Scenic cruises bring to light a destination’s hidden wildlife and history. The American South boasts a wide variety of scenic cruises, from airboat swamp tours to river and ocean wildlife adventures.
When your travels take you along Southern waterways, plan to explore them with excursions aboard some of these scenic cruises.
Daisey’s Island Cruises
Chincoteague Island, Virginia
Daisey’s Island Cruises takes visitors on an ocean journey unlike any other. The two-hour cruise takes visitors on the hunt for wild Chincoteague ponies that make their home on Assateague Island, Maryland, which sits off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. The horses, descendants of Spanish horses that were shipwrecked there in the mid-1750s, are the main attraction.
Carlton Leonard, owner and operator of Daisey’s, has numerous six-passenger boats and two large ones that can accommodate up to 100 visitors. The cruises takes guests along the shores of both islands to find “anything that breathes air: dolphins, eagles and shorebirds,” he said. “Sometimes seals.”
Since NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is nearby, Leonard will take guests out to see rocket launches as well.
Every July, thousands of visitors flock to see saltwater cowboys round up the wild ponies and drive them to swim across the shallow channel between the two islands. The cowboys are volunteer firemen who manage the herd on Assateague. The herd is driven into pens on Chincoteague, where some of the ponies are sold off to raise money for the volunteer fire department. The pony swim was memorialized in the classic children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague.”
Airboat Tours by Arthur Matherne
Des Allemands, Louisiana
Visitors to New Orleans or Baton Rouge who want to see alligators, snakes, birds and other Louisiana swamp wildlife up close can travel to Des Allemands, a small town on the Bayou Des Allemands, and take an airboat tour. Airboat Tours by Arthur Matherne takes visitors through both swamp and marshland, a surreal landscape surrounded by iconic moss-draped cypress trees.
“Every day is a new adventure,” said Cathy Matherne, who owns the company with her husband, Arthur. “I think the guides have as much fun as the guests showing off what we take for granted every day. We get people from all over the world and all over the country. Most of them haven’t seen alligators or the swamp or the vegetation.”
Airboat Tours takes its guests onto private swamp land that is usually reserved for duck hunting. The boats travel through dense vegetation in about four feet of water.
The airboat tour guides lure out the largest gators with raw chicken. They are allowed to do that only because they operate on private swamp land, said Matherne. Airboat Tours can accommodate up to 40 passengers at a time. The best time to come out and see the gators is February through mid-June, he said, when the gators are digging themselves out of the mud and coming out to soak up some sunshine.
Southern Belle Riverboat
The Southern Belle Riverboat was built in 1985 to take tourists on scenic cruises from Chattanooga along the Tennessee River.
“It has been a landmark here in the downtown riverfront since then,” said Daniel Paul, a spokesman for the Southern Belle.
The 136-foot boat resembles a stern-wheel boat, but it is driven by two diesel engines. Visitors come for dinner cruises that feature live entertainment and a buffet-style meal, or midday cruises that feature narration and a history lesson about what the boat is passing along the route. The midday cruises can be done with or without a meal.
The third deck of the riverboat is reserved for passengers who just want to lounge and watch the scenery. The Southern Belle can also host weddings, family reunions and business functions. It can hold about 450 people, but the riverboat company likes to keep it under 300 so visitors have a better experience on board.
The cruise takes visitors past the downtown Chattanooga skyline, numerous bridges, Maclellan Island, a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the river and the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. Some of the views along the river are the same as they were during the Civil War.
“There are a lot of wonderful sights,” Paul said. Passengers can also take a pilothouse tour while aboard.
“We encourage everyone to go up and meet the captain,” he said.
Ship Island Excursions
From March to October, Ship Island Excursions takes passengers 11 miles off the coast of Mississippi to Ship Island in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, where people can lounge on the white-sand beaches or take a tour of the Civil War Fort Massachusetts. The ride to and from the island allows guests to scout for schools of fish and lots of dolphins.
Ship Island Excursions offers sunset cruises, dolphin-watching cruises and even DJ-led dance cruises, but its most popular is the cruise out to the barrier islands.
“People really enjoy getting away,” said Kevin Buckel, director of marketing for Ship Island Excursions. “When you go out there, from the time you leave to the time you go back, you are away. There is no cellphone service that far out, so people really feel like they are getting away from it all.”
The dolphin cruise can take up to 75 people. “We could do more, but generally we don’t like to overcrowd the boat,” Buckel said. For that tour, the company uses the wooden boat built by Buckel’s grandfather in 1932. “We still keep it in service and keep it in the family. It is our backup boat to Ship Island.”
It takes about an hour to get from Gulfport to Ship Island. Ship Island Excursions has a concession with the National Park Service to ferry people out to the undeveloped island. Hurricane Camille split the island in two but the Corps of Engineers is putting it all back together, Buckel said.
Florida Water Tours
St. Augustine, Florida
Florida Water Tours takes advantage of its location in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in America, to offer historical tours of the waterfront, along with dolphin and wildlife adventures.
The dolphin and wildlife adventure is a daytime cruise that is great for all ages. A marine naturalist onboard talks about the wildlife passengers are seeing along the way, as well as the history of the city and the downtown riverfront area. Visitors see manatees, ospreys, dolphins, bald eagles, egrets and herons. A family of manatees lives in the marina, and guests can also gawk at sea turtles and pelicans.
The 45-foot pontoon boat is covered by an awning so visitors can sit in the shade with the windows open or closed. The cruise can take 38 passengers at a time.
Sunset cruises are very popular because dolphins are still out and about, but guests get to see St. Augustine from the water at night. Once a month, the company offers full-moon tours.
“It’s cool to get out there in the night and see the stars,” said Jessica Jadick, owner of Florida Water Tours. “We bring you up close to the bay front to see everything lit up.”
Florida Water Tours has been in business for four years.
“We just started doing wine-tasting tours on the water,” Jadick said. “Guests get six samples of wine and then one full glass of wine.
While they are tasting wine, travelers get the same wildlife and history tour as the company’s other daytime cruises.