Cruising America’s Waterways

Cruising America’s Waterways

Alaska isn’t the only state with cruises—check out these three intimate cruising experiences in the U.S.

Blending into a backdrop of mountain peaks, vast plains, granite bluffs and low-country bayous are America’s legendary waterways—rivers and lakes overflowing with history, culture and beautiful scenery. Exploring them has never been easier, either, thanks to the small cruise ship experience.

Propelled by the immense popularity of European river cruising (and by the appeal of smaller boutique cruises traveling to less tourist-heavy ports around the world), American travel companies have created sophisticated cruise options to pull back the curtain on some of the country’s most underrated gems. Below are three of our favorite options throughout the U.S.

American Queen Steamboat Co.

Floating the Mighty Mississippi

With four grand vessels in operation, American Queen Steamboat Co. offers travelers a culturally rich experience by reflecting the American spirit of a bygone era and honoring regional history through world-class entertainment, locally inspired cuisine and award-winning shore excursions.

Out west, American Queen Steamboat Co.’s American Empress cruises the Columbia and Snake rivers between Washington cities, Vancouver and Clarkston. The American Duchess and American Countess cruise the lower Mississippi, as well as the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.

Each vessel is a marvel in paddlewheel engineering, but the flagship is the American Queen, which navigates the Mississippi River through America’s heartland from Red Wing, Minnesota, and New Orleans, Louisiana, on nine- to 23-daylong voyages.

Built in 1995, the American Queen is the largest and most opulent riverboat in the world as well as the world’s only authentic steam-powered overnight paddlewheeler. (Other passenger riverboats sport the classic paddlewheel as a design feature, but they’re powered by more contemporary navigation equipment.) Refurbished in 2012 to replicate the classic six-deck Mississippi riverboat, the elegant cruise ship offers cozy rooms and suites with comforts like oversized armchairs, expansive bay windows and period details that convey a warm and inviting Southern charm.

Dining Room on the American Queen
J.M. White Dining Room of the American Queen / PHOTO AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT CO.

The American Queen’s signature characteristic is the leisurely pace of its itinerary, which harnesses the allure of life in Mississippi River towns. Each port includes day excursions to explore local history, architecture and indigenous wildlife. Back home on the boat, however, it’s all porch swings, Dixieland and banjos. Esteemed Riverlorians are on hand for storytelling and local history lectures, while six-piece orchestras provide evening serenades. Guests can simply relax and let the soft sway of wheat fields and warm evening breezes soothe their spirits.

Victory Cruise Lines

Exploring the Great Lakes

By total area, the great lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario—are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world and second largest by total volume. With a surface area of 94,250 square miles and 4,530 miles of U.S. coastline, it’s no wonder they are considered inland seas.

The Victory Cruise Line’s M/V Victory I and M/V Victory II are nimble enough to navigate the Great Lakes’ narrow channels and hidden bays. The ships also merge Old World elegance and modern design by creating spacious decks, public gathering areas and intimate, cozy interiors. Victory Cruise Line guests enjoy delicious cuisine in addition to onboard enrichment programs on local culture, maritime history and the region’s unique biodiversity. This cruise experience is designed to satisfy those with inquiring minds and provide them with comfortable surroundings and outstanding personal service (a staff of 84 serves just 202 guests).

Victory II River Cruise Ship Cabin
Victory II Cabin / PHOTO AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT CO.

In 2020, the pair of vessels have four Victory Cruise Line itineraries available, including the Splendor of the Great Lakes cruise, which operates between May and October from Chicago, Illinois, to Toronto, Ontario. Shore excursions, wine, beer, cocktails and all meals are included on the 10-night voyage. It’s a cruise packed with highlights on all five Great Lakes, including a passage through the historic Soo Locks (built in 1855 to connect Lake Huron to Lake Superior) and a day on the delightful Mackinac Island, where transportation is limited to horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. Here, visitors can also explore wooded trails, art museums and the well-preserved Fort Mackinac, a walled U.S. Army military outpost used during the War of 1812.

