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When the new American Queen Steamboat Company relaunched the 436-passenger American Queen this spring, the company hit all the marks of the American riverboat dream: the wedding cake Victorian elegance, authentic Southern dining specialties, outstanding entertainment and an ambience that takes guests back to when sternwheelers dominated inland transportation.
Passengers smile when a classic calliope announces the Queen’s arrival in ports; they gather under crystal chandeliers in the dining room, succumb to the mellow river pace on the rockers of the front porch and read from the extensive library in the glow of Tiffany lamps.
Added to these classic elements are features dear to the hearts of modern cruise passengers: free Wi-Fi in public spaces, elevators, mountain bikes, flat-screen televisions, glorious beds and alternative dining venues, as well as Pilates, yoga and Zumba classes.
Staterooms vary greatly, with antebellum antiques or copies, charming Victorian-style art (even in public restrooms) and individual features including a private front porch. There are some limitations when working with a National Historic Site: safes are on high closet shelves and storage space varies from room to room.
Guests on my cruise were enthusiastic about the ship’s staff, which was especially attentive to people in wheelchairs or using walkers or canes. Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of sales and marketing, said that the line’s relationship with Memphis had connected it to “a seemingly never ending supply of kind, polite people raised by their mamas to be helpful to others.”
American Queen’s culinary director is celebrity chef Regina Charboneau, who frequently sails with the ship and even offers an optional shore excursion to her home in Natchez, Miss., where she discusses practical entertaining and feeds her guests royally.
Onboard, regional specialties including Bananas Foster and beignets are available from the River Grill, the Front Porch and the JB White Dining Room. Quality is excellent, with daily delicious Po’ Boys served al fresco and the Jazz Brunch earning some of the most enthusiastic dining reviews.
American Queen is also terrific in its entertainment and enrichment. The riverlorian tells fascinating stories of life on the rivers and in the towns along the route, and the entertainment features the Kingston Trio, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Judy Collins and The Platters.
Lecturers have included Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., former executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission and a professor at Virginia Tech, and Will Greene, former historian and manager at the National Park Service. Greene is the author of 20 articles in history journals and numerous books and the leader of more than 40 Smithsonian Institute tours and seminars covering all the major Civil War campaigns.
In 2013, American Queen’s schedule includes cruises on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers out of Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Chattanooga and Pittsburgh, with reunion cruises for current and former American Queen passengers. The company doesn’t have its former passenger lists, so it’s taking the word of past guests, many of whom donated pins to be replicated for new members.
Every cruise includes a one-night hotel stay in the city of embarkation, shore tours in all ports, wine and beer with dinner and other amenities. Fares start at $1,095.
This is a very different product from European river cruising or blue-water cruises, and client education allows passengers to enjoy its special features. Rubacky noted that “agents can make a lot of money since the product is not price sensitive or discounted and the only non-commissionable fee is the port charges, which are quite small.”
Apparently, the word is out: executives reported that the second week of August was the brand’s best sales week yet, nearly doubling the previous mark.
“There has been tremendous word-of-mouth from agents and guests as they clamor for remaining space in 2012 and for the newly announced 2013 season,” said Jeffrey D. Krida, CEO. “We are building a new audience of loyal steamboaters, most of whom are seasoned cruisers who have traveled with luxury ocean-going and European river brands, and now can’t get enough of the American Queen experience. Many who booked for this fall and winter had already traveled aboard the American Queen and are back again.”