Our forebears knew they were on to a good thing when in the late 1800s they began cruising down that most fabled of waterways, the Nile. In search of warmer winter climes, and armed with little more than a sense of adventure, they sailed in flotillas of dahabiyas – sailboats that relied on a favourable wind to propel them upriver. Those first eager sightseers would pave the way for the earliest package holidays. By the end of the 19th century Thomas Cook, who had made his first foray into Egypt in 1868, had built a small empire organising holidays on steamboats along the river.

Now, passengers can take their pick of the world’s rivers, from the Amazon to the Zambezi.

On board today’s ships there are butlers on call and spas in which to rejuvenate. Engine noise is barely discernible and passengers can savour some of the best cruise cuisine available.

Ashore, operators have unlocked the doors to private palaces and heritage buildings and secured tickets for premieres and nights at the opera. There are e-bikes for towpath cycles or more energetic rides. You can learn from a martial artist or a golfing pro.

Much has changed over the centuries, but the reason river cruising is finding favour with more and more travellers hasn’t altered that much. An unhurried, often peaceful traverse through the heart of a country is a great way to explore.

On a river cruise, where you can always see the shore, stories are told on riparian beaches where locals pound washing at the water’s edge and children play in the shallows; in the cities, where joggers spring beneath Gothic spires and ducks potter on the muddy foreshore.

History unfolds, not just in the perched castles and chocolate-box villages of the Rhine, but also in its ghostly Bauhaus factories and in the urban sprawl of the Yangtze. So, what’s it to be: The Temple of Philae making an appearance or a basking hippo at sundown? Let the river be your guide.

Read: 36 hours aboard the world’s largest cruise ship

Read: Around the world by sea

1. See the world by river

World Cruiseswhich circumnavigate the oceans over a three to four-month period – are popular with time-rich winter-sun seekers. But did you know that you can now cruise the world by river? ‘The world’s great waterways on one incredible bucket-list adventure’ is how Mundy Cruising describes this five continents and 18 rivers holiday marathon, and it’s not far wrong. Curating the itineraries of 16 cruise lines it visits 34 countries over 10 months – cruising the Rhine, Danube, Volga, Ganges, Yangtze, Mekong, Mississippi, Zambezi and the Nile and Amazon. The roll-call of sights is impressive, and includes the Taj Mahal, the pyramids, Machu Picchu and China’s Terracotta Warriors. Part of the holiday even includes an African safari, following a cruise on the Chobe river.

From Dh619,818 per person for a 295-day Around the World by River cruise including business-class flights, transfers and five-star hotels throughout. mundycruising.co.uk, from July 2018.

2. Indulge on the Danube

If you’re a fan of luxury hotels and not sure if a river cruise is for you, a week on board the Crystal Mahler should convince you. The brand-new all-balcony, all-suite ship offers private butler service in all cabins and bathrooms roomy enough for double sinks. In the spring Mahler will sail on cruises between Budapest and Amsterdam, visiting Krems, Spitz, Linz, Melk (all Austria) and Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Dining is relaxed, with farm-to-table style menus served in several open-seating eateries.

Approx Dh21,925 all-inclusive; crystalcruises.com.

3. Hit the street in Vietnam

Keen to know your pho from your bun cha? Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen will be leading a new a foodie tour of old Saigon next year, exploring the city’s street food. The walking tour is included on APT’s 16-day Vietnam and Mekong River Cruise, a new “signature experience” on board the luxury ship, AmaLotus. The holiday begins in Ho Chi Minh City, lingering in the fertile Mekong Delta and concludes with three nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia – the gateway to Angkor Wat.

Departing August 9, 2018; aptouring.co.uk.

Read: Friday travels to Vietnam and Brunei

4. Tee off on the Albatross

If you enjoy the Open, here’s a way to combine a relaxing river cruise on the Seine, Danube or Rhine with the chance to hone your golfing skills with an expert. Amadeus River Cruises’ new golf departures next spring will be hosted by PGA teaching pro, Frank Adamowicz. Each sailing will include visits to four prestigious courses. At France’s Le Golf National, the much-lauded greens of the Albatross course await play.

