Ambassadors Group flotilla is dominant force on U.S. waters

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The demand for European river cruising has been so robust over the past several years that no matter how many American tour operators enter the market, there seems to be enough business to go around.

The popularity of river cruising was bound to spill over beyond European rivers, and that puts Ambassadors Cruise Group in an advantageous position.

Launched as a business in early 2006, Ambassadors gobbled up practically the entire U.S. river and coastal cruises segment, purchasing the American West Steamboat Co. in January and the assets of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. in April.

Earlier this month, Ambassadors agreed to buy Windstar Cruises from Carnival Corp. for $100 million. The deal is expected to close by April.

Having consolidated its base in 2006, Ambassadors is now poised to take advantage of its position as the clearly dominant player in the American river cruise market.

With its Majestic America brand and ships that replicate 19th century paddlewheelers on rivers that were the highways of early America, Ambassadors is adapting the river cruise product to the American destination, offering river cruising as a way to savor the U.S. countryside, culture and history in comfort and style.

Offering a luxury product, the company is targeting the over-55 market while trying to maintain its appeal to younger travelers and families. It is enhancing the experiential aspects of the trips, including hiking and biking and opportunities to learn about history and culture.

Majestic America Line heads into 2007 with seven ships operating in the U.S.

"We have a wide number of choices of types of historical, natural and cultural experiences," said Joseph Ueberroth, president and CEO of Ambassadors International, the parent of Ambassadors Cruise Group. "We have an opportunity to combine a bigger idea of America, an America-wide idea. The majesty of America includes the scenery, the natural wonders, the history."

Majestic America is offering over 250 departures for 2007, with calls at 70 ports in 19 states. The ships offer an experience of the American landscape, culture and history. Here's a rundown of what the ships will be doing for 2007:

American Queen, Majestic America's flagship, began its year March 9 with a seven-night trip from New Orleans to Memphis. The six-deck, steam-driven paddlewheeler replica will sail the lower Mississippi until the end of the year, wrapping up a five-night New Orleans roundtrip on Dec. 28.

The Mississippi Queen's season will be delayed while the ship gets a second round of refurbishments, particularly to its galley area. The five-deck riverboat, modeled after a 19th century sternwheeler but with a modern propulsion system, will begin its season with a seven-night sailing on the Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 1. It will wind up its season with a seven-night New Orleans roundtrip ending Nov. 23.

The Delta Queen, which was built in 1926 with four decks of teak and Tiffany-style stained-glass windows, will begin its season with a seven-night New Orleans roundtrip on March 17. Its last departure will be Nov. 18.

The Empress of the North, a diesel-propelled riverboat designed to look like a paddlewheeler with a 19th century Russian decor, kicked off its season with a seven-night Portland roundtrip on Feb. 18. It will sail the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers through April, then move to Alaskan coastal waters from May 12 through September. It then will return to Portland itineraries through the end of the year.

The Contessa will spend its entire season in Alaskan coastal waters beginning May 13 with a seven-night trip from Ketchikan to Sitka. Its last departure will be Sept. 23. 

The Columbia Queen will embark on its first sailing on April 28. It will sail seven-night roundtrips from Portland on the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers through October.

The Queen of the West will sail seven-night Portland roundtrips on the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers beginning April 1. Its last departure will be Dec. 28.

Founded in 1995, American West Steamboat Co. had operated itineraries on the Columbia and Snake rivers, Alaska's Inside Passage, British Columbia and Washington's Puget Sound with an emphasis on historical and natural features of the landscape. Its two vessels, the 231-passenger Empress of the North and the 150-passenger Queen of the West, both newly refurbished, are now part of Majestic America Line.

Ambassadors purchased the Delta Queen brand, current and past passenger lists, miscellaneous operational property and three ships from the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. The ships are the 436-passenger American Queen, built in 1995; the 412-passenger Mississippi Queen, built in 1976; and the 174-passenger Delta Queen, launched in 1927 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In June, Ambassadors acquired the 49-passenger Executive Explorer and in October completed the purchase of the Columbia Queen.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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