The World’s Greatest Rail Journeys and the Best Road Trips are often mentioned in travel top ten lists, but “The World’s Best Boat Rides” always seem to get less of a mention. Traveling by boat is the oldest mode of transportation, harking back to the time of the great explorers who discovered new worlds, to the Grand Tourists, and to the intrepid Phileas Fogg who traveled around the world in 80 days traversing continents by ocean liner (albeit fictitiously). The simple boat ride encompasses the romance of travel; we see the world as it slowly passes us by, rather than us passing it by at hundreds of miles per hour on a high speed train as we zoom through the country from A to B, or fly through the air to reach B as quickly as possible and therefore see very little except clouds in the sky. Traveling by boat allows us to enjoy the journey at a slower pace, to experience the local culture and take in our surroundings, and to feel like we belong, even if just for a short time. All the great boat rides in the world are too numerous to mention, and the list below is by no means definitive, but here are 10 amazing boat trips to fuel your imagination.
Amazon Riverboat, Peru
From the jungle city of Iquitos, tucked away in the Amazon Basin, riverboats, or lanchas, run along the river enabling exploration of the villages, jungle lodges, and the primary rainforest. These slow boats run downstream along the Amazon River to Brazil, or upstream on the Ucayali River towards Pucallpa, and locals use this form of transport to visit the city to collect provisions, cargo, livestock, and pretty much anything else you can think of. These riverboats are far from luxurious but allow travelers to experience a taste of local life on the river.
The lancha is usually two or three decks high, with a deck reserved for hammocks. The boats get very crowded, so passengers need to act fast to bag some sleeping space (hammocks are not usually provided) – expect to be packed in like sardines. Cabins are available at a higher price, but sleeping on a hammock in the cool breeze is the most popular way to travel. Food is included on the longer journeys, but it’s a good idea to take bottled water, snacks, plastic bowls, and cutlery.
This boat ride is a true experience; travelers sleep amongst the hustle and bustle of families picnicking under the hammocks, pigs snorting, chickens squawking, and passengers noisily unloading their belongings in the middle of the night as they disembark. During the journey there is plenty of time to chat to fellow passengers (a knowledge of Spanish is useful) and take in the scenery of the wide river (a couple of kilometres wide in places). Sunsets are particularly incredible.
A trip on the slow boat from Iquitos downriver to Pucallpa can take 4-7 days, depending on the height of the river, and can cost between US$30-50. Lanchas depart a few times a week, but it’s best to head to the port and look at the chalkboards to check times and prices and book directly with one of the boat operators there. Organised luxury river cruises are also available, but at a much higher price and with much less local colour and flavour.
Backwater Cruise, Kerala, India
A cruise between Alleppey and Kollam is the quintessential way to see the beauty of India slowly pass you by. Drifting lazily along this network of canals, lakes, and rivers in Kerala, which have been used for centuries to transport spices, rice, and rubber, allows you to see India in its full glory. Reed-woven rice barges float along slowly, Chinese A-frame fishing nets protrude from the water, and locals on wooden dug-out canoes paddle mounds of colored spices, fruit, and vegetables to their destinations.
The entire scene is fringed with palm trees with coconuts, wooden tumbledown constructions on stilts, paddy fields, and women and children standing knee high in the water washing their clothes and waving as the boats pass by. Children run along the riverbank demanding “One pen! One pen!” until water stops them in their tracks and they can continue no further.
Boats traveling on the backwaters vary from ferries, which seat around 40 passengers, to luxurious traditional wooden houseboats, or kettuvallams, with woven bamboo roofs complete with a sleeping area, kitchen, and private chef to cook up Keralan masterpieces – at a cost of around Rs. 6,150 a night (US$120). Ferries take around eight hours to travel between Alleppey and Kollam and cost between Rs. 300 and Rs. 500 (US$6 and US$10) – they can be picked up from one of the boat offices at the Boat Jetty. Boats depart around 10.30 a.m. and arrive at Kollam around 6.30 p.m. There is seating on the open-air deck to take in the views, and fruit and drinks are served on board. Lunch is taken at a riverside restaurant and eaten from a banana leaf with the fingers: rice, vegetable thali, pineapple. Passengers can disembark at the riverside Ashram at Amrithapuri or continue onto Kollam where the ride comes to an end.
