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Once the most historical cruising region in the U.S., the Mississippi River has experienced a complete cruise drought for the past three years, following the November 2008 shuttering of short-lived market leader Majestic America Line.

But you can't keep a good river down. In 2012, the region will reopen for cruising courtesy of the Great American Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines, the former a brand-new company operating a riverboat with a long Mississippi pedigree, the latter an established company operating a brand-new riverboat built especially for Mississippi cruising.

2008: The Mississippi Cruising Dries Up

The demise of the Mississippi's cruise business can arguably be traced back to August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina took out New Orleans. In the storm's aftermath, Delta Queen Steamboat Company -- the long-established king of Mississippi River cruising -- was forced to cancel most of the fall and winter cruises planned for its three classic river vessels. That financial hit made Delta Queen a good takeover target for then-rapacious travel and event-management company Ambassadors International, which had begun 2006 by purchasing Seattle-based American West Steamboat Company. In April 2006, Ambassadors announced its purchase of Delta Queen, and in June it began the process of folding its several river-cruise acquisitions into a new company called Majestic America Line. The company's goal was to become the biggest and most dominant river cruise line in America, and for a while it was.

Then came 2008. In June, plagued by bad financials, marine accidents, and a government decision to permanently ground the line's most iconic vessel, the vintage 1927 Delta Queen, Ambassadors announced its intention to sell Majestic America, either as a whole or vessel-by-vessel. When two months went by without a buyer, Majestic America voluntarily relinquished the vessel Empress of the North to the United States Maritime Administration, which had been in the process of foreclosing on the vessel's first preferred mortgage. Three months later, Delta Queen sailed her last cruise, and by November the line was effectively gone.

Late 2008 and early 2009 were, of course, the deepest depths of the Great Recession, so it was no surprise when Majestic America's only competition on the Mississippi, the one-ship line RiverBarge Excursions, also folded its tents, citing "rising costs and very soft bookings."

And that was it. In 2009 and 2010, there was no overnight cruise service on the Mississippi, a river that was once the most important artery of travel and commerce in the central United States. In 2011, small-ship line Blount Small Ship Adventures offered seven cruises on the Mississippi River System, but their ship, the utilitarian, 84-passenger Niagara Prince, wasn't exactly the kind of wedding-cake stern-wheeler people expect when they daydream about cruising the Big Muddy. For that, we have to wait for 2012.

2012: What's on Tap

The Great American Steamboat Company: The more high-profile of the coming year's debuts belongs to the Great American Steamboat Company (www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com), mostly by virtue of its history and visibility.

Launched by a group of cruise industry veterans, including a former president of Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the Great American Steamboat Company (GASC) will operate one of Delta Queen's old vessels, the 436-passenger American Queen, which was laid up in the care of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) from the time of Majestic America's closure until just this past August. Acquired by GASC for $15.5 million, the ship was towed on August 30 from MARAD's reserve fleet anchorage in Beaumont, Texas, to the Bollinger Shipyards Calcasieu facility in Sulpher, Louisiana, where extensive renovations will be made to both her decor and her technical systems.

The largest stern-wheeler in history, American Queen is grand and magnificent, a tiered wedding cake of filigree and curlicues crowned with two huge fluted smokestacks. She looks so beautiful and authentic that it's hard to imagine she was built in 1995. Sealed and dehumidified during her years in mothballs at MARAD, the ship is reportedly in fantastic condition. According to the GASC's own blog, "none the worse for wear … with no mold, mildew or other issues anywhere."

American Queen's decor has always been a total Victorian time-machine, created based on historical photos of the great 19th-century steamboats, and the planned renovation will maintain her historical character. (GASC's president, Jeff Krida, who also served as president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company from 1989 to 1996, has a great blog post here about how the vessel was designed.) Her public rooms include an elaborate Victorian Ladies' Parlor; a clubby Gentlemen's Card Room; the J. M. White Dining Room, designed after the main cabin lounge aboard the 19th-century steamboat J. M. White, with filigree woodwork and two huge, gilded antique mirrors; and the impressive Grand Saloon showroom, modeled after 19th-century opera houses. Cabins are similarly elaborate and historical, with Tiffany-style lamps, tiled bathroom floors, and decorative moldings and trim around the doors and ceiling. Many cabins open up to the common decks via French doors, creating a neighborly feel, and have small stained-glass transom windows above to let in the river breeze. Other cabins have a large bay window or private balconies, and some suites feature spacious balconies. Of note, American Queen has several cabins designed for solo passengers -- a rarity on any ship.

American Queen is due to make her re-debut on April 13, 2012, sailing the Mississippi River system from New Orleans, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Vicksburg, St. Paul, and Memphis, where Great American Steamboat Co. is headquartered. Cruises range from 3 to 10 nights, with the majority being 7-night journeys. Prices start at $1,995 for 7-night cruises, and passengers who book by December 31, 2011, get free shore excursions.

American Cruise Lines: Great American Steamboat Company's only real competition on the river will come from Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines (www.americancruiselines.com), which is combining history and innovation in planning its entry to the Mississippi market.

