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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

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 upgrade.

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 paddle wheel 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.

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.

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 … 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.

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