While river cruising has exploded in popularity, it seems that all of the attention has been focused on Europe, where different lines are striving to distinguish themselves from the competition. Few realize that cruising on America’s rivers, such as the Mississippi and the Columbia, is also on an upward trajectory, with more boats and new lines coming in.
We’re onboard American Cruise Lines’ newest ship, America, a 150-passenger vessel that is scheduled to be christened Friday, June 3, at Louisiana’s picturesque Oak Alley Plantation. The Mississippi River paddlewheeler is the eighth ship in the ACL fleet; the line announced that its ninth ship, a coastal cruiser named American Constellation, will launch in May 2017.
Our sailing embarked in New Orleans and will take us as far north as Vicksburg before heading back. Here are our first impressions of the vessel.
Think Civil War history is dry and boring? You haven’t met Bill Wiemuth. The ship’s river historian (he eschews the term "riverlorian") was a former cruise director and entertainer before he began writing audio books about America’s rivers, and he brings passion and energy to his lectures. Besides his prepared talks, on his sailings Wiemuth holds regular Q&As about the river you’re sailing on, taking queries and pointing out the other vessels on the waterway. We’ve seen many fellow passengers taking notes; we know we’re going to come home having learned something. We also appreciate that his narration can be broadcast into your room, so you can listen before or after that afternoon nap.
The average age on an American Cruise Lines trip is mid-70s, with very few people under that age bracket; most Baby Boomers will feel too young. That being said, America is perhaps the best choice we’ve seen for senior cruisers out there, with an elevator running to all floors, accommodations made on all shore excursions for those with limited mobility and wait-staffed meal service that erases the need for anyone to balance precarious plates or drinks. The ship is an excellent choice for those who feel rigorous travel is beyond them, and we salute the line for giving these cruisers a quality option.
After coping with the space limitations of European river cruise ships, we’re delighted with the expansive cabins found on America. Staterooms start at a whopping 290 square feet, and the majority are 304 square feet, with private balconies large enough for two chairs and a table. The boat also has a significant number of solo cabins, a boon for this age group where more people travel alone or with friends. These are large too, at 203 square feet without a balcony and 230 square feet with one. While bathrooms don’t have tubs, they are still much larger than many we’ve seen on the ocean, with lots of counter space and showers with doors, not clingy curtains. We also appreciated the clock/plug near the bed that actually has USB chargers. Our only cabin quibble: While there is plenty of drawer space, we don’t understand why the tiny closet, which doesn’t have a door, lacks space and hangers for dresses, shirts and jackets.
A cruise on America includes wine and beer with lunch and dinner, as well as any alcoholic beverage of your choice during the well-attended pre-dinner cocktail hour. But if you’re looking for after-dinner drinks, you’re out of luck. None of the ship’s seven lounges have alcoholic drinks for sale once the meal service ends – very unusual for the cruise industry. The lack of bar means that the ship shuts down immediately after the evening entertainment, around 9:30 p.m. (while late-night tipplers are encouraged to bring their own, few do, although we did see several people sneak off to a Baton Rouge casino one night). If you’re a night owl or want more than a root beer float after dinner, this isn’t the cruise for you.
The ship has music after dinner every night, either through guest performers brought on from New Orleans or Baton Rouge, or through Wiemuth and his wife, singer Laura Sable. Don’t expect anything raucous – during sing-a-longs, the passengers are more apt to know the words to "Old Man River" instead of "Proud Mary" – but it’s a good mix for the audience, and shows are well attended. One highlight: The Victory Belles, an Andrews Sisters act from the World War II Museum in New Orleans. Their patriotic songs brought the house down on our sailing, which just happened to fall on Memorial Day weekend.
The muddy river, wide and brown, is the real star of the cruise. Even if you feel like you’ve already "done" the United States, the Mississippi continues to surprise, as it winds from the shipping channels outside Baton Rouge to the bluffs of Vicksburg. While the Lower Mississippi is certainly industrialized – you’ll see chemical and petroleum processing plants scattered from Baton Rouge to New Orleans – we’re finding the story of today’s global economy within large barges, tows and other vessels sharing the river with us. Add in the vital role that the river played in developing the United States, through the Louisiana Purchase and Civil War, and you have plenty of history to keep you occupied as the boat lazes along.