines. After learning about the process of growing, harvesting and producing the wines, a tasting took place inside the recently renovated chateau.

Chateau de Pommard on a French barge cruise

The lovely Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Chateau de Pommard wine barrel in France

A Chateau de Pommard wine barrel. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Afterwards, we were free to tour the walled fragrance garden and learn about some of the plants often associated with wines such as citrus, honeysuckle, hawthorn, lily and rose. Of course, none of these are in the wines, but are flavors and aromas commonly used to describe the various vintages.

Canal Cruising in France: Medieval Beaune

In Beaune, which was not far from Fragne where our boat tied up, the morning’s excursion had us going to the Hotel Dieu, built-in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy. Dubbed a “palace for the poor,” the hospital’s canopy beds are clad in starched white linens and draped in red velvet curtains. Patients were attended by nuns selected for their medical ability, compassion, and “character,” according to the founder’s charter.

Hotel dieu hospice

The hospital dubbed a “palace for the poor.” * Photo: Christina Colon

Private rooms helped offset the cost of caring for the poor even until the 1980s when a new hospital was built, and continues to be funded by the surrounding vineyards. In addition to an assortment of medical tools on display, an apothecary shows where cutting-edge medicines, many based on herbs and minerals, were prepared.

The large kitchens show the importance placed on good nutrition for patients, which was seen as equal to any other treatment. While water was considered dangerous, and fruits considered unhealthy, wine was freely available and thought to be curative.

After exiting through the gift shop, we emerged onto the square within the walled city, where tourist venues sell wine, postcards, wine, antiques, wine, and books (about wine). One antique vendor sold high-quality French furniture in a shop that itself was quite antique.

Perhaps because Peter knows an extraordinary amount about antique French furniture, we were permitted to explore the inner sanctum. Here, virtually priceless antiques were arranged in a room with carved wood panels and a low-beam ceiling that appears to not have changed for centuries.

15th-century Hotel Dieu in Burgundy

The 15th-century Hotel Dieu. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Lunch at a Michelin Star Restaurant

Also in the town of Beaune, is the Michelin star restaurant Le Jardin-de Remparts, where a lavish pre-fix lunch was pre-ordered as part of our cruise. We started with a kir royal (champagne and Chambord), then were served some baked amuse-bouche.

Canal Cruising in France includes lunches at Michelin star restaurants

Lunch at the Michelin star Le Jardin-de Remparts. * Photo: Christina Colon

My appetizer of burgundy snail croquet in a garlic butter sauce was followed by steamed cod with squid ink risotto. A palate cleanser of sheep yogurt and green tomato marmalade was a light prelude to a fluffy mango soufflé with passion fruit sorbet.

mango soufflé in France

Fluffy mango soufflé — oui oui! * Photo: Christina Colon

The wine pairings were “on point” of course (aka perfect) and the coffee and petit-fours were too good not to try.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau de Rully

Next on our voyage was a visit to Chateau de Rully with a fascinating history. The kindly gentleman who greeted us at the entrance to his home looked nothing like the descendant of over 25 generations of French aristocracy. With his warm smile and unassuming demeanor, the Count of Rully (Raoul) was genuinely enthusiastic to share the story of his family and the inner secrets of his estate.

Chateau Rully on a Grand Victoria barge cruise

A visit to the Chateau Rully. * Photo: Christina Colon

What started as a fortified castle, designed solely for protection from marauding neighbors, has over the centuries grown into an elegant chateau.

The original tower was expanded to include walls and three other towers surrounded by a moat and a draw bridge. An ancestral grandfather had the moat filled and the drawbridge removed after his carriage nearly toppled into the brink.

A visit to Chateau de Rully on a French barge cruise

The fascinating and beautiful Chateau de Rully. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Later extensions in the 1800s created elegant living quarters designed for comfort rather than protection (thus now a chateau).

Upon entering, we ascended a circular staircase whose right spiral makes it more difficult for an invader to attack. The design necessitated he must wield his sword in his left hand, allowing the defender above to defend with a sword held in his dominant right hand.

The original walls of this castle where nearly two feet thick and lacked windows. Small slits in the top walls allowed a sentry to watch the horizon while larger gaps permitted a rain of stones down on any intruders. At night, a leather dummy was propped up to create the silhouette of a watchful guard.

The family chapel retains beautiful wall paintings and a carved wooden altar both done by ancestral grandfathers. Written in gold paint are the names of every member of the lineage who was baptized, christened, married or had their first communion in the chapel including the current Duke’s young sons.

Family portraits abound throughout the luxurious well-appointed rooms and much of the furniture can be attributed directly to some of the 18th century’s finest craftsmen. Whereas most other homes of the aristocracy were looted or burned, this family escaped such a fate.

The Duke beams as he tells the tale of his ancestral grandmother who freed her serfs prior to the French Revolution. She was briefly arrested but immediately released when her workers who tended the vines vouched that they were treated generously and with compassion.

While the wines still produced to this day are reputedly good, it is the tour itself that merits the majority of one’s time.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau Clos de Vogueot

In the Cote d’Or lies the Chateau Clos de Vogueot, a massive vineyard that produces some of the best red wines in the world. Originally made for religious ceremonies by monks in the 12th century, wines from this ancient vineyard have different grades according to the slope, elevation, drainage and orientation of the plots.

The soil or terroire has complex structure and its mineral components also have a big impact, as does the age of the vine. Older vines are considered better. Wines from each plot are categorized into low, middle and high grades; the top being reserved for the king.

Chateau Clos de Vogueot on a French Barge cruise

A visit to Chateau Clos de Vogueot. * Photo: Christina Colon

A tour of this mecca of wine making included a walk past some massive and ancient grape presses, fermenting vats, barrels, and a deep well. Multiple owners now all belong to the cult-like “Brotherhood Knights of Wine Tasting,” who gather annually to don colorful regalia, taste wines, and make merry.

A wine tasting was not on order for us, but instead we made our way to the nearby Moillard Givrot (or negociant, a wine making company that buys grapes then makes bottles and sells wine) where we tasted seven (or was it eight?) excellent wines.

