Traditionally, along with the sea, rivers and canals were the main means of transporting goods, so history and culture is ripe along the banks of the world's rivers. Using these ancient highways to explore a destination is a quieter and more relaxing affair than the usual transport of planes, trains and automobiles. Here are some of the finest waterways of the world to float down or up.
Paddling The Wilderness Waterway, USA
The Florida Everglades are a watery labyrinth designed by a god who clearly enjoyed a spot of canoeing. Paddling the Everglades’ every bend could occupy a lifetime, which makes the Wilderness Waterway as much a relief as an adventure. This 159km paddling route threads along the Everglades’ western edge, winding through the 10,000 Islands and briefly into the Gulf of Mexico. Campground and camping platforms are no more than 15km apart, and you’ll share your journey with alligators, dolphins and manatees. If you need a canoe or kayak, they can be hired in Everglades City. Expect to paddle for about nine days.
Felucca on The River Nile, Egypt
The classic of classics…a tiny felucca on the world’s longest river, leaving behind the souqs of Aswan and cruising on the current towards Kom Ombo, Edfu or Esna. Feluccas can deliver their passengers a very personal Nile, with the lateen-rigged boats typically carrying between six and eight people. Nights are spent aboard the felucca (bring a sleeping bag) or camping on an island in the Nile: felucca trips to Kom Ombo involve one night out, while sailings to Esna mean four days and three nights on the Nile. Feluccas are big business in Aswan, and you won’t have trouble finding a captain and boat.
Rafting the Franklin River, Australia
Though Tasmania’s Franklin River isn’t far from the city of Hobart, it remains among the world’s most remote and pristine rafting waterways. Once you launch from below the Lyell Hwy, you’re all but committed to eight days and 100km of rough-and-ready river travel until the Franklin finally spits your inflatable raft into the Gordon River. Blanketed by the impenetrable forest of the Word Heritage-listed Tasmanian Wilderness, the journey morphs from the haunting stillness of the Irenabyss to the fury of the 5km-long Great Ravine, which boils with invitingly named rapids such as the Cauldron, Thunderush and the Churn.
Jetboating the Shotover River, New Zealand
For high-octane thrills in a high-octane city, head for Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island, where one of the signature activities (among a smorgasbord of adventures) is jetboating the Shotover River. Through the river’s steep-sided canyons, jetboats skim past the rock walls, fishtailing and throwing themselves into 360-degree spins. It’s 30 minutes that’s like a drug-induced dance on water, deep in the mighty Middle-earth scenery of the Southern Alps – Tolkien geeks may recognise the Shotover as the Ford of Bruinen, if they can look beyond the spinning bow of the jetboat, that is.
Canoeing the Bowron Lake Circuit, Canada
Set beneath the Mowdish and Cariboo Ranges, Bowron Lake Provincial Park offers one of the world’s finest canoe journeys. The renowned canoe circuit in British Columbia crosses through 10 lakes and paddles along three rivers in its 116km course. The circuit takes between six and 10 days, and numbers are strictly limited, so paddling reservations are essential. A shorter (three to four days) alternative is the West Side return route from Bowron Lake to Unna Lake. The circuit can be paddled from mid-May to mid-October; September is considered the best month because of the vivid displays of autumn colour.
With more than 3000km of navigable canals and rivers, England is the ideal place for a bit of leisurely canal boating. You can hire your own narrowboat and play skipper, or you can have somebody else do all the work on a hotel boat. Popular narrowboating canals include the Kennet and Avon Canal, running between the Rivers Thames and Avon; and the busy Llangollen Canal, which crosses from England to Wales and has a reputation as the most beautiful canal in Britain. Across the Channel, in France, the World Heritage-listed Canal du Midi that flows between Toulouse and Sète is another classic among the canal crazy.
Dugout canoe on the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea
Flowing more than 1000km from its source in the PNG highlands to the Bismarck Sea, the mighty Sepik River is navigable for much of its length. Motorboats ply most of the trade routes along the river, but for visitors the most popular and most redolent mode of river travel is by dugout motor-canoe, puttering between villages on the Middle Sepik or among its lakes and tributaries. The best place to arrange Sepik travel is in Wewak, while on the river itself you’ll be able to find motor-canoes for hire at Ambunti, Pagwi and Angoram.
Cruising the Volga, Russia
Europe’s longest river is a prime destination for the cruise crowd, with ocean-style liners as large as the Kremlin barging their way along the Volga. Cruises typically operate between St Petersburg and Moscow (though neither city is actually on the Volga), or extend further downstream to Volgograd, the city once – and more notoriously – known as Stalingrad. Ports of call along the way usually include Uglich, a town perched like an onion-domed fairytale above the river; and the island of Kizhi, with its World Heritage-listed Kizhi Pogost featuring Russia’s finest wooden buildings.
Sailing the Niger River to Timbuktu, Mali
It’s an unusual highway into the desert, but sailing up the Niger River to near the legendary Timbuktu is one hell of an entrance. Passenger boats operate on the river in the high-water season between August and mid-December, and you can expect five very crowded days getting between Koulikoro and Korioumé (18km from Timbuktu). For relative comfort there are also pinasse (motorised canoes). Laden with either cargo or tourists, pinasse depart from the city of Mopti and take around three days to reach Korioumé. Pack a sleeping bag for the cold nights spent on board or on the river bank.
Tubing the Nam Song, Laos
The Laotian town of Vang Vieng sits among an inspiring landscape of limestone spires, and is best viewed from the reclining position floating atop a tractor tyre inner tube on the Nam Song. This idle pastime is so pleasurable it has become a staple on Southeast Asia’s backpacking circuit. Tubing trips usually involve a 3km scenic float, made even more enjoyable by the presence of several bars on islands and beaches en route. As idyllic as it sounds, keep a clear head, for there’s the occasional horror story; in times of high water, rapids along the Nam Song can be quite daunting.
See more river trips in 10 best boat journeys.
This article was updated in Jan 2012.