All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2015 unless otherwise noted.
Friday, April 24, 2015
It was an all-day trek getting to the Big Easy from San Diego on the eve prior to the christening of American Cruise Line’s new paddlewheel riverboat AMERICAN EAGLE. By the time the shuttle dropped me at the Riverside Hilton, it was time to grab a bite to eat on the waterfront.
Looking like a Mark Twain apparition, the brilliantly lit excursion boat CREOLE QUEEN was returning from a harbor tour as I meandered back to my room, hoping to catch some sleep.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
A journalist friend and I took a quick cab ride to Royal Street and the legendary Brennan’s, arriving early enough for a few exclusive minutes of interview time with Charles Robertson, CEO and founder of American Cruise Line. Mr. Robertson welcomed us to the Morphy Room, which is decorated with checkerboard motifs and tartans in a nod to the early 19th-century chess prodigy who had once lived in the building.
American Cruise Line’s 305-by-53-foot, 3,506-gt AMERICAN EAGLE is the line’s second Mississippi riverboat, joining the nearly identical QUEEN OF THE MISSISSIPPI, which was launched in 2012, a few months after rival Great American Steamboat’s (now American Queen Steamboat) AMERICAN QUEEN returned from lay up. Prior to that, since the collapse of Majestic America Line in 2008, cruising on the Mississippi had all but vanished. Now, with the AMERICAN QUEEN, QUEEN OF THE MISSISSIPPI and AMERICAN EAGLE in service, the hoped-for return of the classic DELTA QUEEN (pending Congressional approval and the ship’s restoration) and Viking Cruises‘ recently announced intent to expand into the region, the Mississippi certainly seems to be in the midst of a major cruising revival.
I asked Mr. Robertson to explain the key differences between American Cruise Lines and rival American Queen Steamboat. “While I feel what we offer in terms of food and service is of the same high standard as the competition (AMERICAN QUEEN), our ships are more intimate and have larger overall cabins. We also offer private balconies accessed via sliding glass doors versus staterooms that open onto a public deck where anyone walking by can see in. And our ships are more green, fuel-efficient and easy to maneuver.”
On the subject of Viking Cruises and their planned Mississippi cruising service, he was a bit more more deferential, just stating, “They are very smart,” and adding that their newbuilds would have to be built in the USA. Coincidentally, Robertson owns one of the shipyards, Chesapeake Bay Shipbuilding Corp, that could actually deliver the required vessels for Viking. At the moment, the yard is working on two 185-guest paddlewheelers that will be similar to the QOTM and AE — one for the Mississippi in 2016 and the other to either augment or replace the QUEEN OF THE WEST on the Columbia in 2017. Chesapeake is also building a coastal passenger ship for ACL and no less than three tugs.
We were led to a nook overlooking Brennan’s patio. The commemorative breakfast began with delicious strawberries and cream, followed by a tender butter chicken topped with caramelized brussels sprouts and cipolini onion. It ended perfectly with roasted chickory coffee and the ultimate in cinnamon bread pudding with whiskey creme anglaise and yet more whipped cream.
Soon, we were hurtling off to the wharf, where the 150-guest AMERICAN EAGLE awaited, dressed in ceremonious red, white and blue bunting. An ominous weather system was heading our way, so our hosts did their best to get the ceremony moving as quickly as possible.
With the ship’s full complement of guests working their way to the forward-facing rails on 2nd, 3rd and 4th Deck, to hear the Victory Belles (a vocal trio in Andrew Sister’s garb), I excused myself to begin a rather frenetic documentation of her public spaces and deck areas.
In a nutshell, the AMERICAN EAGLE has five passenger decks, connected by midships and aft stairs and a large elevator. Forward stairs also link 1st and 2nd and then 3rd and 4th Decks (but not 2nd and 3rd).
Up on 5th Deck, there is a sheltered space with cushioned sofas and chairs as well as a putting green.
Aft 4th Deck has a nice sunning area and aft 3rd Deck boasts a lineup of cardio machines that overlook the paddlewheel. Decks 2 through 4 have nice forward-facing terraces lined with rockers.
Public spaces include the forward-situated, 160-seat Magnolia Lounge, which is the ship’s main showroom and meeting place. It is located on 2nd Deck.
The 100-seat Sky Lounge on aft Deck 4 has a Winter Garden-esque feel with its wicker furnishing and pastel floral soft fittings while the 50-seat Paddlewheel Lounge on aft 2nd Deck features mahogany tones and darker colors. All three large public rooms have coffee, tea, soft drinks and snacks available throughout the day.
At the aft end of 1st Deck, the 160-seat Dining Room has picture windows on either side and a subdued Victorian ambiance.
There are also three intimate spaces located amidships, ideal for meetings, games and private get-togethers.
On 4th Deck, the Chart Room boasts an antique table topped with the day’s river charts.
On 3rd Deck, the Library has books and DVDs about the places the ship visits and on 2nd Deck, the Card Room has seating for eight or so guests.
In each of the midships vestibules, there are places to sit and visit with fellow guests and no less than three private computer stations with internet access. Complimentary wifi is available throughout the ship. Also included in the fare are wine, beer and drinks with lunch and dinner, room service and al fresco continental breakfast on stateroom balconies.
At the top of the accommodation tier, there are six 350-square-foot owner’s suites. Suite 401, the one we had access to, has an interconnecting door with the adjoining stateroom, so when the two are put together, they comprise a palatial 600-square-feet.
AAM category staterooms measure 300-square-feet and are located at the top of the ship on 5th Deck.
There are 17 Single Balcony staterooms measuring 210-square-feet. All balconies, no matter the category, measure 60-square-feet.
On 1st Deck, there are 5 River View Staterooms measuring 285-square-feet with windows that slide open to the elements.
All staterooms have Keurig coffee makers in addition to king or twin bed configuration, air conditioning, an open closet,night stand, dresser, writing desk, 110 volt power outlets, HD flatscreen TV with DVD player, phone, digital clock and seating area. American Cruise Line supplies complimentary Judith Jackson Spa bath products (shampoo, body wash, conditioner, moisturizer, mouthwash, facial bar, bath soaps and vanity kit) and Purell hand sanitizer.
With most of the ship covered, I raced back to the christening ceremony on 1st Deck just as New Orleans’ First Lady Cheryl Landrieu dispatched the bottle of bubbly into the ship’s forward rail. She joined Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Charles Robertson, the ship’s young captain Max Taber and the Victory Belles for a quick photo op on the foredeck. After that, the press group veered off on a speedy tour as the ship’s complement of passengers and staff made their way back into the public spaces.
Within moments, it was time to disembark. AMERICAN EAGLE’s trio of Z-drives and her hydraulically powered sternwheel were preparing to propel her upriver on her inaugural cruise, a seven night lower Mississippi roundtrip from the Big Easy.
My initial plans to stay and document the maiden departure were scuttled by torrential rain, so I followed the press group into the van and off we went, leaving a wet blur in our wake.
End Of Louisiana Hustle, A Quick Visit To The AMERICAN EAGLE
Special thanks: Lizandra Borges, Charlie Robertson, Charles Robertson
Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea. With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications. Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India. He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."