Canal Cruising in France is all about wine

The legendary wines of the ancient Château du Clos de Vougeot. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Peter’s Favorite Wine Picks for the Week
(all served onboard)

Harmand-Geoffroy’s Gevrey-Chambertin, 2015. This great pinot offers up notes of red licorice, cherries and pomegranate in a complex, refreshing and irresistibly approachable package.

Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. From the northern part of the Cote d’Or, this wine has gorgeous red currant and bing cherry aromas. It’s a very concentrated, refined pinot noir with fine tannins and great complexity.

Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, 2011. Our final red of the week was a big, brooding and muscular premier cru. While discreet during the meal, it opened up to reveal almost Rhone-like aromas: first tar, cocoa, then blackcurrant and blueberry compote.

Fine wine while canal cruising in France

Peter fancied the fine Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. * Photo: Peter Barnes


Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. This amazing white burgundy bearing the Givry premier cru appellation shows off aromas of vanilla, lemon, orange, honey with light oakiness on the finish; balanced with a zippy acidity.

Pouilly-Fuisse Les Vines Blanches, 2017. Fruit forward and approachable, this white has aromas of tropical fruits, crème brulé and toasted almonds with a clean cool citrusy finish.

Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016 is one of the wines you may enjoy on a canal cruise in France

Peter was impressed by Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Slow & Meticulous

If we could change one thing on this trip, it would have been to spend more time exploring the historic city of Dijon.

Our limited time was split between a brisk walk through the famed covered market, designed by Gustav Eiffel and brimming with French delectables (cheeses, meats, pastries, and prepared food), lunch at a local eatery, and a whirlwind walking tour through the fairy tale streets, romantic squares and central church.

We recommend you stay a night in Dijon before the cruise if time permits.

A stop in Dijon on a French Canal Cruise

The historical riches of lovely Dijon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Otherwise, the pace of this journey was slow and intentional, reflecting the meticulous attitude of the people and the region. Tours were usually arranged before or after a leisurely lunch on board. Meals were not rushed, as quality food takes time to prepare and to enjoy.

While nearly impossible, restraint on over-eating and drinking at lunch is key to avoiding a post-lunch slump. Our daily tours combined with time to relax aboard the boat ultimately left us feeling enriched and well-steeped in the long complex history of the region.

Like the grapes budding on the short stout vines, we learned that the slow progress of the vessel allowed us time to absorb the character and flavor of the region and build an understanding of the complexity of this area’s history, geography and viticulture.

Breakfast of spectacular fresh local fruits, croissants, pain du chocolat, and an optional hot platter of eggs was served up around 8am.

A coffee pot and/or espresso machine, bowl of fruit and endless fresh macaroons were also available 24/7.

fresh macaroons on a canal cruise in France

Fresh macaroons always at your disposal aboard the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

All this food provided inspiration for an organized tour or a refreshing morning bicycle ride along the tow path adjacent to the river or canal. The comfortable well-appointed bikes handled both smooth surfaces and rough terrain.

Combine bicycling with canal cruising in France

Out for a lovely pedal along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

While a lack of Wi-Fi signal can impair ones use of Google Maps to navigate, the general route is fairly straightforward and aligned with the cans. That said, on several occasions we had to cross the river via a bridge when access on the tow path was blocked.

Riding along the flat dirt or paved path lead us past endless fields of winter wheat, sweet corn, and rapeseed that grow tall and flower in June. The incessant sound of chipping birds and the occasional banjo twang of frogs make canal cruising in France simply delightful.

Most of the sleepy communities are populated by retirees who seem to love fishing, many of whom return to a family-owned plot after raising their children in more urban areas.

Grand Victoria Canal Cruising in France

The peaceful French countryside along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

When weather permitted, the crew set up lunch alfresco on the deck while moored at a scenic location along the river bank.

Blissfully ensconced, swirling a crisp white, sated by yet another fantastic meal and watching a mute swan glide silently past, pretty much sums up the essence of this trip.

swans along the way on French canals

A swan appeared straight out of Central Casting in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Our week aboard the Grand Victoria was the absolute pinnacle of a relaxed, refined, riparian retreat.

So, if you get the chance to book a cabin or decide to charter the whole damn boat, know that the experience will profoundly change you.

You will develop character, you will become bolder, more complex, with hints of cherry and blackcurrant, and a crisp, oaky finish.

For booking details, here’s more info on the “Grand Victoria, The Queen of Burgundy.” 

Chrissy & Peter enjoy Canal Cruising in France

Christina & Peter on board the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon


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bamboo gangway to the Mahabaah

Brahmaputra River Cruise.

By Judi Cohen.

I booked a river cruise on the Lower Ganges with Pandaw Cruises six months prior for my family of four and a couple of friends. You can only imagine my shock on receiving an email a few weeks before departure that the cruise was cancelled. (We were told the boat had not arrived in India from Myanmar in time, as apparently there is a lot of paperwork involved in moving boats from one country to another.)

Given a choice by Pandaw of getting a refund or doing a land tour in India, neither of which interested me, I took it upon myself to fill the 8-day hole in our family’s month-long India adventure. QuirkyCruise’s co-founder Heidi Sarna, and a few other travel colleagues, suggested a Brahmaputra River cruise aboard the 46-passenger MV Mahabaahu.

RELATED: Heidi’s article about her Brahmaputra cruise adventure

Not only did Pandaw book us on the alternate cruise, but they also covered the costs for changes to our airfare. I never would have imagined that we’d be cruising in a remote part of India rarely visited by tourists, but it wound up being super memorable.

So, here’s my story of our journey on the mighty Brahmaputra River from Guwahati to Jorhat.

SUBSCRIBE to for updates & special offers… and to be inspired to go small-ship cruising!

Brahmaputra River Cruise

Judi loving her Mahabahuu cruise on the Brahmaputra River. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Brahmaputra: No Ordinary River

The Brahmaputra is a destination unto itself. It’s the only river, apart from the Zambezi in Africa, from which you can easily access a game park. Kaziranga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site referred to by National Geographic as “the Serengeti of India.”

