Under steam or sail, amid puffins or whales, cruising the USA

You fly and drive across it, hike it and bike it and ski it, but have you considered cruising the United States? The country has more than 25,000 miles of navigable waters accessible by small ships. Here are some places you can go:

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In Juneau, Cathy Belleville gazed at one end of the pier where five ships floated like giant apartment buildings stacked with discos and spas. "It was like Las Vegas in one building," says the Californian, who took the 36-guest Safari Explorer at the other end of the pier. Belleville's Alaskan itinerary was one of 14 offered by InnerSea Discoveries, which spends more days inside Glacier Bay National Park than any other cruise line.

Where megaships spend days at port, "the only time we stopped at another place with people was when we returned seven days later," Belleville says. When her ship encountered a pod of humpbacks, "in 10 minutes an on-board naturalist had us within 100 feet of the whales." For two hours passengers watched from inflatable rafts as the animals dived 300 feet, then leapt in unison out of the water, each whale gulping about 2,000 pounds of herring. "I'll remember it until I die," Belleville says.

American Cruise Lines offers cultural and historical Alaska. Guests on a recent Inside Passage trip met Julie, a Tlingit fisherwoman in Icy Strait, who was cutting up 200 pounds of halibut for her community's elders who are no longer mobile enough to fish. Later passengers were invited to a bonfire with villagers who shared their stories over hot chocolate.

Lindblad Expeditions

Inner Sea Discoveries
Juneau, Ketchikan

American Cruise Lines

Blount Small Ship Adventures

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Hawaiian waters are full of oceangoing liners, but only one small ship operator, InnerSea, overnights here. Does size matter? Dixon and Belleville say small makes it a different cruise. "The crew moves the schedule based on what you want to do," says Belleville.

Safari Explorer cruises the leeward coasts of Hawaii, Lahaina, Maui, and Molokai, giving guests as much play time in the water as possible. They snorkel in sea turtle and coral habitats, paddleboard and kayak, and swim by night with giant Pacific manta rays. In west Maui, they sail a hand-carved Polynesian voyaging canoe, and spend quality time on less traveled Molokai, hiking to plantations and waterfalls and combing remote beaches.

Inner Sea Discoveries
Lana'i, Hawaii, Oahu

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The Pacific coast is relatively untapped by larger cruise companies, most of whom combine it with their Alaska itineraries. Local operators such as the Baileys based in Friday Harbor offer a more intimate view. Their 12-passenger Pacific Catalyst immerses you in Washington's San Juan Islands.

InnerSea's Safari Quest offers an option for 22 guests to take high tea in Victoria, British Columbia, tiptoe through the Harmony Island tidal pools, orca watch off Jedediah Island, and island hop in the San Juans.

The Northwest is also home to the Columbia and Snake rivers. Cruises here follow the Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark trails while sampling white water and local wines. New this year, Lindblad Expeditions with National Geographic takes 62 guests up the rivers with two naturalists, a National Geographic photographer, and a photo instructor.

Foodies: InnerSea's Safari Quest carries 22 people from Lewiston, Idaho, onto the Snake River to vineyard tastings of Washington appellations including Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, and Yakima Valley.

American Cruise Lines and Lindblad also explore the Columbia and Snake.

Inner Sea Discoveries
Portland (Ore.), Lewiston (Idaho), Seattle

Lindblad Expeditions
Portland, OR

Catalyst Cruises
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island (Wash.)

American Cruise Lines
Seattle, Portland, Ore.

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The big wheels of riverboats are turning again. The 150-guest Queen of the Mississippi looks vintage, but it was built and launched this year by American Cruise Lines. Its itineraries go almost everywhere the Mississippi River goes, touching nine states from Minnesota to Louisiana. The townspeople of Mazel, Ky., were so thrilled with the new paddlewheeler that they planned an evening street fair to greet passengers.

At 436 guests, American Queen pushes the envelope of small, but the gingerbread Victorian is irresistibly nostalgic with itineraries often themed to match. The "Walkin' in Elvis's Footsteps" cruise is a nod to Memphis, whose mayor loaned the steamboat company $33 million to restore the ship if they would locate and hire in his town. Guests will groove to famous Elvis tribute bands and tour a Graceland decked out for Christmas.

The Yorktown makes several passages here, including one whose eastern leg takes in antebellum Mobile, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., and the little known Mississippi national seashore islands Horn and West Ship.

American Cruise Lines
New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Memphis, Nashville

Blount Small Ship Adventures
Memphis, New Orleans

Travel Dynamics International
New Orleans, Memphis

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New Englanders since Henry David Thoreau have loved Michigan's Mackinac Island on Lake Huron, the centerpiece of Great Lakes itineraries. Blount Small Ship Adventures orchestrates a 14-day passage around the lake. One moment Chicago's Navy Pier lies panoramically before your lounge chair; the next, Manistee, a forgotten timbering town that once had more millionaires per capita than any place in the country, unfolds its Victorian-era charm.

