Preview: Inside the New French America Line

The 150-passenger Louisiane will sail the Mississippi, five other rivers and along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.
The 150-passenger Louisiane will sail the Mississippi, five other rivers and along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.

It was quite a sight to see as the former Columbia Queen was loaded atop a submersible barge last month and transported on a 33-day journey from the Pacific Northwest through the Panama Canal and onto the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast. Built in 2000 for the former Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the paddlewheel-styled river boat has been laid up since Majestic America Line’s demise. 

In August, the newly renamed, 150-passenger Louisiane will begin sailing for the new French America Line, a New Orleans-based company. Purchased in December 2015 from the Federal Maritime Administration, the vessel has 75 accommodations, including two Richelieu Suites. Delivering a premium product, it will sail five- to 10-day itineraries on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Red rivers, as well as along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.

“River cruise operators in Europe are soft right now as people are holding back a little more when it comes to international travel,” says Tom Markwell, French America Line’s new president. “Domestic travel is on the rise and it far outpaces the growth in international travel.” Other lines also sail on North American rivers, including American Cruise Lines, Great American Steamboat Company, Blount Small Ship Adventures, Un-Cruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic and others. Viking River Cruises plans to launch American voyages next year.

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So, what are French America Line’s brand differentiators? Markwell cites “a European level of quality” and more of a “boutique style product.” Louisiane received major technical changes earlier this year and, after its Gulf Coast arrival this month, it will undergo a dry dock to refresh and refurbish interior spaces. Guests can expect “a subtle, refined and elegant French feel onboard,” says Markwell. “It will be a very holistic approach to that interior,” embracing French culture, featuring deep rich purples and golds, and displaying very elegant and strong flavor of Louisiana’s French Quarter in public areas.

At turndown, guests will receive French macaroons from Laduree and Vosges chocolates. Staterooms will feature L’Occitane de Provence bath amenities and top suites will have Hermes amenities. Guests will sip on Dammann Frères teas and wines will have a strong French influence.  

Pricewise, French America Line’s highly inclusive cruise fares cover free-flowing house wines, beers, spirits, sodas, sparkling water and “still” water (premium beverages are extra), as well as 24-hour room service, Wi-Fi in public areas where available, “Traveler Selection” excursions and a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay with breakfast, porterage and transfers to the ship.

Among the itineraries, one nine-night “Southern Rhythms” cruise departs November 12 from Nashville, TN, with calls at Dover, TN; Paducah, KY; and, New Madrid, MO, before ending in Memphis, TN. Pricing starts at $3,599 per person double. Separately, a coastal “Orange Blossom Sunset” journey departing November 25 and November 29 sails between Pensacola, FL, and New Orleans, with port calls at Dauphin Island and Mobile, AL, as well as Biloxi, MS. Pricing starts at $2,499 per person double.

Good to know? “We will not reduce the cost of a sailing from the time they book to the time they depart,” Markwell says of guest fares. “What if your client sees that and asks, ‘Why am I paying more?’ It puts the agent in a very uncomfortable price position.” So, clients might instead see category upgrades or perhaps air deals. Through June 30, 2016, for example, the line is offering pre-paid gratuities on all sailings, up to a $420 value.

Design-wise, “we wanted the cabins to be light and airy with a different approach to wall treatments,” says Markwell, crediting designer Kathleen Nisbit. Clients can expect everything from woodwork painted in a Shaker beige color to twill-style fabrics, panels above the bed, along with beveled mirrors and wainscoting. Fabrics will have a soft feel and look. Window treatments include both light filtering and black-out shades. As for stateroom and suite coloring, “one deck is reddish, the other salmon colored, another a beautiful teal blue and yet another a soft green,” says Markwell. “Each deck has its own color scheme; I like that approach — a boutique hotel feel. Every cabin on every deck is a little bit different. It adds a little elegance.”

Accommodations Overview

Louisiane’s seven accommodations categories all have individual climate control and private bathrooms. Many have private verandas or French balconies. In-stateroom amenities include a makeup mirror, deluxe mattresses with high-quality linens and duvets, bathrobes and slippers, an in-room safe, direct-dial telephones and more. New LED TVs feature satellite connections. All rooms will also have an iPad on the night-stand, pre-loaded with GPS maps, e-books, movies, destination details and menus.