You’ll see that the Brahmaputra’s ever-shifting sandy banks are also home to colorful birdlife, herds of deer and antelope, and elusive tigers.

Sandy banks of the Brahmaputra River

The sandy banks of the Brahmaputra River. * Photo: Judi Cohen

With its fast-moving currents originating in the Himalayan mountain range, the water levels rise and fall, and sandbanks form and then disappear, almost as if they were melting before one’s eyes. A small pilot boat accompanied us and used bamboo sticks to test the river depth ahead.

The Brahmaputra River was a fascinating backdrop to a week spotting wildlife and exploring remote villages.

The MV Mahabaahu

Mahabaahu, one of the very few riverboats sailing on the Brahmaputra River, was launched in 2011 by Adventure River Cruises (ARC).

Our home for seven nights was comfortable and unassuming, with a somewhat industrial-looking exterior and a homey interior.

bamboo gangway to the Mahabaah

The gangway to the quirky Mahabaahu. * Photo: Judi Cohen

All cabins had large windows, and some, including ours, had a small balcony. We had a comfortable king bed, loads of closet and storage space, as well as a fridge and safe. The bathroom had a surprisingly large shower with strong water pressure.

Mahabaahu balcony cabin

Judi’s balcony cabin had great views. * Photo: Judi Cohen

While cabins had TVs, none worked, and the air-conditioning units were difficult to control so we were either too hot or too cold. These were small concerns relative to the unique experience.

The ship has five decks, with cabins on the second and third decks. There are two suites, two luxury cabins, seven deluxe cabins, and 12 superior cabins (without balconies). While the ship has a capacity of 46 passengers, we had just 26 guests aboard our week.

All decks are easily accessible from a central staircase. There is also a lift, however, it was out of service during our sailing. Although the weather at this time of year made it too cold to swim, around 22C (71F) degrees during the day and 11C (42F) degrees at night, there was a lovely little pool.

Swimming Pool on the Mahabaahu

The Mahabaahu has a small pool at the stern near the smokestacks. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The sun deck was the “go to” spot to enjoy the lounge chairs, bar, and a panoramic view of the riverbanks.

Neena, the CEO of ARC, managed every aspect of the guest experience on the ship, and worked closely with her team of 28, including Sandeep, manager of hospitality; Cruise Director Rajeesh; and Mayuresh, destination manager, naturalist and photographer.

There was even a tailor on the boat who made clothing for guests out of fabric sold in the pop-up gift shop in the reception area. My friend had several pants made and was very happy with the results.

Reception area of the Mahabaahu

Reception area had a pool table and was also used as a pop-up gift shop. * Photo: Judi Cohen

While the ship’s marketing characterizes the MV Mahabaahu as a “luxury ship,” in my opinion, the ship would not be considered luxury by international standards. However, there are very few other tourist-class vessels that traverse the Brahmaputra, as cruising along the rivers in India has only recently become practical and fashionable.

Experientially, this small-ship Brahmaputra River cruise met all my expectations.

MV Mahabaahu Inclusions

All shore excursions and transfers to and from the airports were included. Bottled water was freely available at no charge; while alcoholic beverages were available in the bars and in the dining room at reasonable prices.

A recommended tipping guide for the crew and staff was provided and was optional at the end of the cruise. Ayurvedic massages in the spa were also extra, though reasonably priced. 

Fellow Passengers

Passengers ranged in age from 6 to 65 and were all very adventurous. The well-travelled group was English-speaking from Australia, England, Singapore, Denmark, Canada, and some from India exploring their own country.

The ages on our cruise skewed a bit lower than normal as we were cruising at Christmas, when families travel together. Children are rare on this cruise.

Family group aboard the Mahabahuu

Judi and her family. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Daily Routine

My general routine started with an hour of morning yoga, led by Neena, on the sundeck. This was an invigorating, crisp way to start the day, and nearly half the guests tried yoga at least once.

Yoga on top deck of ship

Yoga on top deck of boat. * Photo: Judi Cohen

There was a morning excursion, departing by tender, with a return for a buffet lunch. Following lunch, we either relaxed on the ship or set out again on an afternoon excursion. At some point each day, we could attend an informative short lecture by Mayuresh, highlighting the next day’s stops.

In the evening, cocktails were served (at a charge) in the Soma Lounge bar and following dinner we returned to the lounge for mingling, movies, games like getting the ring over the bottle (to win a bottle of beer), board games and more drinks.

Dining with Local Flair & Flavours

The Mungri Mingrum dining room featured large windows and warm woods. I must admit, however, I would have enjoyed some al fresco dining, particularly at lunch. In fact, some of the guests did take their food up to the sundeck for a change of scenery.

Breakfast was available between 8-10am, with Indian and international choices, including an omelette and pancake station.

Lunch buffets included tasty curries, varieties of paneer and rice, fresh local vegetables and salads, Indian breads, and tempting Indian sweets.

Indian food on Mahabaahu

Delicious Indian fare. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Neena, the boat’s general manager and cruise director, quickly learned about our tolerance for spice and food preferences. She guided guests with food allergies and special orders were accommodated without hesitation.

Dinner was a sit-down meal. Orders were taken at lunch each day for our dinner choices (vegetarian, non-vegetarian, Continental and Indian Cuisine). Highlights included the palak paneer, butter chicken, paneer tikka masala, and the traditional Assamese dishes.

Following dinner, the lounge was open again for after-dinner drinks, however we often retreated to our cabin for a good night’s sleep after a tiring day.

Brahmaputra River Cruise Excursions

We flew from Kolkata to Guwahati, the largest city in the Indian state of Assam. Bordered on the northeast by Bhutan, south by Bangladesh, and west by Bengal, Assam is known for the vast Kaziranga game park.

Our group was met at the airport and transferred to the boat for our Brahmaputra River cruise, with a short stop at the Hindu Kamakhya Temple. According to legend, this is where the gods Sati and Shiva met, and it remains an important center for followers of Tantra, or the esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Boarding the Mahabaahu for arahmaputra river cruise

The lovely welcome aboard ritual entails being given an Assamese scarf and a marigold garland. * Photo: Judi Cohen

As we travelled upstream, we visited a number of small villages. Approaching each one in our open-top tenders, we were greeted by curious families with many children watching as we trundled from the tenders and along the sloped sandy shores holding onto make-shift bamboo railings.

