Another Kind of Cruise; Not All Cruises Head for Idyllic Islands. You Can Now Go on a Voyage of Discovery on the Nile, the Yangtze or the Amazon

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Byline: Paul Oswell

IF YOU thought cruise holidays were about all-you-can-eat buffets and snoozing on deck, think again. Here are five itineraries that evoke the spirit of the Age of Exploration.

SOUTH AMERICAN ODYSSEY

EXPLORATION of the Amazon River used to be a tricky, if not downright dangerous, business. The first European voyagers didn't even know they were exploring it, the mouth of the river being so wide (about 200 miles) that they thought they were still at sea.

In 2010, the sense of expedition remains, but the potential hazards have melted away. The Marco Polo liner, for example, will sail you in style from UK shores all the way to the Brazilian coastline, taking a leisurely two weeks to get there. From the Amazonian gateway town of Belem, the ship navigates inland waterways. Inflatable boats take passengers ashore to explore Amazonian cities, villages of stilted houses and the remarkable hardwood forests.

And the adventure doesn't end there. Not content with just one legendary river, the Marco Polo also sails on the Orinoco in Venezuela. Christopher Columbus, in 1498, was the first European to discover the mouth of the Orinoco, although, due to its unusually high elevation, it wasn't explored fully until 453 years later.

The mighty Angel Falls also feature. You can take a short excursion involving navigation of the Carrao River, then a one-hour trek through the jungle which puts you at the feet of the falls. At a height of 979 metres, this is truly one of the world's most impressive natural wonders.

More info: www.cruiseandmaritime.com .

NILE HIGH

IN TERMS of ancient civilisations, it doesn't come more high profile than the Egyptians. A new Nile River cruise on the MS Darakum is one way to follow in the footsteps of the plucky British explorers David Livingstone and John Hanning Speke, who is credited with discovering the source of the Nile.

You may not get quite as far, but the river's highlights are something to behold. The eight-day cruise starts in Luxor, where you'll see the stunning temples of Karnak and Luxor, built to honour the sun god Amun Ra. From here it is onto Edfu, which has some of the best preserved temples in the country, some of them still with the original wall colourings from 2,000 years ago.

The Aswan Dam, the Philae Temple dedicated to Isis and the Colossi of Memnon are just a few of the river's more famous sights before the cruise wraps up with a visit to the Valley of Kings and Queens - the royal cemetery for 62 Pharaohs and one of the world's most atmospheric ancient sites.

There is a resident Egyptologist on board to answer questions and the ship itself manages to keep up that feeling of authenticity. The interior has been crafted in a Moroccan style with dark wood, and there are stylish sun decks from which to watch life float by.

More info: www.kuoni.co.uk

CHINA IN YOUR HAND

PERHAPS less familiar to European explorers is is explorers pean own River. Yangtze the Already a part of Chinese history for thousands of years, by the time Western adventurers arrived, the Yangtze River. Already a part of Chinese history for thousands of years, by the time Western adventurers arrived, sophisticated steamboats were in operation.

A 12-day cruise on the Viking Century Sun, which has operated on the river since 2006 and was the first ship on the route to offer both Chinese and Western cuisine, showcases a number of China's highlights. Olympic host city Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and some of the best sections of the Great Wall of China are just a few of the iconic sights on offer.

The cruise passes down through Xian, a very traditional Chinese town known for its silk trade, to Chongqing, where the famous mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang has stood for 2,000 years, guarded by the thousands of life-sized Terracotta Warriors. …