nautical escapes Boating is for everyone on these 9 Texas lake cruises

Photographs by Tiffany Hofeldt

We love the idea of taking a boat ride—the cool breezes, sparkling waters, and rare perspectives you just can’t see from shore. Not everybody has a boat, though. For the otherwise landlocked, here are nine Texas cruise experiences—from spotting dolphins on a paddleboat to serenading your sweetie on a gondola—that make getting out on the water a summer treat anyone can enjoy.

Colonel Paddlewheel Boat


Tucked within the leeward shore of Galveston Island, Moody Gardens is the launching point for the stately Colonel Paddlewheel Boat. This three-story, 1880s-style vessel plies the waters of Offatts Bayou daily. With two enclosed decks and an open-air promenade deck, the Colonel can accommodate 699 guests. Its 45-minute excursions provide passing views of the Galveston causeway and the chance to spot coastal birds and marine life, including an occasional dolphin. Along the way, guides tell the story of the island’s history, highlighting the importance of the shipping industry. The Colonel offers libations and snacks as well as a monthly dinner cruise. —Heather Brand

Moody Gardens is at One Hope Blvd. in Galveston.

Boat tickets cost $12.95 for adults and $10.95 for seniors and children ages 4-12; tickets for dinner cruises are $65 for adults and $55 for children ages 4-12.

Call 800-582-4673; moodygardens.com.

Waco River Safari

Brazos and Bosque rivers

Interstate 35 roars about a half-mile downstream from the launch point for the Waco River Safari, but you’d hardly know it as Capt. Ryan Helm’s pontoon boat embarks on the Brazos River for a two-hour Scenic History Tour. Passengers giggle at mallard ducklings bumbling in the water and applaud a bankside fisherman who shows off a string of carp as Helm notes historical landmarks dating to the 1700s, when the Hueco tribe populated the area.

Cruising under a series of bridges, Helm points out the limestone bank that once served as a Chisholm Trail river crossing; the 1870 Waco Suspension Bridge, the longest such span west of the Mississippi when it opened; and the old Cotton Belt railroad bridge, an artery that helped make Waco the state’s largest inland cotton market in the 1880s.

The cruise continues upstream along the limestone bluffs of 416-acre Cameron Park, then follows the Bosque River through undeveloped forest where osprey, egrets, and blue herons light from the branches of cottonwood and pecan trees.

Helm, a former oilfield worker now pursuing his entrepreneurial dream, says many of his customers are tourists drawn to Waco by the magnetism of Chip and Joanna Gaines, TV’s home-improvement darlings. Considering that, a tour with Waco River Safari offers a worthy balance by immersing passengers in the history and scenery that shaped Waco long before shiplap. —Matt Joyce

Waco River Safari departs from the Waco River Walk next to the Waco Suspension Bridge, 113 S. University Parks Drive.

Cruises start daily at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m., and sunset; cost is $49 for adults and $20 for children ages 4-12.

Call 832-663-0519; wacoriversafari.com.

Vanishing Texas River Cruises

Lake Buchanan

Guide Allie Jewell understands the life of a river. On the Scenic Wilderness Cruise to the waterfalls of Lake Buchanan, Jewell explains the cycles of drought and flood, the mating habits of great blue herons, and other eco-facts as the Texas Eagle floats past limestone bluffs and forested banks. While the two-hour cruises pass quickly, you can come back for a sunset dinner cruise, or, from late fall to early spring, the Eagle Season Cruise, with chances to glimpse our national bird in flight. With an upstairs deck for feeling the breeze and a cozy downstairs area that is wheelchair accessible, the 149-capacity Texas Eagle boat assures a comfortable ride. —Clayton Maxwell

Vanishing Texas River Cruises is at 443 Waterway Lane in Burnet.

Tickets for the Scenic Wilderness Cruise range from $17.50 for children age 2-12 to $25 for adults.

Call 512-756-6986; vtrc.com.

Southern Empress

Lake Conroe

Powered by two 18-foot paddle wheels, the Southern Empress churns through the placid waters of Lake Conroe, about an hour’s drive north of Houston. This steel-hulled riverboat, measuring 102 feet from bow to stern, holds as many as 375 passengers, and the ship’s Victorian-style interiors evoke times gone by. The grand salon, located on the main deck, sets a romantic mood with cut-glass chandeliers, bronze sconces, oak-trimmed walls, a carved wooden bar, and tables for 125 seated guests. This elegant room is the setting for dinner cruises that take place nightly. The menu typically features a chicken or pork entrée, various sides, and bread pudding or chocolate cake with raspberry sauce for dessert.

Just one level up, on the boiler deck, a similarly appointed space offers after-dinner drinks, music, and a dance floor for those wanting to cut a rug on the not-so-high seas. Sometimes a DJ provides the tunes, but usually local musicians take to the stage. Whereas the first two levels are enclosed with a multitude of windows (and air-conditioned), the hurricane deck up top is open to the elements—and to glowing sunsets and enchanting moonlit views of Lake Conroe’s scenic shores. —H.B.

The Southern Empress is docked at 7035 Kingston Cove Lane in Willis.

Dinner-cruise tickets start at $69.95.

