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Experience the South on the Water

Scenes of water are quintessential to the South, and there are myriad ways for groups to experience them. Adventurous travelers can kayak or paddleboard along lush coastal regions, and nature lovers can savor the sights of remote waterways on narrated ecotours. Others may gravitate toward a relaxing dinner cruise down some of America’s most historic rivers.

No matter what kind of aquatic excursion appeals to your group, the following attractions are guaranteed to provide an unforgettable experience on the water.

American Queen Steamboat Company

Memphis, Tennessee

Based out of Memphis, Tennessee, the American Queen Steamboat Company gives groups the opportunity to cruise down the Mississippi River as Mark Twain once did — aboard a magnificent, vintage-style steamboat. The company offers some of the best river cruise packages in North America, including pre-cruise hotel stays, complimentary beer or wine with dinner and customizable shore excursions in each port.

The largest steamboat ever built, the six-deck American Queen will make passengers feel like Victorian royalty as they sail past antebellum plantations, Civil War sites and picturesque river towns along the Mississippi.

The greatest advantage of American Queen cruises is that groups can create their own sightseeing itinerary in each port. The night before the ship docks for a shore excursion, each guest receives a map with designated Hop-On Hop-Off locations. While groups explore the city at their leisure, a dedicated fleet of Hop-On Hop-Off motorcoaches stops at each pick-up site every 15 to 20 minutes.   

“What we do is give people the entire city,” said Bob Buesing, co-founder of Shore Excursions of America. “We don’t just put people on a bus for three hours. Our tours allow them to enter museums, attractions and all kinds of things at their own convenience.”

Before working with the American Queen, Buesing ran the tour company East Coast Touring for 38 years. Seven years ago, he partnered with fellow tourism professional Jim Palmeri, to found Shore Excursions of America, incorporating the Hop-On Hop-Off concept into river cruises.

“We love what we do,” said Buesing. “We don’t run tours; we give experiences on the American Queen.”

SouthEast Adventure Outfitters

St. Simons Island, Georgia

Just off the coast of Georgia, St. Simons Island is characterized by long stretches of unspoiled beach and live oaks draped in Spanish moss. The rugged beauty of the coast has always drawn visitors to the island, but until the 1990s, there were not many guided outdoor activities available for tourists. In 1994, Georgia native and longtime boating enthusiast Michael Gowen recognized that need, and with the help of some friends, founded his own ecotour company: SouthEast Adventure Outfitters.

“I always say that coastal Georgia has a huge trail system; it’s just all wet,” said Gowen. “Back in 1994 when we started, there wasn’t much ecotourism in the area, so it’s been gratifying to see that grow. We started out with a couple [of] kayaks, and now we have two retail stores.”

Thanks to SouthEast Adventure Outfitters, visitors can now explore St. Simons and the surrounding islands through guided experiences such as kayak tours, stand-up paddleboarding, fishing charters and eco-cruises. For those who prefer to relax on a boat, the Norma Eco-Cruise accommodates up to six passengers for a narrated boat tour of the area. Departing from the historic Village Creek Landing, the vessel takes guests along 21 miles of remote waterways between St. Simons, Sea Island and Little St. Simons, where they may spot wildlife such as dolphins, sharks, otters and colorful migratory birds.

“You can go every day and see something different,” said Gowen. “The sheer variety, the pureness of the area, the unspoiled nature — it’s pretty amazing.”

In addition to savoring the natural sights, groups get the chance to learn about some of Georgia’s rich history. One of the most treasured sites along St. Simons is the 600-acre historic Musgrove Plantation, where President Jimmy Carter held his first preinaugural cabinet meeting.