I'll never forget where I learned to drink like a Cossack. It was on a river cruise in Ukraine.
I'm a long-time fan of river voyages. They slice right through the heartland of a country with local culture waiting to be explored on the river's bank. During one trip ashore I was taught to say, "Na konya," a Cossack toast, meaning "on to the horse." Would you learn that on a sea cruise? Maybe, but the experience would not be as intimate.
So I'm not surprised river cruises are exploding in popularity. They are the fastest-growing part of the cruise industry, according to Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association. "Younger travellers, families and avid cruisers are looking for an entirely different experience," she said in an email.
In 2013, some 14 new river ships are scheduled to start sailing into China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Portugal and other western European countries. But you can also cruise the Nile, Yangtze and Mississippi Rivers. Here's a cheat sheet on lesser-known river trips.
AFRICA, CHOBE RIVER
Lowdown: Zoo expert Jack Hanna called this trip along the border of Botswana and Namibia "a must."
Highlights: See hippos, elephants, wildebeest and more from the ship's deck (or even while lying in bed in your cabin) on this four-night river safari in Chobe National Park. Within a short stretch of the river, there's a huge amount of game and tour options. So, while there's not a lot of actual cruising you've got a front-row seat for nonstop wildlife viewing, whether in the river or on the banks.
Ship: Staterooms on the elegant 28-passenger MS Zambezi Queen feature private balconies. Prices start at $8,995 (U.S.) AmaWaterway, amawaterways.com; 1-800-626-0126
ASIA, IRRAWADDY RIVER
Lowdown: A time machine that lets you sit in a deck chair and watch the essence of old Burma unfold. The 2,000-kilometre river is a lifeline of the country: All the major Burmese kingdoms set their capitals along its banks.
Highlights: When Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem The Road to Mandalay over a century ago, he was talking about this exotic river. You'll see countless Buddhist temples and pagodas and hear the chants of saffron-robed monks. A special stop is the ancient royal capital of Bagan, with more than 2,500 temples erupting over a vast plain. Here, it feels like local time is the 13th century.
Ship: Orient-Express' 82-passenger the Road to Mandalay is a luxurious ride with some of the best cuisine, Asian and European fare, I've ever eaten on a ship. Prices start at $2,520 (U.S.). orient-express.com; 1-800-524-2420.
AUSTRALIA, MURRAY RIVER
Lowdown: Deeply tied to Aboriginal culture, Australia's main river winds through South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.
Highlights: Get a taste of Aussie wildlife. Watch for grey kangaroos, wombats, tortoises and egrets from the deck. You'll also pass by towering limestone cliffs and red-gum forests, and stop at historic port towns and the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Reserve.
Ship: The 120-passenger PS Murray Princess, a working paddlewheeler with an Australian crew. Prices start at $760 a person, double occupancy. Captain Cook Cruises, captaincook.com.au (click on "Murray River" section)
EUROPE, DNIEPER RIVER
Lowdown: At 2,285 kilometres, the Dnieper travels right down the middle of Ukraine.
Highlights: It's hard to imagine a river with a more complex history. The 12-day cruises begin or end in the capital of Kiev, a city speckled with gold-domed churches and monasteries. Cruisers also get to visit to Zaporozhye, ancestral home of Ukrainian Cossackdom. Here, passengers take in a performance of the fabled Cossack horsemanship, capping it off with traditional snacks and vodka drinking.
Ship: The Viking Lomonosov features 102 outside cabins. Prices start at $2,438 (U.S.) a person. Viking River Cruises, vikingrivercruises.com or 1-800-304-9616
NORTH AMERICA, ST. JOHNS RIVER
Lowdown: This is a way to see northern Florida like the early vacationers. With its trove of wildlife and a celebrated past (the river's recorded history is among the oldest in the country going back to the 1560s), the 499-kilometre St. Johns was designated one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998.
Highlights: The "Great Rivers of Florida" itinerary includes historic river towns (such as Green Cove Springs with its reputed healing waters), plantation houses and a chance to see more than 200 species of birds – alligators, too.
Ship: Guest lecturers include ecologists, naturalists and environmentalists on board the 49-passenger American Glory. Prices for the seven-night itinerary start at $3,750 (U.S.) a person. American Cruise Lines, americancruiselines.com; 1-800-460-4518.
SOUTH AMERICA, MARANON AND UCAYALI RIVERS
Lowdown: Rain-forest cruising in Peru with naturalist guides. When the Maranon and Ucayali tributaries meet in the easternmost corner of Peru, they form the Upper Amazon. This cruise explores these headwaters.
Highlights: Roaming the waterways of the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, one of Peru's largest protected areas. More than 60 per cent of Peru's birds reside here. During the 10-day trip, visit villages, fish for piranha and encounter sloths, caimans and more.
Ship: The 28-passenger Delfin II offers outside suites, outdoor observation areas with a bar, sofas, chairs and even hammocks. Cruises start at $5,870 (U.S.) a person, double occupancy. Lindblad Expeditions; 1-800-397-3348.