Interested in taking a Charleston boat tour on vacation or for a memorable night out in the Holy City? Here are 10 options that are more than worth it for tourists and residents alike.
Whether you’ve come to Charleston for vacation or for the rest of your life, there’s a good chance that you’re interested in being on the water. The Holy City is surrounded by water, and the skyline provides the perfect backdrop for a day (or evening) in the harbor. Fortunately, there are lots of Charleston boat tours to choose from—and, whether you are a visitor or a local, you can choose an experience that’s just right for you.
Going on a Charleston boat tour means different things to different people. While some people (many people, in fact) envision cruising the harbor at sunset, others are interested in taking a tour to one of Charleston’s uninhabited sea islands. Others still picture a kid-friendly, or decidedly not kid-friendly, experience. All of these are options, and with Charleston’s subtropical climate, many tour boat operators offer tours year-round.
Charleston Boat Tours: Pick the Adventure (or Outing) That’s Right for You
So, you’re interested in a Charleston boat tour. Which one should you take (if you can only pick one)? Here are 10 very different—but equally compelling—options for taking a boat tour in Charleston:
1. Charleston Harbor Tour on the Carolina Belle
We’ll start with a classic. The Charleston Harbor Tour aboard the Carolina Belle provides guests with incredible views of the Charleston Harbor, Ravenel Bridge, and the Holy City’s skyline. This 90-minute cruise departs from downtown Charleston, just south of the South Carolina Aquarium. The Carolina Belle is a beautiful, historic ship that is befitting of its surroundings; and, if you’re interested, you can combine your cruise with other tours for a discounted rate.
2. Sailboat Cruise Aboard the Schooner Pride
If you’re interested in taking in the Charleston Harbor and its surroundings from the deck of a historic sailing vessel, then you’ll want to take a tour aboard the Schooner Pride. The Schooner Pride offers three options—a daytime dolphin sale, a sunset sail, and a full moon sail for adults only. As the tour operator explains, the ship “sails with the winds and tides, so every cruise is unique.” Charleston boat tours on the Schooner Pride last approximately two hours, with passengers embarking and disembarking downtown.
3. OM Sailing Charters
If you’re interested in sailing but looking for a more intimate experience, then consider taking a sunset cruise or private sailing charter aboard OM, a sailing catamaran that docks at Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina at Patriots Point. OM Sailing Charters offers a variety of tour options, so you can curate exactly the outing you want to create memories that last a lifetime. If you’ve never been on the trampoline at the bow of a catamaran with its sails towering overhead and the sea spray cooling your feet, you’re in for an experience you won’t forget.
4. Holy City Boat Tours Sunset Cruise
Another option if you’re looking for a more intimate experience is the Holy City Boat Tours sunset cruise. Once you step onboard the 28-foot “one-of-a-kind” Carolina Skiff, you’ll be treated to a cruise up the Ashley River to the historic Charleston Battery, with the potential to spot dolphins along the way. According to Holy City Boat Tours, “After enjoying the beautiful Historic homes on the Battery and taking photos[,] we will continue on our leisurely cruise back to watch the sun set [while we] continue to spot dolphin and other beautiful shorebirds.”
5. Bulls Island Ferry
A very different type of boat tour, the Bulls Island Ferry takes a small group of passengers on a calm ride through the pristine Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge to the undisturbed beach on Bulls Island. Since Bulls Island is a fair distance away from downtown Charleston and only accessible by boat, it receives few visitors other than those who arrive on the ferry. You’ll be able to explore and photograph the famous “boneyard beach;” and, depending on the time of year, you may get to spot sea turtle tracks in the sand. The Bulls Island Ferry departs from Garris Landing, just a short drive north of Mount Pleasant.
6. Dolphin Watching on Bohicket Creek
If you’re interested in heading south of Charleston instead of north, Captain Jack’s Sailing and Dolphin Watching Tour is a fantastic option. Departing from Bohicket Marina on Seabrook Island (just a short drive from Kiawah), this Charleston boat tour explores the calm waters of Bohicket Creek. You can choose to go with a small group or have the sailboat all to yourself (and your captain), and you’ll be invited to enjoy drinks onboard while you keep an eye out for dolphins breaking the surface of the water.
