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River Cruising to Return to the Mississippi

The Mississippi has not had regular cruises since 2008, but a remade American Queen a brand new steamship will both launch in 2012.

River cruising has been hugely successful in Europe for decades now; but in the last few years European river cruising has absolutely boomed - the fastest growing sector in the cruise business with about 100 vessels each offering hundreds of guests cruises of seven days or longer on the Rhine, Rhone, Danube, Seine, Mosel and other rivers. Most of the river boats in Europe are modern and more than a dozen have been built in just the last few years.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based river boating has been virtually on life support for the last three years. The last time a steamboat carried passengers in staterooms on an overnight journey on the Mississippi or any of its tributaries was in 2008. That was the year Majestic America Line ceased operations of its Mississippi Steamboats. There were only two boats in operation, the Delta Queen and the American Queen.

But there is good news for fans of American river boating - it is coming back in 2012 with two brand new companies.

One of these companies just announced its plans this week. The Great American Steamboat Company of Memphis Tennessee just acquired the newest and biggest steamboat ever built - the American Queen, and it will resume cruises on the Mississippi in April 2012. Sales of these cruises are expected to begin by the end of this month.

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.

Unfortunately, the original steamboat which started it all, Delta Queen, is no longer able to offer overnight cruises. This famous, authentic paddle wheel steamer was built in 1926 in California for regular service between San Francisco and Sacramento. In 1946 she was piloted through the Panama Canal to the Mississippi River. Three different U.S. Presidents sailed on her: Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter. She was allowed to continue providing cruises on the Mississippi after a Presidential exemption was granted to her and renewed yearly since 1971. In 2008 the congressional Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar blocked her exemption renewal and the boat was sold to become a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Sister-boat to the Delta Queen, the Mississippi is also beyond rehabilitation, according to Tim Rubacky. That boat begin service in 1976 but ended up docked in a Gretna, LA, wharf slowing rusting away, after the former owners decided to end Mississippi river cruising.

Another Mississippi Riverboat is Coming

American Queen is not the only riverboat about to reinvigorate Mississippi River cruising. American Cruise Lines, based in Guilford, Connecticut, just "floated" a brand new Mississippi riverboat, the Queen of the Mississippi, on July 17th. Currently under construction at the line's own shipyard, Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Maryland, the boat was just floated n true historic fashion by sliding down a slipway into the water with a glorious splash (see the video here). Modern cruise ships are floated by simply allowing water to fill a dry dock, not nearly as dramatic. See the "float out" video here.

The Queen of the Mississippi, passenger capacity 140, will begin cruising in August, 2012. The brand new propeller-assisted paddle wheel boat will sail seven day itineraries including New Orleans to Memphis, Memphis to Nashville, Nashville to St. Louis, St. Louis to St. Paul and Cincinnati to Pittsburg.

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