On Site: American Cruise Lines' "Great Rivers of Florida" Itinerary

While the Mississippi and Columbia/Snake Rivers tend to garner the most visitor and media attention, several other American rivers are now increasingly drawing river cruise interest—particularly from loyal past guests. Among the unique itineraries? Travel Agent recently returned from a seven-night “Great Rivers of Florida” itinerary, offered by American Cruise Lines (ACL) roundtrip from Jacksonville, FL.

We sailed on ACL's 100-passenger American Eagle, one of the line's new coastal catamarans. You can read our first article about the ship's dining, public spaces and accommodations, and a second article discussed onboard enrichment, activities, entertainment and clientele. Today, we turn our attention to the day-to-day itinerary itself including ACL's options for shore excursions.

Florida Ports of Call

American Eagle
American Eagle, one of American Cruise Lines' new coastal catamarans, sails "The Great Rivers of Florida" itinerary. (American Cruise Lines)

Sailing along the St. Johns River, one of the few rivers that flows north, as well as the Tolomato River and northeast Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, our voyage offered scheduled port calls at Green Cove Springs, Palatka, St. Augustine and Amelia Island.

The "Great Rivers of Florida" itinerary also includes a day of scenic cruising and an end-of-cruise full day and overnight on the ship in Jacksonville. ACL offers this itinerary on many departure dates in February, March, November and December of 2024 and 2025. 

On our cruise, however, two changes were necessary in the itinerary. First, high water caused concerns that the ship might sail under a bridge en route to Palatka, but then get “stuck” there if the water continued to rise. So, instead, our captain chose wisely to dock the ship for two nights at Green Cove Springs (rather than one). Then, on that second port day, the line still offered its usual tours within Palatka and beyond but offered them from Green Cove Springs. That ensured we would experience all port destinations and only miss a brief foray to Lake George

Second, due to hefty rainy weather, the fourth and fifth day's activities—scenic cruising and a port call at St. Augustine, respectively—were flipped in order. Yet, we visited every port planned and felt they wisely did the best possible given the water and weather challenges that week.

So, here are our day-to-day shore activities, including excursions offered during our February 12, 2024, voyage:

Day 1: Embarkation

Guests opting for ACL’s pre-cruise hotel stay will spend one night at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront or another area hotel. We enjoyed our Hyatt stay, including a full breakfast in the hotel restaurant on embarkation morning. Guests then simply walk across the street to board the ship along the St. Johns River. Boarding was a breeze with ACL crew members assisting in the hotel lobby and no terminal transit needed.

During this day, we completed our lifeboat drill, settled into our spacious staterooms and suites (we stayed in No. 404, a Sky Suite), and enjoyed meeting the rest of the guests at cocktail hour, dinner and nightly entertainment. Guests were mostly 60s to 90s in age; however, our sailing also included one multi-generational family including a young adult with a small child. 

We revisited our shore excursion choices and made a few adjustments through Wyatt, ACL's onboard cruise and excursions director. Incidentally, ACL offers complimentary shore excursions in most ports (not Palatka on our cruise). Each is assigned a rating for guest activity level—either low, moderate or high.  

Each day, guests can head to a table across from reception to pick up a helpful fact sheet about the upcoming port destination. The sheet provides succinct information about rental cars, restaurants, shopping and independent excursions (separate from ACL’s offerings), plus contact and address information about local taxis, any nearby hospital, pharmacy, post office, salon, public library and places of worship.

We'd definitely tuck that fact sheet into a purse or pocket to take ashore. Also, we'd suggest bringing along ACL’s separate “Ship to Shore” daily schedule. Since the latter provides phone numbers for the hotel general manager, guest services coordinator and cruise/excursions director, this sheet can be useful if any unusual situation develops and guests need to chat from ashore with ACL's ship management team. 

Day 2: Green Cove Springs, FL

Green Cove Springs was once best known for its worldwide shipping of citrus and timber. Arriving at its first port of call, American Eagle docks alongside a long pier at the Reynolds Park Yacht Center.

Interestingly, we learned that this pier and many others—all quite lengthy—were constructed at Green Cove Springs to allow the U.S. government to "mothball" many idle U.S. Navy ships after World War II. Upon our arrival here, ACL crew members operated several small golf carts to transport guests to the motorcoach area ashore. Alternatively, guests could walk along the pier to shore, but it's a fairly hefty distance.   

Throughout this "Great Rivers of Florida" itinerary, ACL operates several motorcoaches along the route. One was waiting at the street adjacent to the pier to take many of us on a two-hour “Green Cove Springs Driving Excursion” ($35 per person) tour, classified as a low-level activity.

Along the way, we learned that the town was established in 1821, but that its heyday was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Claim to fame? The rich and famous came here for the famous springs, said to enhance health in what was termed “A Water Cure.” In fact, our tour’s highlights included a view of the famous Qui Si Sana (Here is Health) Hotel once owned by J. C. Penney.

