Riverboats wending their way through the American Heartland are usually known for focusing on all things Mark Twain and providing a folksy style of hospitality. But the just-announced French America Line will take a completely different tack by giving its passengers a chic, sophisticated experience with a French flair.
These cruises, on a boutique 150-passenger riverboat, the Louisiane, will offer a "more refined, more sophisticated style of river cruising than we've ever had in this country," according to Christopher Kyte, the founder and chairman of French America Line and owner of Uncommon Journeys, a tour company that has offered deluxe ocean cruise, river, and rail packages for years.
The French America Line is based in Greater New Orleans, and the Louisane will begin sailing on the Mississippi River in late August. Louisiane is the former Columbia Queen, which was built by the defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Co. It hasn't sailed since 2008, but a multimillion-dollar, 45-day refurbishment to restyle the interiors is planned this summer. Plans include The Veranda, a bistro with a wall of windows; lounges like the Bar Royale and the French Quarter; and the opulent Orleans Room, a dining room with glittering chandeliers.
As for that French flair, it will take many forms: A box of Ladurée macarons from Paris will be presented as a welcome gift. The accommodations will have Hermès and L'Occitane en Provence toiletries, and Vosges chocolates with turn down service. Passengers will enjoy beignets and cafe au lait from New Orleans' Cafe du Monde, free-flowing French wines, and petit fours and madeleines with afternoon tea.
The ship’s food will be overseen by the noted Southern chef and cookbook author Regina Charboneau—owner of the Twin Oaks guest house and the historic King's Tavern in Natchez, Mississippi—and will include both Southern and continental cuisine. Meals could include fresh Gulf of Mexico shrimp with cheese grits, escargots, chateaubriand, bourbon pecan pie, or French vanilla bean soufflé. For an extra bit of sophistication, the prime rib will be carved tableside on a silver cart.
The Louisane will sail from the Gulf of Mexico to the upper Mississippi, and along the Ohio, Tennessee, and Red rivers. Currently available itineraries include “sampler cruises” of up to five days, “cruise-tours” of six to eight days, “grand tours” of nine days or longer, and “collector's tours” of varied lengths.
Many of the longer cruises expand on the shorter trips’ itineraries. For example, a "Splendors of the South" voyage (a six day round-trip from New Orleans) visits Oak Alley, Louisiana, and Natchez, which are all famous for their grand plantation homes, while the "Plantation Celebration" voyage (an eight day trip from Memphis to New Orleans) adds Greenville and Vicksburg in Mississippi and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
One particularly notable 10-day cruise-tour also features a rail journey. The trip starts with an overnight stay in Chicago at the historic Palmer House Hilton, after which passengers travel to St. Louis on a private Vista-Dome Streamliner train, the Louisiane Limited. There they embark on the Louisiane and sail upriver to Hannibal, Missouri; Davenport and Dubuque, Iowa; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Red Wing, Minnesota, before disembarking at St. Paul.
Daily rates for these trips average about $400 to $600 and include a hotel night at landmark properties like The Peabody Hotel in Memphis and the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville. Also included are excursions at each port; spirits, wines, and beers; 24-hour room service, and Wi-Fi.
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Anne Kalosh doesn't count the cruises she’s taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she's on top of the latest cruise developments as the long-time U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review.