Nearly 300 years after the city’s founding by French explorers, the basis for New Orleans’ existence remains a big attraction for visitors. The Mississippi River became the city’s lifeblood by offering a means of transportation that enabled commerce to thrive. Today the river not only still supports a bustling maritime industry, but also continues to lure travelers who are drawn by the mystique of one of the world’s great waterways.
Such folks soon will have new opportunities to experience the Mississippi and sample the flavor of a bygone era when overnight cruising returns to the river courtesy of several tour companies. Beginning in April 2012, the Great American Steamboat Co. will launch a schedule of multi-night cruises aboard none other than the American Queen, one of the vessels originally launched by the now-defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Co., which long called New Orleans home.
The 400-foot American Queen is the largest paddlewheel steamboat to offer overnight voyages on inland waterways. Great American Steamboat Co. CEO Jeffrey Krida, a former Delta Queen executive, engineered the return of the vessel to its roots.
Billed by its owner as “the grandest, most opulent riverboat ever built,” the American Queen has been undergoing a below-decks makeover in Sulphur, La., as it prepares for an April 13 start-up in New Orleans. Inspired by the grandes dame boats of the era that captured the imagination of Mark Twain, the updated 430-passenger steamboat touts a two-level “grand saloon,” a two-deck-high dining room and well-appointed staterooms, some with private verandas.
Company spokesman Michael Hicks says the starting schedule will feature a six-night roundtrip cruise from New Orleans, including stops at Oak Alley and Houmas House plantations; St. Francisville, La.; and Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss. The menu of itineraries includes three- to 10-day cruises, at different times of the year, along segments of the river from St. Paul to New Orleans.
Hicks promises that culinary offerings will be a major part of each voyage’s appeal. “There will be quite an emphasis on the food,” he says.
A few months after the American Queen’s launch, another majestic paddlewheeler will cruise into port. The Queen of the Mississippi is a brand-new sternwheeler being built by American Cruise Lines and set for launch from New Orleans in August.
With 80 staterooms and a 150-passenger capacity, the Victorian-styled vessel will offer seven-night cruises between New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn., along with cruises of up to two weeks that range as far as St. Paul, Minn., and Pittsburgh.
At the Port of New Orleans, which will provide docking space for the tour boats, the primary order of business is heavy cargo such as steel, rubber and grain. But that doesn’t keep port officials from touting growth in passenger traffic as a sign of the city’s economic strength.
“It represents a resurgence of New Orleans,” says Robert Jumonville, the port’s cruise and tourism director.
He notes that along with the return of paddlewheelers, two other tour companies plan to launch service through inland waterways or coastal waters from New Orleans to points in Florida and Tennessee.
In March, shallow-water navigator Blount Small Ship Adventures will begin cruises from New Orleans on the 96-passenger Grande Caribe. The vessel will ride the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, ply the coastal waters to Mobile, Ala., and then head up the Tombigbee River and Tenn-Tom Waterway toward Nashville.
Later in the year, Travel Dynamics International will bring its educational cruises to the city, offering an eight-day tour from New Orleans to Memphis on the 140-passenger vessel Yorktown. A separate itinerary will offer a roundtrip coastal tour from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala.; and Pensacola, Apalachicola and Port St. Joe, Fla.
“It’s gratifying to know that these boats are coming to New Orleans to start up instead of beginning in Mobile,” Jumonville says, crediting the business to “the draw of New Orleans.”
He adds that the river and coastal cruise boats have the advantage of being built in the United States.
“The beauty of all of these boats is that they’re American flagged, and they are small ships that are not restricted by the Coast Guard as to where we can dock them,” he says.
Jumonville says the port will have no problem finding space for the intermittent dockings, even when ocean-going passenger vessels occupy the spaces at the Julia Street and Erato Street cruise ship terminals.
Three major cruise companies now are operating weekly schedules from those terminals to Mexico and the Caribbean on four ships, including Royal Caribbean’s 3,800-passenger Voyager of the Seas, the largest passenger vessel ever to dock here.
“The big ships coming back have helped in the rebranding of New Orleans,” Jumonville says. “The cruise ship companies carry a lot of weight in the advertising business, and when people see that a 3,800-passenger ship is filling up here, they figure smaller boats can do well, too.”
The growing passenger business marks a sharp change from sleepier days in New Orleans when the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen offered the only overnight river cruises, as an alternative to the short tours offered by the venerable paddlewheeler, the Steamboat Natchez.
Today, the Delta Queen is gone – converted into a hotel and docked in Chattanooga, Tenn. But the Natchez remains a fixture on the local riverfront, providing an ongoing reminder of a past era and lifestyle that made New Orleans famous.
Touring on water
Four companies are launching new service from New Orleans this year.
Type: Paddlewheel steamboat Owner: Great American Steamboat Co. (Memphis, Tenn.) Capacity: 436 passengers Inaugural voyage: April 2012 Cruise: Three- to 10-night journeys through America’s heartland Fares: Start at $995 per guest and include a pre- or post-cruise luxury hotel stay Phone: (888) 749-5280 Website: GreatAmericanSteamboat-Company.com
Type: Shallow-draft touring vessel Owner: Blount Small Ship Adventures (Warren, R.I.) Capacity: 96 passengers Inaugural local voyage: March 2012 Cruise: Nine- to 12-day voyages on coastal and inland waters to Nashville and the Mississippi River to Memphis Fares: Call for pricing and availability of introductory savings Phone: (800) 556-7450 Website: BlountSmallShipAdventures.com
Queen of the Mississippi
Type: Sternwheeler Owner: American Cruise Lines (Guilford, Ct.) Capacity: 150 passengers Inaugural voyage: August 2012 Cruise: Seven- to 14-day voyages ranging from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minn., on the Mississippi River and Pittsburgh on the Ohio River Fares: Start at $3,995 per person Phone: (800) 814-6880 Website: AmericanCruiseLines.com
Type: Shallow-draft touring vessel Owner: Travel Dynamics International (New York) Capacity: 138 passengers Inaugural local voyage: August 2012 Cruise: Eight-day voyages on inland waterways from New Orleans to Memphis and on coastal waters to Florida Fares: Start at $3,995 per person, including meals, tours, excursions and onboard lectures Phone: (800) 257-5767 Website: TravelDynamicsInternational.com