I will be onboard American Queen next week for a first-hand account of cruising the middle Mississippi amd Ohio Rivers. This part of our great American rivers not been available for cruising for many many years.
Plus - American Queen is a wonderful boat (and I can say "boat") - even though she is really grand enough to be called a ship.
Please continue to check back here for my updates next week.
River Cruising Returns to the Mississippi
The Mississippi has not had regular cruises since 2008, but with a remade American Queen regular cruising of the great American rivers has finally returned.
There is good news for fans of American river boating - it is coming back in 2012 with the Great American Steamboat Company of Memphis Tennessee, which acquired the newest and biggest steamboat ever built - the American Queen, and it will resume cruises on the Mississippi in April 2012.
American Queen is a beautiful river boat - with all the intricate details of a Mississippi steamer on the outside, including the paddle wheel and two smokestacks, and all the grandeur of a classic Victorian-era paddle-wheel steamer on its five full decks above the water line. There are 222 staterooms and berthing capacity for 463 guests and 160 crewmembers.
The rooms open to stately outdoor promenade decks on most levels.
Unlike the new generation of European riverboats, which boast of modern amenities such as big screen TVs and balconies, American Queen, built in 1995, is a modern recreation of the classic age of Mississippi steamboats. Her stern paddlewheel is actually steam-driven although she also has a set of Z-drive propellers (diesel-electric driven, just like a modern cruise ship). In fact, in many ways she is more like a cruise ship on the inside then a paddle-wheel steamboat, with a beautiful dining room and a large showroom.
American Queen has been laid up in Beaumont, Texas, under the control of MARAD, since the last company ceased its operations. A purchase price of $15.5 million was reported, and an additional $5 million will be used for renovations. Notably, the company and the boat will be based in Memphis, Tennessee, rather than New Orleans, its former home port. The city of Memphis and a group of local entrepreneurs are responsible for assisting the principals who created and will be running the new company. Memphis has also invested $30-million in the new Beale Street Dock project.
The new principals include John Waggoner, Jeff Krida (a former president of Delta Queen Steamboat Company in the 1990s) and Christopher Kyte, a well-known purveyor of all-American travel experiences through his company Uncommon Journeys which specializes in train and river voyages throughout the U.S. on small, chartered vessels.
American Queen will offer three- to 10-night river voyages through America's heartland, with embarkation points in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh beginning in April of 2012. Every cruise will come with a pre-cruise hotel stay so people can fly to the boat the night before the cruise and have plenty of time to get onboard and get settled, according to the company's new svp of sales and marketing, Tim Rubacky.
The company plans to begins sales of its cruise this month, while actual cruises will begin in April of 2012. Meantime, the boat is undergoing renovations at HMS Global Maritime, one of the principle investors in the new cruise line. Tim says the interior of the riverboat is in almost pristine condition. Almost all of the work being done is mechanical, giving the boat a "full lifecycle overhaul" including the paddle wheel, engines, generators and all plumbing and electrical facilities.
Listen, I admit that sometimes details get confusing when one is juggling a lot of different stories (as I do) but to the best of my knowledge...
We are truly honored to announce that the Great American Steamboat Company has chosen Priscilla Presley as the godmother of the steamboat American Queen. Presley, who is synonymous with Graceland in the steamboatís homeport of Memphis, will name her in a christening ceremony at the revitalized Beale Street Landing on April 27. Highlights of the festivities will include performances by local musicians, a bottle of champagne crashing against the stern and the sounds of the American Queen Calliope as she steams off up the Mississippi River. Together, we will be among the first lucky travelers to make history, on the American Queenís Inaugural Voyage which will be filled with many special surprises.
I am a music fan and so after some fantastic barbeque we went down to Beale Street. There must have been ten different live bands paying in the space of one block. And it was all electric blues.
Some bands were all black older guys, some were young white kids, many were a combination of both - but they were all good. Many had big horn sections and keyboards, but the guitar playing and singing stood out.
Our hotel is very nice - best first night out sleep I have had in years (I usually toss & turn), it is the Madison. We went to the Peabody to see the march of the ducks yesterday, close by.
I have to run, we hit Graceland in 90 minutes, more later, after the inaugural!
This sounds interesting to me. Since D/H won't cruise this would be more for him since you always see land. One concern for me is I'm thinking I might get board. I did go on the website and I look forward to hearing about your cruise Paul. Have a great time!
