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Crystal Symphony sailing through the Panama Canal.

Taking a cruise conjures up visions of leaving land far behind and setting out onto the high seas. But a couple of this year's hottest itineraries are ones that hug close to shore.

Bragging rights will come with being one of the few who get to cruise the "red Danube," through the former communist bloc countries from Budapest to the Black Sea.

A new generation of river cruise ships is arriving this year with itineraries that include places with names like Novi Sad, Vukovar, Svishtov and Cernavoda, and offering side trips to Dracula's famed Transylvania castle, in Romania.

Meanwhile, several cruise lines are promoting this year as one of the final opportunities to experience the historic Panama Canal before it is modernized.

Both itineraries are getting more attention this year because not only are they more exotic than the typical one-week Caribbean or European cruises, they also promise to avoid the crowds by stopping at lesser visited ports.

A reason that bigger river ships are venturing into the eastern Danube is the sheer popularity of river cruising on the established "blue Danube" and Rhine routes, which has created traffic jams around docks at ports from Vienna to Amsterdam.

In the past, those few river cruises that went farther, to ports in Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania tended to be on older, smaller ships because of the limited size of docks and draft on the eastern Danube. But infrastructure improvements in the route have made it possible this year to put the biggest, newest river cruise ships on the route.

Scenic Cruises, based in Australia, is putting its newly launched Scenic Pearl on the Budapest to Bucharest route. The company calls this a "space ship" for its size - 22 per cent longer than standard river ships - and amount of space per passenger that permits. It's the only ship that has balconies rather than just windows in most of its suites.

Uniworld River Cruises's River Countess will do three grand 27-night cruises between Bucharest and Amsterdam this summer. The ship, River Countess, is not new, but the itinerary is, covering the entire Danube-Rhine river system between the Black Sea and the Netherlands.

In Panama, Crystal Cruises is offering a series of nostalgia cruises through the canal before the historic locks are replaced in 2014 by a modern canal system. The fares for the 11-to-19-day itineraries include new two-for-one promotions, free airfare and shipboard spending credits. With the promotions, fares start at about $3,800 a person. Sailings start on March 6 and 17, Aug. 25, Nov. 6 and Dec. 21.

Meanwhile, Princess Cruises is offering supplemental land tours on its canal crossings, including a chance to ride the Panama Canal Railway, first built in 1855 and recently restored to include air-conditioned cars with dome tops as well as an exclusive tour of the Gatun Lock, the largest in the old Panama Canal system.