An adventure-filled sail on the 310-mile St. Johns River is one of the best ways to get up close and personal with Florida's unique creatures. The historic waterway, one of the few in the country that flow north, is home to a menagerie of wildlife from manatees to alligators as well as several species of birds and fish. Options to explore St. Johns River range from short two-hour introduction cruises up to multi-day eco and luxury cruises.
St. Johns Rivership Co.
St. Johns Rivership Co. is family-owned and has their home port on Lake Monroe in historic Downtown Sanford.
According to St. Johns Rivership Co., their Barbara-Lee is the only authentic sternwheeler sailing the St. Johns River. It is 105 feet long and five stories high, accommodating up to 194 guests. Enclosed areas are temperature controlled, which is nice depending on the season you're looking to cruise.
What to Expect Onboard
Cruises include live entertainment and a multi-course meal (appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert, and coffee/iced tea). Lunch tours offer guide narration that will point out specific wildlife and talk about the history of steamships that once sailed the St. Johns River. Some of the wildlife you might see include great herons, turtles, egrets, osprey, and even manatees on some occasions.
Once you board, enjoy appetizers at the Great Table. Guests joining a luncheon cruise shouldn't miss their famous Rivership Sticky Buns. Try a signature cocktail, a cold beer, or glass of wine. Plated entrees include options like vegetable lasagna, chicken parmesan, prime rib, and salmon.
Options for cruises with St. Johns Rivership Co. include:
- 3-Hour River Visit Luncheon Cruise
- 4-Hour River Escape Luncheon Cruise
- 3rd Friday Dinner Cruise
- Dinner Dance Cruise
- Saturday or Sunday Luncheon Cruise
Groups of 20 or more can take advantage of group discount rates. If you're a group of 8 to 14 people, inquire about complimentary shuttle service within a 40 mile radius.
Reviews and Pricing
More than 80% of people who've taken this cruise recommend it on TripAdvisor as a 5-star experience. The small number of negative reviews and comments center on less-than-stellar food on board. Yelp reviewers give it 4 and 5 stars for the overall experience. Several people suggest this as a great addition to your family vacation to Orlando. With Sanford less than an hour's drive from Walt Disney World, this is certainly an option to consider if you're looking for non-theme park activities.
Prices start at $46.78 per person for lunch cruises and go up to $60.75 for dinner cruises.
American Cruise Lines
American Cruise Lines offers the Great Rivers of Florida cruise. The eight day, seven night cruise departs from Jacksonville. You start your journey on St. Johns River and head to the charming town of Palatka. From there, you'll cruise the river to Lake George and the Ocala National Forest. Here you might see alligators, bald eagles, and manatees. Other stops include Green Cove Springs, the Tolomato River, St. Augustine, and Amelia Island.
Accommodations on the American Star include:
- Single: 248 square feet, perfect for a solo traveler with twin bed, full bathroom, and balcony
- A: 258 square feet with large picture window and private bathroom
- AA: 258 square feet with large picture window, private bath, and plenty of closet space
- AAL: 263 square feet with a full-size bathroom, private balcony, and large opening picture window
- AAC: 283 square feet, located on the top deck for privacy and a great panoramic view, has a writing desk, closet, full-size bathroom, and private balcony
- Owner's Suite: 350 square feet with hotel-size bathroom, large sitting area, a writing desk, closet, and private balcony
American Cruise Lines specializes in historic river cruises, providing top-notch service on small boats. You get the historic feel of a traditional paddle wheeler with upgraded amenities and luxury touches.
Reviews and Pricing
Cruise Critic reviews are mostly all excellent. The less than satisfactory reviews seem to revolve primarily around lack of entertainment options and how noisy it can be depending on the location of your room.
The Florida cruise operates seasonally. The schedule is updated online through 2019. Cabin prices start at $3,995 for category "A" cabins, and can go up to $6,655 for the Owner's Suite. Single cabins are $5,665.
Capt. Ernie's St. Johns River Tours
Capt. Ernie's St. Johns River Tours depart from Blackwater Inn in Astor, Florida. Pontoon style boats take you on two-hour tours along the river through Blue Creek in the Ocala National Forest.
You'll leave the creek and re-enter the river by Lake George, which is surrounded by the Ocala Forest on one side and Lake George State Forest on the other.
Capt. Ernie's Boats
St. Johns River Tours has two vessels.
- MV Neptune Star: 38-foot tour boat that holds up to 20 passengers; restroom on board; wheelchair accessible
- MV Osprey: 22-foot tour boat with restroom on board; holds 6 passengers or fewer; used for custom half-day and full-day charters
Special Tours Available
Longer tours are available on their new 6-person pontoon boat seasonally, between October and April. Choose from a four-hour or full day tour. Both include a boxed lunch and soft drinks. Options include ham and Swiss or smoked turkey sandwiches.