Cruise on Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand
The view of Mitre Peak towering over Milford Sound on a clear day is a truly breathtaking sight. This iconic mountain in the Fjordland National Park rises 5550 feet (1692 meters) from the ocean floor, and although it looks like one peak, it is actually made up of five peaks situated very closely together. Milford Sound, with its beautiful, rugged landscape and flora and fauna, is actually a fjord rather than a sound as it was formed by glacial erosion. This part of New Zealand gets more rainfall than most, so come equipped with wet weather clothing. One day can be torrential rain, the next bright blue skies.
Boat trips take you along Milford Sound to view the beautiful Bowen Falls, St Anne’s Lighthouse, Mount Pembroke, and the majestic Mitre Peak, and some venture out to the Tasman Sea. There is also the option to visit the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory (at an extra cost), where you can see below the surface of the fjord and admire its black and red corals. During the boat trip you may be lucky enough to catch sight of cute fjordland crested penguins, seals, and bottle-nosed and dusky dolphins.
Boats vary from small 20 metre launches that hold around 75 people and can travel close to the sides of the fjord in order to spot nature, to larger catamarans for scenic cruses with a capacity of around 200 people with large viewing decks. There is usually free tea and coffee on board, and some cruises offer lunch options as well. Cruises can last from 2 to 3 hours depending on the type of cruise, and trips can be booked at Milford Wharf – a couple of companies that offer trips are Mitre Peak Cruises and Southern Discoveries. The price of cruises varies between US$67 and US$83 depending on the time of day and type of cruise. Whichever trip you take, and come rain or shine, you can be guaranteed a breathtaking experience.
Grand Canal by Vaporetto, Venice, Italy
The most famous way to travel around the canals of Venice is undoubtedly by gondola, but for a ride along the Grand Canal that won’t cost the earth and with views just as appealing, just jump on a vaporetto - or the ACTV number 1 vaporetto to be precise. These water buses will take you on a beautiful 40 minute journey down the Grand Canal from Piazzale Roma to San Marco Valaresso. OK, so you won’t have the boat to yourself, and you won’t have a gondolier in a striped shirt singing O Sole Mio to you, but if you play your cards right, you could land yourself a seat with a great view in the open air seating areas in the bow or stern.
On a trip down the Grand Canal you can expect to pass iconic Venetian sights such as the Rialto Bridge, Ca’ d’Oro, San Giorgo Maggiore, and Il Palazzo Ducale. The boat zig zags from side to side of the canal, stopping at around 20 stops all the way to the Lido, and shares the waterway with gondolas, motor boats, and traghetti, large gondolas that cross the canal where there are no bridges for less than a euro (so you can also ride a gondola for next to nothing this way too). The vaporetto is a popular way for both locals and tourists to get around this city of canals, and you could find yourself sharing the boat with children making their way to school or office workers commuting to work in the mornings.
Traveling down the Grand Canal towards San Marco in the evening is a romantic way to see the city, and a less crowded way to appreciate it (everyone is heading back up in the other direction towards Piazzale Roma after their day trips). Passing under the wonderful Rialto Bridge and seeing the illuminated grand palazzi and churches along the canal is what Venice is all about.
A single ticket for a trip along the Grand Canal, valid for an hour, costs €6.50 (US $8.50), and a piece of luggage up to 150 cm volume is included in the price. Before boarding the vaporetto validate your ticket to avoid paying a fine. Tourist Travel Cards are also available to buy and last from 12 hours (€16/US$21) up to 7 days (€50/US$66) – this can work out better value if you intend to use the vaporetto several times during your trip, especially if you plan to venture out to the pretty lagoon islands such as Murano, Burano and Torcello.
Longtail boat ride along the Tembeling, Malaysia
A boat ride from Kuala Tembeling in Malaysia along the Tembeling River by motorised longboat, or sampan, is the best way to reach Taman Negara National Park. The park is Malaysia’s largest National Park and is one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. The Tembeling is very deep and wide, and is the main tributary of the Pahang River, the longest river in Malaysia at 459 km long.
