River cruise news to watch

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Bohemia Rhapsody New Year’s Eve Cruise | Pragues Eve Cruise | Prague

Last year was a challenging one for river cruising, so as we round the bend into 2017, it’s worth pointing out some buzz-worthy stories on the horizon that could help the industry get its groove back.

When it comes to buzz, we can certainly count on Crystal Cruises, which will unveil two of its first four “river yachts” this summer – the Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler (the Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy will follow in spring 2018). The company promises some pretty over-the-top features on its first set of river newbuilds, such as multiple, sleek-looking dining venues with open-seating, and all staterooms built above the waterline – something that hasn’t been done before on a river cruise ship. The renderings released of the yachts last summer evoked chic and contemporary interiors, and river cruise insiders are surely champing at the bit to see how Crystal delivers on its lofty river cruising promises.

Speaking of buzz, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is bound to help reignite some much-needed hype for river cruising in France, which took a big hit following the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris. The company remains committed to launching the latest in its Super Ship class of vessels, the 128-passenger S.S. Joie de Vivre, on France’s Seine River.

In true Uniworld style, the company didn’t hold back with the Joie de Vivre, which will be christened in March. Features include a collection of fine art and antiques acquired from both auction houses and private collections, and a pool area with a hydraulic floor that by night can turn into Le Club l’Esprit, a dance floor or outdoor cinema. Travel Weekly will be there to report on the unveiling of the Joie de Vivre firsthand.

It will also be Adventures by Disney’s second year offering river cruises in partnership with AmaWaterways, and we’ll be watching to see how that product continues to grow and evolve. Disney has already made some tweaks including raising the minimum age from 4 to 6 and adding an adults-only sailing.

CroisiEurope’s ongoing and arguably aggressive expansion will continue in 2017 with four new ships: a 132-passenger vessel on Portugal’s Douro River; the 106-passenger Symphonie II on the Rhine; the 135-passegner Douce France II on the Danube; and the 60-passenger Indochine II on the Mekong. The French company is coming on strong and it definitely has our attention.

In fact, Portugal’s Douro River has been experiencing growing interest of late, with Emerald Waterways also launching a new ship there this year: the 112-passenger Emerald Radiance (the Scenic-owned company is also launching the 138-guest Emerald Liberte on France’s Rhone and Saone rivers this year, hopefully also sparking renewed interest in France).

Closer to home, the American Queen Steamboat Company will be adding the 166-passenger American Duchess on the Mississippi River in June, a former gaming vessel that is being converted into an all-suite paddlewheeler with unique loft suites.

Lastly, we’ll have our eyes on developments on exotic rivers. Momentum seems to have quieted a bit on rivers such as Southeast Asia’s Mekong and on China’s Yangtze, so we’ll be watching to see how much and whether river cruise lines invest beyond Europe, including in places such as India where it’s rumored that AmaWaterways may be eyeing the possibility of a new ship in 2018.

Fresh from the shipyard—a first peek at Louisiane Steam Boat Re-Fit  (and some juicy new tidbits)

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Louisiane’s refit is complete and the vessel will reposition to its dedicated Quai Louisiane in New Orleans this weekend

‘Stylish and opulent’ is how French America Line chairman Christopher Kyte describes the new boutique riverboat Louisiane. He also shared a soupçon of fresh details about the vessel and a new hire.

‘The fabrics are rich. The furniture and materials probably make it the most luxe riverboat in the world. We can’t take credit for the high ceilings; they were there. [Louisiane] will certainly set a new standard here in the US,’ Kyte said.

The vessel’s refit is complete and Louisiane is in New Orleans where sailings will start Oct. 22 from a dedicated pier, Quai Louisiane, on the west bank of the Mississippi near the Hilton Riverwalk.

Louisiane is the former Columbia Queen, the last vessel built by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. and just redone from stem to stern during a multimillion-dollar docking. Sailing for French America Line, the vessel will have luxury touches like beignets from Café du Monde, Ladurée macarons from Paris and cuisine by the noted chef Regina Charboneau.

The first two cruises are charters, a four-night sailing for a ‘huge US tour company’ and a 15-night sailing for a ‘huge Asia Pacific tour operator.’

The vessel is ‘the perfect size for charters,’ Kyte said. ‘You only need 150 people, or 75 couples.’

Bookings, he added, are ‘phenomenally good’ for next year.

Exemplifying the caliber of entertainment is vocalist Barbara Rosene, renowned for interpreting the great music of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, who performs with The Harry James Orchestra and at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. She’ll be aboard for the first week.

Newly revealed, after 10 p.m. the brasserie-like Veranda will transform into a late-night spot called Bar Rive Gauche, with soft lighting, French jazz, carafes of red wine and onion soup gratinée. The inspiration was the chic late-night spot of the same name on the SS France, an ocean liner Kyte adored.

As for the new hire, Aidy Alonzo joins next week as director of marketing. Her prior cruise-related positions include senior director of marketing at American Queen Steamboat Co. and at Cruise Planners/American Express, director of on-board revenue management for Prestige Cruise Holdings and director of marketing for Oceania Cruises.

A couple other cruise figures will be signing on as well. Stay tuned, Kyte said.

American Queen launching another Mississippi ship next year

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The American Queen Steamboat Co. will add a third vessel to its river fleet in 2017. The 340-foot American Duchess is slated to launch on the Mississippi River next June.

“We’re running full these days,” said American Queen President and COO Ted Sykes. “We’ve been scouring the country for more capacity.”

The company’s flagship vessel, the American Queen, is entering its sixth season cruising the Mississippi. The line expanded in 2014, adding the American Empress in the Pacific Northwest. Now in 2017, American Queen will grow again, converting a former gaming vessel purchased from parent company HMS Global Maritime in August into the all-suite Duchess. The river cruise line plans to gut the ship, rebuilding the interior hotel and adding a working paddlewheel.

The four-deck Duchess will carry 166 passengers in 83 suites, including three 550-square-foot owner’s suites and four 550-square-foot loft suites. Other cabin categories will include deluxe suites (450 square feet), outside veranda suites (240 to 330 square feet) and interior staterooms (180 to 200 square feet).

Compared with the American Queen, Sykes said the new ship will offer a more elevated experience.

Two onboard dining venues will be included in the cruise fare, along with beer and wine at dinner, onboard entertainment and shore excursions. The Grand Dining Room will have open seating and be capable of accommodating the entire ship’s capacity.

American Queen plans to operate the American Duchess year-round on the upper and lower Mississippi. Its voyages will include weeklong roundtrip sailings out Nashville and nine-day voyages between Memphis and New Orleans, and St. Louis and Ottawa, Ill. (about 83 miles from Chicago). The Duchess will also overnight in Nashville, a first for the company.

Prices for most sailings start at $2,999 and top out at $9,499 for one of the three owner’s suites. The Duchess will begin accepting bookings for the 2017 season on Oct. 1.