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Rollin' on the river: American Queen steamboat brings river cruising back to the mighty Mississippi

By Marjie Lambert

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Saturday, June 23 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

The American Queen docked in Vacherie, Louisianan.

Marjie Lambert, MCT

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 paddle wheel. 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."

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.

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