As the setting sun paints a golden glow on Savannah city hall’s historic dome, the Savannah River Queen starts churning downriver as we begin our ride into the past.
The Civil War-replica paddleboat leaves here from downtown daily in one of the country’s best-preserved and most beautiful cities. I decided to bring out my inner Southern belle by taking a 2-hour trip through these lowcountry waters lined with majestic Spanish moss-covered oaks.
The Savannah Riverboat Cruise Company offers an array of cruising options for groups up to 550 pax. The Queen is conveniently docked between the historic district and the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center on the opposite side of the river. The boat has two climate-controlled decks available for banquets, each able to accommodate 100 guests, while an expansive sundeck provides a fun reception space to watch the sun sink into the horizon.
With just one step onto the main deck, I feel like I’m already being taken back to Savannah as it was at the turn of the century. Waiters in black tie are perfecting the table settings while chefs lay out the Southern feast to come. The elegance of the event feels much like the South as I’ve imagined it from movies and stories from my grandparents.
Groups have various theme options from which to choose. There’s the Monday Night Gospel Entertainment Dinner Cruise, where you can sing along with local gospel entertainers. The Friday Night Haunted Harbor Cruise is filled with stories of the city’s infamous ghosts and hauntings that will have nonbelievers sleeping with one eye open.
Deborah Bouchea, cruise and events specialist, says that groups are constantly turning to them for group events.
“We’re fortunate in that aspect,” she says. “People look at us as a fun and unique way to enjoy Savannah. It’s nostalgic and you get the whole feel of the city and its beauty and history.”
I checked out the Dinner Entertainment Cruise. It was the combination of great Southern cooking and the soft breeze blowing through my hair as I watched dolphins swim playfully alongside the boat that I enjoyed most. The dinner buffet featured favorites such as Signature River Queen shrimp and grits, a carving station with beef top sirloin and citrus marinated boneless pork loin, a fresh fruit display and a mountain of strawberry cheesecakes, éclairs and other decadent desserts.
“We can also do plated dinners,” Bouchea says. “We get a lot of good compliments about our food. People are really surprised because sometimes they choose to do something on the river because of the ambiance and because being on the water is fun, and they’re really surprised when our food is really good. I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years and I would put our food up to just about anybody.”
I experienced Southern hospitality at its best as I sipped my sweet tea and listened to the ship entertainer serenade us during the course of the meal. It was the perfect way to end a warm afternoon of familiarizing myself with the streets and squares of Savannah.
There was an obvious sudden shift in mood as soon as the tables were cleaned off. Disco lights shot across the floor as our entertainer for the night invited us to follow him as he danced along to favorites like The Electric Slide and The Twist.
After showing off a few of my own moves, I went up to the sundeck just in time to catch a glimpse of Fort Jackson. The long-standing historic site is the oldest standing brick fortification in Georgia, which was once used to protect soldiers during the War of 1812 and served as the headquarters for the Savannah River defenses during the Civil War.
Bouchea says that groups will do buyouts combining a cocktail reception on the river followed by upscale dinners on the fort’s grounds. From there, groups can either take shuttles back to River Street or return on boat for more Electric Slidin’.
“A lot of the time I recommend that they do something like that and maybe they add something a little fun, maybe a DJ and maybe do desserts on the way back,” she says.
The company gives groups the option to pair up with a DMC for their event onboard, and Bouchea recommends Anne Howell’s Cobblestone Connections, who has worked closely with her in the past for fun theme parties ranging from Mardi Gras to the Kentucky Derby.