Giant floating cities complete with endless buffets, kids clubs and climbing walls? Who needs them? Take to the water in style in homage to a bygone era.
Glide down the Nile on a Belle Époque steamer
Forget about crowded bus tours, the best way to see Egypt’s archaeological treasures is by boat – 19th century style. Received as a gift by King Fouad in 1885, the Steam Ship Sudan’s heyday was the 1920s and early 1930s. Wealthy guests paid substantial sums to see the sites of the ancient Pharaohs – including the grande dame of crime novels, Agatha Christie, whose Death on the Nile was inspired by Sudan.
Take in the slow-moving Nile scenery from well-placed wicker chairs, sip cocktails in the piano bar, and imagine genteel archaeologists and elegant ladies strolling the wide decks and oak staircases. The quiet pace of life is only broken for off-board adventures to the temples and tombs that dot the river.
Cruises start from €950 per person for four days full board; check out steam-ship-sudan.com. The ship doesn’t sail in June.
Indulge your Mark Twain fantasies aboard a Mississippi steamboat
Dozens of tourist boats ply the rivers of the mighty Mississippi, but for a proper dose of 19th-century American Victoriana look no further than the American Queen. Although only built in 1995, this meticulous recreation of a 19th century steamboat evokes a time when they ruled the waters of America's heartland.
Chugging down the river at a gentle rumble, days on this opulent vessel (complete with a ladies’ parlour and gentlemen’s card room) are filled with history lectures, performances by Mark Twain imitators and visits to historic mansions. In the low-key evenings guests gather around the piano or listen to Dixieland in the glitzy grand saloon. Much time is spent devouring multi-course meals in mahogany-panelled rooms.
Tours depart from cities including St Louis, Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville. A five-day cruise with agents.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com costs from US$949 per person full board.
Relive the romantic age of the clipper in the Caribbean
Lazing about on deck not your thing? Then make like a 19th century sailor and join the crew of a classic ship to experience what it was like to navigate the oceans two centuries ago. On board the Lord Nelson – where the romance of an old sailing ship is teamed with more practical considerations, such as access for travellers with disabilities – you’ll be part of a 'watch', helping steer the ship and trim the sails in regular rotation with other teams.
When not on duty there’s time to lie underneath the stars, scamper up the mast for endless views out over the ocean, or enjoy life under the water when the ship anchors at remote bays along the way.
Options range from an 11-day round trip from Antigua at GB£1095 to GB£5495 for a 28-day Caribbean and Central American adventure. For further information see classic-sailing.co.uk.
Sleep under the stars on Lake Malawi's Ilala ferry
The creaking Ilala ploughs the length of Lake Malawi, and has provided a crucial service to local communities over the past 60 years. Life on board is pretty much as it has been for decades – crowds of locals carrying livestock, food packages and bicycles fill out the decks below; while time-blessed backpackers hire mattresses and sleep out on deck underneath the stars, stopping off at fishing villages and islands along the way.
The boat travels weekly between Chipoka and Chilumba, with nine stops along the way. It travels northbound Saturday to Monday and southbound Tuesday to Thursday. A basic ticket costs from US$2.50.
Cruise Kerala's backwaters in a traditional rice boat
There’s no better way to soak up life on Kerala’s beautiful, palm-studded backwaters than by traditional rice boat, or Kettuvallam. These traditional country boats, built from bamboo and jackfruit logs, played a major role in the economic development of ancient Kerala, moving cargo along the broad network of canals linking settlements along the Arabian Sea.
These days the boats are kitted out comfortably, and come complete with a chef and a driver. The best part of a trip here? Seeing people's lives unfold along the water and watching local wildlife. Pick the right boat and season, and the only sounds you’ll hear will be distant voices, the soft chug of the engine and birdsong.
Try lakesandlagoons.com from US$170 per person per night full board.
Cross the Atlantic in style on the Queen Mary 2
Instead of boarding a cramped plane and hurtling across the Atlantic, try arriving in New York in a more elegant and leisurely fashion. The Queen Mary 2 is no Mickey Mouse cruise ship – it's a purpose-built liner, designed specifically for transatlantic crossings.
Conceived as a follow-up to the fabled QE2, the Queen Mary feels very British (despite its American ownership) and does plenty to evoke memories of liners past - think afternoon tea served by white-gloved waiters and formal dining at the captain’s table. Wandering the wide decks in posh threads with martini in hand is virtually compulsory.
A seven-night crossing from Southampton, England to New York or vice versa costs from GB£899; see cunard.co.uk.
Experience a hardier way of ocean life on a container ship
If three-course meals, fine wine and antique-laden state rooms are a bit much, a true taste of adventure can be had on a cargo ship. It's just you, the crew, a few other passengers and thousands of metal containers.
Rooms and facilities may be more Travelodge than Ritz Carlton, and there are no organised excursions or entertainment – other than perhaps a drunken night of karaoke with the crew – but the attraction here is to experience the long tradition of travel by sea. Lumbering down the Suez Canal or dodging icebergs in Newfoundland has a romance and history all of its own.
Fares include all meals and taxes and cost anything from GB£700 for a week-long jaunt to GB£8000 for a multi-month, continent-crossing odyssey. You'll need to book several months in advance. Try cargoshipvoyages.com.