Approx Dh11,000, all-includive. Departing on October 25 2018; amadeus-rivercruises.co.uk.

5. Float by on safari

Not a lot of river ships cruise on the African continent. The newest, African Dream, is currently being transported across the savannah to its new home port in Botswana ahead of her inaugural sailing on the Chobe and Zambezi rivers in December. A seven-day cruise-safari will pair four nights at the five-star Cascades Lodge with safari touring on land and water. The intimate ship has eight suites, all with generous river views, and will feature a panoramic restaurant, lounge bar and rooftop terrace. Pack binoculars for possible elephant and wildebeest sightings.

From Dh18,300 per person; croisieurope.co.uk.

Read: Lose yourself in Kenya and Tanzania’s wilderness

6. Go glam in Paris

Having ramped up the glam-factor on board its new ship Joie de Vivre with sumptuous fabrics, hi-spec marble bathrooms and a supper club, Uniworld has delivered shore tours to match. Fashionistas will love the designer shopping tour of Paris’s Avenue Montaigne. There is a behind the scenes tour of the Opera Garnier (how are those costumes made?) and of The Ritz. Here, you’ll be taken into the Windsor Suite (keep an eye out for the pug-embossed cushions) once occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

From Dh12,300 per person; uniworld.com.

Read: A road trip through parts of France and Germany

7. Get fit on a wellness cruise

AmaWaterways’ seven-night cruise along the Seine leaves no stone unturned when it comes to wellness. Rise early for morning stretches and then take advantage of yoga instruction, circuit training and cardio and core-strengthening classes. Menu options run to gluten-free and vegetarian dishes as well as crystal-infused “detox water.” The seven-night cruise will visit key sites along the French river including Monet’s Gardens of Giverny, the Normandy Landing Beaches and Richard the Lionheart’s former home, Chateau Gaillard. Excursions include a cycling tour of Rouen and a hike in Les Andeleys.

A Wellness River Cruise on AmaLyra’s Paris and Normandy sailings (until November 2017) costs from Dh9,500 including daily wellness programme excursions and use of on-board bicycles; amawaterways.co.uk.

8. Jazz up for the Deep South 

Any holiday to the American South worth its salt should inspire memories of sultry nights sipping bourbon, gracious southern hospitality and big helpings of jazz. Going one step further, this 13-day Telegraph Tour features an exclusive performance and cocktail reception with award-winning jazz singer Clare Teal. Journeying from Memphis to the Crescent City via historic Vicksburg, Baton Rouge and Nottoway Plantation, the tour includes in-depth visits to Beale Street and Graceland. In Memphis passengers board the paddle steamer American Duchess for a cruise to New Orleans.  

From £4,995 per person including flights, departing October 20 2018 (0333 220 1310; telegraph.co.uk/tt-jazzcruise).

Read: New Orleans: History, food, parades and all that jazz

9. Take a turn with the tsars

Next year sees more options for cruising the rivers, canals and lakes that connect Moscow (above) and St Petersburg than ever before. APT is returning to luxury river cruising in Russia with two departures next August on the five-star Excellence Katharina, while Cosmos is offering cruises from St Petersburg to Moscow aboard the five-star Rostropovitch, which include a visit to a village settlement on the edge of the White Lake and a tour of Moscow. Viking Cruises’ 12-day itinerary travels the Dnieper river through Ukraine between Kiev and Odessa (but no longer visits Yalta or Sevastopol which are in the area of the Crimea annexed by Russia). Scenic has cruises on the Volga between Moscow and Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad).

The 15-day Imperial Russia itinerary visits Ulyanovsk, the city where Lenin was born, and includes two nights in Moscow and two in Volgograd. From Dh38,600 all-inclusive; visit scenicusa.com.

