There’s no better way to enjoy summer than with a group outing on the water

By Mary Bergin | Photo Credit: Dells Boat Tours

Water quenches, cleanses, energizes and soothes. That’s a part of the value of dining on a boat instead of a banquet room or boardroom. It’s therapeutic and often scenic.

What may be even more intriguing to planners is the element of a captive audience. It’s harder (or more likely impossible once your boat leaves the dock) to duck out and easier to mingle over appetizers or a multi-course meal. Tone and setting aboard these vessels can vary wildly, from super casual to sit-down formal. Here are some ideas for your next “three-hour tour.”

La Crosse Queen Cruises, La Crosse, transports up to 149 passengers at a time but comfortably seats 85 for dining on the lower of two decks. Catering by Blue Moon Restaurant can mean a smorgasbord with chef-carved meat stations or simply brats with potato salad and beans.

The authentic but modern-day paddle wheeler, designed after those on the river 100 years ago, is one of the few still in operation. The split paddle is not just a nostalgic visual effect; it helps the captain navigate and propel the vessel. Short tours, to explain this, are arranged for no extra charge.

“Cruise routes are pretty much limited to going up and down the river, since we only operate on the Mississippi,“ spokeswoman Kathy Jostad says. “Up river, towards Lock and Dam No. 7, is definitely the most scenic,“ and going through the locks sometimes is possible when a trip exceeds two hours.

For a much different experience on the river, consider Mississippi Explorer Cruises, which has a port in Prairie du Chien. Casual charters for 30 to 98 are arranged on singledeck riverboats. The captain veers off the main river and into eco-rich backwaters, which means excellent bird watching – herons, egrets, eagle nests – in wetlands, some near river bluffs.

“We are a tour boat, so we don’t have tables, but we do many cruises that include lap lunches“ and provide a table for buffet setup, spokeswoman Dixie Libbey says. “Groups find it very workable.“

The cabin, although enclosed, has sliding windows and doors. Work with the company’s recommended caterers or bring your own food and drink aboard. On-water time is flexible.

From March through November, Lake Geneva Cruise Line, Lake Geneva, uses eight boats, each unique, for private charters of two or three hours. For the corporate elite, consider the elegant teakwood decks and mahogany trim of the Lorelei cabin cruiser, built in 1954 and one of three vintage yachts. The Lorelei accommodates up to 14, with room for a buffet and cocktail service. The two-deck Grand Belle of Geneva, designed as a turn-of-century steamer, makes room for 110 to 165 diners and buffet to plated meals.

Many historic and modern estates line the lakeshore, and the captain can narrate. “Our fleet has several docking locations around Geneva Lake, offering the clients a greater array of activities and meeting options,“ says Clare Mulcahy, sales manager.

Event themes run the gamut: Mardi Gras, the Great Gatsby, Hollywood, the 1970s, Jimmy Buffett music. Casino nights, wine tastings, cocktail hour shuttles to restaurant meals and after-dinner dancing with desserts are also possible.

Mulcahy works with 12 preferred caterers, arranging fine dining to pizza parties. Area resorts cater onboard the boats, too, “which works perfectly when meeting groups are looking for an offsite event yet need to fulfill their food contract with their resort,“ she says.

In Milwaukee, Edelweiss Cruises operates the biggest fleet in the city, accommodating 20 to 145 passengers for private charters on the Milwaukee River, through downtown and into Lake Michigan.

Popular for small charters is the Lakeside Spirit yacht, or simply rent a pontoon for 10 (you steer it and bring your own food, drink). For large parties, the bi-level Harbor Lady yacht is the better choice.

The company’s most successful specialty cruise, says Jordan Mendez, special events coordinator, is a murder mystery cruise in conjunction with the Dinner Detective Company. Buffet and seated meals are possible; the Edelweiss also books entertainment (DJ service or bands). Additional Alternatives Most dinner cruises in Wisconsin are chartered from May to October, and most boat operators also offer group discounts for public cruises that involve food. Here are extra river and lake possibilities.

Betty Lou Cruises, Madison – Yacht sailings for groups of 20 or more happen on lakes Mendota and Monona during day or night, for unique views of the capital city, its neighborhoods and parks. Buffet dining for these two-hour or longer outings is as simple as pizza and beer or as complex as a “Captain’s Table“ menu of shrimp cocktails to prime rib carved to order. Bookings for early May or October include menu and beverage upgrades.

Clear Water Harbor, Waupaca – The two-level Chief Waupaca sternwheeler (dining capacity 60) and partly enclosed Lady of the Lakes motor yacht (for up to 20 diners) sail through as many of the 22 interconnected and spring-fed Chain O’ Lakes waters as time and access permit. Boxed lunches, buffets and a la carte meals are arranged through Waterfront Restaurant, another part of this business.

Dells Boat Tours, Wisconsin Dells — Seven boats offer chartered excursions for 20 to 150 guests through the scenic Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River. In addition, the company offers an exclusive site, Cold Water Canyon, accessible by boat, featuring a pavilion. Groups need to make arrangements with outside vendors for food and beverages. Themed outings include a geological boat tour that concentrates on the science and history of the river and Dells area, as well as a surf and turf dinner cruise with live entertainment.

Milwaukee Boat Line, Milwaukee – Charter cruises of at least two hours are booked on the 150-passenger Voyageur, a three-deck and climate-controlled yacht that seats up to 50 for a plated meal by Zilli Hospitality. Add a jazz combo or rock band for dancing. Where the vessel goes depends on time and budget. Stay in the Milwaukee area or sail the Lake Michigan coast, as far as Green Bay or Chicago.

Riverwalk Boat Tours, Milwaukee – Pontoons float along the Milwaukee River to Lake Michigan for views of city life and skylines. The company works with Milwaukee Beer Bistro to arrange casual buffets or sit-down meals for groups of 20 to 46. Capacity depends upon which boat of five in the fleet is booked. Two-hour cruises leave from Pere Marquette Park downtown.

Wisconsin River Cruises, Rhinelander – Time on the Wilderness Queen paddle wheeler means up-close views of Northwoods wildlife — loons to snapping turtles. The boat accommodates up to 90 passengers for lunch, brunch or dinner and sails up to 2.5 hours.