The hour is 11:30 on this Saturday night aboard the American Queen, somewhere south of Natchez, Miss. The dance floor in the Grand Saloon is deserted, and a lone man sits in the 24-hour Front Porch lounge, reading a paperback novel. The evening's holdouts, perhaps 30 people who like most of the passengers appear to be 55 or older, are in the Engine Room Bar.
Jackie Bankston, who plays the piano, and Bob Schad, who plays guitar, are singing the '70s Kenny Rogers song, "Lucille," which has roused these last-to-bed passengers into a sing-along. Only one couple is dancing, laughing and jabbing their index fingers accusingly at each other during the chorus, "You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille …" while most of the crowd sings along with Jackie.
Behind them, visible through six large portholes, a red paddlewheel turns, kicking up a constant spray of muddy water from the Mississippi River.
The American Queen, the largest passenger steamboat ever built, has returned to service on the Mississippi River, propelled by a vintage 1932 steam engine and a true paddlewheel. Taken out of service in 2008 when the federal government foreclosed on the ship and steam boating appeared to be dead, the American Queen is the first passenger steamboat to make regular overnight cruises on the river in four years.
A new company with some old river boating hands bought the boat for $15.5 million, spent $6 million on renovations, and put it back into service on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers at a time when river cruising is exploding in popularity in Europe and elsewhere.
Well-off veteran cruisers, history buffs, steamboat lovers and Americans who prefer a domestic vacation are buying up berths; some cruises are sold out.
Not that it's a huge feat to sell out a cruise. This boat carries only 436 guests, compared to 2,000 to 6,000 on major cruise ships. But the price is high: Fares start around $250 per day per person double occupancy for an inside cabin, around $400 a day for an outside cabin, $700 per day for a suite for a cruise on the lower Mississippi.
Neither the ship nor the daily activities are like those on a big oceangoing cruise ship, although there are some parallels with luxury lines. The ambience is low-key and dinner dress is casual. The staterooms feel more like small hotel rooms than cruise-ship cabins. There are no hairy-leg contests, but pool-side karaoke may be added. Hop-on hop-off bus tours of riverside ports are included in the basic fare. Typical evening entertainment is performances of show tunes or Dixieland jazz. "Riverlorians" — river historians — give talks on steam boating and the river.
"American history resonates with a huge number of people, and this is … in many ways the original American vacation," said Christopher Kyte, president of Great American Steamboat Co., which owns the American Queen. He says the boat draws people — mostly affluent and retired — who like the intimacy of a small ship or are river boating buffs or don't want to fly to Europe to take a cruise.
Stephanie Ellis of Kauai had cruised all over the world, always on big vessels, before buying passage on an American Queen journey from New Orleans to Memphis. "We have been (on cruises) to Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the Hawaiian islands. We went through the Panama Canal. We wanted something different and we decided we wanted to stay in the U.S. this year. Now I prefer the small ship."
Walter Raushenbush, a Virginia retiree who had been on both ocean and river cruises in the U.S. and Europe before signing up for the same cruise as Ellis, said: "I had wanted for a couple decades at least to go on the Mississippi Queen or the Delta Queen and experience the music of the region. … I also wanted to see the lower Mississippi," he said.
Another company is bringing a riverboat to the Mississippi for cruises with similar itineraries this summer. American Cruise Lines, which runs small-boat cruises on several U.S. rivers, is building the Queen of the Mississippi and will launch it in August. A key difference is size. The Queen of the Mississippi will hold only 150 passengers — about a third of the capacity of the American Queen — and will boast bigger staterooms.
There is room for both boats — and more, said Kyte, who hopes to announce within 90 days that his company is acquiring a second riverboat. With about 70 million retirees in the United States, "we would need one-hundredth of one percent to think a river cruise is a great idea to keep 10 American Queens filled," he said.
The American Queen was built in 1995 and sailed the Mississippi for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., along with the older and smaller Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen. But the company, which had other subsidiaries that ran into financial problems, declared bankruptcy in late 2001. The company was sold twice, and The U.S. Maritime Administration, which had guaranteed the loan to build the American Queen, repossessed the boat twice, most recently in 2008. The Delta Queen, docked in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been converted into a hotel; the Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap.
