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Midwest Water: A shore thing

Courtesy Chicago’s First Lady River Cruises

Whether it’s one of the Great Lakes or the Mighty Mississippi, there’s enough water in the Midwest to make your trip as wet and wild an experience as you’d like it to be.

Lakes and rivers have played a pivotal role in the growth of Midwestern cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, and they’re still a large part of the attraction in those places today. Getting out on the water on a river cruise allows groups to see these cities from a different point of view and to experience the destinations the way travelers would have in the 19th century.

For more adventurous souls, the water offers abundant opportunities. Adrenaline seekers will enjoy jet boat tours in Wisconsin Dells and jet skiing off Ohio’s Lake Erie shore; for nature lovers, kayaking in Duluth, Minn., allows for taking in nature’s wonders at a paddler’s pace.
Whichever style fits your group best, consider an excursion on the water as part of your next tour itinerary in the Midwest.

Chicago architecture cruises

Chicago is a city known for its plentiful waterways and fantastic architecture, and the folks at Chicago’s First Lady Cruises have found a way to combine the best of both for visitors.

“Our most popular tour is the Chicago Architectural Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady,” said the company’s president, Holly Agra. “It’s a 90-minute cruise tour on the Chicago River. The commentary is provided by trained, certified volunteers of the Chicago Architectural Foundation. Each one receives hundreds of hours of training and has their own personality.”

Groups can choose to travel on the open-air upper deck or in the climate-controlled lower level. Over the course of the cruise, guides point out significant buildings that are hallmarks of the Chicago skyline, such as the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), the Trump Tower and the Aqua condo tower, which was recently voted one of the foremost skyscrapers in the country.

“During the tour, they talk about the architecture of the buildings, how they were constructed and what type of materials were used,” Agra said. “There are over 53 significant structures discussed on the tour. They also talk about the 13 bridges that you travel under.”

In addition to the architectural cruises, Chicago’s First Lady offers sightseeing cruises on Lake Michigan and a pirate-themed cruise on the weekend.

Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
Named for the dells of the Wisconsin River that run through it, the town of Wisconsin Dells has built a thriving tourism business around its water. When groups are planning a visit, the Wisconsin Dells CVB often suggests starting with a boat tour on the river.

Courtesy Wisconsin Dells CVB

“It’s a scenic tour, a leisurely trip along either the upper dells or the lower dells of the Wisconsin River,” said Melanie Platt-Gibson, the bureau’s marketing director. “It’s one of the best ways to see the natural sandstone rock formations along the river that have made us famous as a tourism destination for over 150 years.”

One popular way for groups to tour the river is on board the Wisconsin Ducks, a fleet of amphibious vehicles from World War II that take passengers on expeditions over land and water. Other river cruise companies offer scenic dinner cruises at sunset that feature live entertainment and fine cuisine.

Still others give passengers a shot of adrenaline as they travel through the river canyon.
“For the thrill seeker, you can take a jet boat tour of the Wisconsin River,” Platt-Gibson said. “The jet boat sees all of those wonderful things at a high speed and does things like a 360-degree spinout on the river.”

Lake Erie Shores and Islands
Tourism is also a major economic driver for the cities and towns along Ohio’s Lake Erie coast, and visitors have no shortage of choices for enjoying the lake and its accompanying islands.

Courtesy Lake Erie Shores and Islands

“There are a bunch of different options for getting out on the water in our area,” said Jill Bauer, public relations coordinator for Lake Erie Shores and Islands West. “We have an island-hopping cruise out of Sandusky called the Good Time I. It’s a narrative sightseeing cruise, and it’s a great way for people who haven’t been to our islands before to get out and spend a few hours there.”

The cruise docks at both Kelleys Island and Put-in-Bay, allowing passengers to get off and explore each. On Kelleys Island, nature lovers can hike through glacial grooves left over from the ice age. Put-in-Bay is a traditional tourist town on South Bass Island where visitors enjoy a wealth of shopping and dining opportunities.

For a fun day on the water and a change of pace from the typical group tour, Bauer suggests renting Jet Skis and taking a trip to a private island in the lake.

“Lyman Harbor Entertainment Complex rents Jet Skis, and they offer a sandbar picnic experience for groups,” she said. “They’ll put together box lunches or picnic lunches for the group. You can go on Jet Skis or in a boat to the sand bar, which is like a private island, where you can play volleyball and other beach activities.”

Duluth’s Lake Superior
Although it’s more than 2,250 nautical miles from the Atlantic Ocean to Duluth’s harbor on Lake Superior, the sheer size of the body of water makes you feel like you’re visiting an inland sea. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, and its clarity makes it a great place for water sports like canoeing and kayaking.

“The nice thing about the water in Lake Superior is that you can usually see down 15 to 20 feet,” said Gene Shaw, director of public relations for Visit Duluth. “If you’re kayaking, you can look down and see rocks bigger than the kayak you’re in.”

Many kayakers start in one of the 12 creeks and rivers inside Duluth and then proceed out to Park Point, a seven-mile-long sand strip in the lake where they can get out and walk along the beach. Canoeing and fishing are also popular on Superior or on any of the smaller lakes around the city.

Traditional sightseeing cruises can introduce groups to the lake and the industry it helped build in Duluth.

“The cruises go under the bridge out into Lake Superior; then they come back in and tour the harbor, where all the iron is loaded,” Shaw said. “We are a working harbor, so there’s quite a bit of history behind it. During World War II, somewhere between 35 and 40 ships were built for the Navy in the shipyard here in Duluth.”

Gateway Arch Riverboats

St. Louis
The Mississippi River was instrumental in the founding and growth of St. Louis, and visitors can have a number of river experiences with the Gateway Arch Riverboats, which are boarded from a landing in the shadow of the famous arch.

Courtesy St. Louis Gateway Arch River Cruises

The most popular cruise is a one-hour sightseeing tour that travels up and down the river with narration by the riverboat captain.

“You see the Eads Bridge, the Poplar Bridge and a great view of the Gateway Arch,” said Natasha McIntosh, sales manager for Gateway Arch Riverfront. “It’s really a working river, so the captain talks about how the river is used. It’s really kind of industrial.”

The tours take place aboard two 19th-century replica paddle-wheel riverboats, the Tom Sawyer and the Becky Thatcher. Although the vessels are now propelled by an engine, the paddle wheels and other nostalgic touches are meant to remind passengers of traveling on the river in the days of Mark Twain.

In addition to the standard sightseeing cruises, the company offers a variety of other experiences, including a monthly Sunday-morning brunch cruise. Other special varieties include a lock-and-dam cruise, an Oktoberfest cruise with German food and an excursion that takes passengers antiquing in Kimmswick, Mo.

On weekends during the summer, an evening dinner cruise is a popular choice for groups.
“It’s a two-and-a-half-hour cruise with a sit-down meal,” McIntosh said. “There’s a banjo player and a piano player on the cruise with you.”

More Midwest Travel Guide:

Midwest Capitols: The art of government
Midwest Water: A shore thing
Midwest Presidents: Hail to the chief
WEB EXCLUSIVE! Listing of Midwest Presidential Attractions

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.