Say “river cruise” and many people immediately think of the Danube, Rhine, Seine, Nile, Yangtze… But what of the Mississippi, Hudson, Columbia, Snake, St. Lawrence, and so many more beautiful waterways across the United States and Canada? Is there more for the North American river cruiser than a 1- or 2-hour day trip, dinner cruise, or July 4th party sailing? Oh, my goodness, YES.
The What & Where
There are dozens of stunning, exciting, fascinating, all-inclusive premium river adventures in the United States and Canada hosted by over a dozen lines. They generally range from 4 nights to 2 weeks and take you through the awe-inspiring natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest, the picturesque and deeply storied lands of New England and New York, the ancient French civilizations of southeastern Canada, the Beluga whale congregations of Quebec’s upper St. Lawrence River, and on and on across the continent, rivaling any European river cruise, however much ballyhooed.
And why take a river cruise, anyway? Don’t oceanliners have much more to offer? Cruisers can be such a loud and wild group, won’t it be unbearable in close quarters on a small boat? The cabins on huge ships are tiny, they must be like closets on riverboats, right? Isn’t it exhausting to have to get on and off the boat every day with all those daily stops? All good questions, with some surprising and some personal-preference answers.
Big cruise ships that sail the oceans are floating resorts, meant for people who enjoy a resort-based vacation. Most of their time is spent onboard at the pool, bars, shows, and buffet lines with a few hours in a handful of ports throughout the cruise. So yes, as far as amenities go, big ships have more – but that isn’t at all what river cruises or the people who take them are about. River cruises are for people who want to experience an abundance of natural and cultural attractions (many excursions are included in river cruise fares), with the boat as their “motorcoach” to get to many amazing places in a short period of time. A really nice motorcoach, mind you. With a few exceptions that are designed for Spartan adventurers, most riverboats are rich with amenities and luxuries, and actually have larger cabins than cruise ships, and all are exterior with private balconies. Some cabins are as big as 4-star hotel rooms and have full-size baths. There are dining rooms and show rooms and spacious decks. Some have even casinos.
As for the nature of the river cruiser – this is not a loud, hard partying crowd. River cruisers in general are mature, low-key folk who enjoy sharing stories over cocktails between shore excursions, engaging with riverlorians and naturalists who bring an added layer of enrichment to the journeys, and spending most of their time exploring the landscapes and towns along the river. Which, by the way, is a very easy process. Riverboats usually stop right in the heart of a town or natural attraction, no transfer needed to get to the good stuff. And since the boats are small and the passengers few (some ships carry fewer than 100 passengers, most fewer than 200), getting on and off is easy, bearing no resemblance to the long, draining saga of getting on and off an oceanliner, only to then have to spend more time and money commuting to your desired attraction. Plus, there’s the camaraderie. Unlike the thousands of nameless co-passengers on a giant cruise ship that you don’t know any more on day 7 than you did on day 1, the comparatively small number of people on a riverboat — and the more intimate nature of the whole experience — often nurtures instant friendships that carry from ship to shore, so your explorations become a shared, convivial activity that adds another lovely element to your experience.
To sum up, a river cruise is significantly different from an ocean cruise, and usually appeals to a very different type of traveler. Are you feeling like that type is you? Are you feeling pretty jazzed about a North American river cruise adventure? Then we invite you to read on for an overview of a few of our favorites from a long list of possibilities. And bear in mind, some river cruise fares include a pre-cruise hotel stay, but many don’t so Roomongo is always here for you if you need a great hotel rate with cash back rewards before or after your riverborne vacation.
Mississippi River – American Queen Paddlewheel Steamboat
Regal Victorian elegance in a perfect modern replica of a 19th-century “Grand Dame” paddlewheeler steaming down the Mississippi. An exhilarating step back in time with all the luxury and comforts of today amid a delightfully casual ambiance, this American Queen Steamboat Company river cruise is especially popular with 50+-somethings who love vacations built around history and culture. Splitting the river into two regions, separate cruises cover its distinct offerings. The lower river is a land of centuries-old shaded oak trees, elegant antebellum plantations, and Civil War memorials. The upper river, the inspiration behind Mark Twain’s classics, unfolds as a tapestry of storybook towns, exciting cities, and thriving wildlife.