We just got through watching Priscilla Presley christen the remade American Queen steamboat. She is still very beatuful and quite imposing. Yes, she even seemed a little nervous even with our little group of cruise reporters, which was flattering.
I was more nervous when at the press cobference I congratulated her and the new Great American Steamboat company for a nice job on the boat, and for doing uch a great in oromting the city of Memphis, which I had never seen before - as a fan (myself) of Americn music an my appreciation for the role Memphis and the Mississippi have played in the making of American music throughout our history.
She was very composed as she broke the bottle of champagne, and very vigorous - the champagne bottle exploded and soaked her and her entourage. Pretty funny, but she kept her cool. I am loading some pictures to the photo gallery now - bit the connection is very slow (sorry).
We went to Graeland this morning - what a surpise that is, so much more to see than you woud ever dream. Of course, as you are there you realize the reason there is so uch is that Elvis was "cut down" in his prime, and they never sold anything. They have eberything he had at his prime at Graceland for you to see from his house to his 2 private jets, his go carts, about a dozens cars (Rolls Royce, Stutz, thurnderbird, Cadiallac, etc.
I am seriously considering doing this cruise next year. We are well located to drive to any of the embarkation ports in just a few hours, plus I like the idea of visiting mid-America on a steamboat. Probably not our teenage sons cup of tea, but for my wife and me it would be quite enjoyable.
I think the pricing might be the largest obstacle for many prospective passengers. As I recall, steam boating was never cheap when there were three boats working these itineraries, and that certainly has not changed now that one boat has been resurrected.
I was dining with owners (an CEO) Jeff Krida and Christopher Kyte last night. They just signed an agreement with Apollo catering (Oceania and Regent) and they have a wonderful culinary designer.
This is going to be a first class cruise product with excellent food and service.
The price includes a pre-cruise stay in Memphis (worth it for any music lover).
We have been cruising for two days now. Last night's dinner was excellent - gourmet ingredients with a slightly southern.cajun twist. The salmon was juicy yet sweet, with just a tough of something sugary in the sauc (honey, raisins?)
Yesterday the Harry James Orchestra played a swining dance set. We also have two riverlorians onboard, plus "Mark Twain" who has been speaking on American Queen for as long as I can remember.
Gotta run to the Riverlorian talk ight. BTW: the beds are fantastic, I slept llonger last night than I have in 10 years.
The line is working with travel agents who should have all of the cabin sizes, etc.
I can tell you the cabin sizes are very similar to a regular cruise ship. We are in a deck five upper category and we have a beautiful king-size bed, a small divan, a seating chair, a small table (for my computer) and a TV. We have a vanity area with a separate sink outside the bathroom, and inside the bathroom we have a full-size tub.
The regular cabins are a little smaller with queen beds (or two singles) and just a bathroom with shower.
We just had the sunday Jazz brunch - delicious eggs benedict on crab cakes, shrip with grits, a fully baked pig (with apple in mouth), smoked brisket and tons of desserts. The Harry James orchestra played the music for the brunch.
One thing owner Christopher Kyte told me last week was that the originlly planned 60's music cruises (Paul Revere & the Raiders) did not seem to move the needle, so it seems unlikely tht kind of approach will continue - not at this luxury price point. More likely they will stick more to big bands.
We are now on the Ohio River, which has several locks and
We just had a lecture by Regina Charboneau, the executive chef for the cruise line (culinary designer) on "how to entertain." I t was good, she regularly has parties for 150 people at her house in Natchez, and she has all kinds of tricks for simple but beautiful presentations you can freeze and serve later. She is very crafty.
We are now in Kentucky and starting to pass some beautiful homes, now that we are more out of the famous Misssissippi flood plains you start to see more along the river. Like in Europe, where you see villages, castles, etc from the riverboats. If seeing the countryside is your goal I would recommned the upper Misssissippi, or the Ohio River.
This cruise is going all the way Cincinatti, but we are departing a few days early in Louisville. I wish I could stay on, but I have to get ready to go to the Riviera.
One cool thing about American Queen is the chart house - open all day long, where you can go and explorer charts of the Mississippi (or Ohio) River and see exactly where you are and what is nearby. There is a riverlorian in there at all times who knows everything about every square mile. The two riverlorians on this cruise (and now workig for thr Great American Steamboat company) have previously worked for Delta Queen since the 1990s or even earlier (in the case of Toots Malloy, who started in Delta Queen as a waitress in the 1970s).
