It's hard to get more distance, actual and metaphorical, from your job than you get on a cruise--out on the high seas and living on piña coladas, your BlackBerry hopelessly out of range. But vacationing with 1,500 strangers isn't for everybody. What about those of us who love the water--and need the distance--but don't require nightly musicals, colossal buffets, or swimming pools that churn with screaming children? Actually, our options are legion. There are rafts over jungle rapids, canoes in the wilderness, and barges along the placid waters of southern France. There are even cruises for people who don't like cruises--that is to say, small and fancy, without the buffet. Don't forget the Dramamine.
Choose your adventure
1. Rolling on the Columbia
Lewis and Clark first paddled the waters of Oregon's Columbia and Snake rivers in 1805. Today these are the domain of the American West Steamboat Co. and its two 150- and 231-passenger paddle wheelers. The eight-day trips depart from Portland, Oregon, and offer views of the spectacular glacial valleys and the Cascade Mountains, as well as excursions to Columbia Valley wineries and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
The 12-passenger L'Impressionniste was a Dutch cargo ship before undergoing plastic surgery to reenter society as a luxury barge built to ply the waters of Provence. Passengers live aboard for seven days, leisurely cruising the Rhone while making stops along the French countryside for cycling excursions and wine tastings at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which was once Pope John XXII's private vineyard.
There are few ways to visit the 2,500-year-old civilization formerly known as Burma, and that's just how Myanmar's reclusive ruling junta likes it. But even foreigners are allowed to cruise the Ayeyarwady River. It flows over 1,300 miles to the Andaman Sea, passing historical marvels like Bagan, an 11th-century city filled with towering temple ruins. While technically a cruise, this three- to 11-night voyage uses a relatively small boat with a maximum of 110 passengers.
If you're feeling adventurous, paddle the crocodile- and hippo-ridden waters of southern Africa's Zambezi River from the wobbly perch of a kayak. The offerings are astounding: warm-water rapids, beach campsites in the footsteps of elephants, and waters bathed in the spray of Victoria Falls. This nine-day expedition isn't for the beginner, but you don't need to be a white-water expert. The trip is designed so that your skills progress as the waters become harder to navigate.
Many adventure outfitters can take you rafting in Colorado, but few offer the rapids of Siberia. In July, when the water hits a toasty 60 degrees, Bio Bio Expeditions takes a group to the powerful Katun River, which cuts through the Altai Mountains in a remote section of the world Americans rarely visit. Rafting experience is not necessary, although an adventurous streak is useful. Nights are spent at riverside campsites, and days include visits to Siberian villages untouched by modernity.
With hundreds of lakes and rivers that snake through a million acres of wilderness, the Boundary Waters separating Minnesota from Canada are among the world's best spots for canoeing. Boundary Waters Outfitters will stock your rental Kevlar canoe with portable showers, tents, cooking gear, bait, chairs, and food for a three- to seven-day trip. If you're a little nervous, or just want someone else to cook the walleye, you can hire a guide.
Ecuador fiercely guards the Galápagos Islands with their fragile ecosystems and bizarre wildlife. For that reason, there are few hotels. Most tourists stay on boats, such as the Reina Sylvia yacht. Onboard, you'll find a chef and a naturalist who leads hikes on the various islands during the 10-day trip. The Reina's star attractions are its kayaks, which can get you up close and personal with sea lions, marine iguanas, and sperm whales and to areas impossible to access by foot.
Sailing isn't the easiest hobby to pick up in your spare time. But you can combine education and vacation in a private cruise with on-the-water instruction. A maximum of four students live on a 46-foot boat for a week while learning their way around a full-size craft. Ships sail in the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, or the British Virgin Islands, navigating from port to port. But this trip is not for novices. The voyage requires U.S. Sailing's basic keelboat certification or equivalent experience.