Aug 3, 2012 8:22 AM by AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A comeback for old-fashioned paddlewheel riverboat travel on the Mississippi River continues this weekend with the departure from New Orleans of the Queen of the Mississippi, a brand new, quintuple-decked vessel mixing 19th century trappings meant to evoke the Mark Twain era with modern amenities including Internet access, satellite television, an exercise area and a putting green.
American Cruise Lines has set Saturday as the date for its first seven-night round trip to Vicksburg, Miss.
Future destinations include Memphis, Tenn., Minneapolis-St. Paul and, on the Ohio River and Pittsburgh.
The Queen of the Mississippi's launch comes six months after the competing Great American Steamboat Co. brought riverboat cruises back to New Orleans with the refurbished American Queen in April.
Tourism officials say both are welcome sights. Paddlewheel boat travel is an element of New Orleans history and culture that was sorely missed for several years, said Kim Priez, of the Greater New Orleans Convention and Tourism Bureau.
"Can you imagine New Orleans without river cruising?" Priez said. "This is just something that you expect to see when you look out the window of your hotel, these wonderful vessels going up and down the Mississippi river."
The steamboat Natchez still makes short trips at New Orleans but long-haul Mississippi River cruises on ships like the American Queen, the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen died out. Aficionados of the old-style cruises blame the demise on tightened cruise ship fire safety regulations. Companies said the regulations were unnecessary and too expensive to comply with for boats that had excellent safety records and that traveled on a river instead of the open seas.
Hurricane Katrina's virtual shutdown of the city in 2005 and a national economic slowdown didn't help.
The Delta Queen became a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2009; the Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap in 2010. The American Queen, after its refurbishment, only returned to service on the Mississippi this year after a four-year absence.
American Cruise Lines had its shot at buying older riverboats as it sought to get into the market, CEO Charles Robertson said in an interview. Building from scratch, however, had some advantages, including the opportunity to include larger state rooms with details and amenities Robertson likens to a luxury hotel.
"The state rooms are larger than you'd find on a large ocean liner in most cases," Robertson said.
Construction of the 295-foot Queen of the Mississippi was completed in June by Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Md. American Cruise Lines did not provide information on the construction cost.
The 150-passenger vessel boasts a dining room large enough to accommodate all passengers in one seating, but there will also be room service, allowing passengers to dine on the private balconies available with most of the 300-square-foot state rooms. The authentic paddlewheel and a calliope add the old fashioned touch but the Mark Twain Library and Chart Room, in addition to charts, will also display modern technology including a large monitor using a global positioning system to show the boat's location.
Wi-Fi will be available on board, so Mark Twain fans can download his works. However, Robertson said, there will be plenty of books on board for those who want to enjoy "Life on the Mississippi" the traditional way.
All of this comes at a luxury price. Per-person rates on the American Cruise Lines website for a seven-night cruise on the Queen of the Mississippi run from $3,995 to $6,685.
Priez said the market is there, especially among baby boomers who often are among the clientele for the riverboats.
"This resurgence of cruising is a positive indication of a comfort zone in the more mature market," she said.