The other riverlorian, Travis, is also very knowlegable (started with DQ in the 1980s). He knows the whole history of the "Save the Delta Queen" movement - the riverboat that lasted from 1976 - 2006 when she was finally grounded when Wisc. Senator Oberstarr finally refused to allow the congressional exemption that kept DQ in busineess onto the floor of the senate - so they could even vote on it.
Delta Queen (and other steamboat fans) know exactly what I am talking about. It is important to note that one of the owners/CEO of this new Great American Steamboat Company is Jeffrey Krida, the CEO of the original Delta Queen company back in the 1990s, previous to American Classic Voyages, Delaware North, Majestic American or any of the other owners it went through after the origin Delta Queen steamboat Company was acquired.
One big difference is that these people OWN the boat (having purchased it fom MARAD) rather than leasing it. The other is that they are postioning it as a more luxury product, like Oceania or the European riverboats - the opposite of what Delaware North did.
It is actually surprsiing how many people are working onboard who have worked for all five different companies the boat has belonged to - like they are all a family who just got together for another reunion. I like that "family" feeling.
The first actual revenue cruise for Amercan Queen was April 13, 6-night trip from New Orleans. That was followed by two "shakedown cruises." This Apil 27 cruise is the "inaugural cruise" of record, including the christenin ceremony with Priscilla Presley.
The first person the compaany hired was executive culianry manager Regina Charboneau. On new featue of the ship is the casual dining ourdoor restaurant The River Grill on dek 5 at the stern. The outdoo resaurnt is anchored yb a bar but features menu-driven table service startin at 6:00 night;y, no extra charge, but reservatuions required.
We just saw our first production show onboard. It was a competently produced show with a live five-piece band (piano, drums, bass, sax and trumpet), and with four singers/dancers (bass tenor, alto, soprano), but I am sorry to say the theme nearly put me to sleep "A salute to Hollywood." I guess it will appeal to people who remember when "Singin' in the Rain" was actually in the theaters. Enough said.
I expected the boat to be a ittle more finished cosmetically by now. Tim Rubacky had told us they had already spent several millions of dollars refurbishing the exterior, but in fact we see them still working every day, repainting railings and stairways. I makes a big difference, and I am guessing it will be another month before the boat looks completely brand new again. There have also been some technical glitches with the stage shows - 15 minutes to get a slide show working.
So, we weren't surprised when partial owner Christopher Kyte told us "there isn't a single detail; cauking, paint, picture hangars, on our to-do list that you have seen that we don't already know about, we know every little thing that still needs to be done."
Still - a nice surprise has been the quality of the food. And more changes are coming. The company just signed an agreement with the Apollo Catering company (not to be confused with the financial company that partially owns Regent, Oceania and NCL). This Apollo is a Europen catering company that used to run Celebrity Cruises back in the Chandris days, then were hired by Frank Del Rio for Oceania and eventually Regent Seven Seas. Apollo will be managing the food service onboard American ueen starting May 1st - they currently have a two-year contract.
Another new addition will be a new executive chef coming from the Houston Ritz Carlton. A new hotel manager, Malcolm Chappel, will be coming to the line from Seabourn as of Apil 30th. May 4th a "cabin touch-up" team of professionals is coming to make sure all of the staterooms are ship shape.
And then the major Advertsing Blitz starts May 7th. IN addition, the company is in the process of hammering out a marjetin agreement with Avalon Waterays/Glibus a Denver-based company that already sells a number of Europen riverboats.
Mucg of the funding for this new project came from the city of Memphis. In exchange, over 83% of the home office jobs the company has created have been filled with Memphis employees, and 70% of the onboard positons are filled with Memphisians. The cost to Memphis so far in loans to Great American and to the Beale Street Pier renovation project is $47-million. But Memphis is expecting the line to bring in an additional 7200 visitors every year (not a cruises sail out of Memphis, the boat will also ail out of Cincinnatti, St. Louis and New Orleans.) Having the home office in Memphis also means all of the printing, a call center and much of the provisioning will take place in that city as well.
So far, in upgrades alone to the boat Great American has spent $6.5-million. As far as rhe entire financial committment the new GASC has made, Christopher Kyte says "Right now we have a $23-million committment in a project that received an appraisal value of $99-million."
How was it to buy a ship from MARAD? "well, picture trying to deal of Amtrac if it floated," Kyte said.
The company has an agreement with Starbucks Coffee, but as of ight now they do not serve coffee in the staterooms. They are sorting tht out now, and Christopher Kyte is guessing they will simply start offering Room Service in the mornings, rather than the pkanned coffee mkr in each stateroom.