You fly and drive across it, hike it and bike it and ski it, but have you considered cruising the United States? The country has more than 25,000 miles of navigable waters accessible by small ships. Here are some places you can go:
GREAT LAKES TO THE HUDSON
New Englanders since Henry David Thoreau have loved Michigan’s Mackinac Island on Lake Huron, the centerpiece of Great Lakes itineraries. Blount Small Ship Adventures orchestrates a 14-day passage around the lake. One moment Chicago’s Navy Pier lies panoramically before your lounge chair; the next, Manistee, a forgotten timbering town that once had more millionaires per capita than any place in the country, unfolds its Victorian-era charm.
“It’s very different when you do small ship cruising. They let you off in every port,” says Cindy Dixon, a Pawtucket, R.I., photographer whose husband stayed home with the kids so she could circumnavigate Lake Michigan on another Blount cruise. “That’s what appeals to me: to get off the boat and learn about these places. And, of course, to photograph them.”
Guests on Travel Dynamics International’s 138-passenger Yorktown sails among Michigan’s Apostle Islands and Keweenaw Peninsula to Wisconsin’s Sturgeon Bay with historians and geologists who share their local knowledge.
Cruising New York’s canal system has become a popular alternative to seeing fall foliage in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A seven-night American Cruise Lines trip takes up to 104 passengers from Catskill to Sleepy Hollow.
Do-it-yourselfers: Ron and Toni Trottier of Erie Canal Cruise Lines help you plot your own course on the 57-lock Erie Canal system. Their 42-foot boats are stocked with everything you need to live comfortably aboard for a week. Most cruisers master the helm in one to three hours, Toni Trottier says.
The big wheels of riverboats are turning again. The 150-guest Queen of the Mississippi looks vintage, but it was built and launched this year by American Cruise Lines. Its itineraries go almost everywhere the Mississippi River goes, touching nine states from Minnesota to Louisiana. The townspeople of Mazel, Ky., were so thrilled with the new paddlewheeler that they planned an evening street fair to greet passengers.
At 436 guests, American Queen pushes the envelope of small, but the gingerbread Victorian is irresistibly nostalgic with itineraries often themed to match. The “Walkin’ in Elvis’s Footsteps” cruise is a nod to Memphis, whose mayor loaned the steamboat company $33 million to restore the ship if they would locate and hire in his town. Guests will groove to famous Elvis tribute bands and tour a Graceland decked out for Christmas.
The Yorktown makes several passages here, including one whose eastern leg takes in antebellum Mobile, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., and the little known Mississippi national seashore islands Horn and West Ship.
In Juneau, Cathy Belleville gazed at one end of the pier where five ships floated like giant apartment buildings stacked with discos and spas. “It was like Las Vegas in one building,” says the Californian, who took the 36-guest Safari Explorer at the other end of the pier. Belleville’s Alaskan itinerary was one of 14 offered by InnerSea Discoveries, which spends more days inside Glacier Bay National Park than any other cruise line.
Where megaships spend days at port, “the only time we stopped at another place with people was when we returned seven days later,” Belleville says. When her ship encountered a pod of humpbacks, “in 10 minutes an on-board naturalist had us within 100 feet of the whales.” For two hours passengers watched from inflatable rafts as the animals dived 300 feet, then leapt in unison out of the water, each whale gulping about 2,000 pounds of herring. “I’ll remember it until I die,” Belleville says.
American Cruise Lines offers cultural and historical Alaska. Guests on a recent Inside Passage trip met Julie, a Tlingit fisherwoman in Icy Strait, who was cutting up 200 pounds of halibut for her community’s elders who are no longer mobile enough to fish. Later passengers were invited to a bonfire with villagers who shared their stories over hot chocolate.
The Pacific coast is relatively untapped by larger cruise companies, most of whom combine it with their Alaska itineraries. Local operators such as the Baileys based in Friday Harbor offer a more intimate view. Their 12-passenger Pacific Catalyst immerses you in Washington’s San Juan Islands.
InnerSea’s Safari Quest offers an option for 22 guests to take high tea in Victoria, British Columbia, tiptoe through the Harmony Island tidal pools, orca watch off Jedediah Island, and island hop in the San Juans. Continued...