LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After five years of covering the river cruise industry for Travel Weekly, I’ve sailed on the Danube, Rhine, Main, Rhone, Volga, Mekong, Nile and Amazon. But this week’s christening cruise on the relaunched 436-passenger American Queen marks the first time I’m riding a river right here at home.
Of course, the experience begs the comparison to other river cruise experiences the world over, most notably to river cruising in Europe, where the market is most mature and experiencing the most growth.
First off, there is one distinct similarity between all river cruises, no matter where in the world. The experience of gliding along a river, with picturesque scenery hugging the banks, evokes the same relaxing sensation regardless of which river said gliding is taking place on. One has to attribute the success of river cruising in large part to the pleasurableness of this sensation.
And like on any river cruise, there is plenty of downtime, which passengers can use to read, play games, spend time on their computers (like on many river cruises, wireless is available on the American Queen but can be patchy), nap, sunbathe or just chit-chat, all of which is done to the backdrop of that universally beautiful and soothing experience of floatin’ on down the river.
But naturally, there are several notable differences between river cruising here and abroad. First and foremost, there’s the hardware. A steam-powered paddlewheeler wouldn’t work on the Danube, and I question whether a sleek European river vessel would fit in on the Mississippi River System.
Our rivers allow for larger vessels like the American Queen, which is probably a good thing: The distances between ports are often greater than the distances between ports in Europe, which means more sailing time and more sailing days, and consequently the need for more onboard amenities and entertainment.
The result is a product that is probably more of a hybrid between an oceangoing vessel and a European river cruise vessel. For instance, the American Queen houses a large theater and performance venue, with room for more ambitious productions than the kinds of acts that can squeeze into the lounges of European river ships.
There is a small but fully functioning pool and gym on the American Queen, along with numerous other smaller public areas to explore.
And, of course, another defining difference is the fact that we’re on home turf. The staff is all-American, the stops are all-American, the entertainment is all-American, the food is all-American. The American Queen is one big, floating homage to American culture and heritage, and that is unique in and of itself.