American Duchess to Cruise on Mississippi Rivere

(Recently was in USA Today)

 

NEW ORLEANS — There’s a new royal of riverboats on the Mississippi.

The company that operates the much-beloved American Queen on Monday officially welcomed a second vessel to the river, American Duchess, with a christening ceremony along the waterfront of New Orleans.

Marissa Applegate, daughter of American Queen Steamboat Company chairman John Waggoner, served as godmother for the vessel, smashing a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon against its front railing in lieu of champagne.

“She surely lives up to her royal name,” Applegate told an audience of invited guests at the event, noting upscale amenities on American Duchess that include two-level loft suites — a first for a riverboat in North America.

Applegate also talked movingly about her father, who she described as having an unceasing work ethic. She said it was evident decades ago when he got his start in the maritime world as a captain on a sports fishing boat.

“It has been such a joy to stand by my father and watch him grow this company from the ground up,” she said.

American Steamboat bought and rebuilt an existing casino vessel, the Isle of Capri, to create the American Duchess — an ambitious undertaking that Waggoner likened to bringing a baby into the world. The conversion included the addition of a third deck to the vessel as well as a working paddle wheel.

Initially “it was pretty fun … but about a month into the project, I started to get the morning sickness,” Waggoner said in a speech at the event, joking about construction headaches that included delays caused by high water on the Mississippi. The ship’s debut eventually was pushed back by two months.

“There’s been a lot of pressure to meet our deadlines and finish up the hundreds of projects on board, with a lot of stress for many people,” Waggoner said, equating the pain of the final weeks of work to the pain of childbirth. “But here we are today delivering this marvelous vessel.”

The ceremony also included the presentation of the ship’s Certificate of Inspection from the head of the U.S. Coast Guard’s New Orleans office, Capt. Wayne Arguin. He continued the baby-making analogy by quipping that the document was “like a birth certificate.”

Like the American Queen, American Duchess will sail on the Mississippi between Red Bank, Minn. and New Orleans. It also will cruise on the Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois rivers, with fares starting at $2,999 per person.

Billed as an all-suite vessel, American Duchess features an unusual number of large accommodations. Three Owner’s Suites measure 550 square feet, and there also are four of the Loft Suites that also measure 550 square feet. Standard cabins measure 240 square feet, which is large by cruise industry standards.

American Duchess also has unusually high ceilings on its first two floors, a remnant of its origins as a casino vessel. The floors measure more than 18 feet high. The ship also is slightly wider than the American Queen. The result is a vessel with notably spacious public rooms including a two-story bar area with ceilings more than 36 feet high and a restaurant with soaring windows looking out over the water.

The use of a bottle of bourbon to christen the ship was unusual. Maker’s Mark chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr. who also spoke at the event, noted that the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II used a bottle of Scotch to christen Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 2010. Samuels also recounted the story of how his father and a Louisiana congressman secretly swapped a bottle of Kentucky bourbon for the champagne used to christen a submarine near the end of World War II.

Cruisin the Mississippi River

 

(this article was recently published in the Independent Newspaper)

Having visited New Orleans for the best part of a decade, I’m more than acquainted with the Mississippi River – that mighty, magical, muddy mouthpiece of America that reaches the Gulf of Mexico right here in the Big Easy.

Yet despite that familiarity, I’ve never explored it, and so it was with some excitement that I boarded the largest steamboat ever built – the American Queen® – for a short river cruise.

She is just one of the American Queen Steamboat Company’s fleet of magnificent vessels. American Empress® travels the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, while the company’s newest steamboat American Duchess, which is currently being fitted out as a super-luxurious, all-suite vessel – the first of its kind on US Rivers – will also travel the Mississippi and its tributaries.

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Up the river: the American Queen sails down the Mississippi

On my trip, my fellow passengers had spent a couple of days exploring the Crescent City  – the food, the jazz and the legendary hospitality – and sad though they were to leave, stepping aboard this gleaming riverboat soon allayed any disappointment.

The vessel is everything you might imagine a centuries-old, high-class steamboat might have been. The opulent interiors start at check-in, with grand pianos, polished wooden fixtures and fresh flowers, while local characters in period dress complete the tribute as all are welcomed aboard.

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Centre stage: inside the Grand Saloon Theater

With a blaring horn, we’re on our way, the vast paddles nudging us forward as we find our cabins. Mine has French doors that open up to reveal a plush Queen bed, velvet sofa and full bathroom completing a very comfortable picture.

It’s not long before it’s time for pre-dinner drinks, with a pianist playing old-time favourites in the lounge, then in the theatre, a taster of the entertainment on offer later. This stage, in the Grand Saloon, is a painstaking reproduction of the famous 19th-century Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, every inch of elegance and panache on show.

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Comfortable: one of the suites aboard American Queen

Dinner is an extravaganza, the beautiful dining room coming alive with excitement as servers bring locally-influenced dishes to satisfied diners. Afterwards, a musical show with songs from the Deep South provides a stunning nightcap.

The next day we awake at Oak Alley Plantation, a superb pre-Civil War mansion, where a full tour awaits. Sun streams through the ancient live oaks, and an appetite for lunch on the deck is easily worked up.

In the afternoon, we set sail again. Some people attend talks by the on-board ‘Riverlorian’ about the Mississippi’s history, while others enjoy spa treatments or the fitness room. More still simply relax and take in the evocative riverside views.

The next day, after another full night of socialising, we set ashore at Baton Rouge and explore the state capital and its history with easy, hop-on, hop-off tour buses.

New Orleans once again beckons after one more evening of grandeur, gourmet dining and spectacular entertainment. We leave having experienced the most wonderful time on the Mississippi River, the nest of the old world combining with the new for something completely magical.

You can currently enjoy a cruise on the American Queen from just $2,799 (£2,301) on 11 June, 19 June, 26 June, 3 July, 17 July, 31 July and 7 August. To book your berth on a uniquely American river cruise – and see more promotions – visit americanqueensteamboatcompany.com