September 13, 2016
(1:30 p.m.) -- In 2017, American Queen Steamboat Company will launch 166-passenger American Duchess to sail on the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries.
The company acquired the vessel, formerly the Isle of Capri gaming boat, based in Bettendorf, Iowa, a few weeks ago. The American-flagged ship will be rebuilt to launch in June 2017, President Ted Sykes said in a phone interview with Cruise Critic.
"In the last two years, we've been a huge success story," Sykes said, adding the ship's current Mississippi River vessel, American Queen, sails at 95 percent capacity. "We've been scouring the country for an American-made hull."
Finding that American-built ship was important; by law, all cruise ships that operate solely in the United States and don't visit an international port on their itineraries must be built or refurbished in an American shipyard. American Queen Steamboat Company also has a vessel in the Pacific Northwest, American Empress, which sails on the Snake and Columbia rivers.
The ships must also be staffed with American workers who are paid salaries and benefits, a requirement that is a boon to the cruise line, Sykes said. "Our passengers love our all-American crew," he said. "It leads to a great ambiance and camaraderie onboard." American Duchess will employ 90 to 125 employees.
The 340-foot ship doesn't have a paddlewheel, but one will be added, Sykes said. It does have a Victorian "wedding cake" exterior but the ship itself will not feature period-piece decor like American Queen, he said. "It's very wide, as wide as the American Queen, but not as long," Sykes said. "It's got an embarrassment of space and power."
To that end, the three-deck ship will feature the largest staterooms on American rivers, with three 550-square-foot Owners Suites. The vessel will also have four innovative "loft" suites, a first for a U.S. ship. Each of these cabins will also be 550 square feet and have an upper level with sleeping accommodations and a bathroom, and a lower level with a seating area and another bathroom. These loft cabins will also have room for third or fourth berths, Sykes said.
The majority of the suites on the ship will be outside suites that are 240 square feet. There will be some interior cabins that are 180 square feet, Sykes said, as well as cabins that are ADA compliant.
Dining-wise, the ship will have open seating in the the Grand Dining Room, as well as an alternative dining room, the Grill Room. Wine and beer will be served complimentary at dinner, and specialty coffees, bottled water and soft drinks will be available throughout the trip.
It will have a large auditorium for entertainment, as well as a fitness room. "The beauty of gutting and building this from scratch is that we can create all that," Sykes said.
The ship will homeport in Memphis and also offer Lower Mississippi River itineraries round-trip from New Orleans. Other sailings will take place on the Upper Mississippi River to St. Paul, on the Cumberland River to Nashville and a brand-new itinerary for the company that travels the Illinois River, from St. Louis to Chicago. Shore excursions will be included in the fare, with premium options available in some ports. American Duchess will also use the company's dedicated "hop on, hop off" motorcoaches, and overnight stays will take place in several ports.
"We'll be offering shorter sailings on this one," Sykes noted, a bid to appeal to younger professionals as well as families. Overall, though, the ship will likely take a lot of the overflow that's clamoring to get on American Queen, he said.
American Duchess is slated for its first sailing June 4, 2017. It will open for booking in October 2017.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor