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U.S. River Cruises: More Demand, More Choices

Written by  Lillian Africano

This year, the story about U.S. river cruising remains the same: steady growth. This has meant new boats, new luxuries, new itineraries. The growth is due partly to the 66% of Americans who don’t hold a passport and want to experience cruise travel; Americans who, due to unsettled conditions abroad, prefer to travel within the U.S. - and to the growing interest among English-speaking international travelers who are interested in American history, especially the cultural richness associated with America’s great rivers.

The American Queen Steamboat Company, which operates the 436-passenger American Queen, the 223-passenger American Empress and the new 166-passenger American Duchess (see review) plans another boat, the American Countess (no launch date yet). President & COO Ted Sykes has said: “We primarily sell to the Baby Boomer segment. They are living longer, are more affluent and are generally more physically active. Many are “Lifelong Learners”...people who want to expand their knowledge of history, culture, and other topics. Several factors appeal to draw customers to domestic need to take a long haul flight, deal with foreign exchange or foreign language. Increasingly, we are seeing people concerned about access to health care as a critical factor. Similar to many private health insurances, even Medicare Plan B doesn’t cover people outside of the US. Guests’ concern is both about the lack of insurance coverage as well as the quality of health care that is available in many areas.”

For the remainder of the 2018 season, the Duchess will sail 9-day cruises on the lower Mississippi as well as a 5-day New Year’s celebration (roundtrip New Orleans) and 23-day itinerary from New Orleans to Minneapolis (on July 15th).
On the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the Duchess sails 9-day cruises from Memphis to Louisville; Louisville to Cincinnati; Cincinnati to Memphis; Memphis to Nashville and roundtrip Nashville.
On the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River, the Duchess does 9-day cruises and a 16-day trip from Red Wing, MN to New Orleans.

Like her newer sister, the American Queen also sails 9-day cruises on the lower Mississippi, as well as a 5-day New Year’s celebration (roundtrip New Orleans) a 23-day cruise from New Orleans to Minneapolis (on August 19th). On the Upper Mississippi, American Queen also sails the 9- and 16-day cruises from Red Wing to New Orleans.
On the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the Queen sails 9-day trips from Memphis to Louisville; from Louisville to Pittsburgh and the reverse; and Louisville to Alton.

The line’s Mississippi cruises include 16- and 23-day itineraries, covering the river from Red Wing, MN to New Orleans, with stops such ports as Natchez, MS, Hannibal, MO, Memphis, TN, St. Louis, MO and Paducah, KY.
The American Empress operates on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, with 9-day trips from Vancouver, WA to Clarkston (and reverse), as well as 5-day trips, roundtrip Vancouver.

Looking forward to the 2019 season, the line will offer new itineraries on the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as well as on the Upper Mississippi River, including stops in Pittsburgh, PA. Other new itineraries include Cincinnati, OH to Memphis, TN, Louisville, KY to Pittsburgh, PA and the reverse - and Nashville, TN to Chattanooga and the reverse.
Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines operates a fleet of 10 ships that sail U.S. rivers and waterways, visiting 25 states and the inland waterways of New England, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi River system, and the Southeast. Only American Cruise Lines can build new riverboats because the line has proprietary access to the Chesapeake Shipbuilding shipyard in Salisbury, MD; other lines instead refurbish existing vessels.

ACL’s new 184-passenger American Song, the first in the line’s Modern Riverboat series, will have enormous 900 square-foot Grand Suites, with floor-to-ceiling glass panels along two walls; separate living and sleeping area; spacious marble baths with double vanities and wrap-around balconies with private outdoor dining areas. The Grand Suites will also have extra treats delivered each evening, including a bottle of champagne during the cruise and access to concierge service.
All staterooms aboard American Song are outfitted with Keurig coffee makers and personal refrigerators stocked with complimentary juices, waters, white and red wines.

Design elements include a four-story glass atrium and feature a palette of light colors and the highest glass-to-space ratio in the industry. American Song will make its inaugural cruise on the Mississippi River October 6th, 2018 and the 2nd ship in the series will debut in Summer 2019.

American Song, the 1st ship in the series, makes its inaugural cruise October 6th, 2018 on the Mississippi River. (Recently, the Line’s paddle-wheeler, America, kicked-off the 2018 Mississippi River season, departing from New Orleans. By October of this year, American Cruise Lines will have 3 newly-built ships plying the Mississippi.)
The line is sailing through New England from May till early September with the newest small cruise ship on the Eastern Seaboard, the 175-passenger American Constitution. The Line’s 11-day Grand New England itineraries will feature complimentary authentic New England-style Lobsterbakes.

ACL recently launched its 2018 West Coast season with American Constellation’s inaugural cruise in the Northwest. The new ship sails Tulip-themed cruises in Puget Sound, roundtrip from Seattle. Guests will experience the renowned blooming event as they sail through the spectacular scenery of the
Pacific Northwest.

This year ACL has expanded its holiday itinerary offerings throughout the month of December, when the new American Song cruises 8-day Lower Mississippi itineraries from Memphis to New Orleans and New Orleans to New Orleans, round-trip. Holiday cruises depart December 1st, 8th, 22nd & 30th, with complimentary pre-cruise packages available on new bookings. Holiday cruises feature excursions to seasonally decorated antebellum homes and plantations, holiday meals and activities from caroling to gingerbread house making.
The line’s 183-passenger America continues to sail 5-day trips on the lower Mississippi, roundtrip New Orleans. The Queen of the Mississippi does the same itineraries as well as 8-day cruises, Memphis/New Orleans and reverse. On the Upper Mississippi, the ship also sails 8-day trips from St. Louis to St. Paul
(and reverse).

