River cruising is exploding in popularity and with good reason. Nonstop scenery, close contact with local cultures, and the ability to dock in the heart of cities and at scenic or historic spots are among its many appeals.
While European cruises are particularly popular, Americans don't need to fly across the ocean to experience the pleasures of rollin' on the river. A small but growing number of boats right here in the US offer cruises in the American Heartland and the Pacific Northwest.
U.S. river cruising has undergone a revival in the last five years as new entrepreneurs have entered the business and invested in building new boats and refurbishing idle ones. The American Queen Steamboat Company, for example, has recently restored two palatial paddlewheelers. One, the American Queen, is the largest steamboat ever built: Six decks high, with a Grand Saloon modeled after Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., and filled with antiques, it carries 432 passengers in Victorian-era splendor.
The American Queen has just re-entered service on the Mississippi River after an annual layup that gave the company time to make $2 million in improvements. With glistening white paint, new mahogany rails, freshly varnished woods, polished brass, and plush new carpets, this classic vessel is looking and running the best it has since it was built in 1995.
The best part of the boat, however, is still its big red paddlewheel, which actually propels the boat and is driven by a vintage reciprocating steam engine. In the glossy, dark-wood Engine Room Bar, you can watch that wheel turn 'round and 'round as you sample 20 kinds of bourbon and listen to live blues guitar or a rock 'n' roll band. A staircase in the bar also leads down to the boiler room, which is open 24/7 to visitors interested in learning how the engine works and seeing the giant pistons that drive the paddlewheel.
Elsewhere on board, you can feast on Cajun or Creole dishes, dance to the boat's own 12-piece swing band, catch a concert played on a calliope (a steam-powered instrument made up of large whistles), hear fascinating historical tales from the boat’s Riverlorian (a historian with an expertise in rivers), or just sip a mint julep and watch the river roll by. Depending on the destination, the boat might pull right up to a famous landmark like Oak Alley, a plantation where a lane of 28 giant oak trees leads to a mansion with 28 columns.
The American Queen plies the full length of the Mississippi as well as the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers, and many of the boat’s cruises have themes, such as the Civil War, Mark Twain, big band swing, and Elvis.
The company also owns the smaller American Empress (four decks, 223 passengers), which sails through the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia and Snake rivers. The boat was fully renovated and brought back into service two years ago. Voyages highlight the scenery and history of the magnificent Columbia River Gorge and Pacific Northwest cuisine, wines, and micro-brews.
Other operators are also plying America’s waterways. American Cruise Lines fields a classic paddlewheeler, Queen of the West, and is also focused on building new vessels. Three years ago, they introduced the 150-passenger American Pride on the Mississippi, and in April it will join the Queen of the West on the Columbia River, while a new, slightly larger paddlewheeler, the America, will take its former routes. Un-Cruise Adventures has the SS Legacy, a replica coastal steamer that carries 88 passengers on weeklong "living history" cruises roundtrip from Portland, Oregon. And Viking River Cruises, a giant in Europe, plans to get into the U.S. waterways; it has announced New Orleans as the homeport for the first of six new vessels that will be introduced over three years, starting in 2018.
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The Italian cruise line Costa Cruises will produce authentic mozzarella di bufala on its ships. Passengers will be able to watch the mozzarella being made from buffalo milk curd and sample it while it is still warm. The cheese will be served at new Mozzarella Gourmet Bars on ships across the fleet, where it will be paired with cold cuts and other Italian specialties.
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.