Check out  Judi’s TIPS to help you prepare for your very own Brahmaputra River adventure!

Day 1: Embarkation & Peacock Island

Our first visit was to Peacock Island, a tiny tree-covered island with a small temple and one outgoing Golden Langur monkey, who came down from the trees to pose for photos.

Golden Langur on Peacock Island

A cheeky Golden Langur on Peacock Island. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The sunset views from the island cast a stunning golden hue across the water as we returned to the ship.

Sunset over the Brahmaputra

Gorgeous Brahmaputra sunsets were daily affairs. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 2: Bangla Village

Our next visit was to Upera, a Bangla Muslim farming village. We walked through sprawling fields of yellow mustard flowers and cabbages, passed cows and goats, and were struck by how beautiful the girls and women were.

Always asking permission to take photos, the villagers were happy to oblige, and they all wanted us to show them the photos, giggling with us.

Village in India

The Bangla Village Welcome Wagon! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 3: Sea Day on our Brahmaputra River Cruise

Our third day became a sea-day due to unexpectedly foggy conditions, which we were told only occur on 19 days out of each season.

No problem, everyone welcomed the relaxation time. I used my afternoon to try an exceptional two-hour Ayurvedic massage for the first time. Very different from other massages I have had, the Ayervedic holistic techniques focused on the relief of both physical and emotional stress.

It was heavenly having four-hands (two people) apply gallons of hot essential oils and a variety of herbs as they massaged every inch of my body. While I was lying directly on a hard teakwood slab table, I felt far more relaxed than I have ever felt during a massage and even nodded off a couple of times, something I normally can’t do while being massaged.

My daughter and I each had two massages over the course of the week.

Day 4: Kaziranga National Park

Elephant-back Safari & Jeep Safari

The highlight of our Brahmaputra River cruise was the safari experience over two days in the 430-square-mile Kaziranga National Park, home to the endangered one-horned white rhinoceros. We were told poaching is ever-present and a controversial “shoot-to-kill” policy is in place if rangers discover poachers. Despite this, poachers do still hunt rhinos, although thankfully we did not encounter any.

Nobody minded the 3am wake-up as we headed out in four-wheel drive vehicles to Kaziranga for an elephant-back safari. In twos and threes we climbed on top of these majestic elephants escorted by mahouts and armed guards for a 90-minute safari. As the red sun came up, we watched the mist rising from the tall elephant grass, with warm rays streaming through the mist.

Elephant Back safari

Judi & Lawrence on an elephant Back safari in the misty morning. * Photo: Judi Cohen

elephant safari Brahmaputra river cruise

The baby elephants are free to follow their mothers on the 90-minute safari. * Photo: Judi Cohen

While I was conflicted about riding an elephant, we were told that these elephants do only two morning rides, and then are free to graze in the grasslands for the rest of the day. Further, their babies were allowed to playfully follow alongside their mothers.


As the one-horned rhinos, along with wild boars, deer, antelope and buffalo, appeared out of the morning mist, we saw mounds of bright pink flowers that grow on rhino dung. The rhinos were an awesome sight, looking downright prehistoric with their many folds of “armour.”

one-horned white rhino on Brahmaputra River cruise

It wasn’t hard to spot the one-horned white rhinos. * Photo: Dustin Cohen

Riding these elephants at sunrise and seeing the one-horned rhinos up close in the tall grasses was one of the most memorable experiences in all my years of travelling.

one-horned white rhino in Kazi

Seeing a one-horned white rhino up close is a thrill. * Photo: Alison Cohen

In the afternoon we set out on a Jeep safari. Unfortunately, the park was busy with tourists visiting Kaziranga over Christmas and New Year’s, and the jeeps were following one another closely on a narrow dusty road, which created a less than optimal experience.

jeep safari in Kaziranga

Judi and her family on the jeep safari. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Nonetheless we were glad to spot more rhinos, deer and buffalos. There are 3,400 wild water buffalo worldwide, with half living in Kaziranga. And, the eastern swamp deer are only found in Assam. While I am not a birder, I still enjoyed seeing hornbills, kingfishers, and giant storks.

Tea & Jute

On the way back to the ship, we stopped to watch a traditional Assamese dance performance with colourful costumes at a tea plantation.

We also visited the a jute factory. Dating back to 1959, this was a genuine throwback. Walking through the factory with our masks on and ear plugs in, I could only imagine this factory operating in earlier times, with its archaic softening, spinning, twisting and spool-winding equipment.

The factory employs over 300 men, and while the government could mechanize jute production, we were told by our guide that it keeps it in operation to support the workers, whose jobs are coveted.

Jute factory in India

The Victorian jute factory is a fascinating stop. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 5: Bishwanath Ghat & Boat Safari

In the morning, we took our tender and visited Bishwanath Ghat, a weaving village, with looms in almost every house.

The bright coloured textiles made the village look beautiful and they, of course, were for sale. Many of the passengers tried on the clothing and wrapped themselves in fabrics before carefully choosing their purchases.

The children played happily in the dusty laneways and gave us a very warm welcome.

saress and textiles for sale in a village

Sarees and fabrics for sale. * Photo: Judi Cohen

A boat safari using our tender in the eastern range of Kaziranga National Park capped off our day. Our naturalist, Mayuresh, told us that a few months prior they spotted a tiger at the base of the steep cliffs.

While we were hopeful, there were no elusive Bengal tigers to be seen. We did see many birds, deer and buffalo as we cruised upstream against the strong current.

That night we anchored at a large sandbank where we made a campfire. We walked across the narrow gangway onto the sandbank and were welcomed to “the Island” with drinks, music and a barbecue.

bonfire on the banks of the Brahmaputra

Cocktail hour on the sandbanks with a bonfire. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We played a lively game of charades under the stars, and capped off the evening by releasing traditional lanterns into the river while making a wish.

