The World's Best River Cruises For Superyachts

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The Kinabatangan and The Rajang

Borneo

Sailors are naturally drawn to the open ocean, but a river cruise can offer an enchanting experience. Risa Merl explores which of the the world’s great waterways are best seen by superyacht.

The Kinabatangan and The Rajang, Borneo

The third largest island in the world, Borneo has two rivers that are worth exploring by superyacht, both of which are found in the island’s Malaysian territory. The 560-kilometre Kinabatangan River, on the north-east tip of Borneo, winds through the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, presenting a veritable river safari. This is one of only two places in the world to see orangutans in the wild (they are one of the 10 primate species found in the sanctuary). Asian elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros roam the jungle, along with petite Malayan sun bears and spotted leopards. Crocodiles, otters and tortoises can also be seen in this watery wonderland, as well as more than 200 species of birds.

The Rajang River Delta on the north-west coast is another key habitat for wildlife, especially Irrawaddy dolphins and lesser adjutant storks, which have a few fluffy feathers on their otherwise bald heads. In the trees, silver langur monkeys munch on fruit and stare as you pass by. The Rajang just pips the Kinabatangan as the longest river in Malaysia, at 563 kilometres.

Local guides can be hired on both rivers, as reliable charts don’t exist. There are no regulations for exploring by yacht, says Captain Jean-Francois Cormerais, of Asia Pacific Superyachts, but you will need to be aware of the depth and air draught. “It all depends greatly on the season,” says Captain Cormerais. “The Rajang River can vary in depth by 21 metres, while the Kinabatangan has a sandbar at the entrance and an electric cable crosses the river further on, which makes it impossible for sailing boats to visit.” Despite the challenges, Cormerais says it is “really worth the effort” to visit. “My favourite memory is anchoring in the Rajang River and being awakened by the call of gibbons as a morning song,” he adds.

When to go: Dry season is March to October – avoid December to April when heavy rains fall, which can change river depth quite suddenly.

What to know: There is nowhere to provision, so bring all the supplies you will need.

Who to contact: Captain Jean-Francois Cormerais, of Asia Pacific Superyachts, jf@asia-pacific-superyachts.com

Picture courtesy of Getty Images.

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The St Lawrence

North America

If you think whale watching is only possible at sea, think again. On the St Lawrence River, whales can be spotted as far inland as Quebec City, Canada (in fact the white beluga whale is endemic to the area). The coastline along the northern side of the St Lawrence estuary is also known as the Whale Route because of the 13 species that can be seen, including the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale.

The fun doesn’t stop there, however, as the St Lawrence River – at 1,197 kilometres, the third longest in North America after the Mississippi and Mackenzie – is part of the larger St Lawrence Seaway. This allows yachts to travel from the Atlantic into the Great Lakes, the furthest point being the US city of Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior some 2,000 nautical miles away. This river system has few size restrictions – vessels up to 225 metres LOA can make the trek. The 115-metre superyacht Luna has been spotted here, and Northland, the recently launched 31.3-metre Burger, made her way through the seaway last year. “There are a lot of logistics to travelling through the seaway, but it is an amazing experience,” says Northland’s captain, Jeff Callahan. He recommends electronically pre-paying all your lock fees and arranging marina dockage ahead of time and warns that in the Gulf of St Lawrence, right whales are protected by a speed limit of 10 knots, which is strictly enforced.

The St Lawrence offers plenty of cultural interest, with the chance to stop off at vibrant cities such as Montreal and Quebec City and quaint waterfront towns. Man-made diversions abound, from Singer Castle on Dark Island to Tibbetts Point Lighthouse on Lake Ontario, and even golf at the prestigious Thousand Islands Country Club on Wellesley Island. Head ashore in Clayton, New York state, for a tipple at Coyote Moon Vineyards or the Wood Boat Brewery. Clayton is also home to the Antique Boat Museum, which boasts the largest collection of vintage vessels in America.

When to go: June to October, which is also whale-watching season.

What to know: AIS is required for all vessels of more than 100 tonnes and foreign-flagged yachts more than 35 metres LOA are required to have a pilot on board.

Who to contact: Premier Marine Services, premiermarineservices.com; or Debora Radtke at American Yacht Agents, captdeb@americanyachtagents.com

Picture courtesy of Getty Images.

