Riverboat cruises to return

Not so long ago, majestic steamboats often could be seen docked on the Baton Rouge riverfront, carrying hundreds of visitors embarking on a Mississippi River cruise.

Beginning in April, the riverboats will be back.

For years, Baton Rouge was a destination for three Mississippi River cruise ships making stops at riverside cities: the American Queen, Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen.

But by the end of 2008, Majestic America Line, the company operating the three vessels, went out of business, effectively ending the riverboat cruise business on the Mississippi River.

“It was a loss,” said Paul Arrigo, president of the Baton Rouge Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It was very picturesque when the boats arrived. And obviously, the merchants remember lots of folks who used to get off the boats and walk around downtown and stop and purchase things,” he said.

Beginning next year, Baton Rouge will be a stop for three cruise companies: The Great American Steam Boat Co., which will have about 13 Baton Rouge stops; American Cruise Lines, nine stops; and Blount Small Ship Adventures, two stops.

The Great American Steam Boat Co. will be reintroducing the American Queen, which was originally built in 1995 and is “the largest and grandest” paddle wheel steamboat ever built, said Tim Rubacky, a senior vice president for the company.

The cruises will help showcase Baton Rouge to visitors, said Katie Guasco, senior sales manager for the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The boaters have always been extremely excited to see our culture and history, and we’re excited to showcase that for them,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of changes since the boats came last time, and we want to make sure visitors see Baton Rouge for all of its beauty.”

In addition to Baton Rouge, the cruises are expected to make stops and enjoy some historically themed excursions in riverside cities including New Orleans, St. Francisville, Vicksburg, Miss., Memphis, Tenn., St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Rubacky said riverboat cruises are a “totally different experience” from the regular ocean liner cruises people are generally more familiar with.

“This is not for shopping, or for Las Vegas shows, or water slides,” Rubacky said. “This is something focused on history and culture.”

The American Queen, which can carry 436 passengers, is a “floating Victorian mansion,” Rubacky said.

American Cruise Lines, the other main riverboat operator, is building a new sternwheeler boat with a capacity of 149 passengers called the Queen of the Mississippi.

The company will offer Civil War-theme cruises with tours of museums and historic battlefields.

“This reinforces our efforts to provide enriching cruises for our passengers — offering an elegant peek into American history through its waterways,” said Timothy Beebe, vice president of American Cruise Lines, in a statement.

The boats will dock at the Baton Rouge Port in the downtown riverfront for about eight hours per trip, Guasco said, and visitors will be able to explore the city’s downtown.

In addition to restaurants, boaters will be able to visit about 15 major downtown attractions, including the Louisiana State Museum, the Old State Capitol and the USS Kidd, said Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District.

“The visitors will get a personal experience with the towns they stop in on,” Rhorer said.