April 25, 2015
(6:45 p.m. EDT) -- Under threatening skies, Charles B. Robertson, son of American Cruise Lines CEO Charles A. Robertson, nervously checked the rapidly changing weather conditions while passengers and press gathered on the flag-draped bow of the company's newest vessel, American Eagle, to witness its christening. American Eagle is the second American Cruise Lines ship to be based in New Orleans.
As his father approached New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu -- whose wife, Cheryl, cradled the red-white-and-blue-wrapped bottle of Champagne in her hands -- the younger Robertson, the company's 27-year-old director of marketing, lowered his smartphone to his side and exhaled.
"It's going to be close," he said, as he smiled at The Victory Belles, a three-woman, 1940s-garbed trio from the nearby World War II Museum, who were standing by to launch into a medley of vintage and patriotic songs. "But it looks like we'll beat the weather."
The coincidence of the launch of American Eagle and the celebration of Navy Week in New Orleans resulted in the spectacle of a filigreed re-creation of a Mississippi River paddlewheeler cheek-by-jowl with battleship-gray military vessels, all docked alongside Port of New Orleans Plaza, near the foot of historic Canal Street.
From higher decks that were draped with patriotic bunting, passengers leaned over railings, glancing at gathering storm clouds and craning their necks for a better view of the bursting bottle of Champagne and the ruby-red lips of the Victory Belles.
"It's my great honor to be involved in this event in New Orleans," Charles A. Robertson told the crowd. "Since I was this high," he said, holding one hand at waist level, "I've loved this city, and it's my great honor to introduce Mayor Landrieu and his wife, Cheryl."
Landrieu first addressed the five-deck crowd of excited passengers. "I wish you could see yourselves; you look spectacular," he said, and then spoke of New Orleans' place in the burgeoning world of cruise travel.
"This week, we have this wonderful new vessel, as well as Navy ships, in our port. We have more cruises from this city than ever before. With attractions like the World War II Museum just blocks away, New Orleans is punching way above its weight. You guys are on a maiden cruise that's going to be spectacular, and you couldn't be setting out from a better place than New Orleans."
Dory McArthur and her husband had traveled from their home in Schenectady, NY, to tour Louisiana this year. But the draw was the excitement of being on this seven-day maiden voyage, roundtrip from New Orleans. "He's always wanted to do a Mississippi River cruise, and this one is really exciting. Plus, it's 35 degrees today back home," she said.
Captain Max Taber, 28, escaped New Hampshire winters almost nine years ago and joined American Cruise Lines as a deckhand, literally swabbing the decks. American Eagle is the fourth vessel he's captained for the company.
American Eagle is the company's most ecologically friendly boat, with advanced water purification equipment to minimize the effects of discharges into the river. In addition to the hydraulic paddlewheel, Taber has at his disposal three energy-efficient Z-drive propeller units that can rotate 360 degrees for precise positioning of the vessel. Fuel consumption of these units is just a fraction of what it used to be, a crewmember explained.
Passenger capacity is 150, equivalent to that of the earlier vessel, Queen of the Mississippi. But on American Eagle, crew quarters, which had been on Deck 5 on the Queen, were relocated to the first deck, with passenger staterooms and suites filling American Eagle's fifth deck.
"Passengers love it because the higher the room, the better the view," said hotel manager Drew Godfrey. And passenger pleasure is what cruising is all about. With 78 of the 84 staterooms -- which range from 300 to 600 square feet -- having balconies, passengers can have alfresco breakfasts delivered to their accommodations if they choose.
Throughout the ship, there are large and small lounges, including a chart room with an antique table the company's CEO bought at a shop in New Orleans. "We try to keep things as local as possible," Charles B. Robertson emphasized. "My father has been known to get a van and drive around for several days buying local items for the public areas. There are even a couple of paintings that are still waiting to dry in local artists' studios that we commissioned to keep the New Orleans feel."
Godfrey added that the line is noted for serving local food on each ship. "So on this ship, there's a focus on Cajun and Creole cuisine," he said.
Intimate, homey nooks and crannies -- some with desks, computers and complimentary Wi-Fi -- are scattered on all decks, an example of the combination of old-fashioned and newfangled that the company strives to achieve in its Mississippi River paddlewheelers.
Charles A. Robertson explained how fulfilling passenger wishes is not only good business; it also creates lasting friendships.
"Once a passenger wanted to play a round of golf at a stop. We arranged transportation and made sure he got back on time. It was just a golf game, but I still get Christmas cards from him. As my son says, it's the little things that count."
--By Keith Marshall, Cruise Critic contributor