As charming and fun as life aboard the Queen is, the shore experiences along the way are what really fill the memory books. There are many excursions to choose from as you steam and stop along the Mississippi, such as: a visit to Laura, a woman-run and -owned Creole sugar plantation; a wild Bayou Cajun swamp tour; a musical tour of Memphis; a tour of several Antebellum mansions and plantations; the Slavery to Freedom experience, including a stop at the Harriet Beecher Stowe museum; and much, much more.
The surprisingly affordable, super-inclusive, ADA-compliant cruises include pre-cruise hotel stays with breakfast and porterage, transfers to the Queen, shore excursions in every port, gourmet regionally inspired cuisine paired with wine and beer, Broadway-worthy entertainment, and daily tidings from the onboard expert Riverlorian. Brimming with gleaming brass and polish wood, rich upholstery and chandeliers, antiques and fresh flowers, the ambiance is nonetheless casual, albeit in an upscale sort of way. A variety of themes defines each cruise, such as Big Band, Blues & Country, Creole, Civil War, Literature and more, so you can go again and again and have a new experience each time. And bonus – the largest (414 passengers), most opulent riverboat in the world is a member of the Green Waters environmental program. With all of this to offer, it nonetheless ranks among the most budget-friendly of the American river cruises.
Hosted by a vibrant and friendly All-American crew, this journey starts at $800 for 5 days on the American Queen. The new, all-suite American Duchess is now also an option for cruising Old Man River, with fares starting at $2,000 for 9 days. Is there more to the AQSC’s offerings? Yes! The extensively awarded line also has cruises on the Ohio, Tennessee, Columbia, and Snake Rivers. Check-out all the offerings here.
Hudson, St. Lawrence, Saguenay Rivers – Blount Small Ship Adventure
This spectacular, ultra-casual 13-night US/Canada cruise has a price tag to match, starting at $4,600. We figured we’d say that up front for obvious reasons. If you’re still interested, here’s the amazing experience you’re in for on the 88-passenger Grand Mariner or Grand Caribe.
First, a word about Blount Small Ship Adventures. The family company has been operating for over 50 years, growing out of what began as a Rhode Island dad taking his kids out to fish, explore nature, and just have a wonderful, relaxing time together. One of those kids, Nancy, is now the president of BSSA and she keeps the experience rooted in those family outings – she wants you to feel like you’re cruising on a friend’s yacht, and she actually manages to make that happen. A friend’s really cool yacht, to be specific. Her dad, Luther, was an inventor and boat builder, and among the innovations he brought to his small ships is the patented retractable pilothouse, which makes it possible for their ships to go where others simply can’t. There’s also the bow ramp, which lowers on beaches or other “in the thick of it” fun spots so you can easily get on and off the boat in a flash. So, back to what’s in store for you…
This low-key, nature- and small town-focused cruise begins in the flashiest possible way as you board the yacht in Manhattan. Right away, you’ll see that the ambiance is super friendly and strictly casual, and that a lot of people probably already know each other, since repeat Blount cruisers tend to outnumber first-timers. Your cabin – it’s homey and cozy and quite small, between 80 to 110 square feet. There’s no way to sugar coat it and no point either, since Blount’s whole mission is to get you “out there.” Soft adventure and camaraderie are what these cruises are all about, which Blounters know well and love about the experience, so cabin size is a non-issue for them.
You’ll quickly leave the Big City on your way north up the legendary, relaxing, and endlessly scenic Hudson River, making stops in Kingston, Rome, Oswego, and Ogdensburg while moving through the Erie Canal, Oswego Canal, and Lake Ontario. Along the way, you’ll have the option of visiting: FDR’s home and presidential library in Hyde Park; Saratoga Springs with its plentiful mineral springs and the battlefield that saw the first major American victory in the revolution; tiny Dark Island in the Thousand Islands, home to Singer Castle which served as a rum-running base during Prohibition, and much more.
