Life Is Good On U.S. Rivers

Riverboating brings new glamour to American waterways By: Marilyn Green
The American Queen will sail Heartland rivers.// (C) 2012 Great American Steamboat Company
The American Queen will sail Heartland rivers.// (C) 2012 Great American Steamboat Company

For 200 years, American rivers have echoed with jazz from the riverboats while the scent of beignets, fried chicken, seafood and decadent desserts drifted to shore, but the mighty waterways have never carried the level of onboard life we will see this year. With the new 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi and the refurbished 436-passenger American Queen taking to the central rivers and wine and history cruises setting sail on the Snake and Columbia rivers, American river cruising is becoming more glamorous.

From the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri to the Columbia and Snake rivers, accommodations are reaching new levels with bedding, stateroom size and bath amenities that rival seagoing ships. American Cruise Lines claims the largest accommodations on American rivers and stresses amenities such as satellite television, in-room telephones and DVD players on its new Queen of the Mississippi. Great American Steamboat Company’s newly refurbished American Queen — the largest steamboat ever built — has well-appointed staterooms with highly individual touches from a screened-in porch to antique furnishings.

Both companies are going all out in terms of entertainment, signing famous names designed to delight the boomer audience. The Queen of the Mississippi will host performers such as Glenn Leonard’s Temptation Revue, while American Queen’s elegant Ford Theater-inspired Grand Saloon, whose box seats are for suite guests, will host a variety of entertainment including the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Bill Haley’s Comets, the Lovin’ Spoonful and the New Orleans Jazz All-Stars.

The onboard lecture rosters are similarly impressive and Riverlorians on both vessels will regale guests with the stories of riverboats past. Cruise lines are capitalizing on themes, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and celebrating the music of the 1950s and ’60s as well as offering holiday cruises, food and wine cruises, Lewis & Clark cruises, the Tall Stacks, the Kentucky Derby and the associated Great Steamboat Race.

Great American has announced three Epic Civil War voyages. The eight- to 10-night adventures will include visits to legendary battlefields and onboard entertainment including actors, leading lecturers, balladeers and reenactments to increase understanding of this pivotal time in U.S. history. One sailing will feature Ric Burns, who collaborated on the 1990 PBS series “The Civil War,” which he produced with his brother Ken Burns. Mark Samels, the award-winning executive producer of “American Experience,” PBS’s flagship history series, is another major draw for Civil War buffs. Another cruise brings onboard James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., formerly executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, who worked with presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson in publicizing the war’s 100th anniversary. The third cruise will feature the Hon. Frank J. Williams, a specialist in Abraham Lincoln and founding chairman of the Lincoln Forum as well as a retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

On the Columbia and Snake rivers, American Cruise Lines recently renovated the 120-passenger sternwheeler, Queen of the West, and is operating Lewis and Clark theme cruises between Portland, Ore., and Clarkston, Wash., among other offerings. The featured guest speaker, Todd Weber, is a highly celebrated, river-running historian, who uses period clothing and colorful presentation to bring history to life and, at a Dinner with Lewis & Clark evening, guests will encounter actors embodying the great explorers. American also announced a special screening of Ken Burns’ Lewis and Clark documentary, “Lewis and Clark — The Journey of the Corps of Discovery,” and guided tours of sites throughout the Lewis and Clark National and State Historic Park are on its itinerary.

On the Mississippi Civil War theme cruises, American will feature several guest speakers including Dr. Michael Deeb, a Civil War expert and author who discusses topics from the origins of the Civil War to the conspiracy theories surrounding Lincoln’s assassination.

The cruise lines are committed to exceptional dining and regional specialties sure to appeal to the target market. During the two seatings in American Queen’s light-filled J.M. White Dining Saloon, guests will enjoy dishes from hot beignets to Bananas Foster, and special dietary needs are lavishly catered to. Those who can tear themselves away from the dining room can enjoy regional alternative dining (seafood, barbecue, po’ boys, etc.), along with al fresco meals in the River Grill and, if someone is still peckish late at night, there’s the 24-hour Front Porch of America or the Moonlight Supper in the charming Engine Room Bar — all without charge. Complimentary soft drinks, specialty coffees and bottled water are included in the fare, as well as complimentary wines and beers at dinner.

Onboard the Queen of the Mississippi there is single seating in the Grand Dining Salon with its crystal chandeliers and surrounding huge windows. The menu includes dishes from Louisiana-style gumbo to peach Melba, and the Top Deck Cafe will provide hot and cold beverages, snacks and pastries throughout the day. In addition, Queen of the Mississippi’s balconies are 12 feet by five feet, and passengers can opt to have breakfast served there. Complimentary bottled water, wine and soft drinks are included.

River ships aren’t the only boats plying the waters of the Pacific Northwest. Luxury yacht operator, American Safari Cruises’ 12-guest Safari Spirit provides exceptional dining, featuring local ingredients and a well-stocked complimentary selection of fine wines, premium spirits and microbrews. The seven-night Culinary and Wine Discovery theme cruises between Portland and Lewiston in October and November raise the bar even higher. In 2013, the company is replacing Safari Spirit with the 88-passenger Safari Legacy (formerly Cruise West’s Spirit of ’98). The vessel will be fully renovated but keeps its style — Victorian decor and construction in the style of a coastal steamer at the turn of the century — which is a good fit for this itinerary. The cruise line will incorporate living history programs onboard and on shore, with characters from history appearing on board for reenactments, presentations and discussions to deliver an authentic look into the history of rivers, including Lewis and Clark, Nez Pearce and members of other tribes.

Likewise, Lindblad Expeditions passengers onboard the 62-cabin National Geographic Sea Lion and Sea Bird hike, kayak and enjoy Zodiac cruises through the Columbia River Gorge with onboard geologists, naturalists, historians and photo instructors. Cruises visit vineyards and wineries, and the line’s recently acquired Food Alliance affiliation ensures that the majority of the food is locally and sustainably produced. Single-seating dining showcases regional specialties, and the company’s Follow the Trail of Lewis & Clark cruises allow passengers to relive the expedition, visiting camps used by the Corps of Discovery.

The combination of fascinating itineraries and big-name enrichment is only the start of the experience on American rivers; all the cruise lines cite warm, personal service as a crucial aspect of their products that will bring clients back for more.