Which Mississippi River cruise ship is right for you?
Star Tribune (TNS) August 9, 2023
MINNEAPOLIS — People have been leisure cruising on the Mississippi River since the storied days of steamships, showboats and paddlewheelers in the 1800s.
Now, three modern cruise lines ply the Great River, with at least seven ships docking as far north as the Minnesota river towns of Red Wing, Winona and St. Paul. Minnesotans take pride in owning the source of the Mississippi, but how many of us have sailed it?
In 2022, Viking River Cruises shipped its luxury European brand to America with the new, state-of-the-art, 386-passenger Viking Mississippi. But two U.S. competitors — American Queen Voyages and American Cruise Lines — have been here for years, each with its own fresh take on the classic riverboat. Itineraries to and from Minnesota explore up to 10 states and dozens of ports, from the wild and scenic Midwest to the blues-soaked Delta and iconic New Orleans.
Interest in these kinds of river trips has surged among baby boomers as a more slow-paced, cultural alternative to ocean cruising. But there's no reason these voyages shouldn't appeal to a broader crowd. Choosing which Mississippi cruise ship is right for you comes down to your budget, your interest in American history or your taste for modern comforts. To get to know them better, I toured ships from all three lines during recent port stops in Minnesota:
For the best value: American Queen Voyages
The fleet: AQV has a variety of paddlewheelers, from refurbished former casino boats (American Countess, American Duchess) to the 420-foot American Queen — the largest steamship ever built. The Queen and Countess appeared together on July 25 in Red Wing, where I toured the Countess.
Minnesota sailings: Nine-day itineraries from Red Wing to St. Louis (and vice versa) starting between $2,699 and $4,099; 16-day journeys from Red Wing to New Orleans starting between $6,189 and $8,599 (all-inclusive).
Relatively cheap and cheerful American Queen Voyages advances a romantic vision of rollin'-on-the-river showboat cruising from the days of Mark Twain.
The American Countess lived a previous life as a 1990s casino boat in Iowa. When AQV acquired this old showgirl, it magically sliced her in half and seamlessly inserted a new 60-foot midsection. They also added two signature red paddlewheels and enhanced her faux-Victorian facade. The smokestacks at the fore are for show, but the big wheels really do help propel the diesel-electric vessel.
Personally, I find the old-timey look a bit corny (they call it "showboating" for a reason), so I was prepared to find a chintzy, budget interior on the Countess. I was wrong — starting with the spacious Grand Lobby, a bright reception area, bar and lounge that wouldn't look out of place in a vintage city hotel. The elegant-but-not-stuffy feel extends to other public spaces, like the River Grill buffet-with-a-view on the bow and the slightly more formal dining room.
The modern staterooms are compact but stylish, starting at 192 square feet for a double, with a veranda that opens up to a walking track. But we'd steer clear of the row of interior (read: windowless) rooms clocking in at 153 square feet, unless you're on a tight budget.
Of course, much of the appeal for cruise lovers is socializing outside of your room. Dining room seating is assigned in advance, so the friend-making can commence right away. But guests can play musical chairs upon request, which we'd imagine could turn awkward. You can always escape to the theater, where nightly Branson-esque musical revues have titles like "Riversong," "Country in Concert" and "Anything Goes Tonight."
Lunch was solid American comfort food, nothing revolutionary: a creamy shrimp pasta, a chicken Caesar, a hot Italian sandwich, a bacon cheeseburger. Vegan options were available. Drinks are inclusive except for premium brands.
More info: aqvoyages.com/river-cruises/
For small-ship perks and food: American Cruise Lines
The fleet: ACL's American Symphony, American Serenade and American Melody are the smallest cruise ships on the Upper Mississippi. (One of ACL's small paddle-wheelers, American Heritage, will also appear in Minnesota this fall.) I boarded the 2022-christened Symphony in Red Wing.
Minnesota sailings: Eight days from Red Wing to St. Louis, from $4,425; 15 days from Red Wing to New Orleans from $9,455; and the more leisurely, 22-day "Complete Mississippi" from New Orleans to Minnesota from $15,255.