"It's very different when you do small ship cruising. They let you off in every port," says Cindy Dixon, a Pawtucket, R.I., photographer whose husband stayed home with the kids so she could circumnavigate Lake Michigan on another Blount cruise. "That's what appeals to me: to get off the boat and learn about these places. And, of course, to photograph them."

Guests on Travel Dynamics International's 138-passenger Yorktown sails among Michigan's Apostle Islands and Keweenaw Peninsula to Wisconsin's Sturgeon Bay with historians and geologists who share their local knowledge.

Cruising New York's canal system has become a popular alternative to seeing fall foliage in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A seven-night American Cruise Lines trip takes up to 104 passengers from Catskill to Sleepy Hollow.

Do-it-yourselfers: Ron and Toni Trottier of Erie Canal Cruise Lines help you plot your own course on the 57-lock Erie Canal system. Their 42-foot boats are stocked with everything you need to live comfortably aboard for a week. Most cruisers master the helm in one to three hours, Toni Trottier says.

American Cruise Lines
New York City

Blount Small Ship Adventures

Travel Dynamics International
Detroit, Chicago, Providence, Duluth (Minn.)

Eerie Canal Cruise Lines
Fairport, Seneca Falls (N.Y.)

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Tide is the shaper of the southern Intracoastal Waterway, where the big ships cannot go. Three American Cruise Lines vessels touch the most beautiful and historically important harbors, from Charleston south to Beaufort in South Carolina, Savannah, Ga., and Fernandina, Fla. A second itinerary emphasizes the Atlantic barrier islands, including Jekyll, the former summer digs of J.P. Morgan and his Gilded-Age friends; Hilton Head, including the Gullah-Geechee outpost of St. Helena; and, optionally, Sapelo, an almost undeveloped sea island.

Unheard-of burgs such as Palatka, Fla., used to be world shipping centers with their front doors facing the St. Johns River. American Cruise Lines takes you there during azalea season, into Lake George on the edge of Ocala National Forest and Silver Glen springs, and down the beautiful Tolomato River to St. Augustine.

Among its many itineraries in Southern waters, the Yorktown offers a spring home and garden tour. Blount's Grande Caribe adds the Gulf Coast barrier islands on a passage from New Orleans to Tampa.

American Cruise Lines
Charleston, Jacksonville

Blount Small Ship Adventures
Charleston, Jacksonville, New Orleans

Travel Dynamics International
New Orleans, Memphis

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"Being on this little ship, we had more opportunity to meet people and really get to know them," says Carol Samuels, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., who had never seen the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country. Sailing the Maryland coast with American Cruise Lines, Samuels discovered Annapolis, the hamlets of Cambridge, Oxford, and St. Michaels, and Tangier Island, where families still eke out livelihoods harvesting soft shell crabs.

The route from Philadelphia to Washington offers even more Chesapeake, with a glide onto the Chester River and a visit to Mount Vernon on the Potomac.

The hallmark of a Chesapeake cruise to Yorktown is lecturers such as lawyer-historian David Stewart, author of "The Men Who Invented the Constitution," and Grace Gary, former director of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The itinerary cherry-picks from Maryland and Virginia harbors: the blue jackets of Annapolis and St. Michaels juxtaposed with the watermen of Tangier Island; the former Confederate seat of Richmond; and of course, Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon.

American Cruise Lines
Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.

Travel Dynamics International

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New Englanders live in one of the world's most attractive cruising grounds, yet many have never seen it from the water. Dixon, a lifelong Rhode Islander, discovered Cuttyhunk Island cruising with Blount's Grande Caribe. In 2013, the company will introduce Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay.

In New Bedford, American Cruise Lines brings local scallopers aboard and sends guests to the whaling museum with 82-year-old Natalie Hemingway, a resident expert. The itinerary visits Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Block Island without the ferry crowds.

Guests on the Yorktown watch the leaves turn from the New England islands to the Hudson River.

Two American Cruise Lines ships take to coastal Maine. But the state's wilder islands must be seen with local charters. On the 13 ships of the Maine Windjammer Fleet, adventurous salts can try their hand at sailing while seeing puffins off lonely Matinicus Island, or the villages of Swan's Island, which, the town fathers warn, have "no liquor stores or amusements."

American Cruise Lines
Providence, Portland

Blount Small Ship Adventures
Boston, Warren (R.I.)

Travel Dynamics International

Maine Windjammer Association
Camden, Rockport, Rockland (Maine)

Patrick Garvin / Globe Staff
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