On your 3-hour journey towards Taman Negara you will see fishermen with their nets spread out from their wooden boats at the side of the river, and you will pass the kampungs, or villages, of the Orang Asli, the nomadic Batek tribes of the area – you may see some of the villagers shyly peering out from beyond the trees on the riverbank or children swimming in the river. You might also spot otters in the brown-green water, monkeys scampering along the treetops, and perhaps even water buffalo.
Longboats can be picked up at the wooden Kuala Tembeling Jetty, about 8 miles from the town of Jerantut, and camera, fishing, and park permits can also be purchased here. There are a couple of departures per day; one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with a one-way trip costing around RM25 (US$8-9). For those pressed for time there is also a speedboat that departs once a day and takes an hour to reach Taman Negara. The park is also accessible by road, but the slow boat trip is a much more enjoyable way to get up close and personal with the rainforest and take in the beautiful scenery. It’s not called the rainforest for nothing though, and when it rains, it really rains, so bring waterproof clothing as there is no shelter in the boat, despite it having a makeshift roof.
The trip ends at the park headquarters, Kuala Tahan, where you can take a ferry across into the main park to start your jungle explorations.
Punting along the River Cam, Cambridge, England
No trip to Cambridge would be complete without a punting trip along the River Cam. Punts are flat bottomed boats that are propelled along with a long pole. During the gentle ride along the “Backs” you will pass famous Cambridge sights such as King’s College, Queens’ College, the Bridge of Sighs, and the Mathematical Bridge. Alternatively, you can punt up the river to the pretty village of Grantchester.
If you aren’t feeling confident enough to steer the punt without falling into the river (it is a skill that improves with practice) then there is another option – take a chauffeured tour. Your punt chauffeur will take you on a historic guided tour of the Cam.
There are several punting companies who offer self-hire or chauffeured tours such as Granta Punts, Scudamores and Cambridge Chauffeur Punts (who do offer self-hire, despite the name). Prices for self-hire are between £16 and £18 an hour per punt (US$25 – US $29) and 45 minute guided tours of the Backs can vary between £10 to £15 (US$16 – US$24), with prices much higher for tours to Grantchester and trips with special add-ons such as cream teas, Thai meals, or even punt tours combined with walking tours.
Punting is one of the best – and most relaxed – ways to see the sights of the beautiful university city of Cambridge. Unless, perhaps, you are the person steering the punt.
Manly Ferry, Sydney, Australia
It may be a commuter boat rather than a tourist boat ride, but a trip around Sydney Harbour on the Manly Ferry has to be one of the best – and cheapest – ways of seeing this beautiful city from the water. This large and famous green and cream ferry, operated by Sydney Ferries, sails regularly each day from Circular Quay, past the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, and onto Manley, one of the city’s outlying seaside resorts with a beautiful golden sandy beach and well worth a visit.
For fantastic views of Sydney Harbour Bridge, the city skyscrapers, and the Opera House, aim for a seat either at the front or the back of the ferry. Arrive at Circular Quay as early as you can to ensure you get a good spot in the queue, then jump on board with the crowds commuting to work. If you take the ferry in the evening you will see the Opera House lit up in its full glory, its colors changing frequently and illuminating the night sky.
The ferry has been running to Manly since 1855, and the journey from Sydney is 7 nautical miles and takes 30 minutes. The adult price is AUS$14 return (US$14.50) but Travel Passes are available to cut down costs if you intend to make this journey several times or plan to use buses and trains. Tickets can be purchased from the ferry wharves.
Ganges Boat Ride at dawn, Varanasi, India
Gazing across at the spiritual city of Varanasi while being rowed along the Ganges at dawn is a truly magical experience. While gliding silently along the holiest of rivers in the rowing boat, you may spot pink river dolphins playing in the water. Sail past the ghats, the large, deep stone steps that lead down to the river where the early risers will be carrying out the morning’s ablutions and washing clothes. Crumbling stone temples sit alongside ramshackle guest houses that gently slope down towards the river. Avert your eyes to show respect when you see one of the burning ghats where cremation ceremonies take place; for Hindus, the burning of the bodies and subsequent release into the holy Ganges signifies that the souls of the dead will reach Nirvana. Watch the pink sun rise against the hazy cloudless sky. Once dawn breaks, witness the beginnings of the morning Puja ceremony. Cymbals sound, chimes tinkle, and the smell of incense fills the air. Prayers are spoken, candles are lit, flowers are thrown into the water. This is a mystical time of day, but is sombre in relation to the evening puja ceremony when the whole of Varanasi appears to converge upon the ghats.
