This rare U.S.-based cruise line has a unique approach to U.S. river cruising.
American Cruise Lines may be small, but CEO Charles Robertson prefers to think big. Although he did not start American Cruise Lines until 1998, he has been around the cruise industry a long time through other related businesses and certainly knows all of the players. Mr. Robertson is a fount of cruise-related ideas and information.
Robertson is also in a very unusual situation today. He is running an all-American cruise line, doing all-American itineraries on ships made and crewed by Americans - and he says business "really couldn't be better."
Since the line started in 1998 it has maintained a fairly low profile, which is surprisingly fine with Charles. The cruises are selling very well to a slate of very satisfied customers who return again and again. "I would estimate we have the highest passenger loyalty rate of any cruise line in the world," he said.
"Many of our guests book us two or three times per year, often sailing back to back cruises." New customers come largely from word of mouth although travel agents are contributing more each year, which he welcomes greatly. "We do advertise in magazines like Audubon, Southern Living, Yankee, Smithsonian and Cruise Travel." Charles said, "But we don't necessarily get a lot of press coverage and frankly, while we welcome it, we aren't worried that we don't get enough."
The line, headquartered in Guilford Connecticut, is small with a total capacity of only 460 guests spread out over five ships, but there is nothing small about the experience - offering All-American river and coastal cruises on new ships with modern amenities, first class service and large suites, many with private verandas.
What currently makes American Cruise Lines truly unique is its status as the only all-American cruise line offering river cruises. River cruising has never been stronger in Europe with several dozen river boats from at least four different river cruise lines selling to the U.S. audience. But U.S. rivercruising has all but died lately, especially on the mighty Mississippi and her tributaries. When I asked Mr. Robertson why American river cruise industry has sunk so low while Americans flock to sail on European river boats he jokingly replied, "Because no one else here has tried to do it right."
"Seriously, the problem is that most of the vessels are outdated, especially for the Mississippi River where no one has built a new river boat in decades, while the European river boats are as state of the art as they come."
True, there are new riverboats from lines like Uniworld with verandahs and Avalon with French balconies and windows that open for fresh air. "Yes, those are really nice boats, but ours go a step further. People want bigger suites along with their private verandahs, for example, and that is what we give them, along with elevators, Internet access and all the things modern cruisers expect."
So, it comes as no surprise that the next step for American Cruise Lines is the bringing back Mississippi River cruising. The line has a new purpose-built Mississippi River paddle wheel boat under construction scheduled to begin service on August 1, 2012. When I expressed some surprise at the firmness of the date he said, "Oh, there is no doubt it will be ready, in fact we have already sold many of the first year cruises."
Having taken two different Mississippi River cruises myself, one on the original Delta Queen and another on the larger and more contemporary American Queen, I have to say I will welcome the return of Mississippi River cruising a great deal. Both of the river boats I sailed upon are currently out of passenger service for financial and other regulatory reasons.
The new Mississippi river boat will be a paddle-steamer, but assisted by two shaft propeller engines, especially needed for added speed when going upstream. "When you have a river going six knots and a paddle wheel that can only muster nine, that is just too slow," said Robertson. Basically, he promises that you are going to see far more on an American Cruise Lines cruise, and he feels that is the key differentiator between old and new-style river cruising in America.
But it is important to note that American Cruise Lines does far more than river cruising. In fact, three of its vessels are more like small cruise ships than river boats, and they sail the inland passages of America from Maine all the way to Florida. Right now the only paddle wheel river boat in the fleet is the Queen of the West sailing on the Snake River in Washington and Oregon.
"Our itineraries average seven to ten days with an emphasis on ports of call. We sail in the wee hours and we stay in port generally every day from morning and through most of the night. Our biggest advantage is that our boats can dock right the hearts of the cities we visit. We sail right up the Potomac to Alexandria Virginia and dock in the boatyard, for example. We dock right inside the maritime museum in St. Michaels, Maryland."
The "New England Islands" route starts in Providence, RI, and sails to Nantucket Island, New Bedford, Martha's Vineyard, Block Island and Bristol, Mass." This is not done on a steamboat, obviously. The four of the five vessels that are actually small ships have capacities averaging 100 passengers. The newest one, Independence, has two decks of suites with private verandahs and one deck of oceanview stateroom.
All of the suites on each vessel come with flat screen TVs and DVD players, wireless Internet access shipwide, writing tables and queen-size beds or two twins. The ships have elevators; single open-seating dining and generous lounges as well as deck space for watching the scenery go by. Most of clientele are experienced cruisers, generally familiar with cruise lines like Seabourn, Regent and Silversea; smaller luxury cruise lines.
The focus is mostly on coastal routes from Maine to Florida. The ships tend to move around the various itineraries, so it is very easy to take your favorite vessel to different destinations or stay on board for back to back cruises and see new places. For example, the brand new (built in 2010) Independence cruises the Maine coast, the New England Islands, the East Coast Inland Passage, the Hudson River, the Mid-Atlantic Inland Passage and Chesapeake Bay; all in 2011.
Here are details on the different itineraries.
Hudson River: In October the Independence will navigate the Hudson from New York City up to Albany, stopping in West Point, Catskill, Kingston and Sleepy Hollow.
Chesapeake Bay: The brand new Independence begins sailing in June 2010 in the Chesapeake Bay. Sailing from Baltimore you visit Annapolis, Yorktown, historic Williamsburg and a number of small towns in Maryland such as Crisfield settled by Captain John Smith in 1608. Other Maryland stops include Cambridge, Oxford and St. Michaels.
Grand New England: The America Glory does 10 and 11-night cruises to "Grand New England," starting in Providence Rhode Island to Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Gloucester, Mass. to Portland, Boothbay, Bar Harbor, Rockland, Camden, Belfast and Bangor Maine.
Mid Atlantic Inland Passage: All the ships do this itinerary at least once, stretching from Baltimore to Charleston, South Carolina. Stops include Norfolk, VA, Oriental, Morehead City and Wilmington, NC, Myrtle Beach and Charleston, SC.
East Coast Inland Passage: Runs from Baltimore to Jacksonville Florida on a 14-night itinerary.
Philadelphia and Potomac: Sails from Philadelphia to Maryland coastal ports, Annapolis, Mt Vernon and up the Potomac to Washington D.C. Great Rivers of Florida: Sails St. Johns River, one of the few north-flowing rivers above the equator.
Historic South & Golden Isles: Between Charleston, SC and Jacksonville, FL, through the rivers and bays of the inland waterway. There are special cruises scheduled throughout the year such as the Maine Lobster Festival, Clambake Cruises and a lighthouse cruise that visits 50 different New England lighthouses. Guest lecturers come aboard to give information on points of interest.
The latest successful addition of the "Queen of the West" Steamboat sailing on the Snake River in Washington and Oregon offers seven-day itineraries either up or downstream from Clarkston, Washington on the border with Idaho all the way to the coast in Astoria, Oregon. It requires transiting nine locks along the way.
To really discover this cruise line you must spend some time on the web site. The more you look at the unusual destinations the more intrigued you will become. The itineraries offer an immersion in your selected region with scenery you would hard pressed to reach in any other way. Best of all, the cruises are close to home and very convenient; no passports, no long flights, no shots and no customs.
This is a chance to see America in the way our forefathers saw it when river and boat travel was the foremost means of transportation in the country. Naturally, this also means your ports of call offer not only dramatic scenery but also an amazing amount of American history. American Cruise Lines is well worth a good look.
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