Byline: Associated Press/Kevin McGill
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A comeback for old-fashioned paddlewheel riverboat travel on the Mississippi River continued Aug. 4, with the departure from New Orleans of Queen of the Mississippi, a brand-new quintuple-deck vessel mixing 19th century trappings meant to evoke the Mark Twain era with modern amenities, including onboard Internet access, satellite television, an exercise area and a putting green.
The vessel took its first seven-night round-trip to Vicksburg, Miss. Future destinations will include Memphis, Tenn., Minneapolis-St. Paul and Pittsburgh, on the Ohio River.
Queen of the Mississippi’s launch came six months after the competing Great American Steamboat Co. brought riverboat cruises back to New Orleans with the refurbished American Queen in April.
Tourism officials say both are welcome sights. Paddlewheel boat travel is an element of New Orleans history and culture that was sorely missed for several years, said Kim Priez, of the Greater New Orleans Convention and Tourism Bureau.
“Can you imagine New Orleans without river cruising?” Priez asked. “This is just something that you expect to see when you look out the window of your hotel; these wonderful vessels going up and down the Mississippi river.”
The steamboat Natchez still makes short trips at New Orleans, but long-haul Mississippi River cruises on vessels such as American Queen, Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen had died out in recent years. Aficionados of the old-style cruises blamed the demise on tightened cruise ship fire safety regulations that were almost impossible for older riverboats — even those with excellent safety records — to comply with.
Delta Queen became a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2009; Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap in 2010. American Queen, after its refurbishment, returned to service on the Mississippi this year after a four-year absence.
American Cruise Lines’ CEO Charles Robertson said that building a brand-new riverboat has advantages, including the opportunity to offer larger staterooms with details and amenities Robertson likened to a luxury hotel.
The new 150-passenger, 295-foot Queen of the Mississippi boasts a dining room large enough to accommodate all passengers in one seating, plus room service allowing passengers to dine on the private balconies available with most of the 300-square-foot staterooms. The authentic paddlewheel and a calliope add the old-fashioned touch — but the Mark Twain Library and Chart Room, in addition to charts, displays modern technology, including a large GPS chart monitor showing the boat’s position.
All of this comes at a luxury price. Per-person rates on the American Cruise Lines website for a seven-night cruise on Queen of the Mississippi run from $3,995 to $6,685.