The popularity of cruises on mega-ships has never diminished one of America's most time-honored (and wallet-savvy) travel options — the river cruise.
Steamboats have been chugging up U.S. rivers for more than 100 years. And ever since Mark Twain's words first sparked readers' imaginations, the Mississippi River paddleboat cruise has been considered an iconic American journey. The concept has spread over the years, and these days, trips on a number of other rivers hold an equal fascination for travelers.
They offer cruise-loving travelers the budget-smart option of boating bliss. With a river cruise, there is no overseas airfare to factor into the budget. Here are a few homegrown options for rolling down the river in style.
Hudson River, New York
In "On the Road", Jack Kerouac wrote, "If you drop a rose in the Hudson River at its mysterious source in the Adirondacks, think of all the places it journeys by as it goes out to sea forever — think of that wonderful Hudson Valley."
That wonderful Hudson Valley is still one of America's most scenic waterways, and cruise options through the region abound. If you’re short on time, you can still get that Mississippi feel aboard an authentic Southern paddle-wheel boat, the River Rose. It offers the "cruise light" version of the Hudson, with two-hour trips for sightseeing, dinner or Sunday brunch.
For a true river cruising experience, American Cruise Lines offers seven- and eight-day itineraries along the Hudson River aboard three different ships: the 104-passenger Independence, the 100-passenger American Star and the 49-passenger American Glory. These small ships offer spacious staterooms (most with private balconies), gourmet meals included in the rates, and a more personal and intimate experience. The fall cruises start and end in New York City, with six stops at picturesque historic towns such as Catskill, West Point and Sleepy Hollow.
St. Johns River, Florida
Don’t think you can get that sunny, tropical vacation on a river cruise? Think again. At 310 miles long, the St. Johns is the longest river in Florida and one of the few in the country that flow north. The waterway and its shores are teeming with animals, including manatees, otters, bass, alligators and bald eagles. For a quick trip, there are many tour operators that offer short wildlife-spotting cruises, which last anywhere from an hour to half a day.
To see more, book an eight-day trip out of Jacksonville, Florida, aboard American Cruise Lines’ American Glory, which makes its way south in the early winter and spring. You’ll sail down the St. Johns River into Lake George, explore Ocala National Forest, and then reach St. Augustine via the Tolomato River. This inland passage affords views of the Atlantic Ocean over the barrier islands along Florida’s coast.
Columbia River, Oregon/Washington
Follow the waves of Lewis and Clark along the Columbia in the Pacific Northwest. Many itineraries also include tributaries such as the Snake and Willamette rivers. The area features dramatic scenery, with gorges and waterfalls at every turn.
Opportunities for outdoor activities are plentiful, of course, but what will really put you into the spirit for exploration is a seven-night trip on Un-Cruise Adventures’ SS Legacy, a replica coastal steamer that sails out of Portland, Oregon, in the spring and fall. Stepping on board is like stepping back in time, thanks to turn-of-the-century decor and crew members dressed in period uniforms. The theme also informs the schedule, which features stops at the historic port town of Astoria, Oregon; the Maryhill Museum, a remote art collection; and the Dalles, a former trading post at the end of the Oregon Trail. Shore excursions are included in the rates, as are exclusive tours of wineries along the way.