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10 relaxing cruise tours on Northern New England’s waterways

Intimate cruises with Whistling Man Schooner Co. out of Burlington, Vermont, follow the wind on tours of Lake Champlain. Photo courtesy Whistling Man Schooner Co.

Whether you’re keen to learn about birds, zip around in a vintage speedboat, or immerse yourself in the shipbuilding era, there’s a New England cruise for you.

As an example, way up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, passengers aboard the Northern Star can travel into Canada, no passport required. Cruising to the top of Lake Memphremagog in a replica of a 1920s passenger steamer, guests sail right across the international border, glimpsing the Abbey Saint-Benoit-du-Lac in Quebec before returning to the U.S. It’s a special combination of no-fuss international travel and sightseeing over the course of just a few hours.

Not many tours let you dip a toe into Canada, but Northern New England’s waterways offer dozens of rare experiences focusing on history, wildlife, food, and fun—and sometimes all of the above.

This list of cruise tours in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont is just a drop in the bucket. Consider this a navigational guide, highlighting 10 unique ways to view New England from the water.


1. Damariscotta River Cruises, Damariscotta

Oyster farmers waving to passengers on a Damariscotta River cruise

Oyster farmers greet guests on a Damariscotta River Cruises outing in Maine. Photo courtesy Damariscotta River Cruises

Captain Chip Holmes, who grew up on the Damariscotta River, loves to entertain guests aboard the 49-passenger River Tripper with his dry sense of humor and his deep understanding of the region.

The focus is on oyster farms; 80% of Maine’s oysters are grown in the Damariscotta. Passengers will also learn about the river’s history and resident wildlife, including harbor seals, bald eagles, and ospreys.

Oysters straight from the farms are always available to accompany the selection of drinks offered on board. The “Oyster and Wine Tasting” cruise pairs super-fresh bivalves with adult beverages. Peak summer tours sell out fast, so plan ahead to avoid disappointment. Cruises start at $40.

You may also like: 5 easy-access, easy-to-love Maine islands

2. Finestkind, Ogunquit

Someone holding up a freshly caught lobster

Finestkind of Ogunquit, Maine, has several Atlantic Ocean options, including one that delves into the details of lobstering. Photo courtesy Finestkind

Since 1956, generations of visitors have been turning to this family-owned company to cruise past Nubble Light, learn about lobstering, or just relax while getting a new perspective on the cliffs that line Marginal Way.

Trips on any of the company’s 3 Maine-built wooden boats vary depending on the water conditions, the wildlife spotted, and the time of day. Tranquil breakfast cruises drop by the Island Ledges to look for harbor seals. On lobstering trips, the crew hauls up traps to discuss the abundant creatures inside. Finestkind also offers sailing tours on a replica boat designed for coastal lobstering in the late 1800s.

Frequent departures and ample capacity—its largest boat holds 60 passengers—mean that booking ahead isn’t strictly necessary, although it’s recommended. Adult rates start at $27.

You may also like: Cozy up to winter in Ogunquit, Maine

3. Maine Maritime Museum Cruises, Bath

Merrymeeting ship sailing the Kennebec River

Cruise the Kennebec River during a visit to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine. Photo courtesy Maine Maritime Museum

Visitors flock to these Kennebec River tours to learn about the wealth of seafaring vessels that have been built in the City of Ships for more than 2 centuries. The open upper deck and enclosed lower deck on the 50-passenger Merrymeeting provide plenty of room to move around.

Options range from a 1-hour lighthouse and nature cruise past the Bath Iron Works to the very popular 4-hour Lighthouse Lovers tour, which takes in up to 10 of the state’s iconic lighthouses, tides and weather permitting. These tours often sell out, so book early. Cruises start at $40 (and include museum admission).

You may also like: 6 places in Northern New England that allow you to reconnect with nature

New Hampshire

4. New Hampshire Boat Museum, Wolfeboro Falls

People sailing aboard a 1928 Hacker-Craft replica

Cap off a trip to the small but mighty New Hampshire Boat Museum with a wood-hulled cruise of Lake Winnipesaukee. Photo courtesy Frank Paul/Alamy Stock Photo

Zip around Lake Winnipesaukee—New Hampshire’s largest—while reliving the glory days of sleek wood-hulled speedboats. The Millie B and the Miss Lauren are 28-foot-long mahogany, triple-cockpit replicas of 1928 Hacker-Craft, each holding just 8 passengers. You’ll feel like a movie star as the captain regales you with the history of the lake and shares stories about celebrity residents such as Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, and Mitt Romney.

Trips travel close to the loon sanctuary, where visitors sometimes spot chicks riding on their mothers’ backs. There are also dozens of other islands to see while learning about the geography and geology that formed the lake. Adult rates start at $40 (and include museum admission).

You may also like: 10 stunning lakes in Northern New England

5. Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, Holderness

Squam Lake

Learn about loons on a cruise of New Hampshire’s Squam Lake. Photo courtesy Squam Lakes Natural Science Center

Intimate cruises on 22-passenger canopied pontoon boats explore the history and ecology of Squam Lake, the setting for the classic film On Golden Pond. Most of the shoreline is preserved: The few homes dotting the landscape blend into the natural setting, making it feel like a secret escape.

