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Water-way to go!

All-American adventure: Top 3 ways to cruise in the USA

US river cruises and Great Lakes voyages are two of the best ways to explore America by boat and then of course there’s the Intracoastal Waterway!

Words by Jeannine Williamson

Looking for an all-American adventure closer to home, then why not try rolling down the river or taking to the lakes? The $95.4 million US river cruise market is booming and according to a Grand View Research study it’s going to grow more than 20 percent year-on-year.

And with more than half of Americans opting for a domestic vacation this year, according to Allianz Partners USA’s 15th Annual Vacation Confidence Index, it’s the perfect time to find out what all the fuss is about.

Number crunching aside, a US cruise is far more relaxing than a road trip. You only need to pack and unpack once, aren’t constantly changing hotels and someone else is doing all the ‘driving’.

With accommodations, meals, excursions, entertainment and often drinks included in the fare, it’s great value, too. So why not swap the highway for a waterway and see the States from a different perspective? Here are three very different ways to explore.

Beginner's guide to US cruises

First pick a ship

Unlike European river cruises – where there are a bewildering number of lines for first-time river cruisers to choose from – there are three main players when it comes to US river cruises: American Queen Voyages, American Cruise Lines and Viking.

American Queen Voyages has Victorian-style riverboats including the impressive 417-passenger American Queen [above, right], the Mississippi’s largest steamboat.

American Cruise Lines shook up the American river cruise scene when it launched contemporary ships to complement its traditional paddlewheelers. Catering to the growing popularity of “cruising closer to home” this summer the line is launching American Eagle, the first of 12 eco-friendly ‘Coastal Cat’ catamarans [above,left].

In 2022 Viking, the world’s biggest river cruise line, debuted its first US river cruise ship Viking Mississippi to sail the namesake waterway. Introducing even more choice to the market, the 386-passenger vessel replicates the Scandi-cool design found on Viking’s European Longships and oceangoing cruise ships.

It’s worth noting that American ships, unlike those in Europe, aren’t restricted in size so they boast more facilities such as large lounges, a choice of dining venues and, on the biggest vessels, theaters.

Lines sailing on the Great Lakes include Viking [main image], Ponant and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, while American Cruises Lines offers itineraries on the Intracoastal Waterway.

US river cruises - Where to go

Mighty Mississippi

First mention has to go the Mississippi, which is the obvious first choice for a US river cruise and where you’ll find the most ships.

The most popular vacation is a week-long sailing between the two great music cities of New Orleans [above, left] and Memphis [above, right], which needs no introduction as the home of the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. Hop on a tour to take a look around his Graceland mansion.

A Mississippi cruise charts American history with shore excursions to grand antebellum homes and battlefields [below, left] along with quirky attractions such as Vicksburg’s Museum of Coca-Cola celebrating the world’s best-known soda.

There are also week-long US river cruises between Memphis and St Louis and St Louis to St Paul, where towns make way for wildlife. If you’ve got plenty of time to spare you can join them all together and embark on an epic three-week voyage.

Top sights

New Orleans: You might meet a ghost on a spooky cemetery tour in the city that’s one of the most haunted in America. The buzzing French Quarter is a one-stop shop for bars, shops and live jazz. When it’s time for a sugar hit tuck into a beignet, the New Orleans’ doughnut covered in icing sugar.

St Francisville: Towns don’t get much cuter than this quaint place perched above a bend on the river. The main street is lined with art galleries and small shops and from here you can visit Rosedale, a former cotton plantation that’s a living history museum.

Baton Rouge: If you like Creole and Cajun cuisine you’ll love the colorful capital of Louisiana which has been shaped by African-American and Caribbean cultures.

Sail ‘The Ditch’

When is a river not a river? When it’s the 3,000-mile Intracoastal Waterway running along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico coastline. It was built as a way of transporting goods when there weren’t that many roads. Today you can still expect to see barges filled with cargo slowly navigating the winding waterway dubbed ‘the ditch’.

It’s made up of an interconnecting network of lagoons, rivers, bays and canals, and one of the most popular US cruise itineraries is the stretch from Florida’s Amelia Island to Charleston, South Carolina.

It’s a leisurely itinerary with plenty of time to relax out on deck and watch the birdlife on salt marshes before taking a stroll through charming towns like Beaufort, where scenes for movies such as Forest Gump and The Big Chill were shot.

Back onboard your American Cruises Lines ship you can expect enrichment lectures and plenty of southern hospitality with twice-daily treats such as freshly baked cookies that ensure nobody goes hungry between meals.

Top sights

Sea Pines Forest Preserve: Take an eco-boat nature tour around the lake on Hilton Head Island for close-up views of alligators, turtles and great blue herons. For many years there was no bridge connecting the mainland to this peaceful island [above, right] and wildlife flourished.

Jekyll Island: This is another island idyll that used to be a 19th-century vacation playground for some of America’s richest families. There’s also a heart-warming turtle rehabilitation centre and a recently revamped museum.

Savannah: If you dare, join an evening walking tour to explore the ‘dark side’ of this atmospheric seaport. It’s all the more eerie set against the backdrop of gas lamps that light the cobblestone streets.

US Great Lakes cruises - Where to go

Water, water everywhere

Stretching almost 95,000 square miles, the Great Lakes are exactly that. The world’s largest freshwater system, connected to the Atlantic Ocean through the Saint Lawrence River, is the world’s biggest freshwater system. Sometimes there’s no land in sight and it’s hard to believe you’re on a lake, not on an ocean cruise.

Great Lakes cruising is a fantastic way to explore these majestic bodies of water – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario in descending size order – which are connected by canals, smaller lakes and rivers.

Along the way there are stops at cities on the American and Canadian mainland and you’ll pack much more into a week than you ever could on a road trip.

Depending on your Great Lakes cruise itinerary, you can also tack on a couple of nights at the beginning or end of the sailing with a city break in Toronto or Chicago before heading home.

Top sights

Mackinac: Covering just over four miles, Lake Huron’s traffic-free island is like stepping back in time. Heavy horses are the main form of transport around the Victorian streets or you can rent a bike and cycle around the eight-mile perimeter and reward yourself with some of the island’s famous fudge on return.

Niagara Falls: Take the small boat tour and get soaked in the so-called ‘mist’ at the foot of the awesome 200ft falls on your Great Lakes cruise. Ponchos are handed out as you board. If you prefer to stay dry then head to the observation deck on Skylon Tower.

Detroit: In Motor City The Henry Ford is an amazing museum of American innovation with cars, planes, trains and more. In neighboring Greenfield Village you can ride in an original Model T.

Where else?

While the Mississippi is undoubtedly the headline act, there are other US rivers to explore. Oregon’s lesser-known Columbia and Snake Rivers follow the pioneering voyage to the Pacific Northwest by 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

There are also US river cruises on the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers and you can sail along the Hudson out of New York.

Set Sail

Memphis to New Orleans with American Queen Voyages

Duration: 8 nights

Where: Memphis, Tennessee | Cleveland (Terrene Landing), Mississippi | Vicksburg, Mississippi | Natchez, Mississippi | Baton Rouge, Louisiana | St. Francisville, Louisiana | Nottoway, Louisiana | New Orleans, Louisiana

Ship: American Queen

Price: From $3,219 pp

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Published 10.10.23