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Northeast: From the Rivers to the Sea

Courtesy Portland CVB

From a ship’s deck, in a kayak or on a river trail — no matter how you like to enjoy the water, you’ll find opportunities abounding in America’s Northeast.

Ocean, bays, rivers and lakes are at the heart of the Northeast, lending sustenance and soul to places all the way from Maryland to Maine. These bodies of water make up the lifeblood of local economies and provide the best scenery, recreation and inspiration for those who live there.

For travelers, there’s no better way to get to know the cities and towns of the Northeast than from the water’s edge. Portland, Maine, still enjoys a thriving shipping and fishing industry, and Cape Cod has become New England’s beach playground. Pittsburgh’s three rivers ply beautifully its urban landscape; the Finger Lakes and state parks of New York are evidence of glaciers that cut through the region thousands of years ago. And in Ocean City, Maryland, beaches and islands give visitors a glimpse of the wild natural life that was first created in the area.

Next time your tour group ventures to the Northeast, don’t overlook these great experiences on the water.

[ Portland, Maine ]
Historic Portland retains much of its traditional maritime industry and seaside charm, giving guests a chance to enjoy the best of both modern amenities and traditional experiences.

“Portland is one of the last working waterfronts — there aren’t that many left that you can actually access,” said Lynn Tillotson, director of tourism marketing at the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can go from shopping or lunch, step across the street, and see lobstermen and their boats. They’re hauling up the lobster traps and bringing in the fresh fish that they catch every day.”

Visitors can enjoy the view and the salty sea air from the cobblestone streets downtown, or take a number of sightseeing cruises out into the Casco Bay. One line takes guests out at sunset on a mail boat, which is used to deliver post and parcels to the people who live on the islands dotting the bay. Another company gives passengers the chance to get off at Peaks Island, where they can stroll through the charming village and visit the local maritime museum.

Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours combines elements on land and at sea, taking visitors by trolley to see the historic Portland Head Light, then on a boat for whale-watching cruises. For a more historical experience, groups can go aboard with the Portland Schooner Company.

“Being on a schooner is like nothing else,” Tillotson said. “It’s a peaceful existence out on the bay, with the wind in your sails. Two of the company’s schooners are on the National Historic Registry; one was built in 1912, and the other in 1920. They’re gorgeous restored ships.”

Groups can also take guided kayaking tours or visit the Portland Observatory and other important maritime landmarks.

[ Cape Cod, Massachusetts ]
The sandy shores on nearly 560 miles of coastline have made Cape Cod a popular beach destination for New Englanders. The Cap Cod National Seashore protects some of the best scenery.

“John F. Kennedy actually signed the law protecting the park when he was president,” said Kristen Mitchell, vice president of marketing at the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It’s 40 miles of protected coastline. And it’s not just beaches — there are lighthouses, cranberry bogs and biking trails.”

Travelers often enjoy spending a day enjoying the sun and waves at the national seashore, but groups can also venture out to see local wildlife on a number of sightseeing cruises. The area around Cape Cod is a favorite feeding spot for baleen, minke and white whales, so whale-watching cruises afford an opportunity for guaranteed whale sightings. Other cruises incorporate educational lectures or traditional New England clambakes.

For a more intimate experience, guided kayaking tours show off the salt marshes, inlets, kettle ponds and bays in the area. Nauset Marsh is a favorite kayaking destination.

“It’s a large salt marsh within the national seashore, and it’s protected from the ocean by the beaches, so anyone can paddle easily on it,” Mitchell said. “The scenery is unbelievable — you can see shorebirds, seals and sandbars. It’s Cape Cod at its finest.”

Of course, no trip to the Cape would be complete without a visit to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, two famous islands accessible from the mainland by ferry.

[ Finger Lakes, New York ]
Thousands of years ago, slow-moving glaciers carved a path through what is now central New York, creating the beautiful Finger Lakes and other natural wonders.

“We have 11 glacially carved lakes,” said Cynthia Kimble, president of the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. “And as the glaciers receded, they left the wonderful lakes and waterfalls. We have more than 1,000 waterfalls in our area.”

Visitors can enjoy the lakes and waterfalls at one of the many state parks in the region. Taughannock State Park features the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi River, towering higher than Niagara. At Buttermilk Falls State Park, the large volume of water moving quickly through the falls churns up to a frothy white buttermilk color. Robert Treman State Park offers a more intimate experience, as guests can hike alongside a series of waterfalls and then swim in a natural pool at the bottom of the last cascade.

Green Lake State Park preserves one of the world’s few meromictic lakes, meaning the layers of water do not mix, creating a rare and beautiful water color.

“When you walk by these lakes, they’re emerald green,” Kimble said. “When you look at the roots of the trees below the water, they look like great marble sculptures.”

Besides visiting the state parks, groups can take sightseeing cruises on several of the Finger Lakes or try adventurous activities such as sailboarding, windsurfing, scuba diving and hydro-biking. Nature-lovers can visit various wildlife sanctuaries that are home to nesting eagles and various waterfowl.

[ Ocean City, Maryland ]
Situated on the southern end of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Ocean City is the state’s Atlantic playground, popular with vacationing families and tour groups alike. In addition to the beaches and boardwalks, visitors can explore the area on one of several dinner cruises or explore uninhabited areas on an ecological cruise.

“We have a really nice educational ecotour that takes you on the back bays, behind neighboring Assateague Island,” said Donna Abbott of the Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can see the famous wild horses on the island and learn about the coastal bays and wildlife aboard the Mid-Atlantic.”

Other cruises in the area emphasize adventure over nature. The Sea Rocket takes passengers up the coastline in a jet boat for a wet and wild ride that features plenty of spray and occasional dolphin sightings. At the Talbot Street Pier, visitors can board another jet boat, the OC Rocket, or the Duckaneer, a re-created pirate ship that sails with swashbuckling battles and sunken treasure.

For an alternate approach to the area’s island life, groups can take a bus to Assateague Island, where they learn about the local flora and fauna at a new visitors center, or hike on trails in a state and national park.

“They have walkways so you can go walk out over the beach and look at the surf,” Abbott said. “The trails are accessible, or you can drive along the road and see the wild horses, birds, pelicans and miniature sika deer that inhabit the island.”

[ Pittsburgh ]
The Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers converge in downtown Pittsburgh, creating a unique opportunity to enjoy waterborne activities in the midst of a modern, urban environment. Groups can enjoy views of the city from aboard numerous vessels.

“We can kayak on the three rivers right in downtown,” said Kristin Mitchell, public relations liaison for the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a completely different view of downtown from the rivers. On guided tours, they take you up the Allegheny River to a spot called Washington’s Landing. It’s a great view of all the architecture and the skyline.”

Many groups opt for a more traditional cruise with the Gateway Clipper fleet, which offers architectural sightseeing cruises as well as dinner-dance cruises and holiday excursions. More whimsical options include Just Ducky Tours, which operates a fleet of World War II-era amphibious vehicles, or Pittsburgh Water Limo, a yacht company that does private charters and party cruises.

For some exercise and quiet reflection, consider taking advantage of the series of riverside walking trails downtown.

“If anyone is interested in walking the trails on their own, there’s roughly 32 miles of riverfront trails along all three rivers,” Mitchell said. “On the north side, we have the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which goes by our two sports stadiums. And the Southside Riverfront Park is a great trail that spans five miles or so. It’s another great way to see the skyline.”

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.