The American Queen sat in a boatyard until last fall, when the newly formed Great American Steamboat Co., whose executives included two people from the Delta Queen's earlier days; HMS Global Maritime, and a group of private investors bought it for about $15.5 million. The company spent another $6 million in renovations, most of it on mechanical upgrades, a new paddlewheel, and new carpeting and other elements in the public areas. The staterooms have new mattresses, but most of the Victorian decor — carpeting, drapes, wallpaper and furniture — is what was on the boat when the government seized it. .
The boat was launched on the Mississippi in early April, doing two lower Mississippi cruises before it was christened by its godmother, Priscilla Presley, in Memphis on April 27. This report is based on its second voyage, from New Orleans to Memphis, April 19-27.
The boat shows its age, which to some guests is part of its charm, but it set sail before it was ready for prime time. The carpet in some staterooms had to be replaced because of mildew, the plumbing is temperamental and caused pipes to burst and dirty water to back up into tubs, the pool was closed mid-cruise because a replacement for a broken valve had to be shipped from China, and the whine of steam escaping from an exhaust leak pierced the air every four to five seconds while the paddlewheel was turning. But the crew was repairing problems as they surfaced, and executives hoped everything except the plumbing would be fixed by now.
There were also issues with service, as the company hired a lot of people more for their friendliness than their job skills. Some guests were frustrated by haphazard dining room service, while others praised rookie crew members for their helpfulness and quick responses to problems. In response to complaints during the first two cruises, the company hired a new hotel manager and an executive chef and contracted with the Apollo Group to oversee and train dining and housekeeping staff.
But most guests appeared to be charmed by the cruise. They loved being on the river and could watch the scenery for hours. They liked the old-fashioned decor, the lounges, the show tunes and Dixieland jazz, and the sense of history.
The hop-on, hop-off bus tours of each port city, accompanied by a local tour guide and included in the base cost of the cruise, were hugely popular. Guests liked having the tour guide aboard. Some stayed on the bus; others got off and shopped or toured museums, antebellum plantations and Civil War sites. Favorites included Oak Alley Plantation, the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and the Visitors Center at the Vicksburg battlefield.
Every day, passengers crowded the "Front Porch of America," a 24-hour lounge, which has indoor seating as well as a large open veranda with rocking chairs, plus trays of freshly baked cookies that were constantly replenished. It was the best spot for Internet reception, and several days into the cruise, after the crew started selling happy hour beer and wine there, empty seats got scarce.
"I've liked most of this quite well," said Raushenbush, who sailed with his daughter, Carla, in celebration of her 50th birthday. "It's important to say how good I think the evening entertainment has been. Mark Twain, the jug band, the Dixieland All Stars, the Steamboat Syncopators, the four singer-dancers — it's all been diverting and entertaining. I liked the stops and the tours, both the hop-on, hop-off tours and the three premium tours we took.
"I thought the dinner service was quite spotty. There has been quite a lot of good and interesting food but also some food that struck me as below the pretensions of this enterprise."
For Elizabeth Harder of New York, this was her first cruise. "I did not want to go on this cruise. My mother wanted to go on this cruise. I pictured myself trapped on some god-awful boat, trapped with a bunch of 85-year-olds. But I've got to tell you, I'm having a blast. The staff is what makes it fun. They're so helpful. I got a little spoiled this week.
"My mother needs a walker, she had a knee replacement eight weeks ago, she's on oxygen. She's 74. It's the staff — I can't tell you how much they are helping her with the walker."
The night before the boat pulled into Memphis for its christening at the city's not-yet-finished Beale Street Landing, passengers from the second dinner seating went to the show in the Grand Saloon, a medley of Memphis tunes, and a few danced the Funky Chicken in the back of the room along with the singers and dancers on the stage.
Then most people headed to bed. But up in the Engine Room Bar, half a dozen women did the Twist as Jackie and Bob performed "Rockin' Robin" and "Devil with a Blue Dress On," and another dozen or so people sang along.
Outside, the big red wheel just kept turning, splashing water against the glass, making memories for the guests.
