Your Guide to U.S. River and Great Lakes Cruises

North Americans not eager to hop on an international flight and risk delays and flight woes, or simply feeling more comfortable staying closer to home, are re-discovering American rivers and the Great Lakes. Others simply desire to see more of their own country, learn about its regional cultures and culinary traditions, or explore historic spots famous in American history. 

On the Mississippi River, the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and on other waterways such as the Hudson River, river boats offer the promise of a fun, rewarding way to explore your own backyard. New Great Lakes and Intracoastal Waterway voyages are being offered this year as well. Here’s a look at what’s new this year and beyond on American waterways.   

New Modern Riverboats

Are your clients seeking a vacation on a new, modern riverboat? In August, American Cruise Lines debuts the second in its “Modern Riverboat” series, the 190-passenger American Harmony.  Through December, it will sail eight-day lower Mississippi River cruises between New Orleans and Memphis as well as roundtrip New Orleans voyages. 

For guests who like to spread out with all the latest creature comforts, American Harmony’s 800-square-foot Grand Suite offers 270-degree panoramic views through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Sliding glass doors lead to a wrap-around exterior balcony with private dining area, the perfect place to enjoy breakfast room service or watch the sun set. Each Grand Suite features a separate bedroom and living area. 

The Owner’s Suite is also very pampering — and a robust 645 square feet. But even this ship’s entry-level accommodations are spacious, with solo cabins at 250 square feet, and double occupancy cabins ranging from 275 square feet to 350 square feet, with suites moving up spacewise from there. All staterooms and suites have private balconies. 

The first in that series of modern vessels, the 184-passenger American Song, launched last fall on the Mississippi, but this year, it heads to the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia & Snake Rivers. Between this month and October, it will sail week-long itineraries between Clarkston, WA, and Portland, OR; Lewis and Clark themed sailings; and 11-day cruises. 

Both those new vessels have a new small cafe, called The Crow’s Nest on American Song, and the Lookout Café on American Harmony. What’s on the menu? Guests will discover light fare including salads and burgers. All dining onboard the ships are included within the cruise fare, as are complimentary cocktails each evening and free wine and beer with lunch and dinner. 

For something a bit different, American Cruise Lines also will sail a new eight-night itinerary, “Mid-Atlantic Passage,” a seven-night cruise between Charleston, SC, and Baltimore, MD. Departures are May 11 and November 9 on American Star and May 4 and November 2 on Independence. Cruisers will see a seldom-traveled part of the East Coast’s Intracoastal Waterway, enjoy birdwatching, and explore historic towns and cities that have played key roles in American history. 

In Wilmington, NC, cruisers can take a historic mansions tour, and visit the Wright Brothers’ first flight site in Kitty Hawk, NC. They’ll also have opportunities to tour the Norfolk Naval Station, the central hub of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet. And in quaint St. Michaels, MD, the ship will dock at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, a former shipbuilding village. 

American Cruise Lines also has a new shore excursion, “Cumberland Island Land & Legacy Tour,” which is exclusive to the line’s guests when one of its ships is in port. It’s offered during the eight-day “Historic South and Golden Islands” itinerary, an eight-day cruise between Charleston and Jacksonville, FL, on both Independence and American Star

No more than 24 guests in each tour group will take a private ferry to Cumberland Island, a pristine barrier island comprised of forests, beaches and marshes. There, they’ll visit the First African Baptist Church where John F. Kennedy, Jr. was married to Carolyn Bessette, and Plumb Orchard Mansion, a grand Georgian Revival mansion built in 1898.

Kanesville Queen being reconstructed. It will become American Queen Steamboat Company’s 245-passenger American Countess. 

Splitting and Lengthening

About five weeks ago, Travel Agent traveled to Houma, Louisiana to watch as shipyard workers prepared a new 60-foot-long section being inserted into the middle of Kanesville Queen, a former gaming boat built in 1995. We saw the ship after it was split in two and stripped to the studs. The fascinating process will create a substantially reconstructed ship that will become American Queen Steamboat Company’s 247-passenger American Countess, debuting in 2020 on six- to 15-day itineraries on the Mississippi River and America’s heartland. 

While the line’s American Empress and American Queen feature traditional Americana / Victorian-style interior design, American Duchess is more of a boutique ship with a modern interior design. AQSC says American Countess will be a combination of those styles —with sleek, modern design in accommodations yet more traditional public spaces. 