After Ogdensburg, you’ll cross into Canada via the stunning St. Lawrence Seaway, called The Garden of the Great Spirit by the Iroquois, filled with stately pines and long-standing mansions. Our favorite North American city comes next – Quebec City. This 400-year-old walled town is an authentic French enclave that retains its striking original architecture, houses a massive citadel, the world’s most photographed hotel (the palatial Frontenac), cobblestone streets, a breathtaking elevated riverfront boardwalk, needless to say fantastic cafes, many unique galleries, and oh we can’t possibly cover it all! One more nifty tidbit, the oldest section of the city — the Petit Champlain – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there you go to Port de Saguenay, a beautiful riverside village voted the happiest city in Canada. As you cruise the Saguenay River beneath towering cliffs enveloped in lush pine forests, you’ll be in the heart of Beluga whale country. In fact, this is one of the world’s premier whale-watching destinations.
From Saguenay, you’ll flip a “u-ey” toward 17th-century Montreal, your final stop and itself a UNESCO City of Design. If you can spare the time and a few more bucks, it’s worth staying a night or two before heading home.
So, all in all, that cruise fare seems rather justified now, doesn’t it?
Columbia & Snake Rivers Cruise – Queen of the West Paddlewheel Steamboat
This epic riverboat adventure with American Cruise Lines inspires you to embrace your inner pioneer as you follow the legendary Lewis & Clark Trail. Well, let’s be honest, pioneers and explorers couldn’t even have dreamed of having it this good. The Queen of the West journey takes place amid such luxuries as: the largest staterooms of all small cruise ships or riverboats (200-450 sq. ft.), all with full-size baths and private balconies that provide spectacular, up close views; exquisite, regionally and sustainably sourced cuisine; guided shore excursions; enriching entertainment and education from onboard musicians, historians, and naturalists; cocktail socials; free WiFi; and, believe it or not, still more.
That private balcony will serve as your wildly enviable front row seat to some of America’s most stunning scenery, as you steam through the lush Columbia River Gorge and past the awesome Multnomah Falls. Shore excursions deliver such diverse experiences as: a visit to Mount St. Helens with a naturalist, where you’ll learn about how the shocking 1980 eruption transformed the landscape and surrounding communities; leisure time in Astoria, Oregon, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies; photo ops at Hells Canyon on the Snake River, the deepest Canyon in North America (select cruises include a seriously thrilling jet boat ride); a trip through Washington State wine country, including a stop at Maryhill Winery along the Columbia River; and much more.
American Cruise Lines — which is deeply proud of its American-built and flagged ships manned by All-American crews running itineraries in 28 states – is called “the best possible small ship cruise experiences available in the good old U.S. of A.” by the acclaimed, multi-award-winning Premier River Cruises travel agency. Among the company’s many awards is the beyond impressive World Travel Awards Trifecta in 2016: “World’s Leading Small Ships Cruise Line,” “World’s Leading River Cruise Company,” and “North America’s Leading River Cruise Company.” In 2017, ACL also won the top prize from the World Travel Awards, the Travel Weekly Magellan Awards, and Conde Nast Traveler Awards. CruiseCritic.com gave it “Best Enrichment” in 2016 and “Best for Solo Travelers” in 2017, and the list goes on (after the jump, scroll to the bottom).
The Columbia & Snake Rivers Cruise fare also includes a one-night pre-cruise stay in a premium Portland, Oregon hotel, breakfast at the hotel, and transfers to the boat with porterage service. Trips start at $1,770 for 4 nights aboard the Queen of the West; 7-night cruises are also available. ACL has many more amazing cruises across America, including various itineraries each for the Mississippi, New England, the Southeast, more in the Pacific Northwest & Alaska, plus over a dozen themed journeys. Explore all the options here.
At this point, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that river cruises are the travel industry’s fastest growing segment. The popularity of North American river cruises alone is certainly exploding, as more travelers — boomers in particular — choose to vacation close to home and discover or rediscover the many natural and culture wonders that bless us right here on our own continent.
So, which river should be expecting your visit soon?