Discovering the natural side of Florida and the Deep South with American Cruise Lines

Jeannine Williamson sees a side of Florida that’s a world away from Mickey Mouse and his chums on an American Cruise Lines sailing that’s perfect for over 50s.

The Intracoastal Waterway provides a very unusual way to take a cruise holiday with a difference in the US.

“You can tell the length of an alligator by counting the inches between its eyes and nostrils and turning that number into feet,” explains Captain Mike as our small boat passes one of the reptiles snoozing stock-still in the afternoon sunshine by the water’s edge.

He explains they also remain motionless for a long time to conserve energy. Needless to say, I’m in no rush to put his measuring theory to the test. Our wildlife tour on one of the five large lakes in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina continues and along the way we spot yellow-bellied pond slider turtles and a magnificent great blue heron.

Walking back through the small town we stop at the squat red and white striped Harbour Town lighthouse, an island landmark. Inside, I climb up through history as the walls provide the novel backdrop for a circular museum charting the region’s. In 1956 the first bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway connected the island to the mainland and saw Hilton Head develop into a quiet community with protected natural areas.

A winding waterway

The Intracoastal Waterway – officially known as the ICW and affectionately called ‘the ditch’ – is a snaking route extending 3,000 miles along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. It is also the reason I’m here. While trips along the mighty Mississippi spring to mind if you think of US river cruising, the watercourse that developed as a practical method of transporting goods in an area where, at one time, there weren’t many roads. Nowadays it also provides a fascinating and lesser-known all-American holiday.

Indeed, my journey began in Florida which is famous for its theme parks, man-made lazy rivers and animal encounters of the cartoon variety. Fun as that is, American Cruise Lines provides a very different experience. It’s a trip filled with awe-inspiring natural sights and a legacy to the resourcefulness of the men that spent decades digging the canals and channels to create an interconnecting artery of rivers, creeks, sounds, lagoons winding past barrier islands and the mainland coastline which finally opened in 1949.

I’m aboard the 100-passenger American Independence, part of the large fleet of traditional and contemporary vessels operated by the line. It’s a very comfortable and welcoming ship. Visiting Brits won’t have any difficulty striking up conversations and making friends with fellow travellers – the British accent is an instant ice breaker – and the majority are over 50, many of them retired. From winter 2023 there will also be the option of sailing on one of American Cruise Line’s brand new ‘coastal cats’; sleek modern catamarans that carry up to 109 guests.

Multiple experiences ashore and on board

On the week-long sailing from Amelie Island into Georgia and South Carolina, each day brought a choice of different shore tours. One day we visited the turtle rehabilitation centre on Jekyll Island followed by the newly imagined Mosaic museum. Contrary to what we expected, the latter turned out to be a gallery piecing together snippets from the island’s past. Once a 19th century playground for some of America’s wealthiest families we also visited one of their holiday ‘cottages’. It turned out to be an opulent mansion.

Every aspect of the region was showcased, from plantations to the Civil War sites, forts, gardens and film locations (Forrest Gump and The Prince of Tides to name a couple). One night I joined a stroll to explore the ‘dark side’ of Savannah; all the more atmospheric for the flickering gas lamps lighting the streets and trees cloaked in ghostly Spanish moss.

Back on American Independence there were perceptive and thought-provoking talks from resident historian and retired airline pilot Robbie Robinson. We learned about the vagaries of navigating the tidal ICW and the geography and ecosystem of the marshy area where rice production was ‘queen’ before cotton became ‘king’. There were art classes, too. I also enjoyed spending time on the sun deck, watching pelicans and gulls following the wake of the ship and wetlands where watchful herons and cormorants also kept an eye out for their next meal.

American pie

The same couldn’t be said for us. Each day was liberally punctuated by mealtimes and snacks, many featuring comforting southern soul food. That said, if you haven’t got a big appetite you can order half portions at lunch and dinner, which is a welcome touch. The twice-daily call of “cookie time” heralded the arrival of an ever-smiling waitress with a tray of freshly-baked cookies in search of peckish passengers.

On our trip with Captain Mike we also found out that alligators carry on growing sideways once they’ve reached their optimum length. I related to that as I left the ship after a few too many servings of sweet treats such as the previously unchartered culinary territory of turtle cheesecake (think chocolate, caramel and pecan topping). However, any temporary extra girth was well worth it for a trip which provided a unique taste of America and a great holiday for silver travellers looking for a new stateside experience.

Find out more

American Cruise Lines ( offers a variety of small ship cruises along the Intracoastal Waterway and rivers and coastline of Florida including the seven-night Historic South & Golden Isles itinerary rom Amelia Island to Charleston, or in reverse. Available through Fred. Holidays (, fares include flights, a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay, excursions, drinks and gratuities.

To book a voyage with American Cruise Lines and get further information, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678.


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Jeannine Williamson

Award-winning travel writer

One Response

  1. One of the aspects of cruising which has often put me off, is the constant food! So, it’s good to read that half portions are offered at both lunch and dinner.

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