On Lake Erie, the southernmost Great Lake, the ship will call on either Windsor, Ontario, or Detroit, Michigan, depending on the schedule. Regardless, guests can explore the fascinating history of the automobile industry at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, a national historic landmark and the largest indoor-outdoor museum complex in the U.S. On the Cleveland, Ohio stop, one of the main attractions is the impressive Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, featuring exclusive exhibits showcasing the greatest musicians in American history.

Victory I at Mackinac Island
M/V Victory I at Mackinac Island / PHOTO AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT CO.

If you want to explore more than the Great Lakes in 2020, Victory Cruise Line is also offering a 10-night St. Lawrence Seaway Exploration from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Buffalo, New York; a 12-night New England cruise from Hamilton, Ontario (Niagara Falls), to Boston, Massachusetts; and a 13-night voyage from Bar Har, Maine, to Port Colborne, Ontario (Niagara Falls).

The American Constellation

Cruising Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands

This area of the country is the complete package: two dramatic mountain ranges converge with crystal blue seas, a chain of islands teems with wildlife and evergreen forests, and historic seaside towns and fishing villages overflow with culture and character. For a picturesque way to explore it all, consider the American Constellation, one of 14 ships dispensed by American Cruise Lines for regional cruises.

The brand new vessel is designed to travel the narrow inland waterways of the Pacific Northwest, and the focus of the cruise is simple: to provide guests with unparalleled personal service, spacious public spaces and observation decks, and the largest staterooms in the industry (most with private balconies). Trust us: You’ll want all of the vantage points to catch every second of the stunning scenery.

The corner sun deck on river cruise ship American Constellation
The corner sun deck on the American Constellation / PHOTO AMERICAN CRUISE LINES

The eight-night Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands itinerary is a circle voyage, sailing from Seattle, the west coast capital of great coffee, fresh fish, forward-thinking innovation and stellar views that blend urban living and nature. The iconic Space Needle—built for the 1962 World’s Fair—stands proudly amid a dramatic skyline, granting visitors a 360-degree panorama of postcard-worthy scenes from snow-capped Mt. Ranier in the distance to Elliott Bay and Seattle’s bustling waterfront.

As the ship travels from Seattle toward Vancouver, guests are able to fully soak in the spirit of the San Juan Islands. Stops include Anacortes, a quaint coastal town on Fidalgo Island in the Salish Sea, which is home to Deception Pass State Park, where visitors can explore over 50 miles of wooded trails and snap a photo of the iconic dual-span Deception Pass Bridge that connects Skagit Bay to the 96-mile-long Strait of Juan de Fuca. Friday Harbor, a walkable little seaport, is loaded with more of everything to love about the archipelago. Guests can go kayaking or whale watching, visit a lavender farm or winery, or wander the historic district for shops, museums and architecture dating back to the late 1800s.

Another highlight of the cruise is Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Located on Vancouver Island, the city is a National Historic Site of Canada and features the magnificent Butchart Gardens. The gardens were built out of an exhausted limestone quarry in 1921 and have grown into a spectacular collection of flowers, plants and colorful birds from around the world. They’re also a perfect prelude to the next port, the historic town of Port Townsend, Washington, where guests are greeted by a local guide dressed in Victorian-era attire for a brief walking tour of the city that details its architecture and storied past.

River Cruise Ship American Constellation
American Constellation / PHOTO AMERICAN CRUISE LINES

As the journey comes to an end, a historian will come on board with stories and photographs of the Suquamish people, one of many Native American tribes who have thrived in the Puget Sound for thousands of years. Many tribes still share the ancient Lushootseed language, which has complex words related to the natural environment and fishing economy. (For instance, the name Suquamish comes from the Lushootseed phrase for “people of the clear salt water.”) The Suquamish have lived harmoniously with nature in one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems for centuries, so honoring their culture is perhaps the most fitting way to leave this remarkable place.

Inquire with any AAA Travel Advisor about these cruise experiences, which are offered by Pleasant Holidays, a AAA travel partner.