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8 spectacular fall-foliage cruises

By Sara Morrow, Budget Travel
The Spirit of Peoria sails on the Illinois River. Fall foliage cruises are an alternative way to view changing scenery.
The Spirit of Peoria sails on the Illinois River. Fall foliage cruises are an alternative way to view changing scenery.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Autumn's gold-and-yellow leaf show is free of the distracting red taillights from a boat
  • Cruises range from elegant paddleboats to 100-foot luxury yachts
  • Enjoy warm apple cider or complimentary wine on some voyages
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(Budget Travel) -- As the masses descend on America's most colorful country roads this season, why not try an alternate route? Autumn's gold-and-yellow leaf show is just as breathtaking from the deck of a boat -- and fantastically free of those distracting red taillights.

Casco Bay, Maine

Operating out of South Freeport, Maine -- home to the L.L. Bean flagship store -- Atlantic Seal Cruises offers passengers the chance to see more than just the changing maple trees. On the nearly three-hour-long outings through Casco Bay, passengers often spot cruisers often spot photo-worthy wildlife like seals basking on the shore, and the crew occasionally hauls up lobster traps along the route to demonstrate how to measure and band the tasty crustaceans. atlanticsealcruises.com, September 15 - October 31, $35.

Timing Tip: Check up on how the leaves are changing at the state's official fall foliage site, which starts publishing reports September 15.

Atlantic Ocean, New England and Canada

Talk about making a splash. With 12 departures this fall, MSC Cruises' full-scale ocean voyages cover some of North America's most spectacular leaf-peeping territory. For its inaugural stateside season, the Europe-based company is sending the 2,550-passenger MSC Poesia between New York and Quebec, with ports of call at Prince Edward Island; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Newport, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts; and Bar Harbor, Maine, to name a few.

Not quite ready to kiss warm weather good-bye? MSC's October 23 cruise, Autumn Leaves to Palm Trees, drops travelers at Fort Lauderdale for one last beach fling. Select departures in September and October, from $599 (price is for a six-night cruise and includes meals). msccruises-us.com.

Timing Tip: For updates on foliage around New England, visit Yankee Magazine's fall foliage chronicles.

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Hudson River, New York

Times Square, the Empire State Building, world-class fall foliage. One of the Big Apple's best-kept secrets comes to life each year north of Manhattan. Circle Line Downtown's five-hour cruises depart from the city's South Street Seaport select Saturdays at 11 a.m., bound for the Hudson River Valley, where they sail past a handful of well-groomed state parks and historic small towns like Sleepy Hollow.

With an open sundeck and two enclosed lower decks, there's plenty to do on board: continental breakfast and lunch, a complimentary wine tasting, and college football games broadcast on satellite TV. But once the boat passes Bear Mountain Bridge, all eyes turn to the banks. Watching the pops of red, burnt orange, and yellow on either side of the 400-passenger catamaran, you'll feel like New York City is worlds away.

Book and arrive early -- there's no reserved seating. circlelinedowntown.com, Saturdays October 23 - November 6, $120 (includes meals).

Connecticut River, Connecticut

It's only been operating for about 40 years, but the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat package transports passengers straight back to the 19th century. After boarding a vintage railcar at the 1892 Essex Station in Essex, Connecticut, riders sip warm apple cider as the coal-powered train chugs up to Deep River Landing, about four miles north.

There, the three-level, 220-passenger Becky Thatcher riverboat waits to take sightseers on a 90-minute cruise from Deep River to East Haddam, providing a spectacular survey of birch, dogwood, sumac, and maple trees -- plus the state's trademark white oaks-- along the way.

Reserve tickets ahead for weekend trips, which often sell out; typically, colors are at their peak for two to three weeks following Columbus Day (this year that means October 8 to 24). essexsteamtrain.com, Thursdays through Mondays September 30 - October 25, $26.

Timing Tip: Before the "all-aboard!" peruse the state's foliage reports.

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Tennessee River, Alabama

What other afternoon cruise claims a hospitality director as part of its crew? On the Pickwick Belle, that's just one part of its old-school Southern charm. Other genteel touches on the old-fashioned, 149-passenger paddlewheeler: plenty of upper-deck benches for relaxing through a 90-minute ride, and lunches in the lower dining room for longer trips.

Bonus: The state's warmer climate means the trees (mainly poplar, dogwood, maple and hickory) don't hit peak color until late October, so you have more time to plan your departure.

Cruises depart from Florence Harbor Marina in Alabama or Pickwick Landing State Park in Tennessee. pickwickbelle.com, select Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday departures starting Oct. 9, $22.

Timing Tip: Check out the Alabama Tourism Department's official website for more details on foliage.

Illinois River, Illinois

Consider it a vote of confidence that most of the Spirit of Peoria's two- and three-night itineraries from Peoria, Illinois, to St. Louis are already sold out. Luckily, latecomers can still book the 487-passenger paddleboat's overnight trip, which combines a 70-mile journey through vibrant sycamores, maples, and oaks with a one-night stay at Starved Rock Lodge, in Utica, Illinois.

The package provides onboard entertainment like live banjo and ragtime piano music and covers all meals, drinks, lodging, and a guided hike through Starved Rock State Park in the afternoon. Owner and captain Alex Grieves, who goes on nearly every Spirit of Peoria excursion, says his favorite (read: the best) weekend is usually in mid to late October.

This year, he's looking forward to the October 18 to 19 cruise for optimal colors. spiritofpeoria.com, select Monday--Tuesday cruises through October 25, from $279 (includes ticket, overnight at Starved Rock Lodge, guided hikes, and all meals and drinks).

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Lake Taneycomo, Branson, Missouri

After an unseasonably wet summer, Missouri is primed for a rare explosion of fall colors. And Lake Taneycomo, just northeast of Branson, is a perfect place to revel in it. Branson Landing Cruises' two boats, the elegant Lake Queen paddleboat and the tricked-out, 100-foot luxury yacht Landing Princess cover five different options, including lunch cruises, dinner cruises, and no-frills sightseeing itineraries that depart each morning and afternoon.

Because the Ozarks are home to a wider range of trees than many Northeast forests, and they all turn colors in different time frames, it pays to be aware of when your favorites will be in top form. (Sassafras and sumac trees typically go earlier, while oaks, hickories, and others continue to turn well into October.)

Whenever you go, there's another sight worth keeping an eye out for: the memorable morning show of eagles and herons drying the day's dew from their wings. bransonlandingcruises.com, select departures in September and October, $16 for sightseeing cruises, $26 for lunch cruises, $40 for dinner cruises.

Timing Tip: Check Missouri's fall color guide for more details on foliage.

Columbia and Snake Rivers, Oregon/Washington

What Oregon lacks in autumnal Technicolor splendor it makes up for in pure ruggedness. On one of 13 cruises sailing this fall from Cruise West, leaf peepers can take in the picturesque Multnomah Falls, the 4,000-foot-deep Columbia gorges, and the snowcapped Cascades while tracing nearly 1,000 miles of Lewis and Clark's famous route. (Also featured on the weeklong round-trip cruises sailing out of Portland: stops at wineries in Walla Walla, Washington)

The trips are made exclusively by the Spirit of Discovery and Spirit of '98, two small-scale coastal steamers that max out at about 100 passengers. If your travel dates are flexible, sign up for Cruise West's Stowaway option, you'll get 25 percent off to take any slot within a 30-day travel window. cruisewest.com, September and October departures for eight-day cruises, from $3,299 (includes everything except alcohol).

Timing Tip: For more on the area's colors, check up on foliage reports online or call Oregon's Fall Foliage Hotline (800/547-5445).

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