10. Enjoy haute Peruvian cuisine

Mention the words “chef Schiaffino” in the Peruvian city of Lima (right) and stomachs will start to rumble. This November Pedro Miguel Schiaffino will join passengers on board the stylish Aria Amazon, where passengers can sample some of the indigenous Amazonian ingredients that are championed by the acclaimed Latin American super chef. On the menu? Heart of palm souffle, scallops with umari (fruit), Amazon huatia potatoes, grilled freshwater fish or plantain and yucca gnocchi. The 16-suite ship has a river-facing jacuzzi and has English-speaking naturalist guides.

The Hosted Gastronomy cruise on the Aria Amazon costs from Dh17,836 per person departing November 20, 2017 (reservations@aquaexpeditions.com).

Read: Machu Picchu to trial timed entry tickets

11. View a different Venice

Snaking across north-east Italy from the Alps to its delta south of the lagoon, the Po is one of Europe’s most unsung waterways and offers a completely different perspective of La Serenissima, the city that was built on the lagoon. The trip on the MS Michelangelo is bookended by nights in Venice (spent on board), and includes short cruises through the lagoon to Murano and Burano, before entering the Po Delta proper. Ports of call include Polesella, Taglio di Po and Chioggia where there is an optional hike along the Strada del Vino dei Colli Euganei.

Dh13,324 all-inclusive with UK-Italy flights; titantravel.co.uk.

Read: Summer in Venice

12. Live the suite life

Sign up for some hands-on cooking instruction; pamper yourself with a hydrating River Breeze facial or throw a cocktail party in your spacious suite while soaking up La Belle France... Scenic’s new on-board cookery programme on the Seine, Scenic Culinaire, introduces the tastes and flavours of French cuisine during on-board demonstrations. The refurbished Scenic Diamond and Sapphire now boast new Royal Owner’s suites (47 sqm) and a sundeck vitality pool and salt lounge - a wellness area inspired by the micro-climate of salt mines.

New Scenic Enrich experiences for 2018 include Chateau Agassac in the Medoc region of France. It is also the venue for a private evening concert. Departures from April 2018 from Dh10,500 via scenic.co.uk.

13. Barge by the battlefields

For a more intimate commemorative experience, consider travelling on a hotel barge. The 12-berth Panache sails on the Canal du Nord (inaccessible to larger vessels) right through the First World War battlefield area. The canal itself was the scene of the Battle of Canal du Nord in September 1918. For one part of the journey the barge cruises under the New Zealand Engineers Bridge, which was built in a week in 1918 under continuous German fire. Passengers will also experience the three mile-long Ruyaulcourt tunnel, near the Somme. The barge also cruises on the River Oise and offers snapshots of the Picardy countryside.

From £3,590 per person for a six-night, all-inclusive cruise; go-barging.com.

14. Set sail for a New Year

With Christmas a wrap, how about New Year? Leave on Jan 2, 2018 for a cruise along the Rhine to Amsterdam, where Saga has seats at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome for an Andre Rieu concert with the Johann Strauss orchestra. The music-themed cruise will be accompanied by baritone Peter Grevatt, who will host four on-board concerts and give an illustrated talk about the Strauss family.

Chartered exclusively for Saga, the Regina Rheni II will cruise from Cologne to Arnhem via Bonn, Dusseldorf and Amsterdam; Dh6,000, at saga.co.uk/rivers.

15. Tour temples of the ancients

As well as being one of the world’s most magnificent open-air museums, the Nile is Egypt’s life source. Farmholds share the riverbank of northern Africa’s great irrigation system with 5,000 years of history writ large in temples, tombs and pyramids. Time permitting, opt for the so-called “long cruise” from Cairo to Luxor that takes in Lower, as well as Upper Egypt. Riviera has a new cruise on the smart MS Movenpick Dakarum, which pairs classic sights such as the temple at Karnak and the Valley of the Kings with guided tours of the rarely visited archaeological city of Amarna, the mysterious temple dedicated to Osiris at Abydos and one of Egypt’s best preserved temples at Dendera.

Email cruise.darakum@movenpick.com.