There’s just something about being on the water. The slower pace lets you relax, take a breath and soak in the sights as they sail slowly by. River cruises capture the magic of sailing — and frequently offer top-notch dining and entertainment options to boot.
The romance of dinner on the water, a chance to learn the history of a city in a unique and memorable way, the fun of live music and dancing — river cruises have them all. Whether you’re looking for a quick excursion or an all-day experience, here are five river cruises your group will love.
Channel your inner Huck Finn and take to the Mighty Mississippi on a cruise with Celebration River Cruises. Based in Moline, Illinois, the family-owned and operated river cruise company offers an array of dinner, themed and sightseeing itineraries on the Celebration Belle — a 750-passenger paddlewheel boat that boasts two outdoor observation decks, two enclosed dining decks, and an elevator, making it particularly accessible for visitors with mobility issues.
All-day cruises include voyages from LeClaire, Iowa, to Dubuque, Iowa, or from Dubuque to Moline, for example. Shorter, 90-minute sightseeing cruises of the Quad Cities area — including views of the largest roller dam in the world at Lock and Dam #15, as well as Rock Island Arsenal Island, a historic but still active U.S. Army facility — are a great option for groups with tighter schedules.
The boat can accommodate 500 passengers for sit-down lunch or dinner cruises, which are offered April through November and range from 90 minutes to four hours, depending on the itinerary. Longer trips often feature live entertainment performing themed genres such as Christian music, 1950s rock, country hits and more.
“The dinner cruises are especially fun because guests get to experience the beautiful sunset and also see the lighting of the new I-74 bridge,” said Susan Yarolem, director of sales and marketing for Celebration River Cruises.
Headquartered in Newport, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, family-run BB Riverboats has been offering tours with unsurpassed views of the Queen City skyline since 1979.
Groups can choose from daily, two-hour sightseeing and lunch and dinner cruises or longer, special themed events like holiday cruises, plus kid-friendly pirate and princess cruises.
The Belle of Cincinnati, a 1,000-passenger paddle wheel-style vessel, is the largest excursion boat operating on the Ohio River, according to captain Ben Bernstein. The Belle offers three climate-controlled decks and four dance floors, plus an open-air, upper viewing deck with elevator access. Each floor can host 200 to 300 guests for sit-down dinner.
The smaller River Queen can host 500 passengers or roughly 100 for sit-down meals on each of its two dining decks. Between the two ships, BB Riverboats is able to easily accommodate groups of all sizes for an ideal day or evening outing — and private charters are available for the whole ships or single decks, depending on group sizes.
All dinner cruises feature a full meal plus music from live bands or a DJ, and the sightseeing cruises offer historical information about area landmarks and the role of the Ohio River in Cincinnati’s founding, narrated by the captain or a ship historian.
“We’re in the business of fun, but there’s also a special nostalgia to it,” Bernstein said. “There’s a romance to the river that gets in your blood.”
Cleveland’s dining cruise ship, the Nautica Queen — which docks in the Nautica Waterfront District — offers groups an ideal and memorable way to experience the city’s lakefront sights.
The ship, a modern luxury cruise dining vessel that can accommodate groups of up to 270 guests, includes two enclosed dining decks as well as open-air observation decks. All voyages include exceptional views of the Cleveland skyline, as well as the Lake Erie coastline and the Cuyahoga River.
All cruises — whether lunch or dinner — feature an unlimited buffet with expansive selections such as chef-carved prime rib beef, roast chicken and catch of the day.
Peak cruising season is April through November, but themed holiday cruises — including for Christmas and New Year’s Day — are also available.
Most cruises last two to two and a half hours. Many focus on the picturesque Cuyahoga River, which is known for its variety of bridges. Others may venture out onto Lake Erie, depending on weather conditions.
Special-event cruises are offered during the Cleveland National Air Show on Labor Day weekend, on Fourth of July, and to align with the annual Cleveland Tall Ships Festival in July.
Private, chartered cruises are available for groups of at least 75 people. Chartered tours are typically offered Monday through Friday from 3-5 p.m., Saturdays from 2:30-5 p.m. or Sundays from 5:30-8:30 p.m.
“You get such a good value with river cruises,” said Ellen Kelley, Nautica Queen’s director of operations. “You get your meal and a sightseeing tour, all in one.”
Savannah Riverboat Cruises
Groups can choose to board either the 1,000-passenger Georgia Queen or the smaller 600-passenger Savannah River Queen — both built in the style of old-time riverboats but with two climate-controlled decks and a third, open-air observation deck — to explore Georgia’s storied Savannah Riverway.
Sightseeing cruises, sunset cruises, brunch, lunch and dinner cruises — as well as themed cruises — offer groups an array of options. The Monday night Gospel Dinner Cruise is a particularly popular choice for faith-based groups. Dinner voyages, which last about two hours, treat guests to a buffet meal of Southern staples like fried chicken and pulled pork BBQ.
Sightseeing tours offer historical narration about the river as well as the modern, bustling Port of Savannah, the third-busiest port in the U.S.
“On many of our daytime cruises, we go by Fort Jackson, an old Civil War Fort, and are saluted by an authentic cannon blast,” said Savannah Riverboat Cruises owner Jonathan Claughton.
Holiday voyages, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s outings — as well as Father’s Day, Fourth of July, and other special event cruises — are also offered.
Groups can choose from among a sophisticated urban sightseeing tour of Portland or a more nostalgic trip along the Columbia River Gorge — or both — on two distinct voyages offered by the Portland Spirit company in Portland, Oregon.
The year-round, two-hour cruises aboard the flagship vessel Portland Spirit — a 150-foot luxury yacht — treat passengers to an up-close view of sights along the Willamette River, from the Portland city center upriver to the historic Milwaukee Waterfront. The ship can carry up to 540 passengers, with capacity to accommodate up to 394 for plated, sit-down meals. Lunch, brunch and dinner cruises — as well as sightseeing only cruises — are available.
The company’s other primary vessel, the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler — an authentic paddleboat replica that docks at Cascade Locks, roughly 45 minutes outside of Portland — offers breathtaking views of the picturesque Columbia River.
Groups can choose from one-hour sightseeing cruises or two-hour brunch and dinner cruises on the Sternwheeler, which runs May through October. In addition to sailing under the famed Bridge of the Gods, the Sternwheeler offers guests up-close views of the natural beaty of the Columbia River gorge.
“You definitely see wildlife, as well as waterfalls in the sides of the gorge and Native American fishing platforms,” said Mandy Morgan, director of sales and marketing for the Portland Spirit company. “Also, Hood River is very close by — and it is the windsurfing capital of the world — so it’s common to see a lot of windsurfers too.”