River cruises and coastal excursions offer a more mellow way to see the U.S.A.


Mame and Charlie Hooper think of themselves as globe-trotters: They love exploring the world. And one of their favorite ways of seeing the world is cruising the rivers and coastal waters of the United States.

“There’s nothing better than slowly cruising up an American river,” Mame said when I caught up with her at the couple’s home outside Atlanta. “The ride is smooth, the scenery is often exquisite and you see all these charming towns with wonderful histories.”

There’s one more thing: “With all this fear of being blown up somewhere overseas, Charlie and I made a decision to spend our money in the U.S.,” she said.


Safety concerns may be one of the reasons U.S. river cruising is booming, but it’s not the only one. River tripping, whether in the U.S. or abroad, has surged in the last decade, pushing the demand to an all-time high, according to industry figures compiled by Cruise Lines International Assn. The organization’s members account for nearly 200 river cruise ships, many based in Europe.

But the Hoopers, who have been on 10 river cruises in the last few years, prefer the U.S.

“You don’t have to go to Europe to have a great river experience,” said Charles A. Robertson, president and chief executive of American Cruise Lines. “The rivers in the U.S. are phenomenal.”

Robertson may be biased, but he makes another point that mirrors what the Hoopers said. “A lot of people feel more comfortable in the United States,” Robertson said. “They don’t want to have to fly overseas or worry about terrorism.”

American Cruise Line’s boats (“don’t call them ships,” Robertson said) carry 200 or fewer guests, and most have private verandas. “Just open your sliding glass door and watch the scenery go by,” he said.

The company, which has nine boats and three more under construction, also runs trips along the U.S. coast, in Maine, Washington’s Puget Sound and the East Coast’s Chesapeake Bay.

Larger cruise ships also have increased their coastal voyages in the last few years. Lines such as Carnival, Princess, NCL and Celebrity have added coastal itineraries. Princess, for instance, has a seven-day Wine Country trip that offers wine tasting excursions in Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

Because American river cruises usually are on smaller vessels, they can offer a more intimate view of the destination and the surrounding countryside.

“It’s a unique way to explore the country, often visiting both well-known cities and towns, as well as some of the more hidden gems that the country has to offer,” said Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of

“While the onboard experience is definitely more laid-back than on bigger ocean-going vessels, U.S. river lines are doing a fantastic job of building itineraries and onboard experiences that are as unique as the destinations in which they visit.”

Themed cruises tap into the history and features of the region, McDaniel said, and include options such as tracing Lewis and Clark’s expedition in the Pacific Northwest, exploring local craft beer or the wine scene in Oregon and Washington, and music cruises centered on the Nashville country and blues scene in Tennessee.

Many people associate river cruising with the Mississippi; that popular route weaves its way through 1.2 million square miles and 10 states, usually divided into upper and lower Mississippi. Passengers experience the jazz of New Orleans, the French-inspired beauty of Natchez, Miss., the Gateway Arch of St. Louis and more.

But there are other waterways to explore in the U.S. too, including:

•The Columbia and Snake rivers, which border Oregon and Washington. The trip explores the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls, Mt. St. Helens and Pendleton, Ore.

•The East Coast Intracoastal Waterway, a protected network of bays, rivers and canals. River trips visit Savannah and Jekyll Island in Georgia, and Charleston and Beaufort in South Carolina.

•Puget Sound and San Juan Islands, where the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges meet the sea. Cruisers on this Pacific Northwest voyage visit Washington and British Columbia, usually stopping at Seattle, Anacortes, Friday Harbor and Port Townsend in Washington and Victoria in Canada.

Mame and Charlie Hooper will leave on their 10th American Cruise Lines trip — a Puget Sound cruise — this spring.

“I can’t wait,” Mame said. “People say the scenery is fantastic.”


Cruise tip:

Bring a small power strip to keep electronic devices humming

Many cruise cabins have only a couple of outlets, so if you can’t live without your electronic devices, take a small power strip. Will you need an adapter? Not on ships that cater to Americans, which are equipped with 110 AC current, but you should check with the cruise line if you’re traveling internationally.