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For many travelers, a river cruise means gliding down the Rhone or the Rhine, pausing to explore quaint villages and sample local wines. American river cruises offer the same unhurried travel experience — without French chateaux, of course, but also without the costly airfare and challenges of traveling overseas.

The other advantages of American river cruises include:

• Smaller ships: River cruise ships, by necessity, are smaller than oceangoing vessels, creating a more intimate experience. Spacious staterooms are available, however.
• Quiet, casual ambiance: No formal attire. No party animals. (Well, maybe a few…) Passengers on U.S. river cruises tend to be 55-plus, with shared interests in history and nature.
• More inclusions: While ocean cruise lines love to charge passengers for extras, U.S. river cruises usually include shore excursions, beverages, and wine and beer with dinner.

Here are a few of the best river cruises in the U.S., from Oregon to Florida.

1. Blues and barbecue: Mississippi River cruises

There’s no better way to experience the grand Mississippi than with a classic American river cruise on a paddle wheeler. These aren’t antiquated vessels, either, but state-of-the-art ships like the America, with huge staterooms and elegant lounges. River cruise companies tour both the upper Mississippi — St. Louis to Minneapolis — and the lower, from Memphis to New Orleans.

Which cruise should you choose? Well, do you like Mark Twain or Elvis Presley? Bald eagles or barbecue? Upper Mississippi river cruises take you to historic river towns like Hannibal, Mo., and Dubuque, Iowa, as well as the stunning bluffs of Red Wing, Minnesota. Lower Mississippi cruises are centered on Southern culture: antebellum mansions, Civil War battlefields and blues on Beale Street. For a grand, once-in-a-lifetime experience, you can spend three weeks cruising the entire Mississippi River.

2. Bourbon and city lights: Ohio River cruises

The Mississippi isn’t the only mighty river coursing through the Midwest. The Ohio River, which runs for nearly a thousand miles from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cairo, Ill., is home to riverboat cruises that include both big cities and quaint towns. In eleven days, you can see St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, Louisville’s Jim Beam distillery, Cincinnati’s historic architecture and Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington overlook. If your favorite part of that sentence was “distillery,” then there’s an Ohio River cruise you can’t miss: the nine-day bourbon cruise from the American Queen Steamboat Company. As the boat travels from Memphis to Louisville, this specialty cruise dives deep into the American tradition of bourbon-making with tastings, lectures and cooking demonstrations.

3. Palm trees and manatees: Florida River cruises

One of the lesser-known American river cruises carries you through the most beautiful parts of northern Florida, far from the theme-park madness. The eight-day Great Rivers of Florida cruise begins in Jacksonville, then travels along the St. Johns and Tolomato rivers to the historic towns of Palatka, Green Cove Springs and St. Augustine. Along the way, you can see endangered manatees, spot abundant birds and observe alligators (from a comfortable distance).

4. Canyons and coasts: Columbia River cruises

Have you ever wondered how Meriwether Lewis and William Clark felt when, in 1805, they reached the Pacific Ocean after their 4,000-mile trek? Experience the awe-inspiring views for yourself (minus the blisters) by retracing the explorers’ journey along the Columbia River.

Columbia River cruises typically depart from Portland, Ore., and end in Clarkston, Wash. Highlights include the Victorian-era coastal town of Astoria, where ‘80s classic “The Goonies” was filmed; Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood; the scenic Columbia River Gorge; and Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America, where you can see ancient Native American petroglyphs. To add some period authenticity to your river cruise, sail aboard the S.S. Legacy, a historic-replica steamship operated by UnCruise Adventures. The décor is very 1900, but don’t worry — you still get a TV in your cabin.

5. Bright leaves and grand estates: Hudson River cruises

One day, you’re enjoying the electric energy of New York City; the next, you’re taking in the tranquil landscapes of the Catskills. That’s the experience you get on a Hudson River voyage, one of the most beautiful river cruises in the U.S. American Cruise Lines’ eight-day itinerary takes you from New York to Albany, Poughkeepsie and West Point, with shore excursions to historic estates like Hyde Park, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthplace. The best time for this river cruise is late September through early November, when the fall colors are at their peak.

When you’re planning a river cruise, don’t forget that travel insurance covers domestic trips, too. Protect yourself from travel delays, lost baggage, emergency trip cancellations and trip interruptions with affordable trip insurance from Allianz Global Assistance. Get a free quote for your next journey.

Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.

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