Cruising with booze

The new nighttime river tour targeting young folks who drink is one more way to interact with the region’s tough-to-reach Sacramento River

The Capitol Hornblower chugs along the Sacramento River.

The Capitol Hornblower chugs along the Sacramento River.

Photo courtesy of hornblower cruises & Events

By the end of the night I’ll be charmed by the Sacramento River’s new booze cruise, but things start sour when a middle-aged woman asks about food options at the bar and a nearby bro offers her a “hot dog on a stick.”

“I can serve it to you!” he yells as she walks away.

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, and Sacramento’s Hornblower river cruise boat is unmooring, mixing drinks and amping up the ’90s rap in anticipation of the 90-minute Rock the Yacht cruise. This $25 party float is the newest offering in a city working to create more points of contact between residents, tourists and the Sacramento and American rivers.

In previous years, Hornblower stuck to family-friendly daytime cruises. But with this 21-and-up offering and the 6 p.m. Alive After Five happy hour ride, this river boat provides grown-up fun, banking on Sacramento’s rowdier crowd looking for new ways to enjoy the water. And while the American River provides simple joys to nature- and fun-seekers, the Hornblower has introduced one of very few entertainment options on the Sacramento River.

They may be onto something.

The boat chugs north from Old Sacramento with a capacity gathering of 20- and 30-somethings, the just-a-smidge-too-clean Folsom and Roseville types who might be found any other Friday in line outside the MiX Downtown. The DJ sets the tone with Ciara’s “1, 2 Step,” while revelers wait for bartender Phyllis to mix their drinks. Some stand on the deck and watch the sun slip, all reds and purples, beyond the western levy.

I’m struck by the fact that this is my first time on the Sacramento River and that, without boats of their own, few people get to see the city from this point of view. One would think that the River City, of all places, would at least offer kayak or paddle boat rentals on its namesake body of water.

The Sacramento River has few points of entry for foot traffic. Instead, its size, speed and steep levies limit options for revelry to the decks of boats—a luxury few in the region can afford.

Most people looking to get wet will find the American River far easier to access. Folks walk to the river from countless entry points on the 23-mile stretch between Lake Natoma and the central city to fish, swim or raft. This body of water doesn’t allow motorized boats, says Sacramento County Regional Parks Chief Ranger Michael Doane, which adds to the pastoral setting.

Part of the American’s allure is its rusticity—a good river trip involves exploration and finding that perfect spot others may not know about—but it also requires a level of responsibility. Due to the water’s high levels and low temperatures, the parks closed down much of the river access until mid-June. Even now at average depth, they recommend swimmers use life preservers and enjoy the water with friends.

Doane says the big thing on the American River—his jurisdiction—is that people stay hydrated. He strongly urges against alcohol use.

Not the case here on the Sacramento.

Revelers kick back in the Alive After Five happy hour ride.

Photo by Dave Kempa

I grab a whiskey mule from the charismatic bartender and enjoy the last of the day’s rays on the outdoor deck as the boat turns back downstream.

The Hornblower is not fancy. It’s a riverboat, sun-dried and rustic. But none of the sharp-dressed, attractive folks on the cruise seem to mind. They add to an already lively atmosphere, buying one another shots and trickling onto the dance floor as Usher’s “Yeah!” turns to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and then the B-52’s “Love Shack.”

“It’s unique,” says reveler Renee Van Dyk. “I just hope that people continue to enjoy it.”

This is Van Dyk’s third cruise since Hornblower started its Cocktail Cruises in early May. Opening night was dead, she says, though two weeks ago was better. She booked tonight’s sold-out cruise to show a good time to her friend in from San Diego, who says she enjoys seeing this side of Sacramento.

People do come from all over to enjoy the rivers.

The Sunday following the Hornblower cruise, Petaluma transplant Elise Ferreira sits on the bank at Sutter’s Landing Park with her husband Dylan. Before moving to Midtown last November, she spent one day on the river years ago. A rafting trip.

The annual Rafting Gone Wild party on the American River—which can draw up to 3,000 people and gives Doane’s rangers plenty of headaches—regularly attracts Bay Area rafters.

On hot days, swimmers from all backgrounds hit the banks of the American—a no-cost reprieve from the oppressive summer heat.

The Ferreiras are surprised more folks outside the region don’t know about Sacramento’s rivers.

“I didn’t realize how cool this area was,” says Dylan. “It’s like a little slice of nature in an urban environment.”

On the last leg of the cruise, the Hornblower passes under the Tower Bridge and into the darker, undeveloped area beyond the Interstate 5 bridge. The packed dance floor is testament to the alcohol taking effect, as revelers sing along to the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody.” When “Pour Some Sugar on Me” starts up, a young woman runs in from the deck.

“This is my stripper song!” she says.

The Hornblower turns north one last time. Stars and a crescent moon fade as the boat nears West Sacramento’s golden-lit Ziggurat pyramid. We dock again in Old Sacramento. Folks disembark. A woman slams a can of Track 7 before hopping to shore. Those from out of town head to their cars to go home, while Sacramento partiers move onto the next venue. Across the bridge, the River Cats win and celebratory fireworks light up the sky.

Not a bad Sacramento experience, after all.