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Offshore Outings in the South

Beauty, history and adventure await on Southern waters.

From beaches to wetlands, lakes and the mighty Mississippi, water has physically and psychically shaped many Southern destinations. Today’s travelers can get to know cities and towns throughout the region by exploring their waterfronts to take in the scenery and stories that flow through them.

Here are five distinctive waterfront experiences to include on your group’s next journey through the Southeast.

Explore the Everglades

Everglades City, Florida

When most Americans think of waterfront destinations in Florida, they think of beaches. But nature lovers and adventurers know that an entirely different watery ecosystem awaits in Florida’s Everglades.

At the southernmost tip of the state on the Gulf Coast, near Naples, Everglades City serves as the gateway to Everglades National Park. At this park, as well as nearby Big Cypress National Preserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, groups have a variety of options for exploring the wetlands environment.

“All three have trails and boardwalks, so you can walk out and look over the foliage,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Islands and Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But there are also some unique opportunities, like taking a park-ranger-guided swamp walk. You can actually get into the water, normally about knee deep. You walk with the guide through the water. People are astounded how clear the water is and how peaceful it is.”

During these swamp walks, as well as on other guided tours that stay up on the boardwalks, visitors learn about the unique Everglades ecosystem that comprises both fresh and salt water. Guides point out plants such as cypress trees and orchids, as well as birds and wildlife, common in the area.

Another popular option with groups is an airboat tour. Several airboat operators in the area have vessels that can accommodate up to 12 passengers and take groups out on hourlong tours of the swamp.

“They’re not just driving you around in an airboat,” Wert said. “The captains are very knowledgeable about all the flora and fauna, so they stop and talk to you about them. In mating season, you’ll see mother alligators out there sitting on nests, and certain times of year you’ll see the babies as well.”

Cruise the Potomac

Washington, D.C.

With countless monuments, memorials and patriotic attractions, Washington, D.C., is among the country’s most popular group tour destinations. And although seeing the sites from land is fun, seeing them from the water offers a completely different perspective on the capital city.

The Potomac Riverboat Company offers many ways for groups to explore Washington from the water.

“We have dining cruises, as well as a water taxi and sightseeing operation,” said Kelsey McCarthy, general manager of the Potomac Riverboat Company. “The water taxis run from D.C. down in the beautiful wharf area to Old Town Alexandria in Virginia and National Harbor in Maryland. We also run sightseeing tours to Georgetown.”

The water taxis can hold up to about 150 people in both indoor and outdoor spaces. Some groups use them as hop-on/hop-off transportation between sites in the Greater D.C. area. Others stay aboard for an entire round trip, which showcases views of numerous major monuments, as well as the Georgetown waterfront.

Another popular part of the Potomac Riverboat Company portfolio is dining cruises.

“Our dining cruises are really popular with groups,” McCarthy said. “For lunch, we do two-hour cruises, either south toward National Harbor or north toward Georgetown. Then in the evening, everything is lit up, and you see all the beautiful sites as you sail by. We have live entertainment, typically a DJ playing music. There are outdoor decks as well, and in the summer, that space is really special.”

The company also offers daylong cruise experiences that feature a 90-minute sailing to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia. The package includes admission to the estate and on-site museum, with an optional return sailing to D.C.

Live Large on Lake Cumberland

Somerset, Kentucky

Few places in the South offer the kind of extended aquatic adventures available on Lake Cumberland, a man-made lake in southern Kentucky with more than 1,200 miles of shoreline. Known as the Houseboat Capital of the World, Lake Cumberland is a great place for groups to try a houseboating adventure.

“We manufacture houseboats here and have a large rental fleet on several of our marinas,” said Michelle Allen, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can get anywhere from a small one with two bedrooms to an eight-bedroom boat that sleeps up to 20 people. You rent it, and they will actually go out with you and tie up somewhere. You can find your own cove and not see anybody all weekend if you want. Everything is there — showers and fully furnished kitchens. It’s like you’re staying in a cabin, but you’re on the water.”

Another option for groups is to stay on land in some of the hundreds of cabins around the lake, then take advantage of water activities during the day.

“There’s a group called Wake Cumberland Watersports,” Allen said. “They have a wake boat, so if you’re interested in learning how to ski or surf or if you want to go out tubing and don’t want to drive the boat, they provide that service. They can also do night cruises. We also have tons of fishing guides that can take you out as well.”

In addition to getting out on the water, groups visiting the area often enjoy attending one of several special events on the water, including the Thunder Run in June and the Poker Run in September, which features hundreds of boats from as far away as Canada.

Find Dolphins in the Gulf

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Alabama, is a popular destination for family vacations during the summer. But for tour groups, it offers a different kind of excitement: getting up close with a pod of dolphins.

Dolphins love the warm waters of the Gulf Coast, and the area around Gulf Shores is one of the best places for visitors to see them in the wild. Numerous operators offer dolphin-watching excursions.

“There are all kinds of dolphin cruises,” said Beth Gendler, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “We have educational dolphin cruises, as well as fast boats, where dolphins swim and jump in the wake of the boats. That’s fun for them, and they’re very playful.”

Dolphins are a protected species, and boat crews are strictly prohibited from feeding them or doing anything else to attract them. But local captains have become so familiar with the area’s dolphin population that they usually know where to find them and have even given some of them nicknames.

“The captains interact a lot with the people on the boat and tell lots of jokes,” Gendler said. “They’re really great about educating you. Last time I went, the captain was talking about how male dolphins typically swim by themselves. But female dolphins, if they’re carrying a baby, have another female swimming with them to protect them.”

Other popular water activities around Gulf Shores include fishing charters, which can accommodate up to 40 passengers, and guided kayaking ecotours, which highlight the waterfowl that live in the area. Groups can take guided Segway tours through the 6,100-acre Gulf State Park to see alligators and other local wildlife.

Discover Mark Twain’s Mississippi

Hannibal, Missouri

Celebrated author Mark Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and based many of his characters and novels on people he met during his childhood in this Mississippi River town. Today, groups can get a taste of the writer’s childhood on the river with a cruise aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat.

“Mark Twain grew up here, creating mischief and playing on the river,” said Steve Terry, the riverboat’s captain. “The river was only two blocks from his home, so it was a major part of his childhood. I want people to look out and imagine seeing him as a young man down here, borrowing somebody’s boat to go out fishing.”

Visitors can visualize this scene during sightseeing cruises on the Mississippi River. During the excursions, the captain tells stories from Twain’s days on the river and points out notable scenery, including a historic lighthouse, a railroad bridge and other structures dating to the 1800s.

The Mark Twain Riverboat is 123 feet long and can accommodate up to 350 passengers. The three-deck vessel offers a mix of indoor and outdoor seating. During the daytime, hourlong sightseeing cruises focus on history and scenery. In the evening, the company offers a dinner cruise.

“Our dinner cruise is two hours,” Terry said. “It features a two-entree buffet and live entertainment. You get to see the sunset. You enjoy the experience of the evening on the river, with a good meal, good music and dancing.”

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.