The twice-weekly Loon Cruise, which can sell out a month in advance, features a Loon Preservation Committee biologist who shares facts about these fascinating birds. Other cruises offer an overview of the lake’s history and wildlife, or home in on the area’s pair of nesting bald eagles. Adults, $30 (does not include admission to the science center).

You may also like: 9 stellar scenic byways in Northern New England

6. Sunapee Cruises, Sunapee

Sunapee Cruises craft docked

New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee has beckoned vacationers for more than 150 years. Photo courtesy Sunapee Cruises

Steamboats started carrying vacationers on Lake Sunapee approximately 150 years ago. While the fuel has changed since then, the feeling endures on these 110-passenger boats that take in the lake’s 3 operational lighthouses, plenty of fancy mansions, and unimpeded views of Mount Kearsarge and Mount Sunapee. At night, watch the sunset while enjoying cocktails and a meal that includes roast beef, house-made macaroni and cheese, and a range of desserts.

Daily lake tours can be booked right up to the time of sailing when space is available. Dinner cruises should be booked at least 2 weeks in advance, as they sell out every night. $27 for the lake tour; $57.99 for the dinner cruise.

You may also like: 5 waterfront New England spots for a romantic winter weekend

7. Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, Portsmouth

Isle of Shoals Steamship Company ship

The Isle of Shoals Steamship Company offers excursions of varying durations from Portsmouth to Star Island. Photo by Richard Cummins/Alamy Stock Photo

Extend your cruise onto land by sailing from Portsmouth Harbor and disembarking on Star Island, one of a handful of islands that make up the storied Isles of Shoals. The most popular option also includes a guided walking tour. Along the way, listen to tales of early explorers, pirates, and ghosts, and learn about the area’s heyday as a resort destination in the 1800s.

Guests can also choose to spend the whole day on Star Island, take a narrated cruise without stopping on the island, or relax on a peaceful sunset acoustic music cruise. Adults, $42 for the cruise/walking tour combination.

You may also like: Celebrate the 400th anniversary of Portsmouth, New Hampshire


8. The Northern Star, Newport

Northern Star boat

Some Lake Memphremagog cruises on the Northern Star enter Canadian waters. Photo by Rick Desrochers

Back in 2018, members of the local community banded together to create a nonprofit dedicated to the twin missions of education and tourism, keeping this 49-passenger boat afloat on the international waters of Lake Memphremagog.

Built to resemble the sleek passenger steamers of the Roaring Twenties, the Northern Star retains that streamlined elegance, trimmed with polished walnut throughout its interior. The 4-hour lunch cruises travel 20 miles into Canada on the narrow lake and are among the country’s most unique boat rides.

The company also offers some strictly stateside excursions, including 2-hour narrated scenic trips, and brunch or dinner cruises catered by local restaurants. Adults, $85 for the Canadian cruise; $35 for the scenic cruise.

You may also like: Vermont Route 100: The quintessential New England road trip

9. Whistling Man Schooner Co., Burlington

People aboard a Whistling Man Schooner Co. ship

Guests on Whistling Man Schooner Co. cruises out of Burlington can steer if they are so moved. Photo courtesy Whistling Man Schooner Co.

Rather than sticking to a set itinerary, these graceful sailboats that hold up to 10 guests follow the wind on a 2-hour exploration of Lake Champlain. Sailors will take in sunken shipwrecks, historic battle sites, islands, and miles of mountainous shoreline.

The captain and crew are happy to explain the intricate wooden rigging and share the history of their traditional vessels, which were originally designed for lobster fishing. If the conditions allow, they might even let you steer.

For sunset cruises, where guests can watch the sun dip behind the Adirondack mountains, book at least 2 weeks in advance. Daytime itineraries generally book a week out. Guests may bring their own snacks and drinks; finger food generally works out best. Adults: $62 for daytime; $70 for sunset.

You may also like: 5 things to do on South Hero Island

10. Spirit of Ethan Allen, Burlington

Passengers looking over the Spirit of Ethan Allen railing

The Spirit of Ethan Allen can accommodate 360 passengers as it cruises Lake Champlain from Burlington. Photo courtesy Michael Shea

Soak up the beauty of the surrounding Adirondacks and Green Mountains and get a unique perspective on the Champlain Thrust Fault—a geologic wonder of tectonic forces—aboard Vermont’s largest cruise ship, which has been plying Lake Champlain with narrated scenic tours and murder mystery dinners for 40 years.

For a relaxing finale to the weekend, check out the 90-minute Champagne on Champlain Brunch Cruise, or one of the dinner cruises, which sail nightly all summer.

The Spirit of Ethan Allen holds 360 passengers, so booking ahead isn’t always necessary unless you want a cruise that comes with a meal; those often sell out. Adult rates start at $34.

New England native Jeanne O’Brien Coffey delights in sharing stories about her corner of the world. Her work has also appeared in Boston and Naturally, Danny Seo magazines.

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