By WALLACE IMMEN
A rich tradition of cruising on paddle wheel river boats stretching back to pioneer America is about to be revived.
Mark Twain spent his early career as a river boat pilot on the Mississippi, and for nearly two centuries there were many choices of traditional steam boats on American rivers. But in recent years, they vanished.
Now, a new cruise company is bringing back the experience with Steamboat American Queen, the largest paddle wheel steamer ever built.
Starting in April, 2012, the 436-guest classic will be cruising on three to 10-night journeys through America’s heartland from Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville or Chattanooga with stops at historic towns and cities.
The cruises promise “unrivalled All-American hospitality,” elegant staterooms and palatial public spaces, with special Southern cuisine prepared by noted chef Regina Charboneau, the line’s Culinary Director.
In an exclusive interview with Avid Cruiser, Tim Rubacky, Senior Vice-President of Sales, Marketing and Product Development for the Great American Steamboat Company talks about bringing back a legend.
Is this the only steam boat operating on American rivers?
She is the only paddle wheel steam boat operating in the heartland rivers, other than excursion boats that do day trips and don’t offer overnight accommodations. The river cruise boats were put to sleep in America just about the time that river cruising really took off in Europe. It was short-sighted thinking due to management changes over the years. It somehow became an accepted truth that these river boats could not run successfully and profitably, when in the past they were extremely popular and successful.
About a year and a half ago, two different groups became interested in bringing back American Queen. We decided that rather than compete against each other we could work together.
The American Queen is a relatively new boat, what are you adding to it?
She’s been beautiful since she was built in 1995 and she had undergone a refit in 2007 under the previous owner before she was repossessed the Government, which cared for her perfectly under the aegis of Department of Defense. So everything is mechanically and physically in perfect shape.
We’re making minor changes to add to the cruise experience. We’re building out the calliope bar area at the top aft of the boat for al fresco dining. The center of attraction there is the steam calliope.
She is the only river boat that will have multiple dining venues at no extra charge. There will be the front porch, an area decorated like an antebellum mansion. Previously, it was a place for having cookies and lemonade; we’re turning it into a dining venue that will be open 24 hours a day.
We’ll also be doing a moonlight supper at the engine bar, which has a great pub feel and will have a pub menu.
What’s the best thing about cruising on America’s rivers?
It’s really eye opening. The United States grew along its rivers. The Mississippi was the route that explorers took and for 200 years it’s been a highway of commerce.
On board a river boat, you’re transported back into a different era. You’ve on this gorgeous Victorian river boat, and you are only among a couple of hundred other guests as you’re moving at the “breakneck” speed of about 5 knots. You get to see a culture and a way of travelling that dates back to the country’s birth.
The little towns that grew up along the rivers in the Midwest are fascinating places.
When you dock you’re likely to see hundreds of people who have come to the shore to greet the river boat. Emotionally it’s a really powerful thing to see how much these boats mean to the people.
What’s a typical day’s schedule going to be like?
Typically we have the boat arriving at its destination around sun up. You can come to the front porch to see sun rise and then go down and have breakfast. At about 8 or 8:30 each morning, you’ll get to go on a tour in the town the Queen is visiting. You aren’t limited to one shore tour in a day. In Natchez, for instance the buses will do a hop on/hop off route, so you can visit the city, antebellum houses or a cotton plantation.
We will have a brand new set of motor coaches that will follow the boat through the cruise, so you will have the same buses and the same drivers. That’s different from most cruises where you have a different guide and driver each day. You will never be that far from the boat and if you came back, you’re docked in town and can go out on foot in the afternoon. Bicycles will be on board for use in port and there are fitness and wellness programs as well.
At sail-away, there may be a festive send-off with a marching band.
After dinner, the grand saloon — that was modelled after Ford’s Theatre (in Washington) — will have cabaret acts. The American Queen consistently ranked at the top in travel magazine reader polls for best entertainment afloat when it was operating.
What’s going to be on the menu?
We’re bringing in Regina Charboneau to oversee the cuisine and the training of the dining staff. What she brings to the table —pardon the pun — is she is a celebrated belle of Southern cuisine, who has written several books. The food will be Southern classics, good old comfort food, with new twists. For example, for breakfast it may be bananas foster crepes.
Po’ boys are classic southern sandwiches. Regina will make them with brisket of beef and they’ll be available through the day. There will be two seatings for dinner with multiple choices of entrees.
What makes this a good cruise value?
Fares will start at $995 per guest and include a pre- or post-cruise luxury hotel stay We’re also including complimentary wine and beer at dinner and shore excursions. We’re not nickel and diming, so things like cappuccinos and espressos, bottled water or soft drinks are included.
That makes it an affordable experience that’s not to be missed.
Read more at AvidCruiser.com