(6 p.m. EDT) -- It's been nearly a week since I stepped off American Cruise Lines' American Serenade in Chattanooga, Tennessee -- but the experience has stayed with me every day since. Over the course of a week, I set sail on the rapidly-expanding U.S.-based river cruise line for a voyage through the heart of America, sailing from Nashville to Chattanooga by way of Paducah, Kentucky; Savannah, Tennessee, and the Alabama towns of Florence and Decatur.
It's one of American Cruise Lines' newest itineraries, and one of two brand-new ships the line will be launching this year. I had traveled to Tennessee to experience them both.
I also came with a side mission: to see if American Serenade could hold up to the countless European river cruise experiences I've had over the past decade. The Danube and, to a lesser extent, the Rhine, are likely more famous than the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, and European river cruising has been on a decade-long boom that shows few signs of abating.
But a scan through the American Cruise Lines' brochure for 2023-2024 shows every bit as much variety in the heartland of America -- with none of the jetlag.
Here's our take on how American Serenade measures up to its counterparts across the pond.
Those who have sailed the Danube and the Rhine might naturally wonder if a cruise through a U.S. waterway -- a more obscure one, at that -- can compete with a European river cruise. The short answer is: yes. Despite the tell-tale absence of castles, our cruise along the Cumberland, Ohio and Tennessee rivers was frequently dotted by gorgeous scenery and quiet vistas, and often punctuated by thunderclouds and bursts of lightning in the evenings.
American Cruise Lines recognizes the historic significance of these waterways, with onboard entertainment and programming that is meant to explore and highlight local culture, from music and song to historically-minded lectures and shore excursions. You can learn about the American Civil War -- in the region you are sailing through -- before you ever set foot on land. The lectures we had aboard prepared me for our visit to the Shiloh National Cemetery and the Tennessee River Museum.
In fact, the onboard lectures American Cruise Lines put together were as good, if not better, than their European counterparts. In speaking with other passengers, the quality of their resident and guest speakers and entertainers is one reason they keep booking with the line, time after time -- a process that nets them some pretty sweet past-passenger perks.
Most passengers on our American Serenade voyage from Nashville to Chattanooga had sailed with the line before, and the lineup to book a future cruise onboard (and thus secure a 15% savings) was steady. It's no wonder: American's Eagle Society past-passenger program is one of the best we've seen.
To start, premium excursions become complimentary after your third cruise -- and your 11th cruise is free. If it sounds like a lot, it isn't: one couple we met were on their 11th cruise, and another had just booked their 11th cruise and discovered it was as easy as ringing up the company and requesting their desired voyage and cabin. Minutes later, they were emailed a confirmation -- and a zero balance -- and they were ready to set sail.
If you live near one of American Cruise Lines' ports of call, the line will even invite you aboard for a complimentary lunch or dinner and tour -- even without a current reservation. If you're sailing, you can invite friends aboard in a port of call for lunch or dinner, gratis. It's the kind of charming perks cruise lines used to offer, that are still alive and well aboard American Cruise Lines.
American Serenade is part of a fleet of six modern American riverboats that are built and designed by American Cruise Lines right in the United States. The first three -- American Harmony, American Jazz and American Song -- have some subtle differences, including a different passenger cabin layout, a different aft deck configuration, and the swapped location of the Lounge and Navigation Bridge compared with later vessels.
But with American Serenade and sisters American Symphony and American Melody, the line seems to have hit the design jackpot. Staterooms are spacious and wonderfully decorated, and the ship has a fabulous flow to it. The aft-situated Sky Lounge on Deck 4 helps take some of the pressure off of the main River Lounge on Deck 3, which on our sailing became so busy during cocktail hour that the event was offered in the Sky Lounge as well.
The ship is whisper-quiet, and noise is really only noticeable when docking and undocking. Air conditioning is strong enough to handle the excessive Tennessee heat and humidity, and the upper Sun Deck is among the nicest we've seen afloat on a river ship of this size.
The design of these modern riverboats has also paved the way for American Cruise Lines' next cool thing: an all-new class of catamaran-hulled ships that will debut later this summer when the first vessel, American Glory, sets sail.
And in that, American Cruise Lines is also modernizing the state of U.S.-based river cruising, which is finally getting away from the replica paddle wheelers that look cool but don't really contribute meaningfully to the overall cruise experience.
For all the things it does right (and there are many), it's tough to compare American Cruise Lines to European river cruise operators when it comes to service. Finding qualified people has been difficult for the entire hospitality industry, and American Cruise Lines is no exception. However, because of its U.S.-based nature and close proximity to shore, it makes it easy for crew to simply up and desert the ship if they are dissatisfied with the work onboard.
The service from American crewmembers is extolled in the company's brochures, but service was a weak point aboard American Serenade, particularly when it came to the Main Dining Room. While there are crew who are stellar and personable in doing their jobs, they are let down by more junior members who have experience that can be measured in days, not years.
It's an environment that's lacking consistency. Fortunately, it's something that American Cruise Lines can -- and no doubt will - fix in time.
Despite the fact we were a good 35-years younger than the average passenger, and despite the service challenges, our first outing on American Cruise Lines was a positive one -- and to us, that speaks volumes about the strength of the company's product as a whole.
Our weeklong voyage aboard the brand-new American Serenade was just one of many interesting itineraries the company offers that explore the far reaches of America's coastlines and waterways. Sure, ACL has a large presence on the Upper and Lower Mississippi and Columbia and Snake rivers, as one would expect.
But its greatest strength lies in its more obscure itineraries -- a journey up the Hudson from New York to Albany. A weeklong exploration of Chesapeake Bay. The Great Rivers of Florida, roundtrip Jacksonville. A river cruise through California's wine country.
American Cruise Lines knows its passenger base well. It knows it appeals strongly to those who would prefer close to home, for whatever reason. It prides itself in relating the diverse, colorful and oft complex history of the United States to its passengers, with every bit of the enthusiasm that lines like Viking showcase the wonders of Europe to their passengers.
Is it European river cruising transplanted to American waterways? Yes. And if the gorgeous new American Serenade is any indication, the company is only just getting started.