Mississippi River cruising has been all but dormant since Majestic America Line ceased operations at the end of 2008, but now Cruise West is attempting to resuscitate one of America's great inland waterways.
Its plans call for two new 2011 itineraries aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of America.
"We're trying to bring the sleeping beauty back to life," said Dietmar Wertanzl, president and CEO of Cruise West.
Wertanzl said that sailing the Mississippi with its Spirit of America, formerly the Spirit of Glacier Bay, was a natural extension of the company's existing U.S. river-cruise products. In addition to international small-ship coastal sailings, Cruise West offers itineraries along the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake rivers on its 96-passenger Spirit of '98 and 84-passenger Spirit of Discovery ships.
The Spirit of America, Wertanzl said, "was made for U.S. inland waterways and coastal cruising. For us, it's a perfect fit."
Unlike the three large paddlewheelers Majestic operated on the Mississippi, which ranged in length from 285 feet to 418 feet, the expedition-style, small-ship Spirit of America is 207 feet in length, with four decks, including an upper sun deck, and three lower decks with 51 cabins.
While the paddlewheelers had large dining and entertainment facilities that were viewed by some as themed destinations unto themselves, Spirit of America will focus more "on the destinations and the experiences" along the rivers, Wertanzl said.
Built in 1984 as the Spirit of Nantucket, the ship was acquired by Cruise West in 2006 and renamed the Spirit of Glacier Bay in 2008, when it was repositioned from the East Coast to Alaska.
Prior to being repositioned to the Mississippi, the U.S.-flagged Spirit of America will receive cosmetic upgrades to its interiors in line with the upgrades Cruise West made in 2008 on its 138-passenger Spirit of Yorktown, including new carpeting and furniture.
In 2011, the Spirit of America will offer two seven-night itineraries, one along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Memphis, the other along the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers from Memphis to Nashville.
There will be eight departures in 2011, with prices starting at $3,499 per person. The New Orleans-to-Memphis dates are March 19 and April 16, or the reverse itinerary on April 9 and May 7. The Memphis-to-Nashville dates are March 26 and April 23, or the reverse itinerary on April 2 and 30.
The departure dates as well as the itineraries take into account the rivers' changing water levels and what the Spirit of America is capable of navigating with its draft size, according to Wertanzl.
"In springtime, [the draft] shouldn't be an issue," he said.
The Mississippi legacy
For the most part, attempts to establish river cruising on the Mississippi have met with failure in recent years.
In November 2008, Ambassadors International shut down its Majestic America Line, taking its three storied Mississippi ships -- the 176-passenger Delta Queen, the 436-passenger American Queen and the 412-passenger Mississippi Queen -- out of service.
Six weeks later, RiverBarge Excursion Lines, which operated the 196-passenger River Explorer, also ceased operations. It had been cruising the Mississippi, Cumberland, Ohio and Tennessee rivers and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana and Texas.
Since then, there has been very little river ship activity in the region. Blount Small Ship Adventures, formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line, operates the 68-passenger Niagara Prince, which in 2011 will sail three Southeastern itineraries, from New Orleans to Chattanooga; from Chattanooga to Nashville; and from Nashville to Chicago.
Rod McLeod, who served from 1999 to 2001 as president and COO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.'s then-parent, American Classic Voyages, said that despite Majestic's failure in the region, there was no reason other operators like Cruise West shouldn't succeed.
"That market, when there was some health to it, which now goes back 10 years, is a very good market with good rates," McLeod said. "This is a destination-rich itinerary. There are parts of it that are scenic, there are parts of it that are very industrial. You can liken it to river cruising in Europe."
Much of the demand actually comes from Civil War enthusiasts, McLeod said. Indeed, Blount just announced that for its 2011 Mississippi River cruise itineraries, four sailings will have authors of books on the Civil War onboard. And Wertanzl, too, said Cruise West was keeping its eye on Civil War buffs as potential passengers.
Cruise West is hoping that the limited supply in the region, combined with the pent-up demand since Majestic exited the market, will help support its relatively higher price point, which ranges from $3,499 to $5,099 per person.
"It's economy of scale," Wertanzl said, adding that with only 102 passengers per sailing, "we have to have a higher price point to be profitable."
As for whether Cruise West would be interested in expanding its Mississippi market share with the possible acquisition of the American Queen, the only reportedly viable Mississippi ship left over from the Majestic days, Wertanzl said, "For the time being, we have what we have."
This report appeared in the June 21 issue of Travel Weekly.