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The Rhine and Danube are river cruising highways but you may prefer the waters less travelled. Brian Johnston reports.

About 50 of the world’s rivers now offer varied and adventurous cruises for those who feel they’ve seen enough of Rhine vineyards and baroque palaces on the Danube. They range from Hungary’s Tisza River to the exotic Gambia and Senegal rivers of West Africa and the increasingly popular Chobe River in Botswana, with its safari cruise among hippos and elephants. The Peruvian Amazon provides a notable eco-adventure; APT and Avalon Waterways deliver Amazon cruises, along with a half-dozen smaller operators.

The Elbe River is becoming a popular alternative, most notable for its sandstone gorges that provide dramatic, if compact, scenery. It flows through Germany and the Czech Republic, taking in historic Wittenberg, and often beginning or ending overland in stunning Prague. Viking River Cruises is the only major river cruise company sailing the Elbe, with its two custom-designed, shallow-hulled vessels Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla Noble Caledonia is a boutique alternative. You can also sail Germany and Poland’s Oder River with Noble Caledonia.

The last have been a boon for river cruising in France, particularly on the Rhone and Saone through Provence and Burgundy, and around Bordeaux. Until recently the famous Loire River west of Paris had received no cruise attention, but CroisiEurope (the French-owned, biggest river cruise operator in Europe) offers cruises on its  Loire Princesse, exploring the valley’s fabulous Renaissance chateaux and historic towns.

Though not new, the journey between Moscow and St Petersburg on the Volga waterways, and the sail through Portugal’s Douro River, are drawing enthusiastic crowds. Most major cruise companies now operate there, including CroisiEurope’s Gil Eanes. In Russia, the Volga Dream II can be chartered by companies such as Abercrombie & Kent and Beyond Travel.

It took a while for major operators to embrace the delights of 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 will boom. Avalon Waterways, Scenic Tours, along with APT and Viking River Cruises, are all operating. ACL has floated out the 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 is relatively unknown to Australians as a river cruise destination, but actually offers a lot to see. 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 comforts 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 are magnificent (one stretch of the river is nicknamed Volcano Alley) and gorges cut a spectacular opening through the Cascade Mountains.