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The Amazon

South America

The mighty Amazon’s headwaters begin in the Andes mountains of Peru before running through Brazil, with tributaries coming from Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. It is the world’s largest river by volume and, at around 6,400 kilometres long, also rivals the Nile as the longest – although there is no definitive agreement as to which can claim the title. Fortunately, about 3,700 kilometres of the Amazon is navigable by yacht: from Iquitos, Peru to the mouth of the river near Belém, Brazil.

It was in Belém that 46.3-metre Picchiotti yacht Golden Compass began its Amazonian adventure. “There is no better way to explore the Amazon than by yacht,” says the former owner of Golden Compass, who made the 3,200-kilometre round trip to Manaus, Brazil. “The river is always changing, and the experiences were different and unpredictable every day. The birds and wildlife were as varied as the people and ports we visited,” the owner adds. The locals rely on the river for transport and trade, and some of the owners’ most memorable experiences were interactions with those who call the Amazon home – from buying fruit, fish and handicrafts to donating clothes and school supplies to children. The former owners of Golden Compass believe more yachts should try to venture to the area. “This part of the world is changing rapidly, and not always in a positive way – visiting gives more understanding of the devastation of deforestation, and an appreciation of the changing lifestyle of the natives along the river,” the owner argues.

Golden Compass travelled to Manaus, but there is more to be seen beyond this point. For those who fancy a jungle cruise but don’t want to bring their own boat, the eco-friendly, light-filled, 45-metre Aria Amazon can be chartered in the Peruvian Amazon.

When to go: High-water season is December to May, during which time the water can rise by as much as seven metres, making tender excursions a dream, while low-water season provides better opportunities for hiking ashore.

What to know: Up-to-date charts don’t exist because of the variance in water levels and local pilots are required to navigate the changing conditions. Armed security is also advised.

Who to contact: The former owners of Golden Compass recommend emailing amazonriveryachting@gmail.com for help with planning. Meanwhile, Brazil Yacht Services provides logistical support for clearances, waivers, security, and qualified guides.

Picture courtesy of Creative Commons.

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The Mekong

Cambodia and Vietnam

Snaking its way from China to Vietnam – passing through Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia along the way – this 4,350-kilometre river is the lifeblood of South East Asia. (In Lao, the name Mekong translates to “mother of waters”.)

“Along the Mekong you will explore a thousand years of human history, and guests are able to enjoy excursions away from the crowds,” says Benjamin Seelos of Aqua Expeditions, which runs a fleet of river-cruising yachts in Asia and South America. One of the fleet, 62.4-metre Aqua Mekong, is permanently based here, offering cruises in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The landscape along the Mekong morphs from low-lying, lush greenery to steep cliffs framing the passage. The views are incredible, but it is time spent off the mothership, whether on the water or on shore, that really brings a Mekong visit to life. Cycle through small villages and rice fields, where children run out to wave and cheer you on; kayak through the floating villages along the river; or take a skiff to visit the silversmith village of Koh Chen. You won’t find any cities or industrial zones here; it is still quite off the beaten track, which is exactly the charm of travelling here. “Much of Thailand is now a hotspot for yachts and tourists, making them overcrowded, but with Cambodia you’re still in relatively uncharted waters,” says Frances Edgeworth, a charter broker with Fraser who ventured into the country on board Aqua Mekong. “Cambodia is rich with history and culture and the food is outstanding. There’s nowhere else left to cruise like the Mekong River.”

Aqua Mekong can be booked on a per-cabin basis or chartered as a whole with Camper & Nicholsons. “It’s an incredible luxury experience and the yacht offers a variety of amenities and itineraries,” says Edgeworth. “The crew on board are all local and incredibly well connected. They know everyone along the river and the chef seems to be best friends with everyone in the market.”

When to go: August to November is high-water season, which allows yachts to get deeper into the waterway and cruise to Tonle Sap lake, which is too shallow to visit in dry season.

What to know: Private yachts can cruise the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, but the red tape can be thick as permission is needed from both countries, and each has its own set of stringent requirements.

Who to contact: Aqua Expeditions, aquaexpeditions.com; Asia Pacific Superyachts, cambodia@asia-pacific-superyachts.com; Camper & Nicholsons for charter bookings.

Picture courtesy of Shutterstock.

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