A River Runs Through It
The mighty Mississippi is one of today's fastest-growing cruise destinations.
IS THERE A TRAVEL EXPERIENCE MORE TRADITIONALLY AMERICAN THAN ROLLING on the Mississippi River on a steamboat with a red paddlewheel splashing? The Great River is the heartbeat of the country, conjuring up thoughts of steamboat pilot-turned-author Mark Twain, the haunting classic song “Ol’ Man River,” graceful Southern plantations, and the cheerful, piercing whistle of a calliope. ¶ Fortunately, travelers today have several options to sail on the mighty, muddy Mississippi, but just a few years back, the riverboats had vanished from the heartland. ¶ Now the Mississippi River is a hot, fast-growing cruise destination, with three paddlewheelers currently operating and more on the way. Many Americans like traveling through such a historic part of the country, especially if they can drive to the ship or take a train or a short flight. ¶ Plus, while not inexpensive, these river cruises are a value, as fares include some shore excursions, wine and beer with dinner, and more.
VESSELS OFTEN OFFER THEME CRUISES, FOCUSING
on the AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, the MUSIC of the REGION, and, OF COURSE, MARK TWAIN.
FIRST, SOME HISTORY _ Some will likely remember the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, which operated three vessels on the rivers and inland waterways for decades, until it changed hands several times and ultimately closed down operations in 2008. The riverboat Delta Queen, which began service in 1927 and is a National Historic Landmark, became a permanently docked hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the line’s other two boats were laid up.
The U.S. economy went south at that point, so it wasn’t until 2011 that the newest riverboat, the 1995-built, 436-passenger
American Queen, emerged under new owners and a new company. It was rechristened and began operating in April 2012 by the appropriately named American Queen Steamboat Company, which set up headquarters in Memphis. Just four months later, a second Victorian-style riverboat began operating on the Mississippi River system — the newly built, 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, operated by small-ship cruise specialist, American Cruise Lines. And so began a new era of river cruising in the heartland. The newest riverboat recently entered service in late April when American Cruise Lines christened its 150-passenger American
Eagle in New Orleans. At that time, company president, Charles A. Robertson, revealed that a third, slightly larger riverboat for the Mississippi is under construction. Tentative plans have the 185-passenger vessel beginning operations in summer 2016.
But there’s even more in store: European river cruise powerhouse Viking Cruises unveiled plans to base six riverboats in New Orleans to operate Mississippi River cruises starting in late 2017. Viking’s plan, announced in February by Louisiana Governor, Bobby Jindal, is to deploy two riverboats a year — built in the United States at a cost of $90 million to $100 million each — in three years.
More details haven’t been revealed yet, but Viking’s riverboats might be more modern in appearance than the Victorian style of the current trio on the Mississippi. American Cruise Lines, which plans to further expand its river fleet, has also hinted that some of its newbuilds might be more contemporary in style. We’ll have to wait and see. What’s more, efforts are under way to return the beloved Delta
Queen to service. Supporters bought the historic vessel, revived the Delta Queen Steamboat Company name, and are starting repairs in hopes of returning to overnight passenger service in 2016. First, though, the new owners must secure a federal exemption to safety and fire regulations. The legislation has been introduced, and the owners say they are prepared to make necessary upgrades.
ALREADY ROLLIN’ ON THE RIVER _ Currently, there are three Mississippi River paddlewheelers in operation. The new 150-passenger American Eagle is a virtually identical sister to
ON BOARD, PASSENGERS ENJOYED SITTING on the TOP DECK and WATCHING
the MIGHTY MISSISSIPPI GO BY.
Queen of the Mississippi with one main difference: American Eagle has nine staterooms on the top of the boat on Deck 5 in a prized location occupied by crew cabins on the sister ship. The crew cabins were moved to the Main Deck.
The vessels are comfortable throughout, with wicker furnishings in the bright and airy Sky Lounge, deep jewel tones in the Paddlewheel Lounge, fascinating river maps in the cozy Chart Room, and white wooden rocking chairs on outside decks.
The accommodations are extremely spacious, ranging from 260 to 600 square feet. All but six of the 84 staterooms have private balconies. The 19 solo-occupancy staterooms measure a roomy 210 square feet.
American Cruise Lines espouses a “Cruise Local. Eat Local” philosophy and supports farmer’s markets, sustainable ingredients, and fresh local produce. American Eagle mainly cruises for seven nights on the Lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis, although it also offers two sailings, 14 and 21 days long, along the entire length of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and St. Paul in August and September.
Queen of the Mississippi sails throughout the Mississippi River system, sometimes on the Cumberland and Ohio rivers to places like Nashville, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, on the Upper Mississippi between St. Louis and St. Paul, as well as many 7-night roundtrips from New Orleans. The vessels often offer theme cruises, focusing on the American Civil War, the music of the region, and, of course, Mark Twain.
Billed as the world’s largest paddlewheeler, American Queen is a masterpiece of gingerbread trim, glistening woodwork, 20-foot ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and antique furnishings.
The riverboat boasts a number of public spaces, including the library called Mark Twain Gallery, the two-deck-tall Grand Saloon showplace, and even a small pool on the sun deck. Cabins include 140-square-foot insides, 190-square-foot deluxe outsides with bay windows, 210-square-foot veranda staterooms, and suites of 230 to 500 square feet.
Famed Chef Regina Charboneau developed the sophisticated menus for American Queen, which celebrate the American South and heartland riverfront communities.
American Queen operates a variety of itineraries to iconic river port cities including Memphis, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and St. Paul. A hotel stay is included the night before the voyage departs.
American Queen also operates a number of theme cruises on big band swing, Delta blues, Civil War, southern gardens, Mark Twain, and even Kentucky bourbon, to name a few.
With these popular riverboats and future plans for more vessels, it looks like we’ll be rolling on the rivers for years to come.
All aboard American Queen; Illinois Memorial, Vicksburg National Military Park; Memphis’ bustling Beale Street