American Cruise Lines is doing something that hasn't been done in awhile: It's building a paddlewheeler from the ground up for the Mississippi River market.
"I don't think it's possible to take one of the older vessels, like the American Queen ... and construct it into what people want today," said Charles Robertson, CEO of American Cruise Lines, adding that the cost of renovating such a vessel "would be a little bit more" than the cost of building a ship from the ground up.
The new Mississippi River paddlewheeler will set sail in August 2012. The 140-passenger ship, which is still unnamed, is under construction at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Md., a shipyard that American Cruise Lines works with for many of its ships.
The paddlewheeler will operate on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The Guilford, Conn.-based company would not disclose how much it is investing in the vessel.
So, why a paddlewheeler in the 21st century? "We think it's just a nice way to do it," Robertson said. "The Mississippi [market] likes the idea of the traditional riverboat, with modern amenities."
"The older boats are not at all efficient, they're not fuel-efficient, maintenance-efficient," added Robertson. "It's very expensive to maintain those boats."
He said that American Cruise Lines is building this new paddlewheeler with more environmentally friendly components, including water treatment facilities.
"The carbon footprint or environmental impact will be less than one-eighth of what it was per person on the other Mississippi boats," Robertson said.
And despite the fact that shipyards aren't really in the habit of building paddlewheelers, Robertson said "it's not rocket science. It's no more complex than any of the other ships we've built."
The ship will have the look of a traditional river ship but will have larger cabins and public areas than the vessels that were known for plying the Mississippi River, such as the Delta Queen and American Queen. It will also be faster than those ships by about 3 or 4 mph, according to Robertson, who added that that makes a "huge difference in itinerary," enabling the ship to make longer stops at ports.
The first cruise is a scheduled to depart Aug. 11, 2012, from New Orleans on a seven-night cruise to Memphis. The ship will then begin a series of seven-night cruises traveling as far north as St. Paul, Minn.
The only reason it won't be ready until 2012, Robertson said, is that the shipyard simply has a backlog of orders. But earlier this month, American Cruise Lines issued a press release that the Mississippi sternwheeler "is well under way and ahead of schedule." According to the company, the hull is nearly complete, and the superstructure is taking shape.
The nuts and bolts
The ship will be 260 feet long and 52 feet wide with a seven-foot draft. It will have 75 staterooms, including 60 twin cabins, six twin suites and nine singles. The staterooms will range from 200 square feet to 480 square feet and will have private verandas; twin or king-size beds; private bathrooms; flat-screen, satellite TVs; high-speed Internet access; and closets.
Robertson described the interior decor as "not antique but riverboat traditional. We're not trying to make it ultra-Victorian, but it will not be a modern decoration."
Public spaces will include an Internet lounge, a card room, a sky lounge, a library, a paddlewheel bar and lounge, a chart room and a show room.
There will also be a main dining room and an upper-deck recreational area with a calliope, a putting green, a sunbathing area and an exercise space. There will be elevators to all decks.
American Cruise Lines will offer complimentary predinner cocktails and hors d'oeuvres nightly. Passengers will also have the option to have breakfast served on their balcony.
In November 2008, Ambassadors 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 itineraries: New Orleans to Chattanooga, Tenn.; Chattanooga to Nashville; and Nashville to Chicago.
Cruise West had announced plans last June for two new 2011 itineraries aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of America on the Mississippi River in hopes of resuscitating the market, but the company then closed its doors in September, leaving a void.
American Cruise Lines announced plans to build a Mississippi paddlewheeler within days of Cruise West's demise.
When asked what Majestic did wrong and what American Cruise Lines plans to do differently in order to succeed on the Mississippi, Robertson said, "My opinion is they didn't charge enough [for cruises]," given how expensive it was to maintain the older vessels.
Robertson said it was too early to disclose what pricing would be for the new paddlewheeler.