We also viewed historic homes, City Hall (shown in the photo below) the old Clay County courthouse, and the Palace Opera House, plus the exterior of the Military Museum of North Florida with a World War II-era tank sitting outside.

Photo taken from the Green Cove Springs motorcoach tour by ACL. City Hall in Green Cove Springs, FL, surrounded by soaring palm trees.
While touring Green Cove Springs, FL, on an ACL motorcoach city tour, we snapped this photo of City Hall, surrounded by soaring palmetto trees. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

A stop was also made along the way for guests to tour the old jail. Separately, one unexpected site that we hadn't certainly expected to see on the coach drive tour was a massive, elongated tank-like structure along one marina-area roadway. Who knew? It was a space shuttle fuel tank, brought to Green Cove Springs for display in a future air and space museum that wasn’t built as expected.  

ACL's separate, complimentary “Green Cove Springs Walk,” is classified as moderate in its activity level. During the walk (just over one mile), river cruise guests meander on a guided tour through several blocks around town. They're able to walk right up to the downtown's famous spring. More than 1,346 gallons of freshwater flow from that spring each minute. The overflow enters a large community swimming pool before cascading down a nearby waterfall.

Day 3: Palatka, FL

Nestled within a bend of the St. Johns River is Palatka. Its name is rooted in the native Timucuan word, Pilotakata, meaning “crossing." During this port call day, we opted for the “Blue Springs Nature Cruise” ($60 per person), a moderate-level activity tour departing at 8 a.m.

Typically there’s a one-and-a-half-hour ACL motorcoach drive to Blue Spring State Park near Orange City and Deland but our transit time was a bit longer, given that our ship was still docked in Green Cove Springs due to the high-water issue. That said, the actual experiences ashore were just fine.  

One of ACL's tours sets out to explore Blue Spring State Park in Florida via a river boat cruise, followed by a boardwalk exploration to see manatees.
Our ACL tour set out by boat to explore Florida's Blue Spring State Park. On the river ride, we spotted alligators, turtles, birds and fish. Afterward, we traversed boardwalks to see manatees.   (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Disembarking the coach at the state park, our tour group immediately boarded an open-air river cruise vessel reserved exclusively for ACL guests. A rooftop covering protects guests from any rain. 

Navigating along the park's waterways, we viewed gorgeous eco-scenery and massive alligators in the wild. The gators were happily sunning themselves on shore or lurking in water near the shore, partially hidden by aquatic vegetation. On this park cruise, we also were delighted to see turtles, many species of birds and huge fish.

Alligators galore were spotted during an ACL shore excursion to Blue Spring State Park near Orange City, FL.
Alligators were spotted during our ACL shore excursion to Florida's Blue Spring State Park. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

After the boat ride, we walked along waterside boardwalks and onto observation platforms to view the warm, greenish spring waters. Many lumbering manatees huddled there for warmth. Others were manuevering down the river to reach what can might be considered a sea cow's version of a soothing spa mineral bath.   

For our visit, conditions were perfect for seeing manatees. One park sign indicated that 43 manatees had been spotted earlier that day. Our guide explained, though, that on warmer weather days the manatees may not be as prolific in the spring. Instead, they'll frequent other park waterways.

While they're underwater, manatees are keeping warm during cool February weather in Florida's Blue Spring State Park.
Manatees—the dark shadows shown above beneath the greenish spring waters within Blue Spring State Park—keep warm in this spring during cool weather in Florida.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

On this planned Palatka port day, ACL also offers a guided motorcoach tour of Palatka itself, “Palatka City Experience” ($40 per person). On our cruise, narrated commentary was provided by Sam Deputy, a local guide. This Palatka tour is also timed by ACL at 2 p.m., so those who love to see and do it all can take the Blue Springs tour in the morning and still do this tour.

On this moderate-activity-level tour, guests will visit Palatka's historic Bronson-Mulholland House, known as “The Mansion,” and also see model trains at the city’s small Railroad Museum. Founded in 1821, Palatka is only 75 miles from Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Daytona Beach and Gainesville. Yet, with its plethora of historic homes, live oak trees with Spanish moss and a small-town feel, it seems a world away.

Day 4: St. Augustine, FL

The St. Augustine Trolley Tour passes by the oldest house in the United States, dating with the Spanish Colonial era.
The Old Town Trolley Tour, an ACL excursion option, passes by the oldest house in the United States dating from the Spanish colonial era.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Claimed by the Spanish in 1513 and founded as a Spanish settlement in 1565, St. Augustine is America’s oldest city, predating even Jamestown, VA—and by 42 years! Then, in the late 1800s, oil tycoon and railroad baron Henry Flagler developed St. Augustine as he sought to fulfill his vision of creating an American Riviera, of sorts, along Florida’s East Coast.

