Coming Soon: U.S. Homeports You've Never Sailed From & the World's Largest Steamboat

October 7, 2011
(6:45 p.m. EDT) -- Something was churning today at Manhattan's 21 Club, where an army of waiters in white served crab cakes, bread pudding and Champagne in a genteel dining room of polished wood walls and etched brass chandeliers.

The Southern-style brunch was held to introduce the Great American Steamboat Company (GASC), a new line that hopes to resuscitate overnight Mississippi River cruising, a niche nearly dead since 2008. With less than eight months to launch, CEO Jeffrey Krida and company were eager to talk ship.

In April 2012, GASC's 436-passenger American Queen, the world's largest steamboat, will commence a season of three- to 10-night voyages out of a variety of southern and Midwest homeports, including New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. The boat with the big red sternwheel will make visits to historic ports like Vicksburg, a Civil War buff's dream in Mississippi, and Mark Twain's birthplace of Hannibal, Missouri. An onboard "riverlaurian" will provide the necessary storytelling flourishes and a fleet of motor coaches designed to look like steamboats will carry passengers on tours of America's river towns.

Onboard, dining will play first fiddle. Menus created by Natchez-based chef Regina Charboneau will include regionally sourced ingredients like wild honey from Mississippi and artisan cheeses from the river towns along the routes. Several mentions were made of the debris po' boy, a sandwich served at the famous Mother's in New Orleans made with the savory bits of roast beef left over after a carving. Expect beignets with breakfast, gourmet hot dogs for lunch and Charboneau's peppered beef brisket for dinner.

"Southern cooking runs through the veins," she quipped, before adding that there will be heart-healthy options available by request.

Krida also spoke solemnly of Americans' "constant disappointment with being treated with indifference [when it comes to service]." To combat these expectations of apathy, the line is trying to find really nice people -- seriously -- instead of simply sourcing experienced crewmembers. You can't train natural demeanor, said Krida, but you can train a genuinely nice person to be a great crewmember. (The ship's crew, 167 strong, will be all American.)

Before launching, American Queen (originally part of the now-defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company) will get a $6 million sprucing to make the Victorian decor -- chandeliers, upholstery, polished wood throughout -- pop. Cabins will get new bedding and flat-screen TV's, and a pair of top-deck dining venues are being added, one a grill, the other offering casual eats 24 hours a day.

All that nostalgic charm, service and gourmet Southern cuisine will come with a price. Cruises will start at about $1,000 for a three-nighter and typically average roughly $400 per person, per night. Fares include a one-night pre-cruise stay in luxury hotels. Despite the luxe rates, execs spoke of the desire to eliminate nickel and diming, so things like wine with dinner and shore tours will be included.

The $6 million refurb will also deal with some issues of class. For instance, the plastic chairs on balconies will be swapped with the wicker-and-cushion variety. Said Krida, "Why would you pay $400 a night to sit in a mold-injected plastic chair on your balcony?"

So what about starting a new, luxury-priced cruise company in the midst of a struggling economy? Getting some of the capital certainly proved more challenging, admitted Krida. But he's confident that the product and the pent-up demand for cruising America's heartland will spell success. A big sale always helps, too. "Our first booking was for a back-to-back cruise in the Mark Twain Suite for $30,000," he said with a smile.

--by Dan Askin, News Editor