There are plenty of rivers in the world, but finding new inland waterways that are suitable for river cruising and that offer engaging sights along the way, those are fewer and farther between. So when the river cruising world began to notice the potential of India's Ganges River — think ancient mosques and Hindu temples, serene village hamlets and colonial port towns along the river banks, not to mention an extension option to the other-worldly holy city of Varanasi — several river cruise and tour operators jumped onboard. The result is a slew of river cruise vessels and itineraries being introduced on the Ganges as well as on some of India's lesser-known rivers this year and next.
Among the most prominent players in this Ganges River renaissance has been Haimark. Two years ago, the company began doing test sailings along the Ganges to gauge the river's prospects, and the outcome was the decision to build two luxury, all-suite vessels for the Ganges.
The holy city of Varanasi is a popular extension for Ganges River cruises. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
The first of those two, the 56-passenger Ganges Voyager, launched earlier this year, and the second, its 56-passenger sister vessel, Ganges Voyager II, sets sail in January. The Ganges Voyager is being chartered by companies including Abercrombie & Kent and Vantage Travel, and the Ganges Voyager II will be chartered by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
Both the Ganges Voyager and Ganges Voyager II feature a Governor's Lounge, home to the onboard bar and evening entertainment; the East Dining Room, the main restaurant where both Western and Indian cuisine are served; a sun deck with a covered seating area and chaise lounges; a spa treatment room; and a fitness room.
As for accommodations, both vessels are outfitted with a 400-square-foot Maharaja Suite, two Viceroy Suites at 360 square feet, two Heritage Suites at 280 square feet and 20 Standard Suites at 261 square feet. Each stateroom has its own French balcony, sitting area and flat-screen TV. The bathrooms are equipped with rainfall showerheads, robes, slippers and Molton Brown bath products.
The mosque complex in Khushbagh, which was built by Nawab Ali-Wardi-Khan. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
The vessels sail an eight-day itinerary from Kolkata north to Murshidabad and back. Stops include the Rajbari temple complex in Kalna; the mosques in Khushbagh; Mayapur, home of the Krishna Consciousness Movement; and Chandenagor, a former French settlement and trading post along the river's banks.
Haimark's pricing for 2015 sailings on the Ganges Voyager ranges from $2,799 to $3,699 per person, based on double occupancy. Haimark also offers a pre- or post-cruise extension, one that combines Delhi and Varanasi and another to the Golden Triangle.
On the Ganges Voyager II, Uniworld has assembled a 13-day India's Golden Triangle & the Sacred Ganges itinerary that includes an eight-day cruise and five nights in Oberoi Hotels & Resorts properties in New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. In addition to the Ganges River cruise, the Uniworld itinerary includes visits to the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, Jaipur's City Palace and Mother Teresa's home and tomb in Kolkata. Uniworld has limited availability remaining for its 2016 Ganges departures, but of the dates and suite categories that remain, pricing ranges from $8,024 to $11,994 per person, based on double occupancy, including the full cruise and land itinerary.
Uniworld also offers a three-day Varanasi extension.
Other operators, itineraries
Haimark isn't the only company embracing the potential of India's inland waterways. The idea stemmed from Indian company Heritage River Cruises, which has been sailing the 56-passenger Bengal Ganga along the Ganges River since 2009, when the company's director Raj Singh decided to see if reintroducing overnight cruising to India's West Bengal region was possible.
The bustling streets of Kolkata. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
Until then, the Ganges had been relatively dormant to passenger and cargo traffic due to the collapse of the profitable opium trade in the 1800s and the rise of a more efficient and effective rail system. Now, several other companies are embracing the Ganges rebirth and are offering river cruises on the fabled Indian river as well as on the Brahmaputra in the northeast.
Last month, Canadian tour operator G Adventures announced that it would be expanding its river cruise offering, including a new river cruise on the Ganges. G Adventures customers will be sailing on the 24-passenger Varuna on eight-day cruises between Patna and Farakka or nine-day sailings between Farakka and Kolkata. G Adventures' Ganges cruises start at $1,999 per person.
For 2015, Pandaw River Expeditions, a 20-year-old river cruise operator with strong roots in Southeast Asia, offered a single October departure on India's Ganges and Hooghly rivers on the 40-passenger Rajmahal. Pandaw has yet to announce if it will offer future Ganges sailings.
But the company has also been exploring another waterway in India, the Brahmaputra in the north. The river originates in the Himalayas and flows through the Assam Valley, home to protected national parks and remote rural communities. These cruises take place on the 46-passenger Mahabaahu, built in Kolkata in 2012. Prices for an eight-day Pandaw river cruise on the Brahmaputra starts at $2,396 per person, based on double occupancy.
Pandaw also offers the option to combine the Brahmaputra cruise with a Golden Triangle tour (Delhi; Agra, which includes the Taj Mahal; and Jaipur) or with a trip to Bhutan.