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I Sailed on the Longest Luxury River Cruise in the World — Here’s What It Was Like



The Ganges is to India what the Nile is to Egypt and what the Euphrates is to Mesopotamia: It’s the beating heart of the destination’s cultural and economic life. Flowing more than 1,500 miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges nurtured the Hindu holy city of Varanasi for thousands of years. It was on these banks that the Buddha preached his first sermon in 528 BCE, and it was along these waters that the British built the first capital of the British Raj, Kolkata.

Where the river flows through land, it shelters some of the most endangered aquatic fauna in the world, and where it meets the sea, it spawns one of the largest mangrove forests on Earth. And yet, never has a luxury river cruise sailed the Ganges — at least not one that compared to world-class river itineraries in other parts of the world.

This changed last year, when India’s Antara Luxury River Cruises launched an epic itinerary down the Ganges and its sister river, the Brahmaputra. Covering nearly 2,000 miles in 51 days, it is the longest river cruise in the world.

Here’s what it’s like.

The Operator

Kolkata-based Antara Luxury River Cruises operates the tour, a subsidiary of the Exotic Heritage Group, which has been involved in luxury travel in India for the last 30 years.

Raj Singh, an Indian wildlife expert and luxury travel pioneer, is among the trip promoters of this journey, as is Andrea Massari, a Singapore-based cruise expert who has previously managed luxury river cruises on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar with Ayravata Cruises and the Mekong River in Vietnam with Pandaw Cruises. An architect by training, Massari oversees the technology of the cruise ships. A third director is Annapurna Garimella, an art historian, designer, author, and doctor of philosophy from Columbia University, who oversees the design elements of the cruise.

The group owns four luxury cruise vessels deployed on shorter luxury cruises until now.

The Itinerary

The cruise begins at the holy city of Varanasi in central India. While here, guests witness Ganga Aarti, an awe-inspiring ritual performed at sundown each day on the banks of the Ganges. In this tradition, a cohort of priests offer ritual prayers in honor of the river, which is worshiped as a goddess in Hinduism. 

With flickering flames of multi-tiered brass lamps dancing against the night sky, the deep, harmonic thrum of conch shells piercing the air, and the chant of soul-stirring mantras floating over the water, the Ganga Aarti is a spellbinding performance of a living tradition that has continued unbroken for thousands of years.

Once departed from Varanasi, the cruise journeys downstream and to more than 50 remarkable destinations, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites, natural parks, and historical metropolises. Kaziranga National Park is among these special places, home to more than two-thirds of the surviving population of the endangered one-horned rhino, as well as Majuli — the largest river island in the world.  

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Other major stops along the route include Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment and one of the most important pilgrimage centers for Buddhists all over the world; Kolkata, also known as the City of Joy, once the capital of the British Raj in India and home of Nobel laureates Mother Teresa and Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkata is also the epicenter of the global jute industry, accounting for the bulk of its production and export.

Murshidabad and Sualkuchi — two cities famous worldwide for their mulberry silk textiles — are also significant itinerary stops. Guests get to see the art of sericulture (silk production) up close and the craft of weaving some of the finest silk textiles on earth.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is a bustling city of crafts, culture, and beautiful Islamic architecture. The cruise spends 15 days in Bangladesh before reentering India. 

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In the Sundarbans — the largest mangrove forests on earth and home of the endangered Bengal tiger — guests are privy to yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mangroves, comprised of trees that grow in saline water, typically where rivers meet the sea, are biodiversity hotspots and act as huge carbon sinks, helping combat climate change. It is an ecological wonder to behold firsthand.

The cruise ends at Dibrugarh, a city in the northeastern Assam region of India known for its eponymous Assam tea. Famous for its sprawling tea estates, Dibrugarh produces so much high-quality tea that it is known as the Tea City of India.

All this is in addition to the remarkable views guests can expect while onboard the boat, with the geography and the landscape changing as you sail. Animal spotting is undoubtedly likely, as the Ganges is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, including the endangered Gangetic dolphin, otters, at least 15 species of freshwater turtles, and three varieties of crocodile, including the critically endangered gharial, found only in the Ganges.

The Vessel

The MS Ganga Vilas is a luxury vessel done in Art Deco style. At more than 200 feet long and nearly 40 feet wide, it is a vessel made for small, intimate journeys rather than big, boisterous tours.

Courtesy of Exotic Heritage Group


There are 18 luxury suites here, and they spread across three decks with a capacity to host 36 guests in total. Each suite has floor-to-ceiling French windows for optimal views. For an even more expansive perspective, guests can head to the sundeck to sunbathe, participate in a yoga session, or just relax.  You might spot river dolphins leaping out of the water if you’re lucky. 

The restaurant onboard seats up to 40 guests and serves Indian and Continental fare. There’s also a spa and a gym available. The vessel is also home to a reverse-osmosis water plant, which provides fresh and safe drinking water. Its hospital-grade silencers ensure a noise-free cruise experience for guests and the river’s fragile fauna. 

Courtesy of Exotic Heritage Group


Courtesy of Exotic Heritage Group


To further ensure that the vessel causes the least stress on the river’s ecosystem, the operator uses sea vessel-grade oil-water separators to ensure that the oil is separated from the water in the vessel’s discharge. Premium sewage treatment plants ensure that no contamination of the river water occurs from the waste generated on the ship. No plastic is used on board; water is served in aluminum water bottles, which guests can take as souvenirs. 

Tickets for the 51-day cruise start at $16,500 and can be booked here.



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