Next-gen U.S. fleets sailing into the future

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The American Duchess looks like a classic paddlewheeler, but its interior layout and decor are modern.
The American Duchess looks like a classic paddlewheeler, but its interior layout and decor are modern.

For 2018 and beyond, there will be a greater diversity of vessels plying the country's inland waterways and a more dynamic roster of itineraries, which means more options are being made available for U.S. river cruisers than ever before.

American Cruise Lines (ACL) has been spearheading some of the growth in U.S. river cruising, with ambitious plans to build five modern U.S. river ships over the coming years. The first of those, the 184-passenger American Song, is launching on the Mississippi River this October, then heading to the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake rivers for 2019. The second, the American Harmony, will launch in the summer of 2019 on the Mississippi. When all five are completed, the company will have nine U.S. river cruise ships in addition to its fleet of coastal cruisers.

"I think we're starting to see a little bit of a shift as the baby boomers now are coming into full force," said Charles Robertson, owner, founder and CEO of ACL. "They want something a little different than the generation before, and they're more attracted to something that's a little more contemporary."

A rendering of the American Song, the first of American Cruise Line’s new generation of river vessels.
A rendering of the American Song, the first of American Cruise Line’s new generation of river vessels.

The company's newest generation of vessels in some ways take their design cues more from European river and blue-water cruise ships, but they really kind of look like a hybrid given that they are larger than European river cruise vessels but smaller than ocean ships. They will have a four-story glass atrium and large, windowed lounge areas, and they are being built wider, faster and quieter than ACL's more traditional paddlewheelers. In fact, even most of ACL's paddlewheelers are newbuilds rather than refurbishments and thus already arguably represent a newer generation of river cruise vessels than the 20th-century steamboats that came before.

The larger-than-average staterooms on ACL's modern riverboats (which will not have paddlewheels) will range from a 250-square-foot single for solo travelers to the 900-square-foot grand suite. All staterooms will be outside-facing with private balconies, and the majority will range between 300 and 330 square feet.

The American Song’s 900-square-foot grand suite will be the largest suite on U.S. rivers.
The American Song’s 900-square-foot grand suite will be the largest suite on U.S. rivers.

And ACL isn't the only river cruise player offering a more modern counterpart to the classic paddlewheelers that have in many ways defined the U.S. river cruising experience up until now.

Last fall, the American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC) unveiled its third river cruise vessel, the 166-passenger American Duchess, which is an updated interpretation of the classic steamboats the company had refurbished in the past.

From the soaring, 36-foot-high lobby decked out with geometric chandeliers and large pieces of modern art to the simple yet sleek furnishings in the spacious staterooms, AQSC is clearly out to capture a slightly different audience with the Duchess.

"What we wanted here was something that is a little bit newer, a little bit more modern, [that] caters maybe to a little bit younger crowd," chairman and CEO John Waggoner said onboard the Duchess during the vessel's christening in August. "What we're trying to do is offer our guests a menu of products."

The American Duchess was a former gaming vessel purchased by AQSC in 2016. It was gutted and transformed into an overnight cruise vessel with 83 staterooms ranging from 180-square-foot interior cabins to 550-square-foot owner's and loft suites.

A paddlewheel was installed, so it still maintains some of that steamboat style, but the furnishings, lighting, art and even the layout of the American Duchess are all much more open and modern when compared with the historical charm of the company's first two ships: the 436-passenger American Queen, which the company relaunched on the Mississippi in 2012, and the 223-passenger American Empress that has been sailing in the Pacific Northwest since 2014.

Launched in 2012, the American Pride is one of the paddlewheelers ACL built from the ground up.
Launched in 2012, the American Pride is one of the paddlewheelers ACL built from the ground up.

Paddlewheelers still popular

Although both AQSC and ACL, the two main players in the U.S. river market, have skewed more contemporary with their most recent designs, both also say there is still room for more traditional-style paddlewheelers.

In fact, when AQSC adds the refurbished, 248-passenger American Countess to its fleet next year, it will feature more classic styling compared with the modern decor of the American Duchess, according to AQSC president and COO Ted Sykes.