It was a magical evening.

sunset on the Brahmaputra River

Lovely sunsets nearly every day. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 6: Mishing Village

Our last two days featured visits to two unique villages. The first was the ethnic village of the Mishing with their bamboo homes on stilts. Their ancestry can be traced to Tibet and they are followers of Donyi-Polo animistic worship.

We stopped in the centre of the village to watch a demonstration on the tying of the Mishing’s traditional clothing. My 34-year-old son was dressed by the villagers in a dhoti and kurta, with a red and white traditional scarf, while one of our shipmates was dressed in a colourful silk Mekhela Chaadar sari.

The children followed my son, still dressed in his dhoti and kurta, for the rest of the day. I am not sure who enjoyed this more, my son or all of the children!

Mishing village with the locals

Judi’s son Dustin dressed in a kurta during a stop at the Mishing village. * Photo: Judi Cohen

To top off a perfect day we were treated to an Assamese-themed evening, which included being outfitted in local garb by Neena, dancing in the lounge with cocktails, and a traditional Assamese dinner. The maasai tinga (fish curry) and baanhgajor lagos kukura (chicken with bamboo shoots) were very tasty.

Just like Cinderella, we took off our beautiful outfits (mine was a stunning lime green sari and my daughter’s was rich red and purple), and placed them in front of our cabin doors before we went to bed, and they were gone by the morning.

This was another very special and memorable night for all of us on our Brahmaputra River cruise.

passengers in traditional Assamese clothes

Judi’s family dressed in traditional Assamese outfits. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 7: Majuli Island & Sivasagar

Our last sailing day proved to be busy with a morning visit to Majuli Island for immersion into the Neo-Vaishnav Hindu sect who calls this island home. The Neo-Vaishnavite movement started in Assam in the 16th century and reached its climax in the middle of the 17th century.  It had missionary components lifting up the lower classes and minimizing caste distinctions.

public ferry to Manjuli Island

A public ferry on the way to Manjuli Island. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We learned about the island’s many different dance forms and philosophies, and at the Kamalabari Satra temple, we watched an intriguing and complex dance performance by priests called “Gayan Bayan.”

brahmaputra river cruise dancing monks

Dancing priests performed the entrancing “Gayan Bayan” music. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The afternoon excursion took us by road on a five-hour visit to Sivasagar to learn about the history of the Ahom Kingdom, which had 600 years of influence on the history of Assam.

We climbed the Sivasagar Savadol structure built by the Ahoms and enjoyed seeing the local street activities leading to the temple, where we had blessing strings tied on our wrists.

Sivasagar Savadol on a Brahmaputra River cruise

The beautiful Sivasagar Savadol. * Photo: Judi Cohen

After our return to the ship, free cocktails in the Soma Lounge and a farewell dinner was served. We enjoyed the cruise video that Mayuresh put together. A USB drive with professional photos from the week was available for 2300 rupees. (about $33 USD)

Brahmaputra River cruise guide

Mayuresh and Judi in the restaurant. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Day 8: Time to Say Goodbye …

Our final stop was visiting a tea plantation for a home-made lunch and a presentation by a tea master. We met the owners and toured their property.

tea plantation on a Brahmaputra River cruise

A presentation at the tea plantation. * Photo: Judi Cohen

After lunch we were whisked off to the Jorhat Military Airport for our flight to Delhi.

Although this wasn’t the original Lower Ganges cruise that we had planned, this Brahmaputra River cruise offered us a glimpse into an unexpectedly vibrant, diverse, and geographically beautiful area of northeast India that was not at all on our radar.

I look forward to returning to the region again one day.

For booking details, visit Adventure River Cruises.

sunset on the Brahmaputra River

Lovely sunsets nearly every day. * Photo: Judi Cohen

RELATED: Heidi Sarna’s article about her Brahmaputra River cruise.

RELATED: Judi’s TIPS to help you prepare for a Brahmaputra River adventure!

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French Barge Cruise - Esperance on the Canal du Midi

French Barge Cruising:
My French Love Affair (Part 1)

The Canal, The Boat, The Weather, The Locks, The Food & The Wine

By Elysa Leonard.

To be completely honest, I had mixed feelings about this quirky cruise as we planned it. It was not my norm. I am a scuba girl and love my trips to be sun-kissed and salty. On this French barge cruising adventure, the focus would be on wining and dining, not diving and regulating.

I would be bringing my daughter, Samantha, a budding chef who is halfway through her studies at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA). A French barge cruise would be a great experience for her to learn some cooking skills from a seasoned French chef and it would of course be a super memorable mother-daughter holiday as well.

But what would I really think about a slow crawl through southern France on a luxury barge?

The truth is, I fell in love with French barge cruising!

French Barge Cruise - Esperance on the Canal du Midi

Elysa and her daughter Sam aboard the 6-passenger Esperance! * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi … or

Le Canal Charmant Mais Etonnant (The lovely and Remarkable Canal)

The Canal du Midi is set in the lovely region of Languedoc in southern France. It’s a step back in time to motor through this idyllic pastoral countryside. You quickly realize why artists are drawn to this area after seeing firsthand the inspiration surrounding you. From small quaint villages with stone churches and narrow cobblestone streets to vineyards and small farms, this cruise was all about the journey.

A slow-moving barge is a perfect vessel — and speed — to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

French barge cruising aboard Experance

A barge cruise along the Canal du Midi is an excellent to soak up the French countryside. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

What’s not to love!

When you realize this canal was built centuries ago, in a very rural part of the country with no modern equipment, it truly is a remarkable accomplishment. The project began in 1667 and was managed by Pierre-Paul Riquet, taking 14 years to complete. It was built as a working canal to transport goods between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. Sadly, Riquet would never see the completed project, he died one year before it was finished.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the Canal du Midi is considered one of the major civil engineering achievements of the modern age.

Esperance — Love at First Sight

The luxury hotel barge, Esperance, has a capacity for six passengers and three crew members. The word Esperance means hope or promise and this barge delivered on all of her promises.

French Barge Cruising on the Esperance

The 6-passenger Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Not only that but the barge fits perfectly in some very tight spaces.

