Dressed in iconic white paint with red trim, wrought iron railings and twin paddle wheels, the Barbara Lee – named for the mother of the family who owns the ship – began its new life on the St John’s River in Sanford in 2012, after a major refurbishment and a change in ownership, back to the original owners.
What is the experience like? It starts with boarding at the Lake Monroe marina near historic downtown Sanford. Each group is shown to their reserved table and some of the friendliest servers you’ll ever encounter come around for drink orders, but guests are free to belly up to the bar and order on their own, too. There are 9 speciality cocktails on offer, plus standard cocktails, beer and local craft brews, wine, champagne and non-alcoholic beverages. Simon chose the signature World Famous Bloody Mary (served with a pickle in it!) and Susan had a celebratory glass of champagne. Both seemed to ‘evaporate’ quickly. Funny, that!
Before you relax completely, there is one small task to complete, and that’s ticking the box on a small slip of paper with a list of entrées, including prime rib, three kinds of chicken (Marsala, Tropical and Parmesan), salmon filet, Caesar salad with chicken or salmon, or a superb vegetable lasagna. And that’s about as strenuous as your next 3 hours will be.
Live entertainment sets the mood, but the musician takes a break part-way through the first hour to allow for narration describing the area, its history, and the history of steamships on the St John’s River (hint: the Spanish mapped the river in the early 1500s, the French settled along it in 1562, American naturalist William Bartram catalogued its flora and fauna in the mid-1700s, it played a role during the American Civil War, and by the 1800s, 150 steamships were using the waterway).
With a drink in hand, there is plenty of time to explore the ship and enjoy the scenery before dinner is served. The Barbara Lee has four decks to discover: the Grand Salon, which guests enter upon boarding, with dining tables, the bar, and a raised stage and dance floor; the Mezzanine Deck at the back of the ship, just off the Grand Salon, where dining tables have an up-close view of the paddlewheels; the Lookout Deck, with indoor dining tables and a covered outdoor seating area that faces the paddlewheels; and the Captain’s Deck at the top of the ship, with the wheelhouse from which the captain steers the ship, plenty of seating, and standing room along the railing, for a 360-degree view of the scenery.
As you cruise you will certainly see shore birds, and with a little luck you may see gators. Manatees do enter the river, and your best chance at seeing them is during cooler months. But real stars here are Florida’s sunsets if you take the evening cruise, and the magnificent cypress trees that line the banks of the river if you take a daytime tour. Draped in Spanish Moss (which is neither Spanish nor moss), cypress trees and their knobbly “knees” reaching above the waterline evoke the timeless elegance of a steamy Southern afternoon, when life moved slowly and women wore hoop skirts.
Meals begin about an hour into the journey, with an appetiser selection of fresh-cut fruits, a vegetable tray with ranch dressing, pasta salad, and, during lunchtime cruises, the ship’s speciality, Rivership Sticky Buns (feather-light, sweet bread rolls dripping with caramel and pecans; pure bliss!).
Individual Caesar salads arrive next, with creamy dressing and house-made croutons. Your selected entrée is then pre-plated with the chef’s choice of hot vegetable, with a basket of bread rolls on the side. Happily, the food isn’t an afterthought; it’s all chef-prepared in the company’s kitchen (with the exception of the cake, which is created in a family-owned bakery in Sanford). We chose salmon and vegetable lasagna as our mains, and both were excellent.
Coffee and iced tea flow freely, and cake is served for dessert. But the cruise doesn’t end there. Special celebrations such as birthdays and anniversaries are announced (be sure to mention yours, if you’re having one!), and the musician takes to the stage again with tunes just right for dancing. And if the day (or night) is balmy, you’re going to want to head out to that covered viewing area we mentioned, on the Lookout Deck at the back of the ship, and just let the experience envelope you.
It’s a slow, smooth, relaxed excursion, and if you’re like us you’ll feel it ended too soon. If you took the evening dinner-dance cruise, put the luncheon cruise on your list for next time. If you did a lunchtime cruise, spend an hour or two in downtown Sanford. It’s within easy walking distance of the marina’s (free) car park.
Couples might want to do a sunset cruise, but families may find the lunch cruise is the better choice. Dinner is generally served around 9pm, which may be too late for youngsters.
If you’d like a cocktail or two during your cruise and no one in your group feels like being the designated driver, don’t worry; St John’s River Cruise company has a complimentary shuttle that picks up 8-14 guests within a 40-mile radius (we’re looking at you, I-Drive!). Be aware, all guests must be picked up at the same location.
Lunch cruises run on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and the dinner dance cruise sails on Saturday evening. The interior areas are fully air-conditioned, or heated if the days is cool. There are occasional speciality cruises, including a Fireworks Cruise on 4 July and New Year’s Eve on 31 December.
If you have questions about excursions or experiences beyond Orlando – or anything else about the wonders of Florida – be sure to join Susan and Simon on the ATD forums, on this link: https://www.attractiontickets.com/forum/forum.php.