You don’t need to look hard for a willing person to take you out on the river; somebody will find you. A short stroll along the banks of the Ganges close to Dasaswamedh Ghat will result in being approached by several boatmen hoping to give you a ride. Agree on a firm price beforehand as well as the length of the trip, unless you want to spend half of your ride negotiating the price for the extra half an hour that the boat owner wants to extend the trip by. Expect to be charged anything between Rs. 120 and Rs. 500 for up to 4 people ($2 – 9USD), but you should be able to get the lower price if you can negotiate.
Find a flight to Varanasi
Staten Island Ferry, New York, USA
To see the Lower Manhattan skyline in its full glory, hop aboard the Staten Island Ferry. This boat ride also happens to be free, making it one of the best value activities when in New York. The ferry travels between Manhattan and St George on Staten Island, but this trip is really about the ride, not the destination. You will pass the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and see New York Harbour, Brooklyn Bridge, and the skyscrapers of Wall Street.
The Staten Island ferry service was created to transport Staten Islanders to Manhattan and back. There has been a ferry service running for the residents since the 1700s, but this consisted of sailing boats run by private individuals – the first steam ferry did its first run in 1817.
Board the large orange ferry at the Staten Island Whitehall Terminal, South Ferry, close to Battery Park (with the modern terminal itself having incredible views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty), and enjoy the 25 minute journey to Staten Island, which covers 5 miles. Aim to get a spot at the front in the open air – although if you get a window seat inside on the main deck you will still have a great view. The outside upper deck area is always jam packed, but there are a few floors on the ferry, so you can always try to find a less crowded space if you need to. Food and beer is also available on board should you get hungry or thirsty.
This vehicle-free ferry runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, between every 15 minutes and 60 minutes depending on the time of day, and transports about 20 million people a year. And did I mention that it’s free?
When you arrive at St George you will need to disembark and re-board in order to take the ferry back again. Get to the front of the queue, ready to grab another great seat with a fantastic view, and get your camera ready for that leg coming back into Manhattan – it’s quite a sight.
Long boat from Phi Phi Don to Phi Phi Le, Krabi, Thailand
To charter a long boat from the beach at Phi Phi Don to the pretty island of Phi Phi Le is a charming way to see the coastline around the province of Krabi and the Andaman Sea as well as a wonderful small island. Phi Phi Don is famous for being one of the unfortunate locations struck by the 2004 tsunami, but after a massive rebuilding program, the island is catering to travelers and tourists in an even bigger way than before. And Maya Bay, on smaller Phi Phi Le, is famous for being where The Beach was filmed, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
During the 20-minute trip you will pass striking jungle-clad limestone rocks sticking out of the blue waters – this is a beautiful part of Thailand. When you turn the corner and pull into at Maya Bay you will gasp with delight at the crystal clear, milky turquoise waters. This bay resembles a lagoon, with the impressive limestone cliffs curving inwards, so from certain angles the open sea is hidden. Relax on the white sands, walk in the dense green jungles, snorkel in the clear waters of the bay, and admire the sheer limestone rocks stretching up out of the sea to the skies above. There isn’t much else on the island (at the moment) apart from a camping area, toilets and a snack bar, so enjoy this desert island experience while you can.
On the journey back your long tailed boat will pass by the Viking Cave – this cave has Viking ships painted on the walls and is full of poles for climbers to use to reach the swifts’ nests known as bird’s nest soup, a delicacy created from the birds’ saliva.
Longboat charges sit at around 1200 to 1500 baht (US$40-50) for a 3-4 hour trip, plus around a 200 baht (US$6.50) entry fee to the bay, which is part of the National Park. Take a boat as early in the morning as possible so you can have time on Maya Bay on Phi Phi Le to yourselves – by about midday the dive boats start to arrive, and the small beach becomes crowded very quickly with tourists. Then the camping trip arrives late afternoon. This overnight camping trip is an option if you do want to stay longer in Maya Bay – arrange a trip with Maya Bay Camping if you fancy experiencing a night on The Beach.