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

Cruising on the Mississippi River

 

(THIS ARTICLE WAS RECENTLY PUBLISHED IN THE Advocate in Baton Rouge?

River cruises will carry nearly 14,000 well-heeled passengers through Baton Rouge and New Orleans this year, dropping them off for day trips to local museums and restaurants.

That’s an increase of about 8 percent, although the economic impact of those visitors is unclear. Neither Visit Baton Rouge nor the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau have spending data on the passengers.

“What we like about the cruises is that they bring a lot of international travelers to Baton Rouge, and although they don’t overnight, they do spend a great deal of time with organized tours, and they certainly see all that we have to offer,” said Visit Baton Rouge President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Arrigo. “The type of person that does the river cruises, they’ll go back home to wherever they originated, domestically or internationally, and talk about their great experience they had in Baton Rouge. We’re excited about that.”

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesman Kristian Sonnier said most river cruise passengers stay around two nights in the Crescent City, either before or after the cruise.

Officials with American Queen Steamboat Co., which will have two ships calling on New Orleans and Baton Rouge this year, estimated the vessels will combine for more than $650,000 in direct and indirect spending with each docking. American Queen said that figure is based on 2012 estimates that each passenger spends about $60 on a stop.

The American Queen, a 414-passenger vessel that is said to be the largest riverboat ever built, has been paddling up and down the Mississippi River under its current ownership since 2012. In June, it will be joined by a sister ship, the American Duchess, which can accommodate 166 passengers.

Ted Sykes, who serves as president and chief operating officer for American Queen said the lower Mississippi River cruises that stop in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Nottoway, St. Francisville and Oak Alley are the company’s most popular routes. Sykes said many of the boats will be at capacity and the American Queen added four suites this year to meet guest demands. “U.S. river cruising is one of the fastest-growing sectors in travel, and we are proud to be leading the way,” he said.

Riverboats will make 72 stops in Baton Rouge during 2017, said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District. The first boat will arrive Tuesday, when the American Queen calls on the city.

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Rhorer said the cruises have a great economic impact on the city, as passengers eat at downtown restaurants, visit attractions such as the Old State Capitol Museum and the Louisiana Art and Science Museum and shop for gifts at the Main Street Market. “It’s not uncommon on the weekend to have people from all over the world downtown,” he said.

The number of riverboat visits to south Louisiana cities is expected to increase in 2018, when Viking River Cruises makes New Orleans home port for its first North American voyages. That service was projected to launch this year, but there were delays with the construction because of a federal law that states ships that transport passengers directly between American ports needs to be built in the U.S., and owned and crewed by U.S. citizens.

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Because of the growing importance of the riverboat cruises, Baton Rouge is set to spend about $720,000 this year on riverfront improvements, including adding shade structures to the city dock, improving the landscaping and removing concrete at Riverfront Plaza, Rhorer said. Plans to expand the city dock to accommodate more than one boat at a time are also in the works.

“We’re turning our attention to the riverfront as a tourist destination,” Rhorer said. “We have a great new industry to encourage this and we want to diversify the use and the interest of the attractions on the riverfront. We have something that’s unique with this body of water.”

The LSU Museum of Arts in the Shaw Center is a regular stop for the American Queen, and an average of 300 passengers visit every time one of the cruise line’s riverboats comes through, said spokeswoman Brandi Simmons. Sales in the museum’s store typically jump 40 percent during each visit.

The riverboats bring about 8,000 visitors a year to the Old State Capitol and about 840 to the LSU Rural Life Museum.

River cruisers are frequently older and more affluent than passengers on oceangoing vessels. The riverboats are also much smaller and ticket prices higher. A river cruise might carry 150 passengers, while an ocean cruise can easily accommodate 3,000. The price for an 8-day round trip on the Mississippi River leaving from New Orleans starts at $2,399. A 7-day ocean cruise starts at $409.

The river cruises are growing in popularity. There were 184 river cruise ships internationally in 2015, and 13 are on order for 2017, according to the Cruise Line International Association.

The French America Line’s Louisiane is one of the new entries into river cruising. The Avondale-based company will launch its inaugural cruise this year. Cruises are scheduled for each week from mid-March to early January, ranging in length from five days to 16. The longest cruises follow the river from New Orleans all the way to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Christopher Tidmore, one of French American’s owners, said the company’s economic impact in Louisiana is estimated at about $7 million. French American tries to buy Louisiana products as much as possible, although that becomes impractical past a certain point on the river.

Each cruise has daily stops, like Oak Alley or Nottoway plantations, and there are overnights in some cities, Tidmore said. At each stop, the cruise has buses with guides to help passengers explore.

The cruises are all-inclusive. Everything — alcohol, shore excursions and meals — are covered, Tidmore said. In each of the departure cities, French American includes a night at a luxury hotel. In New Orleans, it’s the Bourbon Orleans. In Memphis, it’s the Peabody.

“So when people arrive they don’t have to rush to the boat. They’re relaxed,” Tidmore said.

The cruise line takes care of everything, including taking the luggage from the hotel to the passenger’s stateroom, Tidwell said.

Response to the new river cruise has been “tremendous,” particularly for the lower Mississippi cruises, Tidwell said. Four cruises have already been completely booked, and French American is still spreading the word about its business.