IF YOU GO:
The boat: Built in 1995, it is the largest passenger steamboat in the world. It is 418 foot long, 90 feet wide, and holds 436 guests in 222 staterooms on six public decks. Its paddlewheel is powered by a diesel-fired steam engine from 1932. You can visit the engine room (Hint: The entrance is in the Engine Room Bar, one deck above) and a crew member will answer your questions. Usual speed is about 8 mph going upstream, 10 mph downstream. Its smokestacks stand 100 feet above the water line, which is higher than many bridges, so the stacks fold down 90 degrees, parallel to the deck. In addition, the pilothouse is on scissor jacks and can be lowered, and the trim on top can be removed. An old-fashioned calliope on the top deck sometimes announces the boat's arrival or departure.
Public spaces: The Grand Saloon, with live entertainment; a movie theater; two bars; a small pool that was closed on early cruises; a small fitness room with exercise equipment; a spa offering a modest menu of massages, scrubs and wraps (60-minute massage $95); card rooms; one shop; and the Chart Room, with river charts and books on steam boating. There is no laundry or dry cleaning service, but there is a DIY laundry with two washers and dryers.
The main dining room is on Deck 1, but several other places offer food: The Front Porch of America has indoor and outdoor seating, is open 24 hours, and features snacks, including fresh-baked cookies. The outdoor River Grill is a work in progress but is intended to serve casual lunch and dinner. Afternoon tea is served in the Main Deck Lounge.
Staterooms: The boat has 222 staterooms and suites. Most interior cabins are 130 to 140 square feet, with a few 80-square-feet interior cabins for singles. Outside cabins run 140 to 210 square feet; most open onto a public veranda. Suites have 230 to 500 square feet. A few staterooms have private verandas. Most have both tub and shower; inside cabins have showers only.
Cost: A typical nine-day (seven nights on board, one night in a hotel) lower Mississippi voyage runs $1,995 to $2,895 per person double occupancy for an inside cabin, $3,195 to $5,195 for an outside cabin, and $5,595 to $5,795 for a suite. Prices include one night in a hotel before or after the cruise; all meals and snacks (there are no extra-fee restaurants); soft drinks, bottled water and coffee; a limited selection of wine and beer with dinner; entertainment; and bus tours at each port. The fare does not include taxes or gratuities.
Port calls: Typically from about 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with the boat sailing afternoons and overnight. An innovative program is several hop-on, hop-off buses that make a loop through each town, with a local tour guide pointing out landmarks and recounting local history. This free shore excursion proved very popular. In addition, at least one premium shore excursion, costing $50 and up, is available at most stops.
Dining: Source of most guest complaints, the food service was haphazard and the food below the gourmet standard one might expect from a luxury cruise. However, the company was working to solve this problem quickly, hiring an executive chef and bringing in a team to train the staff. The menus and recipes were designed by Regina Charboneau, former San Francisco restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Natchez. The menus are built around traditional Southern products — shellfish, grits, okra, pecans, Andouille sausage, peaches and the like — and cooking styles, but they were not well executed. Breakfast and lunch are buffets, although a few items can be ordered from a hard-to-find menu. There are two dinner seatings, with the 5:30 seating most popular.
Entertainment: The core of the boat's entertainment is the Steamboat Syncopators, plus four singers who perform two shows most nights in the Grand Saloon. Programs are aimed at an older crowd and on this cruise included Dixieland Jazz, Memphis blues, a medley of show tunes, a medley of river songs, a jug band, and a Mark Twain impersonator. The Syncopators play dance music after the second show, but the room usually emptied before 11:30 p.m. In the Engine Room Bar, a duo of singers perform til midnight. They were surprised when guests asked for more '70s music, more dance music. Movies are shown on some days. Riverlorians — river historians — give talks on steam boating, local history and the rivers.
Crew: Most of the crew members are new and were hired in Memphis. However, many did not have experience in their new jobs and were hired for their friendliness and positive attitudes. They were roundly praised by guests, both in end-of-trip surveys and in interviews with The Miami Herald, for their helpfulness and friendliness. Cruise line executives said another few weeks of training should bring their skills up to par. Some crew members with specialized skills — some musicians, the riverlorians, maitre d', pilots, engineers and others — have worked on the American Queen for many years.
Information: 888-749-5280, http://www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com.
Marjie Lambert: mlambert@MiamiHerald.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun