The past couple years have been a dry spell for the Mississippi River, once one of the archetypal cruising destinations in the U.S. Due to a combination of natural disasters, economic downturn, and unsuccessful corporate empire-building, there have been exactly zero sleep-aboard overnight cruises available on the river and its tributaries since November 2008. Next year, though, that's all set to change.
Just this month, family-owned lines Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com) and Blount Small Ship Adventures (www.blountsmallshipadventures.com; formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line) announced plans for multiple sailings on the Mississippi River system in spring 2011. Though their small coastal/river ships are a far cry from the elaborate, 19th-century-style stern-wheel paddleboats for which Mississippi cruising was long known, it's still great news for a cruise region in dire need of a jump start.
Mississippi River Cruising Goes Pffft: What Happened?
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 fall and winter 2005-2006 cruises aboard 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 all of its river-cruise acquisitions into a new company called Majestic America Line (www.majesticamericalines.com). 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 government decisions that were about to permanently ground the vintage 1927 Delta Queen, the line's most iconic vessel, Ambassadors announced its intention to sell Majestic America, either as a whole or vessel-by-vessel -- but months went by without buyers. In August 2008, 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 11, the number of future cruises listed on Majestic America's "Find a Cruise" page was "0." Pfft.
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, tiny little RiverBarge Excursions, also folded its tents, citing "rising costs and very soft bookings."
And that was it: the end of overnight Mississippi River cruising.
Mississippi River Cruising: What's on Tap for 2011
A little over a week ago, Seattle-based Cruise West announced that it will be positioning one of its small ships on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers starting in March 2011. That vessel will be the former Spirit of Glacier Bay, now renamed Spirit of America. A comfortable, functional, if not overly glamorous vessel, the 102-passenger ship once sailed as Nantucket Clipper for now-defunct Clipper Cruise Line, and was scooped up by Cruise West in 2006.
Spirit of America will be offering a total of eight sailings on two different 7-night itineraries between mid-March and mid-May:
- New Orleans to Memphis (March 19, April 16) and Memphis to New Orleans (April 9, May 7) cruises sail the Mississippi with stops at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana; the allegedly haunted 1796 Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, LA; Natchez, Mississippi, with its great antebellum and Victorian architecture; Vicksburg National Military Park, scene of a major Civil War battle; and Helena, Arkansas, famous for the number of Confederate generals who hailed from here.
- Memphis to Nashville (March 26, April 23) and Nashville to Memphis (April 2, April 30) cruises sail farther upriver, following the Mississippi north to Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio River, then sailing upriver to the Tennessee and the narrow Cumberland River. Stops include historic New Madrid, Missouri; Paducah, Kentucky, home to numerous art galleries and the National Quilt Museum; the Civil War sites of Fort Smith, Kentucky, and Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Dover, Tennessee; and the historic city of Clarksville, Tennessee.
Prices start at $3,499 per person, and include all excursions.
Blount Small Ship Adventures, which tends to keep quietly to itself up at its home base in Warren, Rhode Island, just slipped its Mississippi itineraries onto its website this week, with little fanfare. Between April 16 and July 10, 2011, the little line will be offering seven 9- and 11-night cruises on the Mississippi River system, all aboard the tiny, 84-passenger Niagara Prince. Like all Blount vessels, Niagara Princes was built by sister company Blount Boats as a bare-boned, resolutely un-fancy vessel that nevertheless has some features that make it great for intimate river cruising: an extremely shallow draught that allows it to almost sail in puddles, a pilot house that retracts into the hull to allow passage under very low bridges, and a ramp that pokes out of its bow so passengers can march ashore even when there's no dock.
Here's the run-down on Blount's Mississippi itineraries:
- New Orleans to Chattanooga (April 16, June 5) and Chattanooga to New Orleans (May 21): These 11-night cruises sail the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Tombigbee-Lower Black Warrior Rivers and the Tennessee-Tombigbee ("Tenn-Tom") Waterway, an artificial link between the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers. Ports and areas visited include Mobile, Demopolis, Decatur, and Guntersville, Alabama; Columbus and West Point, Missouri; and Shiloh Military Park (optional excursion).
- Chattanooga to Nashville (April 29, June 18) and Nashville to Chattanooga (May 10): These 9-night cruises the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Wheeler Lake, and the Barkley Canal. Ports and areas visited include Guntersville and Decatur, Alabama; Shiloh Military Park (optional excursion); Waverly and Clarksville, Tennessee; and Kentucky's "Land Between the Lakes" inland peninsula.
- Nashville to Chicago (June 29): This 11-night northbound journey takes in much of the central United States, sailing on the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers and the Illinois Waterway to Lake Michigan. Ports and areas visited include Clarksville, Tennessee; Kentucky's "Land Between the Lakes"; St. Louis, Alton, St. Genevieve, and Havana, Missouri; Joliet and Peoria, Illinois (where a Mark Twain impersonator comes aboard to do his thing); and Chicago, where guests spend two nights.
Various destination-specific activities (such as visits to interpretive centers) are included with each cruise, and optional excursions are also available at certain stops. June 5 and June 29 cruises will feature author James I. Robertson, Jr., who will lecture on social aspects of life during the Civil War, including views from the common soldier, the hardships of women, medical limitations, and the long-term impacts the Civil War has had on American life today.
Prices for 9-night cruises start at $2,829 per person, double occupancy. Prices for 11-night cruises start at $3,459 per person. Port charges add an additional $100-$150 per person.
Niche Cruises on the Mississippi River: Day and Night Trips
In addition to Cruise West 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 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 $15 and $30. Overnights range from about $100 to $300.
- 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, overnight, and 2-, and 4-night cruises, with overnight accommodations at shoreside lodges. She sails from Illinois and 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 percent of the contiguous 48 states) and includes all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. The Lower Mississippi is defined as the 954 miles between the mouth of the river just in from the Gulf of Mexico and the junction with the Ohio River. New Orleans has historically been the principal embarkation port and terminus for most Lower Mississippi River cruises.
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