When American Cruise Lines broke the news of a new one-week itinerary that includes San Francisco Bay, Napa and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, we knew we had to be onboard. It's not only a cruise that hits some of Northern California's most iconic tourist hot spots, but one that offers a unique perspective of one of the country's most important agricultural regions. And no other cruise line does that itinerary right now.
Here are our first impressions of American Cruise Line's new itinerary and American Jazz, from the line's relatively new American Riverboat class of ships.
Carrying just 180 passengers, American Jazz is a sleek six decks high -- five passenger decks, plus an open sun deck on six). It has a V-shaped bow that opens to reveal a forward gangway that can be used for beaching the boat, plus a swiveling Z-drive propulsion system tucked beneath its relatively flat-bottom hull. All of that works together to make it easy for the ship to maneuver through tight turns and at a variety of depths, while providing a smooth ride for passengers.
The interior has a bright and open feel, with a central atrium-style lobby area traversing the five passenger decks. Staterooms all have private balconies, and are spacious by most cruise ship standards. Rooms have more of a hotel feel than a cruise ship feel because furnishings aren't built in, plus electrical outlets are standard 110-volt U.S. household wall plugs scattered generously around the room. The bathrooms are larger than found on the average cruise ship.
There's an abundance of outdoor space on American Jazz, primarily designed for lounging and scenery watching, but Deck Four also has an al fresco grill area serving early breakfast, lunch and snacks every day. Getting around on the ship is accomplished via central hallways on each deck, the atrium staircases, outdoor staircases forward and aft, and a pair of elevators reaching all but the top sundeck.
The cuisine onboard this cruise was nicely paired with the region, and included options of seafood, meat or poultry most nights, with lighter options for lunch. Steak was offered three out of the seven dinners, prime rib once. Lobster tails were offered (individually and as a combination with the steak on the menu) on the final night of the cruise. Entrees were accompanied by fruits and vegetables that felt like they were fresh from the fields the ship was passing through. California wines were served as the house wines throughout the cruise.
An expert on the history and geography of the region traveled onboard, providing daily stories and lectures. Additional enrichment specific to the area came from the ship's sommelier who held wine trivia sessions and educational seminars along with food and wine pairing lessons. Arts and crafts and games also focused on the region when possible – think making your own wine glass charms.
American Jazz is the first overnight river cruise to navigate these waters in more than 80 years. The trip was originally slated to begin and end in San Francisco, but was changed to a Sacramento round-trip. Even that proved challenging in the first weeks of operation as the ship dealt with wind, heavy rain, and swollen rivers. Our cruise was the third time through the route and it felt like the cruise line and the ship's staff had literally weathered the storm and come out victorious. Once we were onboard, operations ran smoothly for the most part.
The itinerary includes ample time for river watching between the ports of Sacramento, Stockton, and Napa (where the ship has two full days). A day anchored in Vallejo provided time for a San Francisco shuttle, a city tour and an excursion to Alcatraz. Upon the return of the guests on tours and the final shuttle, the ship spent the late afternoon and early evening cruising San Francisco Bay, including crossing under both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. With bright clear skies, the captain managed a complete close-up circle of Alcatraz, which he told us is not always possible.
As the ship cruised the three-river route (Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Napa) during daytime hours, it was fun to watch local residents react to the sight of a cruise ship passing their backyards. We were greeted with waves, horn honks and carloads of photo snappers. The captain occasionally granted requests shouted from onlookers on docks and levees to sound his horn -- that's how close we were to the river's edge in some spots.
American Jazz is slated to operate on the Columbia and Snake rivers for the summer, then return to the Napa Valley itinerary through the fall and winter, including holiday week cruises. We spoke to the hotel manager onboard about the excitement generated by the new itinerary. He said there have even been requests from port cities to light up the ship during the holidays.
We were lucky enough to visit with president and CEO, Charles Robertson, who was onboard the ship for part of the cruise. He is very proud that the new route is bringing cruising to the region and hopes to continue working through the difficulties of starting up a cruise itinerary where none has existed before. He puts a great deal of faith in the team on the boat to make things work, saying that he's known the current captain (Captain Andrew Howes) his entire life, noting that Howes has been with the family-owned company longer than any other captain. "He gets all the new toys to play with," Robertson said.
He and the captain both talked a bit about the strength of the company's training programs that allow them to promote heavily from within. Robertson was also quite proud of ACL’s customer retention programs. On our cruise, only 15 guests were new to the cruise line. He said the percentage of newbies isn't always that low, but repeaters are a big part of the business model. Next cruise bookings onboard were encouraged daily, but it was a relatively soft sell approach.
The age of the crowd onboard leaned close to 80, but most passengers were mobile and active. They are a well-traveled group as a whole, many with more than ten trips with ACL, and most with travel experience across the globe. As the name suggests, the line caters to an American audience, and the guests onboard our sailing represented many of the fifty states, including quite a few from within California.
Excursions to an olive oil ranch and mill, a honey and mead processing facility, and of course, wineries were popular enough to be sold out in advance. In Napa, tours ranged from vineyard and winery visits with tastings to a day on the Napa Wine Train and a winemaker for a day adventure. The ship also operated shuttles to the downtown shopping area, all of which were popular.
Guests we spoke to were quick to sing the praises of the crew, the food and the overall itinerary, but equally quick to voice their opinion regarding the sudden change in the starting point. Some were not happy with the change, primarily because it affected travel plans. We felt the cruise line adapted quite well, by using the motor coaches that travel with the ship to transport guests from San Francisco hotels to the ship waiting in Sacramento on embarkation day. On departure day, guests with flights from San Francisco or post-cruise hotel packages were also taken by coach.
Now that the itinerary appears to be permanently changed, future guests can opt to fly into and out of Sacramento, which is what many onboard wished they had been advised to do. Despite a little frustration with the change, overall satisfaction onboard was high. Several people who discovered Cruise Critic was along for the cruise felt bad that we had experienced what they feared was a less than perfect cruise. "You have to see them at their very best to fully appreciate this cruise line," one man told us.