Call 936-588-3000; southernempress.com.

Bat-Watching Tours with Lone Star Riverboat and Capital Cruises


Rather than join the hundreds of viewers standing on Austin’s Congress Avenue bridge on summer nights to watch the sunset flight of the city’s famous bats, try floating beneath. Two companies, Lone Star Riverboat and Capital Cruises, offer outings on Lady Bird Lake that give passengers an up-close view of 750,000 bats departing to seek their supper (that number doubles when their baby bats are born and fly out in August). “But keep your hands over your drinks, folks,” Captain Tracey Heymans of Lone Star Riverboat reminds passengers as the boat floats under the bridge where the bats hang in concrete gaps; the world’s largest urban bat colony makes a lot of guano.

Both of these bat cruises are guided by captains who could double as stand-up comics; they educate with fun facts and keep passengers chuckling for the hour-long ride. The guides also point out landmarks of the ever-changing Austin skyline, like the city’s tallest building—a residential skyscraper called The Austonian—which “looks like a USB drive,” and the Buford Bell Tower, a six-story brick structure built in 1930 to train firefighters. So bring a beverage (both tours are BYOB), sit back in the breeze on open-air pontoon boats, and marvel at the wee mammals flying off to eat their weight in insects. —C.M.

Lone Star Riverboat is at 101 S. First St. Sunset bat cruises cost $7 for children age 3-12 and $12 for adults; reservations are required. Call 512-327-1388; lonestarriverboat.com.

Capital Cruises is at 208 Barton Springs Road, behind the Hyatt Regency. Sunset bat cruises cost $5 for children ages 3-12 and $10 for adults. Call 512-480-9264; capitalcruises.com.

Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours

Caddo Lake

You won’t always see the alligators that Caddo Lake is famous for, but you’re sure to leave one of Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours full of good stories. In 2016, tour guide Ron Gibbs retired his steamboat, the Graceful Ghost, long a familiar sight on Caddo’s placid waters, transitioning to more intimate trips on his comfortable, 28-foot pontoon boat. Cruising along the glassy surface through narrow sloughs covered in lily pads and beneath towering bald cypress trees, Captain Ron points out beaver dens, tells tales of Native Americans, and shares unexpected stories of the nature and history of this rare lake. When guests ask if they’ll see gators, Captain Ron tells them, “Well, we need a volunteer as bait.” Getting laughs is important, he says: “There’s a lot of humor on our tour. If I’m having a good time, everyone else will, too.” —June Naylor

Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours depart Wed-Sun at Big Pines Lodge Restaurant, 756 Pine Island Road in Karnack.

Tickets cost $15 for kids, $25 adults, and $20 seniors.

Call 903-679-3020; captronswamptours.com.

Gondola Adventures

Lake Carolyn, Irving

As passengers board a flat-bottom Venetian rowboat on Irving’s Lake Carolyn, the bustle of the Metroplex fades, and their imaginations drift 5,000 miles away to Venice, Italy. A precariously balanced gondolier stands atop the stern, coaxing the gondola through tranquil waters with graceful dips of his paddle. While the surrounding architecture may lack the history and romance of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, the gondolier encourages guests to embrace tradition and kiss their dates as the gondola floats under each bridge. Upping the amorous ante, gondoliers serenade riders with singing—sometimes even in Italian—while the sun sinks westward. It doesn’t get much more swoon-worthy than that. —Jennifer Babisak

Gondola Adventures Inc. boards at various locations around the lake, depending on the trip.

Cruises start at $140 for two guests and are available daily upon request.

Call 855-GONDOLA; gondola.com.

Fastrac Charters and Cruises

Lake Texoma

All may look serene as friendly crew members and the mellow strains of jazz welcome passengers aboard the Island Girl yacht on Lake Texoma. But glance into the dining room, and you’ll know something is amiss. Heavily jeweled flappers and surly gangsters flit about the 1920s-themed murder mystery event, one of several cruises offered by Fastrac Charters and Cruises. The evening starts out quietly as guests dine on dishes like pasta, salmon, prime rib, or fajitas while the boat quietly trolls toward open water. With the sunset’s brilliant display illuminating the cabin’s 360-degree windows, the two dozen guests chat convivially, sipping BYOB beverages.

Halfway through dinner, a scream pierces the chatter, raising a few eyebrows. But once dinner is over, the real fun begins. The ship’s crew disperses diners to canvass the boat for clues. After scouring the bow and stern, the diners regroup on the upper deck to solve the mystery and take in the sun’s final rays. The crew serves dessert as diners enjoy lake breezes while the Island Girl drifts gently back to shore. —J.B.

Fastrac Charters and Cruises is at 300 Lighthouse Drive in Pottsboro. Tickets for the weekly dinner cruises start at $49 for adults. Eagle-watching cruises are available in January and February. Call

903-361-0775; fastrac.com.

Freelance photographer Tiffany Hofeldt hangs her cameras just south of Austin with her musician husband and two boys. When she’s not photographing, she’s researching her next travel adventure. During the course of this assignment she decided to take more of her meals outdoors and spend more time in Texas lakes.


Tiffany Hofeldt

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