As seen here:

The three bedrooms were spacious and charming; ours had a reading area with a sofa and a large closet. Each room has an ensuite bathroom.

Esperance cabin

A charming cabin aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

On the top open deck was a dining table, lounge chairs, and a hot tub. The salon was lined with windows and there was a lovely area for lounging, reading or just enjoying one of the freshly prepared snacks made by our on-board chef, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea.

Elegant lounge aboard French Barge Esperance

The elegant salon aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

The salon’s high-top table is where we would enjoy most of our meals. It was perfectly sized for six and was always impeccably adorned with a colorful themed tablescape and fresh flowers.

The kitchen was tiny and we were amazed by the dishes that Chef, Jean-Luc, prepared from such a small space.

Dining aboard a French Barge cruise.

The lovely “tablescape” at dinner on the Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

There was a lot to love about the Esperance. The rooms were big and it felt like a moving luxury hotel; we never felt cramped.

The One Thing Not to Love — The Weather

We were not blessed with perfect weather and much of the time, it was colder than I expected and a bit windy. In fact, there were several days/nights where they had to heat the cabin — we were cruising in early April, so the temperatures were fairly typical.

French Barge Cruise aboard Esperance

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Sadly, that meant that all of our meals except for one were inside in the salon. It also meant that we didn’t do as much walking and biking as I think we would have if the weather gods had cooperated. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying our time and thankfully, we didn’t get much rain to dampen our excursions.

It was easy to imagine what it would be like to have more meals and happy hours on the deck, and maybe a few more dips in the hot tub, but we will save that dream for future trips. The foliage and flowers were just about to pop and we could only imagine how lush and green things would be in just a few short weeks. It was just on the cusp of gorgeousness during our week and about to get even more so in a few short weeks.

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. But you can’t control the weather, so we chose to enjoy the journey and sat out on the deck with layers, including some blankets, so we wouldn’t miss the scenery and especially the passage through the locks.

Esperance barge cruises run from April through October.

The ideal time for a Canal du Midi barge cruise is the spring months of May and June; and for a touch of fall, September and October.

French Barge Cruising: Lovely Locks

When traveling on the Canal du Midi you can’t help but love the locks. They are a marvel of engineering and yet appear to seamlessly work to raise or lower boats.

French Barge cruising on Canal du Midi

Passing through the locks was a highlight. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi locks

Up close and personal with the locks of the Canal du Midi. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canals are flat bodies of water, but sometimes where you want to build a canal is hilly, so what do you do? You construct a lock to raise or lower the boats to the next stretch of canal at the higher or lower elevation.

The barge enters the lock, the doors close, it fills with water (or the water lowers) and you have now risen (or sunk) to the next level to continue on your journey.

There are 63 working locks on the Canal du Midi. The locks are maintained by a permanent lock keeper. The lock keeper cottages in many cases have been transformed into art galleries, displaying sculptures and paintings. Some of the lock keepers were the artists themselves and they displayed their art for sale.

Canal du Midi lock - Ecluse de Jouarres

Elcuse de Jouarres on the Canal du Midi – Esperance crew would pick up fresh fruits, vegetables, and, wine at this lock. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canal du Midi French barge cruising

The arty “lawn” of a lock keeper. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My favorite was Ecluse de L’aiguille or the Aiguille Lock. The lock keeper is a sculptor who has created really interesting art from wood and metal. One group of sculptures are connected to a motion sensor so when you walk by they all move, from a naked biker to a man sticking out his tongue and another that looks like Humpty Dumpty. It was one of my favorite stops and we had time to take a close-up look while the barge went through the lock.

Ecluse de L'aiguille on the Canal du Midi

Strange yet captivating art at the Ecluse de L’aiguille. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I also witnessed a few replenishments of wine handed over from the lock keeper to our crew, so we would always have a glass (or two!) from the local vineyards.

French Cuisine: A Life-Long Crush

When you think of French food, it conjures thoughts of heavy dishes covered in creamy rich sauces. And although we enjoy dishes with luxurious sauces, our Chef, Jean Luc, who had been cooking for 50 years, kept things elegant while also surprisingly light.

A memorable lunch consisted of a bowl of black shelled mussels with bright apricot-colored flesh, plucked from the Mediterranean Sea that morning. The chef knew with shellfish as fresh as this, less was more. He steamed them in olive oil, white wine, and garlic and served them with a crusty French baguette and a salad tossed in a simple but divine dressing that we found out was made with his own black walnut oil.

When we asked about the dressing through a few translations (Chef Luc doesn’t speak English), we discovered the origin of the oil was a black walnut tree in his backyard. He had crushed the black walnuts and made this oil himself, giving new meaning to the phrase, “from scratch.”

Fresh Mussels - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fresh Mussels in white wine and garlic broth, plucked that morning from the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Green Salad - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Simple Green Salad with a Black Walnut Vinaigrette. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Memorable dinner entrees included a delicious roast duck breast, steak au poivre, stuffed guinea fowl, tender beef roast with root vegetables, and pork tenderloin topped with an onion and mushroom compote.

Roast Duck Breast - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Roast Duck Breast with ratatouille, cauliflower and popovers. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Steak au poivre - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Steak au poivre with whipped potatoes, glazed sugar snap peas, and baby carrots. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Unforgettable appetizers included an asparagus soup served with a straw, a rainbow of caviar on toast, and my favorite, baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto that was sautéed in butter until crispy on the outside with a tender inside.

Rainbow Caviar Canape - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A rainbow of caviar canapes served with Champagne on our first night. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Baked leeks wrapped in crispy prosciutto. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Cheese courses were a part of all dinners, and I would try to save room to at least sample them. From creamy herbed goat cheese to ripe camembert, they were a perfect pairing with the white, rosé and red wines served with dinner. Yes we did of course drink a lot of good French wine on this trip!

French Cheese Plate with caraway seeds and apples - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with caraway seeds and apples. Photo: Elysa Leonard

A selection of French cheese with honey and rosemary - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with pears, local figs, honey, and rosemary. Photo: Elysa Leonard

French cheese plate from Narbonne - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese from the Narbonne Market. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I was inspired to create cheese plates on my own after this trip. I have been treating my neighbors to French cheese and wine all summer long, as I try to hold on to the pleasant memories of my barge cruise.

