Big wheel keep on turnin’

Barbara-Lee keep on burnin’

Rollin’ rollin’, rollin’ on the river

Go ahead and sing along if you like. It’ll get you in the mood for a truly wonderful cruise on the Rivership Barbara-Lee, an authentic, 105-foot “sternwheeler” paddleboat that operates out of downtown Sanford. The ship is not steam-powered — so there won’t be a whole lot of burnin’ going on — but it does have big, red paddle wheels that propel it northward through Lake Monroe, up the St. Johns River, then south back to Sanford, a round trip of about 25 miles. In all, it’s a relaxing excursion that one TripAdvisor reviewer called “by far one of the most wonderful evenings and afternoons you can spend in Florida.”

(The St. Johns River cruises boast five stars — green dots, actually — from TripAdvisor, with a whopping 460 reviews.)

Ready to eat and drink? The Barbara-Lee offers lunch and dinner cruises, most of which take three hours. All food is prepared by an experienced chef on board and provided with superb service. You can choose from five entrees — prime rib; chicken parmesan, marsala or tropical; salmon filet; roasted vegetable lasagna; and an entree Caesar salad topped with chicken breast or salmon filet. Meals come with sides, and guests can enjoy an array of appetizers. And don’t worry, you won’t miss out on dessert. Soft drinks are free, and the beer, wine, and craft cocktails are nicely priced. (If you really want to get into the spirit, try the bourbon-based Paddle Wheel.) This rivership experience gets very high marks.

The cruise embarks from the Monroe Harbour Marina on the north edge of Historic Downtown Sanford. There is plentiful parking at the facility. Your journey takes you through some developed areas where you can check out nice riverside homes, but a good portion of it runs through the wilderness, with moss-draped mangrove forest on both sides. Much of the jaunt is narrated, covering wildlife, points of interest, and the history of the 310-mile St. John’s River — the longest in Florida and also one of the few in North America that run northward! Keep your eyes peeled for alligators or manatees.

The five-level Barbara-Lee is big, but not too big. You can lean on wrought-iron railings and enjoy the sun, sights and breezes, or have a seat in covered areas. You can meander to the rear of the boat and watch the paddlewheels churn the water. The enclosed dining areas are climate-controlled and feature lots of windows. During dinner cruises, you’ll want to head up to the uncovered top deck to snap photos of colorful sunsets. The cruises feature live music — a lot of old rock ’n’ roll and early soul.

Like all hospitality and tourism businesses in Orlando North, Seminole County, the St. Johns Rivership Co. has put state-mandated health and safety protocols into practice. The Barbara-Lee can accommodate up to 194 guests but has been capping attendance to just 75. Tables are at least six feet from each other, and servers wear masks. You’ll be asked to remain six feet apart and wear a face-covering while boarding and disembarking, and where there are clusters of people. You can remove masks on outside decks and at your dining table.

Another TripAdvisor reviewer wrote in July, echoing a sentiment that all of us are probably feeling about now: “We were looking for something safe and fun to do during COVID-19. We decided to do a couples lunch on the river. This was a safe (mask and social distance in place) and fun activity. I would definitely recommend it.”

Lately, the St. Johns Rivership schedule has varied, so check here for available cruises. As always, reservations are required.

A safe, fun, leisurely and delicious sojourn aboard a charming watercraft along a picturesque river. What more can you ask for?

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