As alternatives to motorcoach travel, river cruises and scenic rail excursions can brighten any group tour itinerary in the South. Bonus features like meals and entertainment often combine to create a venue that can stand alone as a day-trip destination or highlight any day or evening of a longer tour.
This state-by-state guide, supplementing the options described in the June issue of Leisure Group Travel Magazine, is not intended as a comprehensive list of every available train trip or river ride, but highlights some that are particularly popular with groups.
Let’s look at some cruise opportunities in the South:
The Southern Belle is moored at Bellingrath Gardens & Home near Mobile and does eco-tours down the Fowl River in an estuary environment among homes and estates. The Southern Belle is a 150-passenger vessel with an enclosed lower deck that is heated or cooled for your comfort. The Kingfisher is a 20-passenger, open-air vessel that is ideal for cruising and exploring the river environment. Both vessels are available for charter.
The Belle of Louisville, a magnificent steamboat docked in downtown Louisville’s Waterfront Park, is in its 96th year. With a capacity of 750 from April to October and 300 during the winter months, the Belle has a newly air-conditioned and heated ballroom deck, concession stand and bar, dance floor, full onboard sound system, indoor and outdoor seating, and a handicap lift that can take passengers to ballroom deck. She also has a working calliope. Sightseeing cruises along the Ohio River, not to mention lunch, dinner and special events cruises, are available.
The Creole Queen, an authentic paddlewheeler in New Orleans, is a luxurious vessel featuring three private dining rooms and lunch or dinner cruises with jazz music down the Mississippi River.
Steamboat Natchez, billed as “the last authentic steamboat sailing the Mighty Mississippi,” features both lunch and dinner cruises with jazz music. Moored along New Orleans’ scenic Riverwalk (as is the Creole Queen), the boat offers group rates and an opportunity to arrange specially-priced packages that include New Orleans city tours.
Barrier islands cruising is available through at least 33 different charter companies that take groups out to Mississippi’s barrier islands, with dolphin and bird watching a popular activity. Daily ferry service is available from Biloxi to West Ship Island and Fort Massachusetts (circa 1858), part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. The island, about 10 miles offshore from Gulfport/Biloxi, offers quality beaches and clear Gulf waters for swimming, shelling, sunbathing and bird watching.
Cape Fear Riverboats offers cruises along the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.
Outer Banks cruises. A vast variety of shrimping, crabbing, sunset dolphin watching and coastal sightseeing cruises are available along North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Spirit of Carolina provides sightseeing, lunch and dinner cruises in and around Charleston. Docked across the river in Mt. Pleasant, it also operates sightseeing cruises to Fort Sumter, a major Civil War site.
The Knoxville Star sails the Tennessee River through downtown Knoxville. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and party cruises can be customized for groups, and live entertainment is often provided by a country comedy gospel group.
The Southern Belle Riverboat, departing downtown Chattanooga’s Ross Landing, sails the Tennessee River, offering both lunch and dinner excursions and fall foliage and other specialty cruises. A build-your-own-sandwich buffet at lunch and a prime rib buffet at dinner are complemented by live entertainment. Live narration regales passengers with river lore and history.
The mighty Mississippi is home Memphis Riverboats (Island Queen, Memphis Queen II, Memphis Queen III, Memphis Showboat), a fleet that provides sightseeing cruises and can customize meal functions and entertainment for groups.
Spirit of Norfolk departs from Waterside Festival Marketplace in downtown Norfolk. The excursion covers the Elizabeth River waterfront with spectacular skyline views of the mighty ships of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet.
And from river to rail:
North Alabama Scenic Railroad offers 10-mile roundtrips over a section of the historic Huntsville Branch of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. Located on the eastern outskirts of Huntsville, the complex features a train museum, and holiday-themed excursions are offered throughout the year.
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. The centerpiece of a utopian village nestled in the beautiful North Georgia mountains is the historic (more than 100 years old) Blue Ridge Scenic Railway depot, where the train begins its 26-mile roundtrip journey through historic Murphy Junction along the Toccoa River. Each trip stops in McCaysville, Ga. and allows passengers to disembark and explore the town and its sister village of Copper Hill, Tenn.
Big South Fork Scenic Railway chugs along the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway on a 16-mile roundtrip into the Daniel Boone National Forest and Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. This trip is full of scenic vistas, lush vegetation and mountain streams as it descends 600 feet into the gorge before stopping at Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp, a NPS outdoor interpretive site. Your ticket also includes admission to the McCreary County Museum in Stearns. The K&T Special departs April through October. Roundtrips vary from 3 to 3½ hours.
Kentucky Railway offers train robberies, mystery theater excursions and a special “Bells & Whistles” tour package for groups. Based in the tiny village of New Haven (near Bardstown), the L&N 152 anchors an extensive railway museum and transports passengers through the scenic Rolling Fork River Valley. Meal packages are available.
South Carolina Railway Museum offers rides along five miles of the old Rocton, Rion and Western Railway. As the official railroad museum of South Carolina, the SCRM has accumulated many pieces of rolling stock by way of gift from the Charleston chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. The equipment includes various types of freight and passenger cars as well as a steam locomotive that once belonged to the Hampton and Branchville Railroad. More equipment has been acquired including cabooses, freight cars and diesel engines.
Tennessee Central Railway departs from downtown Nashville for the village of Watertown, approximately one hour away, for a full-year’s schedule of special events held there, including the Mile-Long Yard Sale and holiday-themed events. The newest excursions go a bit farther—to the Cumberland Plateau communities of Cookeville and Monterey. The museum headquarters is located in the former Tennessee Central Railway master mechanic’s office at 220 Willow Street near downtown Nashville. The building houses offices, a library and a collection of railroad material, including the largest collection of Tennessee Central Railway artifacts to be found anywhere.