Two Richelieu Suites with panoramic windows occupy 239 square feet to 267 square feet on the uppermost Champlain Deck. They feature a wraparound outdoor promenade seating area, queen bed, double armoire with built-in drawer storage, chest of drawers, desk and exclusive amenities, including evening canapés, complimentary laundry, fresh fruits and flowers upon arrival, complimentary “Curator Collection” shore experiences and private car transfers to and from the airport, plus other perks.

The 207-square-foot Panorama Stateroom offers evening canapés, and fresh fruits and flowers upon arrival.
The 207-square-foot Panorama Stateroom offers evening canapés, and fresh fruits and flowers upon arrival.

Four 207-square-foot Panorama staterooms on the Marquette Deck are 30 percent larger than the next category of accommodations; they have evening canapés and complimentary laundry, with fresh fruits and flowers upon arrival. Other staterooms are 140-220 square feet. 

Louisiane’s Crescent Room, the main dining venue, will feature menu creations by Chef Regina Charboneau, a Natchez, MS, native, restaurateur and cookbook author. Evening menus will showcase at least one of Carboneau’s French-influenced entrées plus a regional entrée. “You don’t want to be in Pittsburgh eating gumbo,” Markwell quips. Beyond the open-seating main dining room, the ship’s top-deck Veranda — a simple, French-style bistro with indoor-outdoor seating for 50 — will offer casual dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One special touch? The Veranda will offer beignets made using the Café du Monde’s recipe.

For entertainment, the Crescent Room will be transformed in the evenings into a supper club/cabaret. “As people are finishing dinner, the show will begin,” says Markwell. “It’s a very nostalgic retro-style dining room, and guests will enjoy their dessert with a show.” The French Quarter Lounge will have piano music and soft jazz; it will remain open late for night owls. At the Great River Lounge, guests can play cards, socialize or watch a movie. Lectures will encompass regional food, culture and history. Currents Spa will offer body treatments, nail and hair services. The ship will also have a library.

Complimentary “Traveler Collection” excursions via motorcoach will be offered at every port. Four motorcoaches will carry a maximum of 38 guests. “The coaches are contracted for the entire season, so we can control the quality of our drivers and ensure they’re familiar with the route and timing,” he says. They’ll follow the ship from port to port, but won’t be on-off coaches — instead structured shore trips with a guide. “Guests really need somebody to paint that picture,” stresses Markwell. Tours will feature Vox listening devices. One motorcoach will be dedicated as a “gentle” tour.

Active travelers can use complimentary bicycles carried onboard. Guests seeking a premium, small group or unusual tour can also book “Curator Collection” tours (added fee). In Natchez, MS, the line will transport guests to the 1843-era Twin Oaks, Charboneau’s residence with a guest house and ornate kitchen. Cruisers will be treated to a cooking class by Charboneau herself. As guests return to Louisiane, crew members will provide cold towels scented with lemon grass or eucalyptus.

The new line offers a few pre- and post-cruise programs. Prior to the November 12 sailing from Nashville, TN, is a seven-day experience to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Another six-day “Grand Canyon National Park” package is offered post-cruise on several cruises ending in St. Louis.

French America’s Who’s Who

Who owns French America Line? Major shareholders include Christopher Kyte, chairman, and D. Kendall Grigsby, CEO. Several minority owners are from the UK, Australia and elsewhere. Veteran cruise executive Jim Lida is the line’s new vice president of marketing and communications. During its 2016 inaugural year, the line will pay 15 percent commission. Agents booking 10 or more guests on a single 2016 sailing also will receive additional perks — ranging from bonus commission to shipboard credits — from a points-based Freedom of Choice program, plus fam trip reimbursement (if the fam is within 12 months of the group booking). The line will also offer agent Webinars through year’s end.

For the future, “it’s absolutely key that we do have plans for an additional vessel” at some point, says Markwell. While it’s early, he says any additional vessel is more likely to be an existing vessel rather than a new build, given the costs. “Honestly, what confirms [that expansion is possible and needed] is that the competition runs at a fairly healthy occupancy.” He’s not worried about over-capacity on America’s rivers: “We’re going to pull a slightly different market and there is definitely room for growth,” he says.

For more information on French America Line, agents can visit www.frenchamericaline.com.

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