LEWISTON – Wine tasting, live jazz or dinner watching the sunset may be just a little better when you can do it floating down the lower Niagara River.
Niagara Sunset Cruises aims to do just that.
Cruises, which opened to the public early this month, take passengers down the river in a style reminiscent of the Mississippi, aboard the 149-passenger Niagara Belle, a three-tiered paddle boat.
The ride offers a more relaxing option to other water rides – like the drenching through the falls of the Maid of the Mist and the fast and wet turns through the lower river rapids on the jet boats.
But Whirlpool Jet Boat entrepreneur John Kinney, who also operates the Niagara Sunset Cruises, said it’s also an opportunity for year-round tourism on the water – well past the short window of summer.
“As wonderful as the jet-boating business is, it is a May-to-October business. Eighty-plus percent of our business is from May to Memorial Day; that’s 12 weeks. I have so much crew and staffing that we needed to do something new,” Kinney said.
“This river doesn’t freeze. We may get some chunks of ice, but with the exception of when the ice boom goes out, that seven- to 10-day period is the only time when the water is not navigable.”
For warmer weather there is an upper observation deck, but the two lower decks are fully heated and air-conditioned.
“We plan to operate through New Year’s Eve. I think this would a great venue to have Christmas parties on and people could come out here and watch a Bills game,” Kinney said.
Tourism industry leaders got to take a sneak peek cruise from Lewiston on May 21 and had glowing reviews.
“This an ideal experience at a leisurely pace,” said John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., Niagara County’s destination marketing organization. “I applaud this company for their vision.”
Percy added that “every bit of product we can market – to extend their stay and their experience – is ideal for us.”
Mike Murphy, who owns and captains the Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises in Lockport, was aboard and welcomed the new cruise line.
“This is not competition. We are on two different bodies of water and do completely opposite things,” Murphy said.
“There is always a need,” Murphy said of the many water ride choices in the area. “When people are out on a boat, they are relaxed. All their worries are gone. Their biggest concern is getting a cold beer. People are happy on the water.”
The Niagara Belle spent 35 years in Toronto before “returning to Niagara,” Kinney said. He said the Belle was built in the early 1970s and operated on the upper Niagara River. When it returned in 2013, it underwent a $1 million makeover and is now “better than ever,” Kinney added.
The original plan had been to open the cruise line to the public last summer, but a delay in Canada with the liquor license postponed the plans for 13 months, Kinney said. Last summer, the cruise operated only for privately booked charter cruises.
“We got the liquor license in New York in seven days, but without the Canadian license, we had to cool our jets ,” Kinney said. “We did operate on special-occasion permits, but you can only do that a limited number of times. That’s like operating with not one, but both hands tied behind your back.”
He said this summer there will be lunch, dinner and wine-tasting cruises available to the public, as well as special-event sailing. The cruise also can be rented by the hour for private charters.
“We want to work with the Lewiston Jazz Festival and have this be one of the venues for jazz performers,” Kinney said. “We would do shorter sailings and could go out on the river for 45 minute rides. This would also be a great place to watch the fireworks.”
Kinney said they have always received a lot of interest from across the world, but hopes these cruises also will appeal to people in Western New York who may want to take a dinner or lunch cruise or join them for special occasions.
“We are working with some of the best caterers from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and here on the Lewiston side, we will be working with Water Street Landing,” he said.
“The Niagara Belle has a full-service galley right onboard, and the lion’s share of the cooking happens right onboard. Whether it’s beef tenderloin or lobster tails, it’s prepared here – not somewhere else and trucked in and the quality of the food will show.”
He said plans call for a second cruise boat by 2016.
Sightseeing cruises will be $25 for a two-hour ride with light fare available for purchase; while three-hour dinner cruises with live music and a cash bar are $69.95 per person.
Specialty cruises and lunch cruises can be booked as they become available. Private cruises can be booked by the hour, and meal options are available.
Like the Whirlpool Jet Boat, the Niagara Sunset Cruises launch from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston and, in Lewiston, at 115 Water St. behind the Water Street Landing restaurant.
For information on booking, visit niagarasunsetcruises.com or call 888-438-4444.