On the Columbia River, the Queen of the West, from April till October, sails 5-day cruises, roundtrip Portland. Longer 8-day (Lewis & Clark) cruises on the Columbia and Snake Rivers are available on the American Pride and Queen of the West.
In June and July of this year and next, the Queen of the Mississippi sails 11-day cruises, St. Louis to Pittsburgh, on the Ohio River. Along with America and American Harmony, the Queen also sails the 11-day Grand Heartland itinerary from St. Paul to New Orleans. In the fall of this year and next, the Queen travels the Cumberland River from Nashville to St. Louis on 8-day cruises.

In August of this year and next year, ACL’s America and American Harmony sail complete Mississippi 22-day itineraries, from New Orleans to St. Paul.
In September and October, the American Star along with the American Constitution and the Independence sail 8- and 7-day fall foliage Hudson River itineraries, roundtrip New York.
In November and December of this year and also in 2019, the line’s American Star cruises 8-day Great Rivers of Florida itineraries, roundtrip from Jacksonville/Amelia Island.
Earlier this year, ACL began construction on American Harmony, the second ship in the Modern Riverboat Series. When it debuts in 2019, the ship will take over on the Mississippi for its sister ship, American Song, which will then reposition to the Columbia & Snake Rivers for 2019.



American Duchess: A New Look for American Queen Steamboat Company
American Duchess, the newest and smallest (166 passengers) of AQSC’s fleet, launched August 2017 with a modern and contemporary look that contrasts with her two older sisters, American Queen and American Empress.
The exterior of the all-suites vessel is that of a classic paddleboat, and the Duchess does have a paddlewheel, described as “the $2 million-dollar paddlewheel” by President and COO Ted Sykes-because it was purchased and added to the vessel, requiring an extensive build-out.

The interior, however, as well as the suites, resemble those of a boutique hotel more than anything previously seen on America’s rivers. Contrasting with the usual brass and wood fittings and furnishings that evoke the period when Mark Twain sailed the Mississippi, the Duchess features dramatic Austrian chandeliers and Murano glass that complement the modern décor.

Also different is the airy design comes from the ship itself, which originally served as a gaming boat with an abundance of open space. At 100 feet, the American Duchess is wider than other ships in the AQSC fleet, with ceilings on each floor that are 18.5 feet tall. The spaciousness is dramatically highlighted by atrium staircases that rise two floors -
37 feet.

The drama extends to the dining room, which has two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows, admitting plenty of light and offering excellent views. In the center of the dining room is the equally striking newly created mezzanine level, which houses the Lincoln Library. This public space has a bar and grand piano and can serve as either a second entertainment venue or a meeting place for groups. An alternate dining option is offered at The River Club & Terrace, which has an open-view kitchen and double-sided bar, as well as a covered outdoor terrace. (In favorable weather, the outdoor grill is used.)
Broadway style entertainment is presented nightly in the Show Lounge/Auditorium. Similar to the line’s other vessels, the Duchess has a “riverlorian” who gives lively and informative talk on river history
and lore.
The Duchess has a gym equipped with cardiovascular equipment (treadmills and static bicycles), as well as a workout bench and free weights.

The ship’s open space has led to the creation of the first Loft Suites on American rivers. At 550 square feet, these luxurious and striking accommodations have a sitting area with a sofa bed and full bath (with soaking tub) on the first level, with steps to a balcony-style second level that has another bath and a queen bed. The Loft suites along with Deluxe Suites, Veranda Suites and Owner’s Suites have private balconies, while standard veranda cabins have access to a walk-around outdoor area.

Guests with Owner’s Suite and Loft Suite accommodations receive Commodore Services, which include pre-boarding privileges; fruit basket and bottle of wine in the suite upon arrival; preferred dining arrangements; reserved seating in The Show Lounge theater and dinner with the ship’s senior officers. In addition, these guests also receive Butler Service. On some ships “butler service” doesn’t add a great deal to the cruise experience. However, on the Duchess, Butler Gerard doesn’t simply meet passenger needs, he often anticipates them, which does add considerably to the comfort of the trip.
Food is a major component of any cruise and the food aboard the Duchess doesn’t disappoint. Quality ingredients are skillfully prepared and cheerfully served at mealtimes; there is also complimentary 24-hour room service. With advance notice, special dietary needs (including allergies) are accommodated.
Excursions, both complimentary and Premium are offered. Always complimentary are the line’s award-winning Hop-On, Hop-Off bus excursions for every port.

The boat’s dress code is simple: casual during the day and “country club casual” for the evenings. Comfortable walking shoes are needed for excursions.
The crew, like that on the line’s other ships, is American, as mandated by the Jones Act.
Passenger demographic is comparable to that on the other AQSC boats: mature, well-seasoned travelers who generally have experienced both ocean and river cruising. However, on the cruise I sailed, I did see some younger couples as well as a large multi-generational group. While Americans made up the majority of travelers, there were passengers from Europe and the U.K.
Ticket price is pretty inclusive: it covers a one-night hotel stay (with breakfast) prior to the cruise; taxes and transfers to the vessel; the bus excursions; some city tours; wine and beer with dinner; coffee, tea, soda, cappuccino, espresso and bottled water; Wi-Fi. Not included: transfers to and from the airport and gratuities. (Tips of $17.50 per passenger per day are automatically charged to onboard accounts.)

As the ship’s first season draws to an end, Ted Sykes, the company’s president and COO, said: “We are seeing great reception to the launch of the American Duchess. We are regularly sailing with 100% loads. Guests are coming both from the “new to cruise” crowd as well as from experienced river cruisers. In 2017, 24% of the guests we carried had already sailed on one of our boats in the previous five years. This is a very high repeat rate for a company as young as we are.” Bottom Line: The American Duchess is a good choice for clients who have an interest in American history and who are looking for a luxurious, relaxing river experience with cheerful, attentive service by an American crew.

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