Shallow Waters 7-9-2005

Cruising Florida's narrow waterways

By: Gayle Christensen

The taxi driver delivering us to the American Eagle docked at Fort Myers’ Yacht Basin in Florida was skeptical when we explained our itinerary. During the next week, the American Eagle would bring us across southern Florida on the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee, across the lake and through a series of locks into the St. Lucie Canal. From the canal, we would meander north in the Intracoastal Waterway ending in Jacksonville, a total of approximately 400 nautical miles.

Our driver’s uncertainty was understandable considering the width and shallowness of some of the waterways. Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake in the country, has an average depth of nine feet. The 179-foot-long American Eagle with its six-foot draft is ideally suited to southern Florida’s shallow, narrow waterways. Since this unique itinerary operates only early spring and late fall, the ship is still a novelty to locals.

American Cruise Lines offers nine itineraries ranging from six to 14 nights on U.S. waterways between Maine and Florida.

Built in 2000, the American Eagle accommodates 49 passengers in full comfort, and staterooms are much larger than those we had on other small ships. Our Category A stateroom (the least expensive accommodation) was more than 200 square feet and nicely appointed with a full-size bathroom. All staterooms have an interior entrance, picture window, TV and air conditioning, and the most deluxe staterooms also have balconies.

Breakfast on the Eagle is either continental or made to order with fresh fruit and juice. Lunch and dinner offer at least two choices of entree, usually meat or fish. Meals are nicely prepared and attractively presented in the glass-enclosed dining room, all meals are open seating and attire is casual.

Besides its generously sized staterooms and new ships, American Cruise Lines has other advantages. Every evening, a complimentary cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres offers every choice of beverage, and several comfortable lounges are available.

On the down side, long cruising days were confining and eould have been a good time for onboard lectures to up the cruises’ educational value. For example, a naturalist would have heightened our appreciation of Lake Okeechobee its flora, fauna and preservation efforts. Information about the lake wasn’t distributed until after transit was completed, however. Although the cruise lines’ brochure touts onboard historians and wildlife experts, a local guide didn’t come aboard until the fifth evening of our cruise.

On our sixth evening, a slide show of Florida’s wildlife was well presented but would have been more appropriate earlier in the cruise.

Four optional excursions were also available. At Fort Pierce, a visit to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution showcased resources used by marine biologists, including manned submersibles, which operate at a depth of 3,000 feet. A full-day trip to the Kennedy Space Center provided views of launch pads, vehicle assembly and the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Our day in St. Augustine, the oldest permanent European settlement in the country, began with a trolley tour of the city’s many historic sites, and later, we were free to explore at our leisure. Our final excursion was to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island with a guided walk to sample the many charming Victorian homes.

Our fellow passengers on this slow-paced cruise were older and most had done prior small-ship cruising.


Gayle Christensen is a travel consultant with Alamo World Travel, in Alamo, Calif.