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3 Great River Cruises

Cruise Ship Rail, Palm Trees, River Nile, 3 Great River Cruises

GARDINER PHOTOGRAPHY / ALAMY

Passengers can learn the history of Egyptian culture while aboard a voyage on the Nile.

I have already written about the joys of exploring Europe by barge. Because of its gentle pace and overall ease — there's no packing and unpacking at each new destination, and you're usually docked near the center of town — barge tours have proliferated throughout Europe.

Happily, the word has spread and enticing destinations around the world can now be explored by vessel. Here are three wanderlust-whetting adventures on three of the planet's most majestic rivers.

Paddle-Wheeling the Mississippi

American Cruise Lines' Queen of the Mississippi, a 140-passenger, five-deck paddle wheeler, offers passengers luxurious accommodations, fine cuisine and onboard experts, plus guided excursions at each port of call. Cruise from New Orleans; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Cincinnati; St. Louis; or St. Paul, Minnesota.

Shoreside highlights of the New Orleans-to-Memphis cruise include a visit to Louisiana's Oak Alley Plantation, a 19th-century Greek Revival antebellum home approached along an avenue shaded by a quarter-mile canopy of giant live oak trees believed to be nearly 300 years old; gracious Natchez, Miss., with more than 1,000 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and culturally vibrant Vicksburg, Miss.

For many passengers, equally notable highlights may be found aboard the stern-wheeler, including a grand dining salon with crystal chandeliers; the Paddlewheel Lounge, a comfortable room designed in rich woods that offers panoramic views of the passing scenery; and expansive staterooms, larger than those of any former Mississippi riverboat, most with private balconies. All of these make the Queen of the Mississippi sound as historic as the sites it visits. Prices for the seven-night, eight-day cruises range from $4,195 to $5,580 per person, double occupancy.

Meandering Along the Mekong

Interested in something a little more exotic? How about water-wending into the heart of Southeast Asia along the storied Mekong? It begins in the Tibetan highlands and flows southeast through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it fans into a rich delta near Ho Chi Minh City before emptying into the South China Sea.

Here are two Mekong options:

The South: Pandaw River Cruises' eight-day, seven-night Mekong River Exploration plies from the Vietnamese port of My Tho, near Ho Chi Minh City, into rural Cambodia, ending at Siem Reap (site of Angkor Wat's wonders).

Highlights of the cruise include colorful canals, backwater markets and tribal villages in Vietnam, and silk-weaving villages, monasteries and temples in Cambodia. The cost ranges from $1,132 to $2,713 per person, double occupancy.

The North: Mekong River Cruises' eight-day, seven-night Golden Triangle-Luang Prabang journey begins in the Thai town of Chiang Saen, near the borders with Myanmar and Laos.

Highlights in Thailand include visits to the spectacular Doi Tung Royal Orchid Botanical Gardens and the village of Mae Sai, on the Myanmar border. In Laos, passengers can soak in the spectacular scenery, travel by longtail boat to a Khmu village and visit famed Pak Ou Caves, where thousands of small Buddha statues are placed inside deep caverns.

The journey ends in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang; the itinerary includes two nights onboard in Luang Prabang so that guests can fully explore this historic city. Rates vary based on departure date; consult the website for fares.

A Slow Sail on the Nile

The Nile is the longest river in the world, running through 11 African countries before emptying into the Mediterranean. The northernmost of these countries is Egypt, where the river's sinuous course has historically been its lifeline and lifeblood.

Accordingly, a tour along the Nile takes travelers deep into the history and heart of Egyptian culture. Most Nile tours use expedition-style cruise ships to ply the river from Luxor to Aswan and back. Geographic Expeditions offers an alluring alternative on its Sailing the Eternal Nile trip. This 12-day journey features seven days aboard a traditional dahabeya sailing boat.

Sailing in deliciously slow, 19th-century style affords a more intimate appreciation of riverside life in between visits to the mesmerizing temples and ruins at Edfu, Kom Ombo and Abu Simbel. Cost of this trip, which includes three days of sightseeing in Cairo, starts at $8,225.

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