- Four-Hour Tour: Travel to Alexander Run Creek and enjoy lunch on the creek. Then, venture south along the river in the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge before returning to port.
- Full Day: Travel up St. Johns River past Deland to Hontoon Island. Here you'll have a picnic lunch and check out the visitor center. Hontoon Island State Park is only accessible by boat and is about a three hour journey.
Another option is the Fall foliage tour that runs in November. Along with the changing colors, you'll see migratory birds in town for the winter. You may even see alligators and turtles out of the water, taking advantage of the sun's warmth.
Cruise Tour Rates
Two-hour tours are $25 for adults and $15 for children 10 years and under. Four-hour seasonal tours are $250 for four people or $325 for six people, and the full day option is $450 for four people or $600 for six people.
St. Johns Riverkeeper
St. Johns Riverkeeper's mission is to help protect and restore the St. Johns River. Several times a year, they schedule educational eco-cruises along the St. Johns River that you can book.
Choose between a shorter one day trip on the water or explore further with the two day offering.
- One Day Boat Trip: Go on the water taxi for a guided tour and learn about the river's history, ecology, and current issues.
- Two Day Eco-Heritage: Includes boat travel, ground transportation, catered lunches, parking, speakers, and overnight accommodations
Speakers include various authors, historians, and storytellers. If you're curious about the first-hand experience of one of eco-cruises, Authentic Florida has a fantastic overview of what you can expect to see and do while on the two day trip.
Rates for the two day trip are $350 for single room passengers and $600 for doubles.
St. Johns River Eco Tours
If you're looking for a regular running tour to take, consider St. Johns River Eco Tours.
Boats in the Fleet
They offer two daily tours aboard the Naiad, a state-of-the-art electric and gasoline hybrid catamaran. This custom designed boat is big enough for all the necessities, but small enough to get in areas that the larger and more crowded river tour boats can't. It holds 27 people and is equipped with a sonar and chart plotter, which some other boats may not have.
A smaller 20 foot pontoon boat, the Lady B, is used for tenders and small, private tours. Both boats have captains licensed by the US Coast Guard. They are also experienced nature guides as well.
Eco Tour Details
Tours depart at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. There is a seasonal 4 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. tour available October 15 to November 15 and February 14 to April 30, but it's reservation-only with a minimum of four adults.
Like other tours, sightings of alligators, wading birds (winter migration), and manatees are possible. Some animals you might catch a glimpse of along the river bank include deer, raccoons, otters, bobcats, nine-banded armadillos, feral pigs and Florida black bears.
Location and Rates
St. Johns River Eco Tours is located at channel marker #91 in the marina with Swamp House Grill Restaurant and Highbanks Camp Resort. A helpful tip is to bring a picnic lunch and sit out at the tables on the dock. There is also a country store where you can buy beverages and snacks.
The $45 all-day photo tour allows up to 28 passengers, while the $50 three-hour photo tour and $75 four-hour photo tour are limited to 15 passengers. The two-hour nature tour is $30, with a $3 discount applied for seniors, veterans, and students.
River Cruise Tips
Prior to booking your river cruise with any of the aforementioned companies, it's a good idea to do some research. For example, some companies may not allow children under the age of 14 to sail on dinner cruises, while others have strict policies on the types of foods and beverages you are allowed to bring along on sightseeing voyages.
Some other things to keep in mind:
- Familiarize yourself with cancellation policies.
- Florida is prone to heavy rains and is affected by the Atlantic hurricane season, so bring a waterproof jacket with you.
- Rains tend to occur more in the afternoon, so if you have the option to book a morning trip, go that route.
- Understand that wildlife sightings and interactions are not guaranteed. This is not a zoo-animals are unpredictable in the wild.
- If you're bothered by heat and humidity, choose your cruise wisely.
- Outdoor tours on pontoon boats will be slower and likely not generate much of a breeze. You typically won't find features like ceiling fans either, since they will disturb and scare away wildlife.
- Consider coming in the cooler time of the year if you plan to do one of these outdoor tours.
- Remember to allow extra time for Florida traffic if you're driving in for the day from somewhere else.
- Don't forget to pack your camera!
Choosing a Cruise on the St. Johns River
Before you set your sights on the cypress-covered shoreline and all the animals that call the meandering river home, acquaint yourself with the picturesque St. Johns River. St. Johns is typically referred to as a "lazy" river and spans several miles between Palatka and Jacksonville, Florida. That's where you'll find the majority of cruise companies to choose from, so you can plan your travels and accommodations accordingly.