Friday, April 28, 2017

The New American Queen

First a small disclosure. I am blogging this today specifically for my good friend Margaret. She went on a great cruise up to Alaska a few years ago and has often said how much she enjoyed it. My own experience with cruises is limited to one short over-niter to the Bahamas while living in Fort Lauderdale but I have  always wanted to do one on a Riverboat up the Mississippi. The idea of doing it on the American Queen seemed like a good fit for today's blog....

The American Queen, the largest passenger steamboat ever built, has returned to service on the Mississippi River -- offering passengers regular overnight cruises on the river for the first time in years. Steamboats have long played a large role in history on the river where they were more than transportation. They brought vaudeville shows and music like New Orleans jazz and the Memphis blues to the American heartland and carried passengers from industrialists to workers -- with more than a few con men and women of ill repute.

But in 2008, overnight passenger service on steamboats disappeared from America’s rivers for the first time in centuries. The eponymous flagship of the renowned Delta Queen Steamboat Company was permanently moored as a hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. Her sister ship, the Mississippi Queen, was sold for scrap in 2009.

But after the reincarnation of the newest and biggest steamboat from the original Delta Queen fleet: The American Queen, river tours are back.

The story behind this latest renovation of American Queen would make a great book. In 2008, she was repossessed by the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) -- the government agency that originally built her for $78-million -- and laid up in Beaumont, Texas where she sat, virtually untouched, for more than three years with a $30 million price tag. In 2010, three men with Mississippi mud in their veins made an offer to buy her for $15 million. MARAD agreed to the offer, so the men established a corporation called the Great American Steamboat Company and started looking for money.

Great American got a loan of $33 million from the city of Memphis and several of its leading businessmen. In exchange, they agreed to locate their headquarters in the city and to hire most of their workers from Memphis. The city not only helped them to buy the boat, but also launched a separate project to spruce up its own Beale Street landing.

The boat was in surprisingly good condition in Beaumont -- especially on the inside, which had been sealed virtually airtight with dehumidifiers. But the exterior was another story. She was taken to an HMS Global shipyard in Louisiana for renovation.

Now finally in service, the new company is focused solely on this one grand vessel. At six decks tall, 418 feet long, 90 feet wide and with a passenger capacity of 450, she is about three times larger than the standard paddlewheel steamboat. She also has a pair of modern “Z-drive” pod propellers, one on either side of the paddle wheel.

The outside is covered in the traditional gingerbread. The fire-engine red paddlewheel at the stern and the two permanent gangways on the bow -- known as “stages” in steamboat lore -- immediately catch the eye. The two cupola-capped smokestacks, standing like a bride and groom on a wedding cake, can be folded down on hinges when the vessel needs to sail under bridges.

Inside are five full decks of cozy, classic Americana-themed staterooms upgraded with flat-screen TVs and free wireless Internet access. The expansive public areas include a movie theater, a gentlemen’s card room, a ladies’ tea room, a two-story showroom with balcony box seats, a chart room, a glassed-in “front porch” with food and coffee available all day, a swimming pool, an exercise room and dozens of nooks and crannies for people to enjoy “rollin’ on the river.”

The idea is to bring luxury-style cruising to America’s rivers. Wine and beer, shore excursions in every port of call, and a pre-cruise hotel stay are all included in the fare. These ideas come from the European river cruise lines – now the fastest-growing segment of the entire cruise industry.

The Steamboat Natchez-
I took this in 1987
The first person the new company hired was Chef de Cuisine Regina Charboneau of Natchez, Mississippi. She specializes in southern-inspired standards like beignets, biscuits, grits, and bayou shrimp. But a classic menu needs the right presentation, so the company also signed catering specialist the Apollo Group to prepare and serve Charboneau's cuisine - the same company that manages cuisine for highly-rated Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas.

Passengers' main meals are taken in the opulent two-story dining room. The “Front Porch” offers complimentary European coffees, sandwiches, ice cream, cookies and popcorn all day long. The “River Grill” atop deck 5 aft provides hot sandwiches for lunch and alternative dining with waiter service at night – no extra charge - with reservations recommended.

Sound like fun? Yeah, it does to me too. Who knows, maybe someday.... For now I guess I'll have to settle for the lunch and dinner cruises out of New Orleans on the Steamboat Natchez (sitting on her deck, sipping a cold drink, while listening to a live jazz band, and just watching the river pass by is makes for one great and relaxing way to spend an afternoon).

Live Long and Prosper....

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