Announced in September 2010, the new-built sternwheeler Queen of the Mississippi -- which is being built at ACL-affiliated Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Maryland -- will be similar to American Queen in her classic Victorian ambiance, but will be much more intimate, carrying just 149 passengers. That's 25 fewer than even the classic Delta Queen, which now serves as a moored hotel in Chattanooga, TN.

"We're doing things a little bit differently with Queen of the Mississippi," says ACL Vice President Tim Beebe. "Queen of the Mississippi will travel at a faster speed than its predecessors, which will cut time traveling upstream and time spent cruising at night, allowing for more time in port and more time to view the river -- factors that were found to be very important to past Delta Queen passengers that we surveyed. Queen of the Mississippi is also a low-density ship, meaning the square feet per passenger is much higher."

Like American Cruise Lines' existing coastal cruisers, the ship will also boast extra-large staterooms averaging about 200 square feet -- generally a bit larger than American Queen's, which average about 190 square feet, with some suites going up above 230 square feet and some insides going as small as 131. Queen of the Mississippi's staterooms will also have large opening picture windows or balconies with sliding glass doors -- and you'll even be able to get your breakfast served on those balconies. In terms of public areas, Queen of the Mississippi will offer forward, midship, and stern lounges (the latter, the Paddlewheel Lounge, offering views of the ship's huge paddle wheel), a large dining room, a library, and a shaded outdoor areas on the top deck. As has become traditional on the Mississippi, the ship will have an onboard calliope providing its old-timey soundtrack, and entertainment will feature small Dixieland bands, cabaret singers, expert lecturers, and guides.

"It will all be there," says Beebe, "simply on a newer, more intimate ship."

The first cruise aboard Queen of the Mississippi is scheduled to depart August 11, 2012. The ship will sail weekly 7-night journeys on the Mississippi River system from New Orleans, Memphis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and St. Paul. Rates start at $3,995 per person.

Blount Small Ship Adventures: Blount Small Ship Adventures (www.blountsmallshipadventures.com), which tends to keep quietly to itself up at its home base in Warren, Rhode Island, will also be offering a half dozen Mississippi cruises in 2012 aboard the 96-passenger Grand Caribe, including:

  • Two 11-night "Southern Traces" cruises, sailing between New Orleans and Nashville March 23 and November 18, 2011. Rates from $3,699 per person.
  • Two 7-night "Tennessee Traditions" cruises, sailing between Nashville and Memphis April 5 and December 1, 2012. Rates from $2,359 per person.
  • Two 8-night "Treasures of the Mississippi" cruises, sailing between Memphis and New Orleans April 14 and December 10, 2012. Rates from $2,699.

Other Options: Day Cruises & Cruise/Hotel Sailings: In addition to Great American Steamboat, American Cruise Lines, and Blount, a few very small, niche operations also offer day cruises, evening cruises, and even a few pseudo-overnight cruises on the Mississippi River system -- "pseudo" because passengers don't sleep onboard but rather in shoreside hotels, with days spent out on the water. Here's a rundown of a few of the better ones. Due to their brevity, day cruises typically cost between $18 and $25. Longer cruises average between $230 and $350 per person, per night.
  • Spirit of Peoria (www.spiritofpeoria.com): The traditional-style boat was built in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1988 by Walker Boat Yard, and is solely propelled by its large stern paddle wheel. She offers day-trips and 1- to 5-night cruises, with overnight accommodations at shoreside lodges. She sails from Peoria, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Riverboat Twilight (www.riverboattwilight.com): Built in Jennings, Louisiana, and launched in 1987, this diesel-driven paddle-wheeler offers an overnight riverboat cruise from Le Claire to Dubuque, Iowa, with evening accommodations ashore.
  • Belle of Louisville (www.belleoflouisville.org): Built in 1914 in Pittsburgh, the Belle of Louisville is a National Historic Landmark vessel that operates day sightseeing and dinner cruises along the Ohio River, from downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Natchez (www.steamboatnatchez.com): The steamboat Natchez is another traditional classic, also operating under old-fashioned steam power. She offers day cruises from New Orleans, boarding at the foot of Toulouse Street in the French Quarter.
  • Creole Queen (www.creolequeen.com): Also sailing day cruises from New Orleans, Creole Queen is a traditional-style paddle-wheeler powered by very untraditional diesel engines. She was built in 1983 in Moss Point, Mississippi.

A Footnote on Geography

Just so you know the lay of the land, here's a little backgrounder: The Mississippi River system (www.nps.gov/miss) consists of some 50 rivers and tributaries, seven of which -- the Atchafalaya, Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Missouri, and Illinois -- are navigable for considerable distances. Known as the Western Rivers because they formed part of the original American West, their drainage basin covers an area of 1,245,000 square miles (a full 41% of the contiguous 48 states) and includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The system's main sections include:
  • The Upper Mississippi, which begins at Cairo Point, Illinois, and ends 839 miles to the north at Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota.
  • The Lower Mississippi, which begins at Cairo Point and ends 954 miles to the south at the Gulf of Mexico.
  • The Ohio River, the Mississippi's largest tributary, which begins in Pittsburgh (at the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers), and flows 982 miles to Cairo Point, where it joins the Mississippi.