Cruising the Carolinas

Boatloads of cruises from the coast to the mountains

Thanks to an abundance of bodies of water and coastline from the Atlantic Ocean to mountain lakes and many other options in between, enjoying a boat tour or cruise in the Carolinas is easy. Whether it’s simply hopping on a regularly scheduled cruise or booking an independent excursion, cruising in the Carolinas is smooth sailing for everyone.


From its pristine coastline to the Midlands and Upstate foothills and mountain lakes, South Carolina is blessed with lots of cruising options. Whether it’s a trip out on the Atlantic or on a crystal-clear lake, the Palmetto State has something for everyone when it comes to cruising.

The Myrtle Beach area has an abundance of boat tour possibilities including dolphin tours, wildlife watching, sunset cruises, Brookgreen Gardens “creek excursions” and more. Nearby towns like Murrells Inlet and historic Georgetown also have options, including the many offerings with Capt. Dick’s at Crazy Sister Marina in water-focused Murrells Inlet.

The historic Charleston area also has lots of options on the water. Possibilities include: Charleston Harbor Tours; Fort Sumter Tours; Sandlapper Water Tours; the Schooner Pride tall ship; and many regular offerings from SpiritLine Cruises (including harbor tours, dinner cruises, entertainment and more). Heading further into the Lowcountry, Beaufort River Tours features dolphin-spotting and more right out of historic downtown Beaufort. 

  • Save $2 on adult tickets and $1 off tickets for children with Sandlapper Water Tours and SpiritLine Cruises. Save $2 on adult ticket price at Charleston Harbor Tours.

Down on Hilton Head Island, many more options await. For instance, Adventure Cruises (dolphin cruises and more) features departures out of bustling Shelter Cove Harbour and Commander Zodiac runs varied trips (also offering dolphin cruises) out of South Beach Marina. In addition, the Vagabond Cruise, with shrimping trips, dolphin watching, trips to nearby Daufuskie Island (where Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide was based), cruises to historic Savannah and more, and goes out of scenic Harbour Town near the picturesque lighthouse.

Moving inland, lots of lovely South Carolina lakes make getting out on the water easy. Possibilities include: Lake Marion; Lake Murray; Lake Jocassee; Lake Keowee and several more. Fisheagle Tours, featuring wildlife swamp tours and more, launches from Lake Marion’s Santee State Park and elsewhere. The Spirit of Lake Murray, on Lake Murray west of Columbia, also provides another perfect example of the possibilities in South Carolina’s Midlands region. Several other South Carolina state parks are situated on Upcountry lakes and the varied tours out of Devils Fork State Park on Lake Jocassee with Jocassee Lake Tours are particularly popular. Other Upcountry lakes with boat cruises include Lake Keowee (with tours through Keowee Lakeshop) and Lake Hartwell (no guided tours, but boat rentals for do-it-yourselfers through Big Water Marina).

Trip Tip

While you’re in the Upcountry area, carve out some time to explore beyond the lakes. Soak up some history during the 237th Anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens on Jan. 13 and 14, 2018. The Cowpens National Battlefield will host author and historian talks, cavalry demonstrations, 18th-century weapons firing and other events. See our Calendar of Events on page 24 for more information.

Other historic points of interest include the Pickens County Museum of Art & History. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 1903 building served as the town jail. Today it houses Pickens County artifacts, art galleries featuring local the work of local artists, and a museum shop.

From outdoor excursions like waterfall hikes to indoor amusements like art gallery strolls, there is lots to discover. In addition, boutique shops, varied accommodations and extensive dining choices await visitors to Upcountry South Carolina.


North Carolina’s abundant coastline provides ample water adventueres. Varied cruises can head out into the Atlantic, hug the shoreline or cruise the Intracoastal Waterway. Several options include lighthouse viewing and there are also lots of fishing outings for those in search of the big one.

The waterlogged Outer Banks are a great base for boat tours of all types. For instance, Capt. Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours departs directly from Manteo’s waterfront boardwalk, including “Guaranteed Dolphin Watch” tours, while many other boat tours and fishing excursions depart from the beach towns out on the barrier islands. 

Heading down the coastline, the Crystal Coast beckons with many boat tours and cruises. The options include Crystal Coast Lady Cruises, which can feature wild ponies, dolphins, shelling, fishing, meals and more, and Island Express Ferry Service, which is the designated ferry operator for the most popular spots on Cape Lookout National Seashore. Further down the coast, the Belle of Topsail out of Surf City offers seasonal cruises on a 55-foot replica of a turn-of-the-century riverboat.

The Wilmington area — including the quaint Cape Fear River town itself, Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach — also features a large number and variety of cruise options. These range from Cape Fear River sightseeing tours, evening sunset trips and Black River nature cruises. You can also enjoy private charters with Cape Fear Riverboats that depart right from downtown to lots of beach-based adventures on the Atlantic, the Intracoastal Waterway, and many other waterways in the region. Down in the famed fried seafood haven of Calabash, the Hurricane Fleet features dolphin tours in addition to their popular fishing trips.

Heading inland, several other river towns feature interesting cruising possibilities. These include: Jacksonville’s Bayonet Enterprises Cruises; Palm Coast Tours & Sailing and Cruise the Neuse Pontoon Boat Tours in New Bern; “River Roving” boat tours out of Washington’s North Carolina Estuarium; and Edenton Bay Cruises in picturesque Edenton.

Heading even further inland, many popular lakes and boat tours await. North of downtown Charlotte, scenic Lake Norman (North Carolina’s “inland sea”) remains a popular boating destination, including varied boats and tour options with Queens Landing in Mooresville. Further west, lovely Lake Lure features regular pontoon tours with Lake Lure Tours that highlight natural and cultural history (including filming locations for Dirty Dancing), while Fontana Marina in Fontana Village Resort also offers pontoon cruises.  

A Carolina cruise is just a phone call away. Call your AAA Travel Agent at 800-398-0379 for hotel reservations and additional discount information.

(Jan/Feb 2018 Go Magazine)

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