River cruises are more popular than ever – in Europe. They’re just beginning to gain traction in the United States, which is somewhat ironic given that America has more miles of rivers than just about all of Eurasia. Ah, but it’s navigable water we’re after, and scenery, and climate, and America has a few issues. Dams have taken the navigability out of some rivers, some run high and low alternately, and some just don’t show very well. The castles of the Rhine are one thing; the paper mills of the Fox are quite another.
And our timing is off just a smidge. August is not the optimum time to be cruising southern rivers. There is no cruise of the lower Mississippi included in this article for that reason, and the cruise boats only run through Florida’s beautiful St. John’s River in the spring and fall. Also, the fall-color cruises that are so popular in the Northeast and the upper Midwest are still a month and a half away.
However, this is a great time to be thinking about domestic river cruises – and to take one, if you’re so inclined – and here are four of our favorites. Remember that with all river cruises the boats are smaller and more intimate, the service more personal, the ride slower but more comfortable, and the ports of call liable to be more familiar – though you’ll definitely be seeing them in a new light.
Providence-Nantucket-Martha’s Vineyard-Gloucester-Bar Harbor-Portland, American Cruise Lines, 11 days, departs Providence Aug. 22, starting at $5,500: One thing you’ll find with American river cruises is that they’ll occasionally add a bit of ocean, just because it plays better that way. Such is the case with this cruise, which takes to the Atlantic to hop from scenic port to port. You get lobsters, whitewashed saltboxes, windswept dunes, Victorian shops, waves crashing against rocks, tall ships, and more – and you get to see it the way generations of sailors have seen it, from the water, on the American Glory, one of American Cruise Lines’ flagships. Pretty sweet.
St. Paul round-trip with stops in Winona, Dubuque, La Crosse, Prairie du Chien, and Red Wing, American Queen Steamboat Co., nine days, departs St. Paul Aug. 8, starting at $3,299: It’s always fascinating to see American river towns from the river. You see them in a whole new light, and understand why they are where they are and why they grew. That’s especially the case on the Mississippi River, and the upper Mississippi in particular. This stretch of the river is spectacular any time of year, but it’s especially pretty in the blue-sky, ripe-corn days of late summer. This particular cruise has an extra twist: It’s a rock-‘n’-roll-themed cruise featuring the music of Motown, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. And to get nine days of quintessential American music while rolling on the river that birthed it on an honest-to-goodness Mississippi steamboat – it’s amazing, that’s all.
Portland, Ore.-Hood River-Walla Walla-Richland, Wash-The Dalles, Un-Cruise Adventures, eight days, departs Portland Aug. 15, starting at around $3,695: Think of the Rhine before there were castles, or the Inland Passage without the glaciers. That’s an introduction to the Columbia Gorge country of the Pacific Northwest, but even that doesn’t begin to describe vistas that can change from steep canyonlands to rolling, lush valleys at the turn of a bend, and a sky that seems implausibly broad in the day and ridiculously star-spangled at night. Though the Columbia has been extensively dammed, the 22-passenger Safari Quest has no trouble navigating the waters – and hey, there’s wine! The cruise stops at several boutique wineries, and carries wine experts on board. It’s a combination of spectacular scenery and award-winning viniculture you can’t find anywhere else, and that makes it a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Chicago-Mackinac Island-Cleveland-Erie-Buffalo-Rochester-Troy-West Point-Warren, R.I., Blount Small Ship Adventures, 16 days, departs Chicago Aug. 17, starting at around $5,000: Outside of the Columbia and the Mississippi, this cruise has just about everything an American water-lover could want: four Great Lakes (Michigan, Erie, Ontario, and Huron), the Straits of Mackinac, the Welland Canal, the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, New York Harbor, the East River, Long Island Sound, Rhode Island Sound, and Narragansett Bay. The cruise starts at Chicago’s Navy Pier and just gets better from there, with stops at Mackinac Island, the Baseball Hall of Fame, West Point and more. And Blount is renowned for a first-class experience all the way, so you know you’ll be well cared for. It’s not cheap, but it is a very, very special way of seeing America, from its inland oceans to its industrial castles and finally to the world’s most famous harbor.
Hopefully, cruises like these are the signs of even more and better to come. America’s rivers – and its river towns – are ready.
Editor’s Note: Once-in-a-lifetime river cruises like these deserve the best travel protection — and that comes only from BHTP. Get it here.