Small Ships in the Old South

There’s plenty of Southern charm in small-ship cruising – both on board and on land.

Intimate experiences, fascinating history and picturesque destinations have made river cruising a growing trend around the globe. But you don’t have to head to Europe or China to get the experience. Small ship cruising in the southern U.S. gives clients a glimpse at some of the country’s most engaging attractions and scenic areas—and it’s all in their own backyard.

blount small ship adventures With five different itineraries in its Southern Charm category, Blount Small Ship Adventures offers clients the widest range of destinations in the south—and one of the widest ranges of experiences, too. Among the line’s unique offerings, explains Nancy Blount, president, are a stop in Brunswick, Georgia, known as “the shrimp capital of the world,” where “our naturalist leads you on a journey of exploration into the region’s geology and coastal wildlife. In beautiful Beaufort, South Carolina,” she continues, “a walking tour highlights Gullah history before an estuarian delves into the world of salt marsh marine life.” There are also group discussions about the history of apothecaries in Alexandria, Virginia; interactive drawing demonstrations by local artists in Wilmington, North Carolina; an onboard lecture on Beaufort, North Carolina’s Shackleford wild horses; and more.

“We have built some unique experiences into our Southern programs,” Blount says. “Our destination managers work diligently to uncover the most interesting and engaging facets of an area. We look for information and experiences that our travelers have both heard about, and those they may not be aware of to enhance their vacation.” So while one of Blount’s most popular southern experiences is a tour of Colonial Williamsburg, lesser-known tours also draw big crowds—a behind-the-scenes tour of the North Carolina Museum, for example, or the “Beautiful Beaufort” walking tour of Antebellum architecture.

That strategy applies to the ports of call themselves, which range from urban centers like Savannah and Jacksonville to small, little-known offshore islands. “As a small ship with unique design features, we can visit ports that other ships simply cannot,” Blount explains. “A shallow draft, retractable pilot house and bow ramp get our passengers closer than others can hope to. Because of our unique features we inherently offer a more unique experience.”

And that range offers a unique onboard experience for clients, too. Blount’s ships all take fewer than 100 passengers, giving each client the privacy to unwind and enjoy his surroundings. The Grand Caribe, one of several ships serving Southern itineraries, maxes out at 96 passengers, for example—and was completely renovated in 2009, giving guests new furniture and decor from staterooms to public spaces, plus new bathrooms and a state-of-the-art entertainment system.

The line’s most requested itinerary, Southern Antebellum, “…covers a multitude of tour highlights and romantic Southern ports as we cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway,” Blount explains. The tour starts in Jacksonville, then heads to Amelia Island, where clients can take a walking tour through the destination’s picturesque historic quarter and the Amelia Island Museum. In St. Mary’s, Florida, they’ll have the opportunity to visit the submarine museum with a local expert. Next stop: Jekyll Island, a former vacation spot for the elites of the Jazz Age, that today shows off its natural assets; clients can see turtles and coastal birds on tours here. The focus on nature continues in Brunswick with the naturalist’s tours before clients land in Savannah to soak up its galleries, spectacular architecture and gourmet, home-style restaurants. After a stop in Beaufort, clients arrive at their final stop, Charleston, where they have an entire day to tour plantations, markets, parks and museums before they disembark the following morning. Rates start at $2,299.

Blount also gives clients the opportunity to combine the experience of the Old South with a few northern destinations, with its Cultures & Traditions: Charleston to the Chesapeake cruise, offering a handful of new shore excursions and onboard programs. In Oxford, Maryland, “a local expert describes the lives of locals known as ‘watermen,’” Blount describes. In Crisfield, Maryland, they’ll have fun “sampling the local flavors with onboard ‘crab picking,’” and in Baltimore, they’ll learn about the wines of the region. Rates start at $2,949.

american cruise lines Providing one-of-a-kind experiences in engaging destinations is also American Cruise Lines’ recipe for success, says Timothy Beebe, v.p. of marketing. “In most of our ports, we try our hardest to get behind the scenes,” he explains. “If we go to an art museum, we’re not doing a public tour; we have the curator come out and explain what pieces are there, or maybe you’ll get to see a piece being restored. If we go to a historical house or plantation, we get an expert to come along with us to bring it up a notch. That really makes it much more special.”