Today, St. Augustine is a robust treasure trove of historic and cultural sites for visitors. We opted for ACL’s complimentary “Old Town Trolley Tour,” allowing us to get on and off if desired. A comprehensive, easy and flexible way to explore, the trolley loops around the city to more than 100 points of interest in just under two hours.

So, those who'd like to go inside a museum, historic site, attraction or other spot can simply hop off and then hop back on another trolley later. Trolleys circulate constantly and there are 22 trolley stops. Just be sure to be back at the pier (where guests arrived via tender from the ship earlier in the day) by the appointed time. Don't miss the "last tender" back to the ship. 

On our trolley tour, we passed by Castillo de San Marco, the old Spanish fortress; the Fountain of Youth; the Gonzalez–Alvarez House, the so-called oldest house in the United States; Flagler College; a historic African American district; a distillery; and many other spots within the historic Old Town of St. Augustine. 

To really get into the look and feel of St. Augustine’s history, many guests instead opted for ACL's 9 a.m. “Gilded Age Walking Exploration with Henry Flagler” ($20 per person). The tour guide appropriately dresses in late-19th-century/early-20th-century attire and tells tales of life “back in the day,” when Flagler’s East Coast Railway brought tourists and new residents to Florida’s East Coast.

The old Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marco, is a big attraction for visitors to downtown St. Augustine, FL.
Built by the Spanish, the Castillo de San Marco is the oldest and largest masonry fort in the continental U.S. It's a top tourism attraction in St. Augustine, FL.  (Photo by CycleHere Media, provided by Visit Florida.)

Guests on this walking tour head out to peruse historic homes along brick streets in the city’s oldest area. They also visit the impressive Flagler Memorial Church with its unique Venetian Renaissance design and view the exterior of such structures as the old Ponce de Leon Hotel, Villa Zorayda and the old Alcazar Hotel and courtyard. This excursion ends four blocks from the pier so then guests walk back to the ship or explore more on their own.

That same tour guide also leads ACL's separate 2:15 p.m. “Legends and Liars Walking Experience” ($20 per person).” During this two-hour walking tour, guests will hear amazing tales of legends and secrets. But one story is, in fact, just a lie. So, at the end of the tour, if tour-goers can correctly identify which that is, a prize awaits.    

When coming to Florida, many travelers desire to see wildlife and, particularly, alligators and other exotic reptiles. Thus, one of ACL's most popular tours during our St. Augustine port call was the two-and-a-half-hour “Alligator Farm Zoological Adventure” ($40 per person). It’s a moderate-activity-level tour that’s self-guided, so guests explore on their own at the eight-acre alligator farm.

Day 5: Cruising the Tolomato River, FL

On this day of scenic cruising northward, we perused riverbank scenery and Intracoastal Waterways upscale homes and private boat docks, as well as birds and rural scenery approaching Amelia Island. We also caught a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, visible over the barrier islands. This is one day that’s perfect for relaxation by sitting on the ship’s Sun Deck, with seating areas in both sun and shade.    

Late afternoon over the Tolomato River during American Cruise Lines' "Great Rivers of Florida" itinerary.
Late afternoon is a lazy day on the Tolomato River, as American Cruise Lines guests relax and soak up the river scenic views. ​​​​​​ (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Day 6. Amelia Island, FL

Just south of Cumberland Island, GA, lies pristine Amelia Island, now a resort island with miles of rolling sand dunes and quartz beaches. This Florida isle has more than 400 years of recorded history under multiple flags, including those of France, Spain, England and the U.S.

Today, visitors love to explore the lovely historic downtown area in Fernandina Beach. Providing great access for independent explorers, American Eagle docks at the "walk along" pier at the Fernandina Harbor Marina. So, guests can simply hop off the ship, head ashore and walk the short distance into town.

Fernandina Beach's historic downtown area on Amelia Island is easily walkable for guests exploring from American Eagle.
From the harbor, guests might easily walk into historic Fernandina Beach after pulling up helpful, local information from AmeliaIsland.com, the tourist development site. (Photo by Deremer Studios LLC, provided courtesy of AmeliaIsland.com)

At the entry to town, cruise guests will discover a visitor's center brimming with information for travelers. Then, they’ll often proceed ahead into Old Town to stroll, dine, enjoy a brew or glass of wine, and peruse clothing, gifts, artwork and other goods in a range of eclectic shops. One big Amelia Island draw is that between 1870 and 1910, many wealthy Americans who flocked to Amelia Island built lovely Victorian-style structures. The area became known as the Silk Stocking district.

To explore Amelia Island, guests can choose from multiple ACL excursions. For instance, the line's "Fernandina Beach Seaport Walking Exploration” ($25 per person), is a moderate-activity-level tour, while the “Amelia Island Trolley Exploration” ($30 per person) is a low-activity-level, guided trolley tour. So, cruise guests learn about the history and culture of Fernandina Beach as the trolley navigates through the historic downtown area and concludes at the island’s northern end.

