The Return of Mississippi River Cruises?

June 18, 2010
(7 p.m. EDT) -- Small-ship cruise line Cruise West is Mississippi River-bound. The new deployment will provide a much-needed jolt to a nearly dead cruise region, which suffered the loss of its two largest operators in 2008.

The Seattle-based cruise line best known for its Alaska sailings has been in itinerary expansion mode -- the line recently introduced a record-setting 335-night world cruise -- and the new Mississippi cruises continue the global strategy. Cruises include a choice of two seven-night itineraries aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of America (formerly Spirit of Glacier Bay).

New Orleans to Memphis and reverse. This seven-night cruise includes stops in Vacherie to visit Oak Valley Plantation, the Myrtles, a famous haunted house, and Vickburg National Military Park. Departure dates include March 19, April 9, 16 and May 7, 2011, and rates start at $3,499 per person.

Memphis to Nashville and reverse. This cruise starts further up-river and includes forays onto the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. The seven-night sailing includes a stop in historic New Madrid, Missouri, and tours of the Civil War sites in Dover (Fort Donelson National Battlefield). Departure dates include March 26 and April 2, 23, 30, 2011, and rates start at $3,499 per person.

Cruise West will join Blount Small Ship Adventures (formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line) as the only lines currently offering overnight cruises on the Mississippi. BSSA offers one or two 14-night sailings, Chicago to New Orleans (and vice versa), per summer season. Beyond Cruise West and BSSA, less traditional Mississippi River cruise options exist, like houseboat rentals and trips where you sleep onshore.

Once a very healthy cruise niche, the river suffered from the departure of its two largest cruise operators at the end of 2008. In October 2008, Majestic America, a Mississippi River paddlewheeling stalwart, closed its doors after putting its fleet up for sale. Then in December, Riverbarge Excursion Line, another line offering voyages along the Mississippi, went out of business.

In a recent Cruise Critic poll, nearly 40 percent of 1,700 voters chose the Mississippi River as their American waterway of choice for a cruise.

We'd like to know: Are you excited about cruising the Mississippi River? Share your thoughts on Cruise Critic's Facebook page.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor