What's Next for U.S. River Cruises

Deluxe outside staterooms with veranda onboard the American Queen.
Deluxe outside staterooms with veranda onboard the American Queen.

Soaring demand for river cruises extends far beyond European rivers. For 2015 and 2016, several new offerings are “made in America” for sailings along the Mississippi River and the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia and Snake Rivers. That’s because consumers are turning to American rivers for sailings close to home, without the hassle of international travel. Many are sailing American rivers because they’ve already done Europe and have a desire to explore their own culture and heritage.

Case in point? CruiseCompete.com’s “Cruise Trends” monthly report for August 2015, identified the month’s most requested ship for cruise quotes as American Cruise Lines’ 150-passenger American Eagle, which sails the Mississippi. This new ship has a modern design, but with elements of the past to add to the ambiance for those who want a Mark Twain experience. Balcony staterooms on this ship are typically 300 square feet, highly spacious for a river vessel; many staterooms and suites have private balconies.

Also demonstrating increased consumer demand, American Queen Steamboat Company has extended the sailing season of American Empress with two new departures on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The voyages will sail roundtrip from Vancouver, WA (Portland) on November 15 and November 2. The new eight-day itineraries will feature cultural programs, exclusive museum tours and winery tastings.

“With the next 15 sailings on the vessel almost sold out, we are happy to be able to offer our guests two additional opportunities to enjoy the riverboat, its amenities and this special excursion down the Columbia River,” said Ted Sykes, the line’s president and COO. Sykes added that the line opted to create Portland roundtrips for the added voyages, both because that gives guests a low price point and also saves them time and money on air travel.

Un-Cruise Adventures’ Legacy sails under Portland’s Fremont Bridge.
Un-Cruise Adventures’ Legacy sails under Portland’s Fremont Bridge.

Building on the popular Christmas markets concept on European rivers, American Queen Steamboat Company is developing a related concept on the Mississippi for sailings between New Orleans and Memphis later this year. Nine-day holiday sailings on American Queen will offer Christmas market experiences in select ports, plus seasonal entertainment and locally produced crafts and goods. The voyages are scheduled for November 21, December 5 and December 19 from Memphis to New Orleans, and November 28 and December 12 from New Orleans to Memphis. The line will also offer a roundtrip New Year’s cruise from New Orleans on December 26.

The line developed the holiday-themed elements in conjunction with both convention and visitors’ bureaus and community groups. For example, guests will browse hand-crafted items and holiday crafts during strolls of Christmas markets at Greenville, MS, and Nottoway Plantation, outside Baton Rouge, LA. Cruisers will also encounter strolling carolers in St. Francisville, LA, and will be serenaded as the ship sails from Vicksburg and Natchez, MS. Onboard, the “Steamboat Syncopators” will sing holiday favorites.

In addition, the November 21 voyage includes a Thanksgiving feast and celebration. On the December 12 voyage, guests will attend an exclusive Christmas Ball with Cajun cuisine at the Nottoway Plantation, which will be adorned with holiday décor and lighting. Fares on American Queen begin at $2,699 double. The fare includes a one-night, pre-voyage hotel stay, shore tours in all ports, complimentary wine and beer with dinner and other perks.

The portfolio of Pacific Northwest river products is also evolving. In 2016, American Cruise Lines will reposition the three-year-old Queen of the Mississippi, now sailing the Mississippi River, to the Pacific Northwest. That will more than double the American river line’s capacity on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The vessel will be renamed, and will join Queen of the West in the region.

Taking its place on the Mississippi in early 2016 will be the new 185-passenger America, currently getting its finishing touches in Salisbury, MD. In addition, American Cruise Lines is constructing a new “Queen of the Mississippi” at Chesapeake Shipbuilding, and the line says agents can expect some yet-undisclosed features that have never been seen on a riverboat. 

In addition to new vessels, some lines are refurbishing vessels sailing on North American rivers. That includes Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, which updated both its 62-guest ships, National Geographic Sea Lion and National Geographic Sea Bird, for this year.

An elegant set up awaits guests in the Queen of the Mississippi’s dining room.
An elegant set up awaits guests in the Queen of the Mississippi’s dining room.

The extensive renovation touched everything from guest cabins to the ship’s lounge and bar, dining room, public areas and spa. All staterooms have been updated with new furnishings that include modern aged-cherry bed boxes with faux leather headboards; new bed linens, lighting and windows; additional USB outlets; and new hardware and shower doors for the bathroom.

Wine themed cruises are not only taking Europe by storm, they’re also proving very popular for North American sailings. In the Pacific Northwest for 2016, Un-Cruise Adventures plans seven departures of a new “Ameritage: Four Rivers of Wine & History” itinerary on the Columbia, Snake and other rivers. Serving Washington and Oregon vintages, these voyages will be operated by the 88-guest Legacy, a replica coastal steamer renovated in 2013. It has both modern amenities and a heritage aura.

Wine experts join the ship for wine tastings and onboard presentations. Highlights include visits to Washington and Oregon wineries, Hood River, Palouse Falls State Park and Cannon Beach. The wine-focused cruises are among 34 sailings offered on the ship during the summer season. Rates begin at $3,395 per person double. 

And for 2017, the North American river cruise portfolio will sizably expand as Viking Cruises, a major European river player that’s also started an ocean line this year, will launch Mississippi River cruises. It will become the first major European competitor to enter the U.S. river cruise market with dedicated vessels. Viking will construct six new U.S. river vessels in U.S. shipyards over the next three years.

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