“There’s nothing better than sitting on the outside deck and riding a boat down the river.”
Nancy Wilhoite, director of business development for BB Riverboats in northern Kentucky, believes sightseeing cruises are the perfect antidote for anyone tired of sitting inside at home. And she has a point: With dramatic scenery, delicious food and delightful entertainment, sightseeing cruises offer distinctive experiences for travelers ready to hit the road again.
Sightseeing and dining cruise excursions are often the highlights of group tour itineraries. Consider adding one of these cruises to your 2021 travel plans.
You may not know much about Newport, Kentucky, but you’ve probably heard of its neighboring city just across the Ohio River: Cincinnati. On a sightseeing cruise with BB Riverboats, groups get to experience the best of destinations.
“We cruise through the port of Cincinnati, between northern Kentucky and downtown Cincinnati,” Wilhoite said. “We’re located directly across the river from Cincinnati, so we start off with the Reds stadium and historic Mount Adams. We cruise up the river and talk about the history of the city and how it was founded by the steamboats of years past. Then, when we turn around and come back through the harbor under the Roebling Suspension Bridge, which was the prototype for the Brooklyn Bridge, you see the hills and beautiful homes of northern Kentucky.”
Groups can enjoy the scenery and history of the area on the numerous different excursions offered by the company on its two Victorian-style riverboats: the 1,000-passenger Belle of Cincinnati and the 400-passenger River Queen.
Lunch and dinner cruises prove popular with groups, thanks to the company’s emphasis on high-quality cuisine.
“Our owners were a restaurant family before they started a riverboat company, so food is very important to us,” Wilhoite said. “You can get a boat ride anywhere, but we want you to have a boat ride with good food.”
The signature dish on dinner cruises is roasted, crusted beef sirloin. Other favorites include roasted chicken, whipped potatoes and cheesecake.
After suspending operations at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, BB Riverboats reopened over the Memorial Day weekend. Currently, the company sails at 50% capacity or less, with several social distancing and cleaning measures in place. Scheduling is based on demand.
“We do have some tour groups that are coming back, and they are the reasons we start up cruises,” Wilhoite said. “We’re willing to go out even with a 30-passenger tour group.”
For more than 60 years, Pittsburgh’s Gateway Clipper has been treating travelers to gorgeous views of the Steel City.
“We’re at the point where the Alleghany and Monongahela and Ohio rivers join together,” said president and owner Terry Wirginis, whose grandparents started the company in 1958. “I’ve been to pretty much every port city in the U.S. over my 40-year career, and I’ve actually operated companies in several other cities. But there’s no city that’s more suited to be seen from the river than Pittsburgh is.”
The Gateway Clipper fleet consists of five passenger vessels that can accommodate from 300 to 600 passengers. From April through October, the fleet operates a schedule of nine one-hour sightseeing cruises daily, though the company reduced the schedule to five daily cruises this year to allow for cleanings between departures. There are also dinner cruises, including special holiday cruises.
No matter which cruise they choose, group travel planners will treat their passengers to beautiful views of this dynamic and historic city.
“Vegetation grows right down to the water’s edge,” Wirginis said. “The Pittsburgh skyline feels so close that you could almost reach out and touch it. And the 600-foot-high Mount Washington gives a beautiful green vegetation background across the river from downtown and the skyscrapers. We have really nice architecture that we describe on all the cruises. And on the evening cruises, when you make the turn back toward the city, you’re looking at the sunshine reflecting off the beautiful skyline and the fountain at Point State Park. We always stop the boat there and watch the sun set toward the West.”
Per state guidelines, the Gateway Clipper is now operating at 25% capacity, although Wirginis hopes to get approval for 50% capacity soon. Crew and passengers are required to wear masks, and each vessel is thoroughly cleaned and fogged between sailings.
Savannah Riverboat Cruises
There are many ways to see Savannah, Georgia, including horse-drawn carriages, trolley tours and leisurely strolls around its numerous public parks. But none of those offers the variety of scenery, food and entertainment that passengers get aboard the Georgia Queen.
The 1,000-passenger vessel has three enclosed decks and one open-air deck, which is the perfect place to catch the sights and sounds of River Street.
“Cruises depart from River Street and go under the historic Talmadge Memorial Bridge toward the Georgia port,” said Kayla Boston, cruise and event manager for Savannah Riverboat Cruises. “Then they turn around and come back past Hutchinson Island and Old Fort Jackson. Most days during our lunch or sightseeing cruises, there’s a live cannon firing at the fort when we sail past.”
The daytime cruises last 90 minutes and feature historical narration. During evening dinner or sunset cruises, which last two hours, guests enjoy a live band playing a mix of songs from the 1950s through the 2010s.
Many groups opt for the meal cruises, which feature a menu of classic Southern staples.
“For lunch, we have things like shrimp and grits, our signature Southern fried chicken and prime rib. We’ll also have mac and cheese, sweet potato souffle and collard greens. At dinner, we’ll also have a fresh catch of the day, lemon and artichoke chicken, roast potatoes, squash casserole and dessert. And our Sunday brunch is traditional brunch food — fried chicken, shrimp and grits, ham, quiche and breakfast items like eggs, sausage and cinnamon rolls — served to the table. You can also add an unlimited mimosa package.”
The company offers numerous special-event cruises, including a holiday gospel river cruise in December complete with Christmas decorations.
Currently, the Georgia Queen is sailing at 50% capacity. The crew wear masks at all times, and passengers must also wear masks when not eating or drinking. Like other sightseeing cruise operators, the company has switched from self-service buffets to staff-served meals, with several items served tableside.
MS Dixie II on Lake Tahoe
Zephyr Cove, Nevada
Ask anyone who has visited Lake Tahoe, and they’ll tell you that it’s among the most beautiful spots in Nevada and California. Groups can take in that beauty during a two-and-a-half-hour cruise of the lake’s Emerald Bay aboard the M.S. Dixie II, a 500-passenger paddle-wheeler that departs from Zephyr Cove Marina on the Nevada side.
Emerald Bay is one of the most photographed areas on Lake Tahoe. During the cruise, guests have the opportunity to take their own photos of the scenic bay, with the Sierra Mountains in the background. Along the way, they’ll see waterfalls and wildlife, as well as several historic sites.
Groups love the Tea House perched on top of Fannette Island in the middle of the lake, as well as Vikinsholm, a castlelike structure that is considered one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the United States.
During the sunset dinner cruise, guests get the same scenic tour, with the added bonus of a picturesque sunset. There’s also a plated dinner, cocktails and live entertainment. After the sun sets, many passengers make their way to the open-air outdoor deck for stargazing.
For a high-end, private experience, the company also operates the Tahoe Paradise Yacht, with a window-lined dining room, a full bar and an open sundeck. Groups can charter the yacht and arrange live entertainment and customized menus.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Aramark, which operates the cruises, has employed numerous enhanced health and safety procedures. These include reduced seating, plexiglass shields in public areas, social distancing and mask requirements.