Desserts were elegant but simple.

They comprised fresh fruit served with a cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth, gold-dusted strawberries with fresh mint, smooth and creamy vanilla bean ice cream, and a show stopper, puff pastry with a sweet mango filling.

Fruit salad with cinnamon cookie - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fruit salad with a crispy cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Gold dusted Strawberries - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Gold dusted fresh strawberries with mint. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Puff pastry with mango filling - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Puff pastry with mango filling. Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Wine: My Romantic Rendezvous with Rosé

I love wine, that was true long before my visit to France. But, I am very particular in what kinds of wine I drink. I have always been a fan of California whites. I like a buttery Chardonnay from an oak barrel or a crisp Pinot Grigio with a hint of apple and pear, but don’t ever offer me something pink. Pink wines, or so I thought, are sweet and I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. Sweet wine is not for me.

French rose - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

French rose, crisp, dry, and divine. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Pink French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Another French rose that became one of my favorites. Photo: Elysa Leonard

So on the barge cruise, when our cruise manager Helen began offering us rosé in the afternoon, I would put my hand over my glass and tell her I would pass. After the first few days, she asked me why I wouldn’t try the rosé.

“Please don’t be offended, I just don’t like pink wines, they are much too sweet for me,” I confided in her.

Helen said, “But they are not all sweet, some are very dry, like this one, you may like it, give it a try.”

And then several of my new passenger friends including my daughter encouraged me to give it a try as well. Suddenly, I was in a real-life version of “Green Eggs and Ham.” And just like Sam, I thought well, one sip won’t hurt me and after that, they will leave me alone and then I can say I tried it and didn’t like it. However, like Sam, that first sip was not my last.

I took a taste and realized that this French rosé was positively pink perfection!

Drinking French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Drinking French rosé in the South of France, perfection! Photo: Elysa Leonard

The temperature of this wine is important. Rosé is better when it is well chilled, and of course, Helen took great care to make sure that was always the case on Esperance. I have added rosé to my wine list. But of course, it must be French and it must be from Languedoc or Provence!

Please stay tuned for French Barging Cruising Part 2 — “The Love Affair Continues.” I will discuss the crew, my daughter’s French cooking lessons, the daily excursions and our extended trip to Paris after our barge cruise.

À bientôt! (See you soon!)

➢➢ Are you a barge newbie? Here are some BARGE CRUISE TIPS to get you up to speed!

➢➢ And here’s more info on Barge Lady Cruises, the barge brokers who introduced us to Esperance!

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Mekong River Cruise with Scenic.

By Heidi Sarna.

My first Mekong River cruise a decade ago was with Pandaw, a pioneer of Southeast Asia river cruising and one of my favorite small-ship cruise lines.

They offer a casual old-world experience aboard traditionally-designed boats built with lots of teak and open decks to resemble classic Scottish-built Irrawaddy River paddle steamers from a century ago.

In recent years, more river boats — many of them quite luxurious — have entered the waters of Southeast Asia. One of the companies is Scenic.

Last October, I cruised the Mekong River from Cambodia into Vietnam with Scenic aboard the all-suite 68-passenger Scenic Spirit — by far my poshest Mekong River experience — complete with an onboard spa and mini swimming pool.

Scenic Spirit's outdoor pool with Mekong views

Hard to believe a 68-passenger river boat has a pool and a spa! Lov’in it! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

My friend Sheila and I thoroughly enjoyed our 10 days of pampering and adventure. Scenic smartly combines its 7-night Mekong cruises with a 3-night hotel/tour pre- or post-cruise package in Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat.

Tuk tuk ride in Cambodia

Heidi & Sheila’s Mekong River cruise adventure!

Thinking about taking a high-end Mekong River cruise?

Here are 15 reasons to choose Scenic!

The Immersive Excursions

The whole point of a Southeast Asia river cruise is to learn something, see something, and feel something. Scenic’s daily excursions, usually one in the morning and another after lunch (often with multiple choices), range from temple and monastery visits to walks through rural villages.

There are strolls through eye-opening, nostril-shocking open-air markets selling fresh everything; jaunts on motorized wooden sampans to soak up life on the river; and adventurous rides in tuk-tuk cycle rickshaws.

wet market in Cambodia

Wet markets in Cambodia and Vietnam are an experience! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Angkor Wat Temple Complex 

One of the world’s most coveted travel sites, parts of the world-famous temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, date back more than 1,000 years. With its intricate carvings, jungle setting and hauntingly beautiful ruinous visage, the temples of Angkor Wat inspire awe, wonder and gratitude for anyone fortunate enough to visit. Three days in Siem Reap, based in a luxury hotel, is part of the package.

Ankgor Wat is included in many Mekong River Cruises

The stunning Angkor Wat complex. * Photo: Sheila Healey

The Pagodas

A Mekong River cruise in Cambodia and Vietnam is a journey rich in gilded Buddhist sanctuaries, alternatively called temples, shrines and pagodas. Some are grand and topped with massive roofs and ornate glittering interiors covered with intricate murals. Others are humbler, with aging wood, faded paint and crumbling stupas; they’re part of the everyday village tableau, complete with sleeping dogs and playing children.

A gilded pagoda on a Mekong River Cruise

A grand gilded monastery in Cambodia near the Mekong River. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Sampan Rides

Most days, excursions involved transferring from the Scenic Spirit, whether anchored mid-river or tied up to a tree along the river banks, to a local motorized sampan. Some were wooden, and all had the requisite evil eye painted on the bow to ward off danger. Zipping up and down the river in these boats afforded us close up views of the river banks, to see women washing clothes at the water’s edge and children splashing and waving. We saw lone figures in conical hats fishing from small skiffs and families living aboard squat cargo barges, laundry flapping across the stern, motoring past with loads of sand, gravel, rice and watermelons.

sampan excursions on a Mekong River cruise

Most excursions involved traveling by sampan, which allowed us up close views of life and commerce on the river. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Sunsets

It seemed we were treated to soul-stirring sunsets nearly every day of the cruise, and some morning sunrises were equally as jaw-dropping. With our suite’s huge windows that could be opened with the touch of a button, we could take amazing photos and videos with very little effort! Or if we felt more ambitious, Scenic Spirit’s expansive top deck was an excellent perch to soak up a fiery sunset melting into the Mekong.

