American Queen Steamboat Company famously innovated the river cruise model in the U.S., offering destinations and experiences that ordinary travelers can’t always curate themselves –– along with a generous pricing policy that includes perks that many other lines charge extra for.
Now, it’s taking on Victory Cruise Lines, its first foray into small-ship, coastal cruising. Haven’t heard of the not-yet-famous Victory before? You will. During its inaugural season under American Queen’s ownership in 2019, the Victory I and Victory II –– sister ships each accommodating 202 passengers –– offered 35 cruises in the Great Lakes, Canadian Maritimes and New England.
While its first season under American Queen Steamboat Company's ownership was an unmitigated success, the Victory experience is about to get even better as the line adds a boatload of new features in 2020: a complimentary overnight hotel stay in advance of embarkation; the introduction of a hop-on, hop-off bus that ferries guests to a half-dozen or more attractions in port; and over-the-top premium shore excursions like, get this: a private lunch with astronauts following a tour of Cape Canaveral in Florida. Yes, that over the top!
That’s not all. The two ships underwent a $3 million refurbishment in 2019, and Victory is investing another $3 million in upgrades this year. The line is also expanding its reach by a lot, with itineraries in the Southeast, Bahamas, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Costa Rica and Panama, timed for when it’s too cold to sail the Great Lakes and other northern climes. And there's more: In 2021, Victory will get its first-ever newbuild; the 200-passenger Ocean Victory is currently under construction and offer seven-to-ten night Alaskan itineraries from May to September 2021.
Why Small Ships, Why Now?
American Queen founder and CEO John Waggoner said the line’s riverboat passengers have been asking for a small ship experience. Their top pick for a destination? The Great Lakes.
“Our guests want to know: What else do you have for us? And the Great Lakes is on people’s bucket list. It’s this undiscovered, unexplored part of America with all these great anchor cities,” says Waggoner. Notably, Travel + Leisure recently identified the Great Lakes as one of “The 50 Best Places to Travel in 2020,” giving a shout-out to the five lakes, offering 11,000 miles of attraction-packed shoreline that small ships like Victory’s have made easier to explore.
What does a Victory cruise look like? If you have sailed on an American Queen paddlewheeler, Victory I and Victory II will feel familiar. And, like American Queen, Victory’s fare includes a pre-dinner cocktail hour; house wine, beer, non-premium liquor and soft drinks; WiFi; and a complimentary shore excursion in every port. As Waggoner frames it: “When guests go on board, we want them to feel there is a commonality between the brands.” Essentially, Victory has taken American Queen’s gold standard –– ranging from shore excursions to cuisine to the ships’ real estate –– and made it its own. Here’s what to expect.
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Onboard a Victory Cruise Lines Voyage
With five decks, Victory 1 and 2 are roomy but cozy. The $6 million in upgrades have added fresh energy with adds like new outdoor furniture; silver paisley wallpaper in public spaces; a redesigned show lounge; all new mattresses and artwork in the cabins; crushed velvet drapes, wallcoverings and carpet in the dining room; and a top deck that has been floored in teak.
In a serious nod to conservation, all lighting is now LED, reducing fuel consumption by 10 percent. Guests will be given aluminum water bottles, with hydration stations replacing single use plastic. Additionally, Victory has subbed out plastic toiletry bottles with shampoo, conditioner and body wash canisters.
There are two 335-square-foot suites with private balconies onboard. Cabins range in size from 130 to 190 square feet. Bed linens have been upgraded to 100 percent Egyptian cotton and, in the bathrooms, Victory has added William Roam’s Float brand of toiletries. American Queen loyalists will recognize the paisley accent wall behind the beds, designed to give the cabins a palette pop.
Public spaces include a spa/salon, two lounges, and two dining venues. The Coastal Dining Room is the more formal of the pair, while The Grill offers buffet-style meals. Culinary director Paul Wayland-Smith’s mission is to create menus that are locally inspired yet relatable. “I spent half of last season on the boats, making time every day to walk around town, look at menus hanging on restaurants, doing the legwork to see what might be considered regional,” he said. “It’s ever evolving. The goal is to satisfy yet surprise.” Among Wayland-Smith’s regional additions: Toronto “street meat,” a grilled sausage; a Chicago-style hot dog served with relish, diced tomatoes and spicy peppers; and Beaver Tail, Detroit’s version of a beignet.
And there’s more. The 200-passenger Ocean Victory, a newbuild designed to enable up-close nature and wildlife viewing, will offer 20 seven- and 10-night itineraries between May and September, beginning in 2021. The ship’s small size and low draft will allow it to dock in many of Alaska’s smaller ports not accessible to larger cruise vessels. An onboard crew of biologists and naturalists will lead guests on expeditions and provide educational lectures onboard. Also onboard is a marine lab.
Off the Ships
Life off the ship is as active or quiet as you wish it to be. One thing you can count on is an abundance of choices. The complimentary hop-on, hop-off bus –– dubbed HoHo –– operates in most ports, stopping at multiple attractions. Meanwhile, one or two “premium” half-day tours are on offer every day, ranging in price from $69 to $120.
As an example, take Muskegon, Mich. on Lake Michigan, where HoHo stops at six attractions: the USS LST 393 Veterans Museum, featuring a landing ship that was at Omaha Beach on D-Day; the Muskegon Heritage Museum; two Victorian-era homes; the Fire Barn Museum, which spotlights history for firefighters, the Muskegon Museum of Art; and a historic house that tells the story of Muskegon in the Great Depression. All admission fees are included. The premium tour that day features a visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in nearby Grand Rapids.
“Muskegon, who knew? It blew my mind, so many choices,” said Jim Palmeri, principal of Shore Excursions of America, which partners with American Queen and Victory. “Choice is the new luxury. What I can tell you is you won’t be stuck on a bus all day or following a guide with an umbrella around. That’s just not what we believe in.”
After cruise writing for over a dozen years and traveling around the globe, our writer Ellen Uzelac discovered something on a recent voyage that she hadn’t experienced before: the sanctity of the sea day. “With three full sea days,” she says, “I just let myself be still, something I don’t always do well when I’m at home. That’s one of the gifts of travel – to find stillness in its opposite: movement.
**We have had so much fun learning more about Victory Cruise Lines' expansion plans and experiencing its authentic style of travel on our St. Lawrence Seaway cruise. To read more, check out all our stories in Cruise Critic's "Travel Farther, Travel Deeper, with Victory Cruise Lines" series, that focus on this innovative cruise line.