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When we sat down with Bailee Bridwell to learn more about The Star of Knoxville riverboat, we figured this thing you’re reading now would be about said boat. After all, it is one of only four authentic paddlewheel riverboats in the USA, right on the Tennessee River in good ole downtown Knoxville. Cool, right?
Very cool, yes. BUT y’all, this family. They are precious. Settle in for the cutest story. (And then, once you’ve fallen in love with the Cheek/Bridwell fam, we promise we’ll tell you all about how you can bring your very own pizza and wine to deck of the boat. Cross our hearts.)
Let’s start with the parents. Bailee Bridwell’s father, Mike Cheek, started working on riverboats in Nashville at the geriatric age of fifteen years old. (We assume he liked it okay, because he’s now been in the riverboat business for a mere 43 years.) After spending a few summers as a deckhand, in walked a new boat photographer: Tammy.
Because this is the cutest story ever, Mike and Tammy obviously fell in love, got married, and started a little family. (*sob*🥺💛)
Awhile later, this little family moved to Knoxville from Nashville so Mike could be the General Manager of, you guessed it, the Star of Knoxville. Mike made the trip in 1988, but get this: When the owners decided to move the riverboat in 1994, Mike offered to buy her so she could stay in our sweet Knoxville. Tennessee. (We could hardly contain ourselves when we heard this tidbit of information. Is this not a Hallmark movie waiting to happen?? Romance, risk, rivers – this story has it all!)
Bailee and her brother were just babies when the Cheeks moved to the Scruffy City, so they basically grew up on The Star of Knoxville. They went on all the cruises. They knew all the crew. They even ended up being on the crew as teenagers. (As a little kid, the “Boomsday Cruise” was her favorite. The boat would be so close to the fireworks, they’d all end the night covered in ashes. KNOXVILLE FREAKING GOALS.)
After college, Bailee left for a few years to gain experience on other boats (one of the biggest riverboats in the country in Savannah, to be exact), and when she finally came back to Knoxville in 2019, her parents handed her the keys.
This family affair has come full circle now. Bailee’s dad, brother, and husband are all captains – but it gets even cuter. You know how Bailee and her brother grew up on the boat? Well, if you see a stroller in the corner or some precious babies being passed around by the crew, you’re more than likely on a cruise with Bailee’s own sweet twins who are all set to grow up on the same boat as their mom and uncle. Some members of the crew have literally seen two generations of kiddos grow up on the boat. (*pause to sob from cuteness*)
If you want to be a part of this adorableness, it’s actually easy as pie. Going into this conversation, we were under the impression that riverboat cruises were saved for the bougiest of occasions (we’re talkin’ holiday party or bust), but after meeting Bailee (who is so personable and down to earth) and hearing her family’s story, we knew we’d been missing out on all kinds of “treat yourself” occasions. (We are, admittedly, very easily talked into treating ourselves.)
Want to book an epic dinner date on the boat complete with food, drinks, and entertainment? Go for it! Just know you can also cut the bill in half by booking a “Sight Seeing Cruise.” On Sight Seeing Cruises, you spend the whole time taking in the sights from the upper deck. We’re talking Neyland Stadium, the mansions of Sequoyah Hills, and Ijams Nature Center all from the unique vantage point of the Tennessee River. You can even bring your own little picnic on board. Is that not the sweetest date night?? (We suggest splitting a pizza and a bottle of red, but that’s just us😉)
If you’re now jonesin’ for this pizza and wine on the river situation, we have good news: there are cruise options 6 days a week during peak season! (You can definitely just show up and live your spontaneous dreams, but we suggest booking a ticket in advance to be safe.)
Wednesday: Lunch Cruise + Country Dinner Cruise
Thursday: Murder Mystery Cruise
Friday: Deluxe Cruise
Saturday: Lunch Cruise + Deluxe Cruise
Sunday: Oldies Dinner Cruise
Mix-up date night, surprise the kids, or take a page out of our playbook here at New2Knox and treat yourself. Either way, a cruise on The Star of Knoxville provides a way to admire Knoxville from a whole different angle; it gets you on the water on one of the only authentic paddlewheel riverboats in the country; and most importantly, you get to support a family who saved Knoxville’s riverboat, raised two generations of kids on said boat, and pours their heart and soul into providing this experience for their city.
You already know we’re suckers for this scruffy city. We’ll see you on river 😉
Publish date: 18 August.
Images by: Emilie Stooksbury