PADUCAH, Ky. – After being out of commission for over a year due to COVID-19, the cruise industry is slowly starting to dip its toes back into the water. While most major, oceangoing ships won't set sail until next month, smaller boats have already returned to America's rivers.
Along with 109 other passengers and 80 crew members, I recently cruised the lower Mississippi and Ohio rivers from Memphis to Louisville on American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Duchess to get a sense of what cruising is like now – and what it might morph into – as the country attempts to sail out of the pandemic.
American Queen, one of the largest cruise lines operating on American waterways, quietly began offering cruises – at reduced capacity and with enhanced COVID-19 safety protocols – on two of its boats sailing the Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland rivers in mid-March.
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'We're seeing very high demand'
So far, according to Shawn Bierdz, president of the Indiana-based company, it’s been relatively smooth sailing. There haven’t been any of the outbreaks that plagued some cruise ships at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020.
“We’ve operated confidently and without any issues since March 15,” Bierdz said. “When you get on one of our vessels, you’re in a self-contained bubble.”
Our week-long 687-mile journey in early June passed six states in America’s heartland. There weren’t some of the usual staples of cruising like self-service buffets, dance classes or meet-and-greets with the captain. But a few inconveniences and reduced services necessitated by federal guidelines haven’t seemed to dampen bookings.
Bierdz said American Queen Steamboat Company’s June-October sailings are 90% booked. After a year of being stuck in a COVID-19 cocoon, cruise lovers want to get out of the house and back on the water.
“We’re seeing very high demand,” Bierdz said. “Our call center has been overwhelmed at times.”
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COVID-19 tests were required
Before embarking on the American Duchess in Memphis, all passengers were required to pass a COVID-19 test administered at the hotel the night before departure. It took just one hour for the test results to be emailed to me, indicating I was good to go the next morning for a pre-cruise tour of Graceland – Elvis Presley’s former home – before being taken directly to the boat in the late afternoon.
While being fully vaccinated wasn’t required on American Queen Steamboat Company’s March-June sailings, passengers on the American Duchess and American Countess will need to show proof of vaccination beginning in July (June 14 when the American Empress resumes cruising in the Pacific Northwest).
Every time we got on or off the boat, our temperature was checked. A full-time nurse was on board and some cabins were set aside as quarantine spaces. Fortunately, they weren’t needed.
When we left our cabins, we were asked to wear masks throughout the ship, unless we were eating or drinking. Bierdz said the mask requirement will likely be phased out in the coming weeks as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxes its guidelines.
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Shipboard shows, dining, excursions: What to expect
To ensure social distancing, the open seating for dinner was scrapped. Instead, there were two seatings so there was plenty of space between guests. We were assigned to the same table each night – better for contact tracing.
There also were two shows in the evenings to keep the size of the crowds down. At the end of each performance in the show lounge, we were asked to quickly depart so that the theater could be fogged with an antiviral mist before the next performance.
There was no self-service, whether it be at breakfast or lunch buffets or the Duchess’ popular Perks room, where there is coffee, juice, ice cream, popcorn and fresh-baked cookies. There were plenty of ways to indulge one’s sweet tooth – you just had to wait for someone to serve you.
As far as shore excursions, American Queen Steamboat Company has temporarily halted its hop-on, hop-off buses that allowed passengers to explore port towns on their own. As a replacement, we were taken on more conventional bus tours with a guide so that our groups could be more insulated.
Bierdz said COVID-19 protocols are constantly changing on the company’s boats, so it’s best to check with the cruise line before departure to see what rules are currently in place when you sail.
'I feel safe being on the water'
Making it through the buffet took longer than normal and the temperature checks slowed things down when a large group returned from a sightseeing tour. But I heard little grousing.
People seemed more than happy to put up with some minor inconveniences to return to cruising and everything it entails – tasty and plentiful food, first-rate entertainment, enriching lectures and waking up in a different port of call every morning without having to pack and unpack.
And the open bar on the American Duchess didn’t hurt, either.
One of my fellow cruisers, Eric Palace, 50, of Celebration, Florida, has already sailed on three American Queen Steamboat Company cruises since the line resumed operations in March. He told me he would be “scared to get on a ship with 3,000 people right now,” but feels comfortable cruising on a much smaller riverboat.
“With everyone getting pre-tested (for COVID-19), I feel safe being out on the water,” he said.
Exploring Mississippi, Ohio river towns
Aptly named “The Art of Discovery,” our itinerary focused on the museums and music in a slice of America not exactly flooded with tourists. Stops included largely unheralded – but wonderfully authentic – ports in such Kentucky towns as Paducah, Henderson, Owensboro and Brandenburg.
The first 200 miles of the journey were spent cruising upstream on the lower Mississippi River. Near Cairo, Illinois, the Mississippi converged with the Ohio River; we veered to the northeast on the Ohio River toward Louisville and quickly noticed the water in the Ohio is much bluer and less muddy than the Mississippi.
The American Duchess was built as a casino riverboat in 1995, then elegantly refurbished in 2017 to accommodate 166 passengers. Its red paddlewheels in the rear are more than decorative; they provide about 20 percent of the boat’s propulsion. The captain wasn’t aiming to set any speed records, though. The Duchess averaged a leisurely 7 mph during the trip.
In Paducah, named by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as one of nine “Creative Cities” in the country for its “important role in the connectivity of cultures through creativity,” we visited the National Quilt Museum and the River Discovery Center, a small museum created to showcase the area’s rich maritime history.
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Bluegrass music and Lincoln's birthplace
One of the hallmarks of Kentucky is bluegrass music and we were treated to two performances. A local band was brought onboard in Paducah to perform in the Duchess’ theater. Two days later, we visited the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, where we saw another live performance and learned about a genre of music known for its acoustic stringed instruments.
At our final stop in Brandenburg, we were taken to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in nearby Hodgenville. Lincoln was born in a log cabin at the site and lived in Kentucky until he was 7 when his family moved to Indiana. I especially enjoyed a visit to the Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville, where an impersonator recited portions of the Gettysburg Address.
The Ohio River doesn’t offer some of the glitziest ports of call, but Bierdz said American Queen Steamboat Company is planning to expand sailings on the river in 2022, reflecting increased demand from cruisers wanting to stay closer to home.
“We have seen huge demand from guests seeking new itineraries that are still accessible and close to home, often after they experience a river cruise for the first time on the lower and upper Mississippi River,” Bierdz said.
Find out more
American Queen Steamboat Company: https://americanqueensteamboatcompany.com.
CDC cruise ship guidance: https://cdc.gov/quarantine/cruise/index.html.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mississippi River cruises are back: What life is like on board?