Mississippi riverboats are back in vogue and offering luxury
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Riverboats have been a big thing in Europe for a long time, but have not had much of a presence in the U.S. since the 1800s. Back then, they were an important form of transportation up and down the Mississippi River.
The lack of an American industry is partly because of the Jones Act, an old maritime law that requires domestic ships hire only American workers — making riverboat cruises more expensive than most Caribbean ones. But these days, more people are willing to pay the price for a leisurely tour of the Mississippi.
A week on one of the two major riverboat lines, American Queen Steamboat or American Cruise Lines, can cost between $2,000 and $4,000, all-inclusive. That’s nearly twice the price of a Caribbean cruise. Seventy-eight-year-old Holland Ware sits in a wicker chair outside his comfortable room on the first deck of the American Queen and sips a diet soda. He has been on many cruises down the river.
“There are so many people here who have decided they don’t need to leave that much to their grandchildren,” he said. “Money means nothing to us.”
The experience is posh. The American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built, with room for about 400 people on three decks. Spacious parlors hold cases of antiques and porch swings hang in the shade outside. There are musical acts and Broadway shows every night in a theater modeled after Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot. A Mark Twain impersonator is along for entire trip.
More and more retirees are indulging. About 55,000 passengers set sail on American rivers last year. Baton Rouge is one stop on the Queen’s southern route, which runs from Memphis to New Orleans. And on a recent sunny weekend morning, Geoff and Anne Fraser stepped off the boat to check it out. They were inspired by the 1950s hit movie, Showboat, a romantic drama set on a riverboat. It’s a slice of Americana that was worth traveling for.
“You hear about it growing up, even in Australia, that far away, so it’s a bit of a mystery, and New Orleans has always been an attraction,” Geoff Fraser said. Part of the appeal for them is that it’s a real steamboat. It has one of those giant red paddle wheels on the back, which is powered by a steam engine and pushes it through the water. Though in truth it only provides about half the power.
Bridget Bordelon, professor of tourism at the University of New Orleans, said tourists are looking for authentic experiences.
“It seems to be a trend we’re seeing everywhere in tourism … trying something to maybe recapture an experience.”
Authenticity or faux nostalgia — either way it sells tickets. Bordelon predicted “riverboats are really the next big thing.” All the towns along the way sure hope so. They’re trying to capture some of that money. Executive director of the Downtown Development District in Baton Rouge, Davis Rhorer, stands on Third Street facing the river. He points to improvements underway to make the area more welcoming to visitors.
“What we’re doing is lining it with green – breaking up some concrete, adding some seating areas, and it’ll go all the way down to the river itself,” he said.
About 10,000 people will step off of riverboats and into the city this year — that number was zero just a few years ago. And more boats are coming next spring. So the city is investing $4 million to expand its dock so more than one ship can stop at a time. Back on the boat, a few retirees sip from sweating glasses in the hot southern sun. One takes out his hearing aid as the steam-powered organ, called a calliope, fires up. They leave the port, heading for the next Mississippi River town.
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