Best US River Cruises

Filed Under: Cruises

As an increasing number of large cruise ships take to the seas, offering thousands of staterooms and a plethora of onboard activities, the appeal of traveling aboard smaller, slower ships on the nation’s rivers and bays holds a growing appeal.

In the US, river cruising can involve a voyage down the Mississippi River on a historic paddleboat, meandering alongside glaciers in Alaska or heading down the Hudson River on ships that carry fewer than 150 passengers and move at a relaxed pace. Fewer fellow passengers mean shorter lines, while on-board historians and naturalists put travelers in touch with the surroundings with daily lectures on many river cruises. Shore excursions are included in the price as well. Another advantage: these smaller ships can reach places and ports that megaships can't.

Get onboard with Travel Channel's top picks for cruises

"River cruising in the US is a great way to see America up-close, stopping in the towns and cities that make this country unique," says Cindy Anderson, manager and master cruise agent for USA River Cruises, a Vancouver, WA-based agency that saw a 32 percent increase in river-cruise bookings last year from the year before.

Anderson, who has traveled on hundreds of river cruises, said most offer on-board historians or naturalists who give daily lectures.

On river cruises, no dressing up is required and, unlike large ships, they include all meals, all soft drinks, wine with dinner and evening cocktail parties with drinks. Some also include complimentary in-port excursions to museums, historic venues and other points of interest, and the use of kayaks and inflatable boats for further exploration, such as on cruises in Alaska's Inside Passage to view glaciers and wildlife.

The senior/retired group is the number one market for river cruising, while interest among couples and groups appears to be growing, according to a survey of travel agents conducted in 2010 by the Cruise Lines International Association. Its member agents reported that travelers were attracted to river cruises because they sailed to unique destinations, offered the chance to have authentic small-town experiences, included sightseeing programs in the rates and delivered a relaxed shipboard style. The most popular itineraries within the US include Alaska's Inside Passage, the Chesapeake Bay, the Columbia/Snake River and the Hudson River.

Below are several ships and itineraries worth considering.

Historic Antebellum South
Cruise Line: American Cruise Lines

Civil War and history buffs gravitate to this 7-night river cruise aboard the 4-year-old, 52-stateroom American Star. The cruise includes a stop at Daufuskie Island, accessible only by boat, where a small, native population has little contact with the outside world.

Ports/Destinations: Beaufort, SC; Daufuskie Island/Hilton Head, SC; Savannah, GA; St. Simons Island, GA; Jekyll and Amelia Islands, GA; Jacksonville, FL

While you're in South Carolina, check out their Best Beaches.

Southeast Alaska
Cruise Line: Fantasy Cruises

Small-ship cruising doesn't get much smaller than the 32-passenger Island Spirit sailing southeast Alaska from Sitka to Petersburg (or the reverse). The 8-night cruise offers access to wilderness areas most other ships cannot visit for close-up views of whales, eagles, bears, moose, seals and other wildlife as well as glaciers and ice fields.

Ports/Destinations: Dawes Glacier (Endicott Arm and Holkam Bay); Ford’s Terror; Juneau; Chatham Strait; Tenakee Springs; Sitka

Learn how to navigate an Alaskan cruise

Erie Canal to the Saguenay River
Cruise Line: Blount Small Ship Adventures

Schedule this 12-night cruise during the fall foliage season for spectacular views. The 96-passenger ship makes stops at towns along the Hudson River and journeys through the Thousand Islands that straddle the Canada-US border in the Saint Lawrence River.

Ports/Destinations: New York, NY; Kingston, NY; Troy, NY; Amsterdam, NY; Sylvan Beach, NY; Oswego, NY; Clayton, NY; Alexandria Bay, NY; Dark Island, NY; Ogdensburg, NY; St. Lawrence Seaway; Quebec City, Quebec; Montreal, Quebec

Columbia/Snake River
Cruise Line: American Cruise Lines

Travel into the past aboard a historic paddleboat. The 120-passenger vessel sails a 7-night voyage from Portland, OR, to Clarkston, WA, (or the reverse) and brings passengers through a diverse geography that ranges from lush greenery to arid desert. Highlights include traveling through Hells Canyon on the Snake River, views of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood and plenty of Lewis & Clark history.

Ports/Destinations: Portland, OR; Astoria, OR; Rainier, WA; Stevenson, WA; Pendleton, OR; Clarkston, WA

Visit the Columbia River Highway

Chesapeake Bay
Cruise Line: Arabella Cruises

It's not the typical river-cruising option (not all meals are included), but this 40-person, 160-foot tri-masted tall ship offers summer Chesapeake Bay sailings in a yacht-like setting. There are teak decks, luxury cabins with satellite TV and onboard snorkeling and kayaks. The cruise departs from Annapolis, travels along the Patuxent River and ends in Baltimore.

Ports/Destinations: Annapolis, MD; Cambridge, MD; Solomons, MD; St. Michaels, MD; Kent Island, MD; Baltimore, MD

Video: Travel through western Maryland for fall festivals, artisan workshops and more »

What to Watch For: Mississippi River
Cruise Line: American Cruise Lines

Recent economic conditions and natural disasters have stopped river cruises on the Mississippi. But you can reserve space now on a new 140-passenger sternwheeler scheduled to begin itineraries in August 2012. The ship, a traditional riverboat, will feature the largest cabins of any small ship.

Ports will include: Memphis, TN; Nashville, TN; St. Louis, MO; St. Paul, MN; Cincinnati, OH; and Pittsburgh, PA

See our Memphis and Nashville Weekend Guide.

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