"The surprising thing for us is we've established the boats as a fun destination just as much as the itinerary. We've seen this year a surprising percentage of returning guests, and the itinerary might be the same, but they're coming back for the boat," said Sykes.

American Cruise Lines’ newbuild paddlewheelers feature a small putting green on the sun deck.
American Cruise Lines’ newbuild paddlewheelers feature a small putting green on the sun deck.

Indeed, on the American Queen and the American Empress, AQSC has really played up the vessels' heritage as well as that of the regions they sail through, making each a sort of floating representation of a bygone era in American history.

The refurbished American Queen feels like a well-updated museum, one that passengers get to live in for the length of their cruise. From the J.M. White Dining Room, with its soaring ceilings, to the Grand Saloon styled after Ford's Theatre, the vessel is intended for true Americana enthusiasts. The entertainment, too, often features classic Broadway numbers and heartwarming oldies that bring passengers back to past decades.

But even on the grande dame of river cruising, the company is finding ways to update the experience. For instance, there are now family suites onboard the American Queen that feature a balcony and private sitting area and are being marketed to families and friends vacationing together.

The American Empress evokes a similar nostalgia as the American Queen but with a Pacific Northwest twist, with a focus on the indigenous communities and pioneers that define the West. The Paddlewheeler Lounge, for instance, at the aft of the vessel, looks out onto the churning paddlewheel and has the feel of a Western saloon. And the American Empress also happens to be treasure trove of interesting artwork with depictions based on themes such as steamboat scenes, Native American images and marine life, among others.

ACL's Robertson said that even though the company is investing in five new, modern riverboats, the company also has plans to build more paddlewheelers down the line.

"We still carry a lot of people on the paddlewheelers, and we will probably build more of them," said Robertson.

A loft suite on the American Queen Steamboat Co.’s American Duchess exemplifies ways in which the company brought 21st-century design to the steamboat concept.
A loft suite on the American Queen Steamboat Co.’s American Duchess exemplifies ways in which the company brought 21st-century design to the steamboat concept.

New itineraries, themed sailings

As the number and style of vessels on America's rivers continue to tick upward, AQSC and ACL have embraced the opportunities presented by their added inventories to develop new itineraries. AQSC, for instance, is deploying its American Duchess to travel along the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers on new itineraries for 2018 that sail between Cincinnati and Memphis; Louisville, Ky., and Pittsburgh; and Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn.

Also new this year on the Duchess is a nine-day itinerary that includes the option to attend the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.

ACL's Robertson said the company's newest generation of vessels is going to give passengers access to new waterways, such as the Sacramento River in California; the fact that the ships are being built to sail faster than their predecessors means they will also be able to cover more ground and thus visit more places on an itinerary.

Both companies have also been enhancing their offerings with themed cruises. For instance, AQSC has added adventure cruises on the American Empress in the Pacific Northwest with an eye toward courting families. On the adventure departures, shore excursions will include options like two-person-kayak trips and ziplining between trees.

AQSC has recently added more music-themed itineraries that include stops in music meccas, such as New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville. Sykes said that the company's history-based cruises, such as those that focus on the Civil War, have also become popular with new and repeat guests. He also noted that its Mighty Mississippi cruises, 16- to 23-day sailings that span both the Upper and Lower Mississippi, are often sold out.

Both lines feature cruises that pay homage to Mark Twain or Lewis and Clark or that focus on music, wine and food. They both also have more recently been sailing holiday and New Year's cruises in November, December and January.

Nine-day sailings begin at $1,999 per person on the American Queen, $2,399 per person on the American Empress and $2,699 per person on the American Duchess. All nine-day journeys include a one-night, prevoyage hotel stay, shore excursions in all ports and complimentary wine and beer with dinner, among other inclusions.

An eight-day Mississippi River cruise with ACL starts at $3,225 per person, and an eight-day Columbia and Snake rivers cruise starts at $3,725 per person.

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