American Countess will offer 124 staterooms in four categories. Its public spaces will range from a theater (for “live” entertainment and evening performances) to the Grand Dining Room, a more casual River Grill, fitness center, card room, gift shop and more. 

This past winter, the line’s current fleet received many new features or enhancements during drydock maintenance and updating. Public space floor coverings were replaced throughout guest hallways and dining rooms. Eco-improvement? Newly added hydration stations throughout the entire AQSC fleet will eliminate all single use plastics onboard; guests will receive AQSC logo stainless water bottles to use and take home.

For the American Queen, three Deck Three aft cabins that previously had enclosed balconies were extended outward and converted to Window Suites; that added 50 square feet to the accommodations and a large picture window overlooking the paddlewheel. Many of that ship’s cabins received upgraded bathrooms featuring floor-to-ceiling Carrara marble. Public spaces also were refreshed with new upholstery and the Sun Deck received new furniture. 

On American Duchess, more refrigeration zones were added to the galley to allow AQSC to offer additional menu items. Owner Suites also received a facelift to include luxury wall coverings, additional art and modified dining spaces based on feedback from guests. 

On American Empress, the Owner Suites have new wet bars and new closets, plus all cabins have new bed frames and new exclusive mattresses designed specifically for the line. The River Grill has been given a facelift — new ceilings with raised trays, wall coverings and new artwork. 

Pearl Seas Cruises’ 210-guest Pearl Mist will cruise through four of the Great Lakes, Georgian Bay, and the Thirty Thousand Islands region. 

More Inland Waterways 

Blount Small Ship Adventures also sails North American inland waterways including New York’s Hudson River, the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. For example, Blount’s nine-day “Hudson River & Coastal Fall Foliage” voyage on Grande Mariner departs October 20 from New York City to Warren, RI. What’s nifty? It’s both a river cruise and a coastal cruise, plus it calls at the New York state “interior” ports of Catskill, Troy and other destinations. 

Pearl Seas Cruises’ 210-guest Pearl Mist has been sailing Great Lakes itineraries for several years. This summer and in summer 2020, Pearl Seas will offer seven-night “Great Lakes” and 11-night “Great Lakes and Georgian Bay” itineraries. Sailing between Milwaukee and Toronto, Pearl Mist will cruise through four of the Great Lakes, Georgian Bay, and the Thirty Thousand Islands region. 

Among fun shoreside activities for clients? They can gaze at Niagara Falls, explore Mackinac Island, MI, and tour the Henry Ford Museum during Pearl Mist’s call at Windsor, Ontario. Onboard, they can relax in spacious staterooms that range from 200 square feet to 450 square feet. One nice perk is the line’s complimentary cocktail hour each evening.  

Newly acquired by American Queen Steamboat Company, Victory Cruise Lines’ 202-passenger oceangoing ships, Victory I and Victory II will operate several Great Lakes itineraries on multiple dates this summer, rather than the previously announced sailings; Victory I and Victory II are currently in the same Houma shipyard as American Countess and also receiving upgrades and renovations. For example, one open-air covered deck area is now enclosed with walls of windows and new furnishings; it will be a 50-seat casual eatery.

The 202-passenger Victory I and Victory II are currently receiving upgrades and renovations. Both will have a 50-seat casual eatery.

In May, the line will begin its new line-up of voyages, starting the summer with Victory I’s 10-day sailing between Toronto and Chicago and Victory II’s 10-day sailing between Montreal and Detroit. 

Victory I will then operate the new “Great Lakes Grand Discovery” itinerary on multiple dates in May, June, August and October. One highlight is Niagara Falls. Sailings between Toronto and Chicago will call at these ports: Port Colborne, Niagara Falls; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, MI; Sault Saint Marie, MI; Little Current, Manitoulin Island (Ontario, Canada); and Mackinac Island, MI.

The new “French Canada and Great Lakes” itinerary of Victory II will depart on multiple dates between late May and mid-October. Highlights include the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the Thousand Islands corridor. Voyages will embark or disembark and overnight in Montreal, Quebec with ports of call in Quebec City, Kingston (Ontario), Toronto, Port Weller / Niagara Falls, Cleveland and Detroit. 

Attesting to the growing appeal of the Great Lakes as a cruising option, Ponant’s new “Great Lakes of North America” itineraries, operating on two fall dates between Milwaukee and Quebec City on the 184-passenger Le Champlain, are both fully booked. Increasingly, interior waterways closer to home are attracting more cruisers. A number of other lines also operate Great Lakes cruises.

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