American Cruise Lines has unveiled its modern line of sleek, smaller "American Riverboats" with mostly identical specs: 269 feet long with a maximum of just 180 guests. Eschewing the "ye olde" steamship look, ACL opts for modern design and modern art.
But "small ship" doesn't mean cramped. ACL touts the "largest staterooms in the small ship industry" — a claim that is hard to disprove, but the smallest doubles start at a relatively spacious 275 square feet, on up to a 650-square-foot grand suite. All rooms have private balconies that overlook the water, and there are no interior rooms.
The expansiveness continues to the upper deck, where, impressively, the entire rooftop is a lounging space for those seeking 360-degree river views at sunset, plus a running/walking track. (On most ships we've seen, at least part of the top deck is off-limits.)
Lunch on the day I visited included down-home choices of fall-off-the-bone barbecue ribs or a brisket quesadilla — or better yet, a half-and-half plate of both — delivered by servers with warm Southern accents. The dining room is decidedly "coastal grandmother chic," with wicker and neutral tones in abundance. Ship entertainment includes show titles like "Not Fade Away" and "Forever Everly," so elder-boomer nostalgia is the order of the day.
Another stealth advantage of a small ship is climate-related: During last fall's historic low water levels on the Lower Mississippi, which grounded Viking and American Queen ships, ACL's lighter riverboats were largely able to sidestep delays, although some trips were rerouted. It's still early in the season, but river levels are reportedly dropping for a second year.
On the Symphony in Red Wing, guests sounded satisfied wrapping up a three-week grand tour of the river. Overheard: "A trip like this you lose all sense of time — the day of the week doesn't matter anymore." Sounds like travel bliss.
More info: americancruiselines.com/cruises/mississippi-river-cruises
For all-out luxury and music: Viking River Cruises
The fleet: Viking has just one ship on our river, but it's the biggest one — the year-old, 450-foot Viking Mississippi. It's the only cruise ship that usually goes north of Red Wing to St. Paul, docking at Lambert's Landing.
Minnesota sailings: Eight or 12 days from St. Paul to St. Louis, from $4,499; 15 days from St. Paul to New Orleans, from $12,999; 22 days from New Orleans to St. Paul from $15,999.
Norwegian-rooted Viking was already known for bringing its Scandinavian style tours to European rivers, from the Rhine to the Rhône. In 2022, it took that formula to the heartland with new "purpose-built" ships for the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. The $90 million Viking Mississippi's maiden season was a rocky one, with construction delays, low river levels and canceled trips. In its second full season, Viking expects to get back on course.
Viking's new riverboat borrows many design cues from its worldwide fleet, and I recognized many features after sailing the Great Lakes on the Viking Octantis. The gathering spaces and dining areas are without equal, and the overall theme is a tribute to American music. The centerpiece of the first-deck Living Room is a vintage-style turntable that guests can use; vintage records from Louis Armstrong, Little Richard and Dolly Parton were displayed. A grand piano and drum kit looked ready to break out in live jazz. Woodwork alludes to guitar strings.
A sense of hygge extends to the all-exterior staterooms, starting with 268-square-foot king rooms with private verandas, or slightly larger rooms with broad sliding glass doors. The Restaurant offers formal dining, but we'd opt to spend most meals at the fifth-deck River Cafe, a smorgasbord of chef-driven American cuisine, including special menus from various ports of call — plus Mamsen's dessert bar, a Viking staple.
There's no Nordic spa on this Viking ship, but pack a swimsuit for the infinity plunge pool that extends the full width of the fifth-deck Sun Terrace on the stern — though that might attract more foot-soaking than selfie-taking influencers. (The only other Mississippi cruise ship with a pool is the original American Queen.)
If river levels remain a concern this fall, we'd recommend booking for next summer — or staying north of St. Louis. But if an epic Mississippi River cruise is a must-do item on your bucket list, you might want to start with the most dazzling ship.
More info: vikingrivercruises.com/cruise-destinations/mississippi/index.html