When you think of a cruise, your mind often drifts to tropical islands and European wonders. But did you know that many cruises go to places right here in the U.S.? These U.S. cruises take advantage of ports on the east and west coasts, as well as river and small ship cruises that visit cities and small towns across America. Top advantage? You might be able to drive to your cruise. Bonus? You'll get to see a new part of the U.S.A., with the convenience of only unpacking once.
Read on to see our top surprise cruise destinations in the U.S.
Why: The country music capital of the world isn't anywhere close to an ocean. Good thing that U.S. river cruising is alive and well. Nashville sits on the banks of the Cumberland River, and is the jumping off point for cruises that can take several routes. The main one brings passengers to Memphis via an Americana-filled journey that encompasses stops on the Cumberland River, the Ohio River and the Mississippi River. The other takes a southern detour down the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, stopping at Civil War battlefields and other small towns. And finally, the Nashville to Louisville route allows you to bookend your trip with a city that also knows how to party (mint juleps, anyone?)
Who Sails There: American Queen Voyages does the Nashville to Memphis route, as well as the Nashville to Louisville trip. American Cruise Lines focuses on the Nashville to Memphis itinerary, as well as Nashville to Chattanooga.
Why: Grand historic homes, stunning coastal scenery, seafaring museums, lobster rolls (yes, they're big in Rhode Island too) -- Newport has plenty of things to fill up your day in port. The town that personified Gilded Age excess is not on every Canada/New England cruise itinerary, so if you see a sailing that stops here, grab it. The ocean ships that stop here tend to be mid-sized or smaller; the port is simply too small for mega-ships -- and the locals like it that way.
Who Sails There: Newport is on select Canada/New England or East Coast itineraries leaving from New York (both Manhattan and Bayonne), Quebec City, Montreal and even Fort Lauderdale. Occasionally you'll find a Newport stop on a sailing that goes from Boston to Bermuda. Lines that sail to Newport include Norwegian, Oceania, Holland America Line, Princess, Celebrity, Silversea, MSC, Regent, Seabourn and Cunard.
Why: It's wine o'clock all the time in California's Napa Valley. But even if you aren't a fan of the grape, Napa Valley has other things on offer, including fantastic restaurants, hiking and biking and spas. You can reach the Napa Valley two ways by cruise. Ocean ships sailing Pacific Coast cruises that begin in San Diego and Los Angeles usually stop in San Francisco, with enough time to get to Napa on a day trip or excursion. And river cruise lines are just beginning to add itineraries that sail on the Napa River via the bays surrounding San Francisco.
Who Sails There: Princess has a series of coastal California cruises that often sell out quickly because of their limited availability. Other lines include Norwegian, Holland America, and Celebrity. In 2023, American Cruise Lines will be offering sailings that go directly to Napa; as of now, they are the only cruise line doing so.
Why: This maritime town on the Oregon coast, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, is legendary among seafarers for its rough breakers, causing many a shipwreck in its day. No worries now, of course -- but you won't want to miss the town's excellent museum. Plus, fans of '80s pop culture will want to take a walk to find the iconic Goonies house. Both ocean and river cruise ships stop in Astoria, the latter on Columbia and Snake River itineraries.
Who Sails There: Pacific Coast cruises that go from California ports to Seattle or Vancouver usually stop in Astoria,. Lines that make the trip include Norwegian, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Seabourn and Royal Caribbean. Sometimes Astoria is a stop in the U.S. before ships on lines such as Oceania embark on transpacific sailings. Both American Queen Voyages and American Cruise Lines sail on the Columbia River. For something different, look into UnCruise, an expedition small ship line that also runs adventure-and-wine oriented trips in the fall, roundtrip from Portland.
Why: The Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis sit on either side of the Upper Mississippi River, and in the summer have plenty of attractions either before or after your Mississippi River cruise begins. The museums, outdoor activities on the cities' lakes and excellent culinary (and craft beer!) scene have more than enough to keep you occupied (and if you're from other parts of the country, you'll love the low humidity).
Who Sails There: Viking has its ship, Viking Mississippi, sailing regularly from St. Paul. American Queen Voyages and American Cruise Lines also have Upper Mississippi River itineraries. On all ships, you can either stop your cruise part-way in St. Louis or go the whole way south down to New Orleans (or vice versa).
Why: These verdant islands close to the Canadian border are a well-kept secret by those in the Pacific Northwest. Orca whales are a draw in the summer, with pods that return year after year. If you're on an ocean cruise from Seattle to Alaska, you'll probably pass by without stopping, so it's worth looking at small ship companies that base entire itineraries in the archipelago. Most itineraries here also include time in the rainforests and mountains of Olympic National Park
Who Sails There: UnCruise has sailings that focus just on the San Juan Islands, as does American Cruise Line; both leave roundtrip from Seattle. The expedition cruise pioneer Lindblad also does Pacific Northwest itineraries that stop in the San Juans.
Why: Colonial Williamsburg is known as a living history museum, with more Revolutionary War garb than you can shake a butter churn at. Given its popularity as a tourist site, it's strange how long it's taken for nearby Yorktown -- where the U.S. War for Independence ended -- to welcome cruise ships. The area known as Virginia's Historic Triangle (the colonial settlement of Jamestown makes up the third corner) is just starting to appear on cruise itineraries but we predict it won't be long until more lines add it on, as the sites appeal to history buffs and families alike (there's also a Six Flags park in Williamsburg for when the kids get sick of reenactments).
Who Sails There: Princess is adding Yorktown to its port of calls in 2024 on sailings from Boston. If you can't wait until then, American Cruise Lines has a Revolutionary War-themed itinerary that sails roundtrip from Baltimore.
Why: This small island town on Lake Huron, just between Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas, is a picture-perfect summer destination. No cars are allowed on the island, and tourists flock to its horse-drawn carriages, drinks at the Grand Hotel and -- yes, fudge (10,000 pounds of fudge are made daily during the season here). Walk it off on one of the island's hikes or kayaking trips.
Who Sails There: Viking's expedition ships Octantis and Polaris have Mackinac Island as a regular stop on their Great Lakes itineraries. American Queen Voyages also stops there on sailings from Chicago, as does the small ship line Pearl Seas.
Updated March 03, 2023