Great views of a sunset over the Mekong River.

The all-suite Scenic Spirit affords stunning views of sunrises and sunsets over the Mekong. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

AND, our days at Angkor Wat included a sunrise visit, which turned out to be a mind-blowing pinky-purply stunner. We stood in awe watching the morphing color, thanking our lucky stars for the opportunity to witness such a spectacular natural wonder.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise on a Mekong River cruise

Angkor Wat at sunrise blew us away! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The All-Inclusive Fares

An impressive repertoire of excursions, from walking, speedboat and motor-coach tours, to Scenic’s special “Enrich” happenings — experiential events such as high-tea at Raffles in Phnom Penh — are part of the fare. Also priced into the package are free-flow drinks, with an excellent complimentary wine list with multiple choices each day. Room service, transfers to and from airport, wifi (though spotty), and gratuities (however many leave additional tips) are also part of the fares.

Scenic River cruises are all inclusive

Fares on a Scenic Mekong River cruise include all wines and spirits. Cheers! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Suites

Southeast is Asia hot year-round, not to mention quite culture-shocky, so your cabin is an important retreat for relaxing and recharging. The Scenic Spirit’s 34 outside suites impress with floor-to-ceiling windows that open top to bottom with the touch of a button, for fresh air and photo taking. Most are 344-square-foot Deluxe Suites with walk-in wardrobes, mini-bars, sitting area, and flat-screen TVs for movies and music.

Scenic Spirit Deluxe Suite

Our Scenic Spirit Deluxe Suite was just lovely. * Photo: Scenic

The Spa

The Scenic Spirit’s lovely little spa, a dark-wood paneled retreat, was my happy place. Each excellent treatment begins with a ceremonial foot bath in a copper bowl. Making a great thing even better is the price — an hour-long massage is just $30 USD. I had two of them with the sweet and skilled therapist Rotana! There’s also a gym with three cardio machines, a sauna and steam room, and even a decent-sized outdoor pool up on deck.

Scenic Spirit spa

The Scenic Spirit spa can accommodate two guests at a time. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Guides

The group of excellent local Scenic guides that accompany passengers for the entire 10-day cruise-tour are the glue that keeps the itinerary running smoothly. They lead all excursions and share not only facts about the region’s rich culture and heritage, but fascinating personal anecdotes as well about about marriage, education and tragic stories of family members who perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Scenic Spirit guide tying a monk robe

The Scenic Spirit team of guides was excellent — explaining, enlightening and demonstrating monk robe tying!. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Service

Attentive, approachable, friendly and exceedingly professional, the service level is high-end on board, in Siem Reap and during excursions. From the multiple excellent local guides who travel with the cohort to the restaurant servers, massage therapists and front desk staff, it really is “your wish is my command.”

Excellent services in the restaurants of our Mekong River cruise

Courteous, efficient and friendly service was the order of the day! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Dining

As most passengers want to try the local fare, at least at some meals, and the Scenic Spirit did a great job offering both Asian and western dishes in its lovely windowed restaurant. Lunch was my favorite meal of the day — highlights included Cambodian and Vietnamese “street food” buffets. Festive stations offered prawn sugarcane skewers, Khmer crepes, dim sum, Vietnamese pho noodle soup, fried insects, and exotic fruits like hairy red rambutans. At all meals, there were always western favorites as well.

Lunch aboard a Mekong River Cruise

My favorite meal of the day was lunch — the buffets were awesome! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Entertainment

The entertainment in Siem Reap was excellent, from the dazzling Phare Cambodian Circus, a campy and skillful acrobatic extravaganza, to the magical dinner and Apsara dance performance in the shadows of a beautiful 10th-century temple. Onboard the Scenic Spirit, entertainment revolved around after-dinner drinks with new friends, plus a few featured events — a colorful and clanging dragon dance by a local troupe, a lively trivia contest and a dance party on deck under the stars with the crew.

An Apsara dance performance in the shadows of a beautiful 10th-century temple.

We enjoyed a magical dinner and Apsara dance performance in the shadows of a beautiful 10th-century temple. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Other Passengers

A big part of the fun is cruising with an intimate group of like-minded others, folks who are as inspired and eager to travel in Southeast Asia as you are. The majority of Scenic river cruise passengers are Australian, with a sprinkling of other nationalities, including North Americans, New Zealanders, Britishers, Europeans, and others. Mingling was easy and we enjoyed hanging out with new friends.

The well traveled passengers on a Scenic Spirit excursion

Fun loving and adventurous passengers on an excursion. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Convenience

Southeast Asia is an amazing travel destination, but it can be challenging at times for even the heartiest adventurer, thanks to the heat (it’s hot year-round, sticking to the 80s and 90s F) and crazy traffic. A luxurious river cruise mitigates much of the hassle and lets you focus on the cultural treasures. Unpack once; largely avoid road travel; enjoy plush air-conditioned suites, spa and dining; and soak up the fascinating life on the river and along its banks. 

The scenic spirit docked along the Mekong RIver

The plush 68-passenger Scenic Spirit is a wonderful home base for a week on the Mekong River! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Family Vibe

I’ve noticed that family-run companies like Scenic seem to thrive on the pride and passion that come from building and owning a business. Scenic was started by Australian Glen Moroney in 1986 and has grown into the thriving high-quality luxury cruise and travel company it is today.

Scenic name in candles at an Apsara performance

Family-owned Scenic seems to take great pride in delivering a high-quality travel experience. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Fares start at $4,395 USD per person for the 10-night Luxury Mekong and Temple Discovery Cruise package (7-night Scenic Spirit cruise + 3-night Siem Reap hotel stay). Fares include drinks, meals, excursions and a handful of special enrichment experiences. Visit the Scenic site for booking info.


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