Riverboats make a comeback, especially on the Mississippi

Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal blogger

Could this be a paddlewheel renaissance? Maybe, but not in that creaky, 19th century way. Some new Victorian-style riverboats plying the Mississippi and other U.S. rivers this year will come tricked out with large balconies, Wi-Fi in every stateroom and satellite TVs.

American Cruise Lines said Tuesday it plans to build a new paddlewheel ship to add to its U.S. river fleet. The news comes as the finishing touches are being put on the Connecticut-based company’s brand-new Queen of the Mississippi, which is set to make its inaugural cruise from New Orleans on the Mississippi River in August.

The privately owned company isn’t saying how much the ship will cost to build nor where the new riverboat will operate, but it does say the U.S. river cruise business has been good.


“Our river products for the last five or six years have been selling extremely well,” Chief Executive Charles Robertson said in a phone interview. “This really resulted from demand.”

Robertson said the Queen of the Mississippi’s first six cruises are sold out, and the company is planning a pre-inaugural cruise to deal with the overflow. The company operates cruises in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the East Coast, from New England to Florida.

In its trend predictions for 2012, CruiseCritic pronounced that “cruising on the Mississippi is about to roar back” after the two lines operating on the river went bust in 2008. But these river cruises aren’t cheap, often starting about $2,000 to $3,000 per person.

Robertson said his modern-day riverboats appeal to an upscale, well-educated crowd that wasn’t fazed by the recession. He describes the new boats as Victorian in decor but not glitzy or gaudy. They carry 150 passengers, feature large staterooms and specialize in personalized service. Itineraries run seven days or more, with daily stops that are typically longer than a traditional big-ship port of call.

And there’s one more selling point for some itineraries: the allure of the Mississippi River. “The culture and tradition is woven through the American fabric, with Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, all of that,” Robertson said.

American Cruise Lines isn’t the only riverboat company to return to the Mississippi. The Great American Steamship Co. will debut a refurbished American Queen in April with a cruise starting in Memphis, Tenn. The hoopla surrounding this riverboat launch includes a gala and a christening by ship godmother Priscilla Presley.