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The Rhine and Danube are river-cruising highways but there’s a whole world of less-travelled waterways out there. Brian Johnston reports.

If you feel you’ve seen enough of Rhine vineyards and baroque palaces on the Danube, dip your toe in the 50 other rivers hosting superb cruises. They range from Hungary’s Tisza to the exotic Gambia and Senegal rivers of West Africa and the increasingly popular Chobe River in Botswana, where you can get up close and personal with hippos and elephants on a safari cruise. The Peruvian Amazon operates a sterling eco-adventure; APT and Avalon Waterways offer Amazon cruises, along with a half-dozen smaller operators.

If Europe’s your thing, try a cruise on the Elbe, where sandstone gorges provide dramatic, if compact, scenery. It flows through Germany and the Czech Republic, taking in baroque Dresden, the porcelain factory at Meissen and historic Wittenberg, and often beginning or ending overland in Prague. Viking River Cruises, with its custom-designed, shallow-hulled vessels (Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla) is the big player; Noble Caledonia is a boutique alternative which also sails Germany and Poland’s Oder River.

The last couple of years have seen an explosion of river cruising in France, particularly on the Rhone and Saone rivers through Provence and Burgundy, and around Bordeaux. It’s surprising that the famous Loire River west of Paris has received no cruise attention, but that is about to change. In April, CroisiEurope (the French-owned, biggest river cruise operator in Europe) is launching the first ever Loire cruises on its new ship Loire Princesse for an exploration of the valley’s fabulous Renaissance chateaux and historic towns.

The journey between Moscow and St Petersburg on the Volga waterways, and the sail through Portugal’s Douro River, are big drawcards. Most major cruise companies operate there, and CroisiEurope’s Gil Eanes is among the flotilla in Portugal. In Russia, the Volga Dream II is chartered by players such as Abercrombie & Kent and Beyond Travel.

The upswing in all things Americana has led a late rush to one of the world’s most famous navigable rivers, the Mississippi. American Cruise Lines (ACL) and American Queen Steamboat Company have long offered itineraries between New Orleans and either Nashville or Memphis, but the Mississippi is booming. Avalon Waterways, Scenic Tours, APT and Viking River Cruises are all aboard. ACL has floated out the new paddle wheeler American Eagle and a 22-day itinerary that takes in most of the mighty river between New Orleans and St Paul.

North America remains largely undiscovered by Australians as a river cruise destination, but that’s surely set to change. Small Ship Cruises heads down the Mackenzie River in the Canadian Yukon. Blount Small Ship Adventures cruises canals and waterways linking Montreal with New York, and Chicago with New Orleans. ACL and Blount also travel the Intercoastal Waterway, a series of linked rivers, canals and coastal bays taking in the southern delights of Charleston and Savannah.

The river you’re most likely to hear more about is the Columbia River, which flows through the volcano, vineyard and bear country of the US northwest. ACL, American Queen and Un-Cruise Adventures cruise there. Landscapes must be seen to be believed (one stretch of the river is nicknamed Volcano Alley) and gorges cut a spectacular opening through the Cascade Mountains.