Rollin' on the river: American Queen steamboat brings river cruising back to the mighty Mississippi
The American Queen docked in Vacherie, Louisiana. (Marjie Lambert, Miami Herald, MCT / May 14, 2012)
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Jackie Bankston, who plays the piano, and Bob Schad, who plays guitar, are singing the '70s Kenny Rogers song, "Lucille," which has roused these last-to-bed passengers into a sing-along. Only one couple is dancing, laughing and jabbing their index fingers accusingly at each other during the chorus, "You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille …" while most of the crowd sings along with Jackie.
Behind them, visible through six large portholes, a red paddlewheel turns, kicking up a constant spray of muddy water from the Mississippi River.
The American Queen, the largest passenger steamboat ever built, has returned to service on the Mississippi River, propelled by a vintage 1932 steam engine and a true paddlewheel. Taken out of service in 2008 when the federal government foreclosed on the ship and steam boating appeared to be dead, the American Queen is the first passenger steamboat to make regular overnight cruises on the river in four years.
A new company with some old river boating hands bought the boat for $15.5 million, spent $6 million on renovations, and put it back into service on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers at a time when river cruising is exploding in popularity in Europe and elsewhere.
Well-off veteran cruisers, history buffs, steamboat lovers and Americans who prefer a domestic vacation are buying up berths; some cruises are sold out.
Not that it's a huge feat to sell out a cruise. This boat carries only 436 guests, compared to 2,000 to 6,000 on major cruise ships. But the price is high: Fares start around $250 per day per person double occupancy for an inside cabin, around $400 a day for an outside cabin, $700 per day for a suite for a cruise on the lower Mississippi.
Neither the ship nor the daily activities are like those on a big oceangoing cruise ship, although there are some parallels with luxury lines. The ambience is low-key and dinner dress is casual. The staterooms feel more like small hotel rooms than cruise-ship cabins. There are no hairy-leg contests, but pool-side karaoke may be added. Hop-on hop-off bus tours of riverside ports are included in the basic fare. Typical evening entertainment is performances of show tunes or Dixieland jazz. "Riverlorians" — river historians — give talks on steam boating and the river.
"American history resonates with a huge number of people, and this is … in many ways the original American vacation," said Christopher Kyte, president of Great American Steamboat Co., which owns the American Queen. He says the boat draws people — mostly affluent and retired — who like the intimacy of a small ship or are river boating buffs or don't want to fly to Europe to take a cruise.
Stephanie Ellis of Kauai had cruised all over the world, always on big vessels, before buying passage on an American Queen journey from New Orleans to Memphis. "We have been (on cruises) to Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the Hawaiian islands. We went through the Panama Canal. We wanted something different and we decided we wanted to stay in the U.S. this year. Now I prefer the small ship."
Walter Raushenbush, a Virginia retiree who had been on both ocean and river cruises in the U.S. and Europe before signing up for the same cruise as Ellis, said: "I had wanted for a couple decades at least to go on the Mississippi Queen or the Delta Queen and experience the music of the region. … I also wanted to see the lower Mississippi," he said.
Another company is bringing a riverboat to the Mississippi for cruises with similar itineraries this summer. American Cruise Lines, which runs small-boat cruises on several U.S. rivers, is building the Queen of the Mississippi and will launch it in August. A key difference is size. The Queen of the Mississippi will hold only 150 passengers — about a third of the capacity of the American Queen — and will boast bigger staterooms.
There is room for both boats — and more, said Kyte, who hopes to announce within 90 days that his company is acquiring a second riverboat. With about 70 million retirees in the United States, "we would need one-hundredth of one percent to think a river cruise is a great idea to keep 10 American Queens filled," he said.
The American Queen was built in 1995 and sailed the Mississippi for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., along with the older and smaller Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen. But the company, which had other subsidiaries that ran into financial problems, declared bankruptcy in late 2001. The company was sold twice, and The U.S. Maritime Administration, which had guaranteed the loan to build the American Queen, repossessed the boat twice, most recently in 2008. The Delta Queen, docked in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been converted into a hotel; the Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap.
The American Queen sat in a boatyard until last fall, when the newly formed Great American Steamboat Co., whose executives included two people from the Delta Queen's earlier days; HMS Global Maritime, and a group of private investors bought it for about $15.5 million. The company spent another $6 million in renovations, most of it on mechanical upgrades, a new paddlewheel, and new carpeting and other elements in the public areas. The staterooms have new mattresses, but most of the Victorian decor — carpeting, drapes, wallpaper and furniture — is what was on the boat when the government seized it. .
The boat was launched on the Mississippi in early April, doing two lower Mississippi cruises before it was christened by its godmother, Priscilla Presley, in Memphis on April 27. This report is based on its second voyage, from New Orleans to Memphis, April 19-27.
The boat shows its age, which to some guests is part of its charm, but it set sail before it was ready for prime time. The carpet in some staterooms had to be replaced because of mildew, the plumbing is temperamental and caused pipes to burst and dirty water to back up into tubs, the pool was closed mid-cruise because a replacement for a broken valve had to be shipped from China, and the whine of steam escaping from an exhaust leak pierced the air every four to five seconds while the paddlewheel was turning. But the crew was repairing problems as they surfaced, and executives hoped everything except the plumbing would be fixed by now.
There were also issues with service, as the company hired a lot of people more for their friendliness than their job skills. Some guests were frustrated by haphazard dining room service, while others praised rookie crew members for their helpfulness and quick responses to problems. In response to complaints during the first two cruises, the company hired a new hotel manager and an executive chef and contracted with the Apollo Group to oversee and train dining and housekeeping staff.
But most guests appeared to be charmed by the cruise. They loved being on the river and could watch the scenery for hours. They liked the old-fashioned decor, the lounges, the show tunes and Dixieland jazz, and the sense of history.