One complimentary moderate-activity-level ACL tour is the “Fort Clinch State Park” excursion. This 19th-century fort is located on a peninsula at the entrance to Cumberland Sound. Guests learn about the Union’s operations in this far southern base throughout the Civil War and then explore the fort on their own. However, we viewed the fort from a different perspective—the water. We sat back and relaxed on ACL's one-and-a-half-hour “Amelia Island River Cruise” ($35), a laid-back voyage to gaze at the commercial port, Fort Clinch and other attractions. Our tour boat's captain also steered the vessel close to Cumberland Island, where we caught glimpses of wild horses, some descendants of colonial-era horses released by the Spanish centuries ago.

For guests desiring a more active eco-adventure, ACL also offers the guided “Lofton Creek Kayaking Experience” ($80 per person). This moderate-activity-level excursion is designed for all levels of kayakers. After a 25-minute drive to the kayaking site, guests paddle out into a pristine, wooded eco-area to spot wildlife, birds and aquatic vegetation. One nifty facet of this three-plus-hour eco-tour is that guests receive a complimentary digital memory photo album.

Day 7: Jacksonville, FL

The final day of this cruise is spent where the voyage began—back in Jacksonville. In 1822, after the U.S. acquired colonial Florida from Spain, the city was renamed after Andrew Jackson, the former U.S. president. During ACL's "Great Rivers of Florida" itinerary, guests can choose from four separate ACL tours that depart from the Jacksonville Landing dock.

Most fun in the mode of transport is the “Jacksonville Tuk Tuk Adventure” ($80 per person). It takes a page from what guests typically would expect during a Southeast Asia tour in climbing into a tuk-tuk vehicle and zipping around an urban area. During this one-and-a-half-hour tour, the tuk-tuk’s driver/guide will talk about the city’s Great Fire of 1901 and guests will view downtown Jacksonville and the historic communities of Riverside and Avondale. Did you know that in the early 20th century, more than 30 silent film studios were established in Jacksonville? It’s true.

Also offered by ACL are the complimentary, two-hour “Jacksonville City Exploration,” a one-and-a-half-hour “History and Sightseeing Cruise” ($20 per person), and the nearly two-hour “Riverside and San Marco Sunset Cruise” ($25 per person). All are designated as low-activity excursions.

Guests taking an American Cruise Lines' voyage on American Eagle can explore the "Great Rivers of Florida," including the St. Johns River, shown here in downtown Jacksonville at Skyline Riverfront Park.
Guests on American Cruise Lines' "Great Rivers of Florida" itinerary can explore attractions along the St. Johns River, among other waterways. Shown above is downtown Jacksonville, FL.  (Photo by Visit Jacksonville)

Day 8: Debarkation

Most guests arriving for their “Great Rivers of Florida” sailing took flights to Jacksonville International Airport or drove into the city. While we and a fellow guest drove to Jacksonville for embarkation, on the return trip after debarkation, Travel Agent boarded a train to return to South Florida. So, ACL arranged for our debarkation day taxi. It also set up ACL motorcoach transfers to the airport for other guests needing those.

Of course, some guests had parked or valeted their cars at the pre-cruise Jacksonville Hyatt Regency Hotel. It’s just across the street from the ship’s docking position and the hotel has a covered garage and both self-park and valet parking service. So, after exiting the ship, those drive-market guests were on their way home quickly. 

Parting Thoughts

All in all, we had a lovely American river cruise on American Eagle. Crew members were friendly, enthusiastic and eager to please. Overall, we greatly enjoyed the unique “Great Rivers of Florida” itinerary, the shore excursions and the ease of boarding a small ship.

Onboard, we loved our suite's features, the large shower with a bench in the bathroom, the onboard camaraderie that developed between guests, well-designed public spaces, high-quality dining and wines, and the surprisingly good quality of the onboard entertainment, particularly considering the small ship size.

Yes, on the “could be improved” side, there were a few simple service processes or communication tweaks that could have made the experience just a tad better, but those are minor. We've also shared those with ACL management. Overall, though, it was a very good voyage and certainly a unique, authentic experience within the U.S. river market. 

Simply put, we're now eager to try another American river or U.S. coastal itinerary that's a bit beyond the norm—perhaps a Hudson River sailing, National Parks itinerary, or ACL's new "Florida Gulf Coast & Keys" itinerary roundtrip from St. Petersburg, FL. The latter itinerary and the "Great Rivers of Florida" are currently the only overnight cruise itineraries exploring Florida's rivers or coasts on an American-flagged ship. So there is no need for a foreign port call.

For more information on American Cruise Lines, visit www.americancruiselines.com.

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