7. Historic Fort Sumter Tour
Another option in the Charleston Harbor is the Historic Fort Sumter Tour. Departing from the Fort Sumter Visitor Center downtown, this boat tour takes you through the Harbor to Fort Sumter, where you’ll have an hour to explore before getting back on the ship to return to the peninsula. This is the only way to set foot on Fort Sumter; so, if this is on your bucket list, this is definitely a boat tour you won’t want to miss. There is an extended dinner cruise option on Friday nights as well.
8. Charleston Water Taxi
The Charleston Water Taxi departs hourly from Waterfront Park and the Maritime Center in downtown Charleston, as well as from Patriots Point and Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina in Mount Pleasant. While you can use the Water Taxi to get from one side of the harbor to the other, you can also simply take a cruise—and many people do so as a cost-effective alternative. Currently, it costs $14 for an all-day pass, and children ages three and under can ride the Water Taxi for free.
9. Charleston Pirate Adventure Cruise
Another kid-friendly option is the Pirate Adventure Cruise offered by Pirates of Charleston. We took this cruise one year for my daughter’s birthday, and it was a really great experience. The crew really gets into it, and the kids get to play an integral role in the ship’s hunt for its lost sunken treasure. Pirates of Charleston offers private birthday pirate cruises for parties of up to 30 (including kids and adults) as well.
10. Saltwater Cycle
Finally, if you’re looking for the opposite of a kid-friendly Charleston boat tour, then you’ll want to check out Saltwater Cycle. You can choose between the Cycle Boat (which has a motor in addition to being powered by passengers’ legs) and the tiki-inspired Charleston Brew Barge. Saltwater Cycle offers a variety of tour options, including booze cruises, bachelorette and wedding cruises, holiday cruises, sunset tours, and more.
Which of these Charleston boat tours sounds most intriguing to you? No matter which option you choose, you really can’t go wrong. Any time on the water in Charleston is time well spent; and, whether you go with your significant other, family, or friends, you’re in for the experience of a lifetime.
Also, keep in mind that while these are some of the more-popular boat tours in Charleston, there are other options as well. We encourage locals and visitors to patronize all local businesses; and, if you are interested in exploring fishing charters or other options, there are definitely more options out there.
Insider Tip: Take a Charleston Boat Tour on Wednesday Evening to See the Harbor Full of Sailboats
Here’s an insider tip: If you are thinking about taking a boat tour in the Charleston Harbor during the summer, consider going on Wednesday evening. During the summer months, the Charleston Ocean Racing Association (CORA) hosts sailboat races every Wednesday night (weather permitting). You’ll see dozens of sailboats crisscrossing the Harbor, from fleets of smaller boats with two-person crews to 40-plus foot yachts with crews of a dozen or more sailors.
A Special Option for Netflix's Outer Banks Fans
Are you a fan of Netflix's Outer Banks? If so, you probably know that much of the show is filmed in Charleston. But, what you might not know is that many of the show's most-famous filming locations are accessible (and in some cases only accessible) by water--and you can visit them by boat! There are a few local operators that offer Outer Banks filming locations boat tours--with many running tours multiple times per week year-round.
Looking for a More Active Experience? Try Kayaking, Stand-Up Paddleboarding, or Renting Your Own Boat
If you’re interested in seeing Charleston by water but aren’t interested in taking a guided tour aboard a sailboat, catamaran, or power vessel, you still have plenty of options available. Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) are both great options—and you can either rent and go by yourself or go with an experienced guide. If you’re comfortable at the helm, you can rent a boat as well. There are boat rental companies on both sides of the peninsula, with options ranging from 20-foot bowriders to 40-foot bareboat sailboat and catamaran charters.
We hope you’ve found this guide to Charleston boat tours useful; and, if you decide to go on a cruise, we encourage you to let us know! Take plenty of photos and be sure to tag us @life_charleston.
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