Company Corners Paddlewheel Marketby Spud Hilton
San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2006
Travel company Ambassadors International is greatly simplifying the world of travel by old-fashioned paddlewheel boat, and it's doing it the old-fashioned American way: by buying it all. The company formed Majestic America Line in June after buying Delta Queen and America West steamboat companies, the dominant riverboat cruise operators in the Pacific Northwest and the lower Mississippi River.
Now, Majestic America announced last week that it is adding two more ships to the fleet (both refugees of recent bankruptcies), including the 150-passenger Columbia Queen riverboat and a 48-passenger, high-speed catamaran for sailing the nooks and crannies of Alaska's coastline.
At first blush, it's good news for devotees of paddlewheelers: Majestic America isn't planning radical changes for the ships or itineraries, two dormant boats will return to service and, for those who booked trips before the consolidation, the schedules and fares for America West and Delta Queen will remain unchanged in 2007.
Customers should expect to see more consistent pricing and "a lot of focus on providing extraordinary American experiences," according to the company.
"You'll see a bit of a brand change," said company spokeswoman April Matson, as well as "more time in each port" and "surprise adventures."
The entire seven-ship fleet will be U.S. flagged and registered and will sail with an all-U.S. crew.
Whether "consistent pricing" means higher fares or lower, however, is still unclear: Majestic American could drop rates, taking advantage of an economy of scale, or it could set higher fares now that it has a virtual monopoly.
-- The Columbia Queen, refurbished by Great American River Journeys before that company's demise after about a year in service, will sail weeklong cruises up the Columbia and Snake rivers, April 28 to Oct. 20, 2007.
-- Majestic America's other recent purchase was the former MV Executive Explorer, formerly owned by defunct Glacier Bay Cruise Line. Starting May 13, the boat -- renamed Contessa -- will sail a route from Ketchikan, Alaska, that includes stops in lesser-known ports such as Wrangell and Thomas Bay, according to a company statement, and will sail up to "some of Alaska's most active glaciers" as well as Peril Straights, Misty Fjords and Behm Canal. (Fares not published yet.)
-- The Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen continue three- to 11-night cruises on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, as well as several tributaries, with stops ranging from Little Rock to Minneapolis and Nashville to Pittsburgh. Fares start at $800 per person, double occupancy. The Delta Queen will return to New Orleans Nov. 22.
-- Starting in March, the restored American Queen (the Majestic America flagship) will return to New Orleans to begin port-to-port and round-trip cruises, including a weeklong voyage between the Big Easy and Memphis during the spring and four- and five-night trips between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Fares for the weeklong cruise start at $1,550 per person, double occupancy.
-- Like the Columbia Queen, Empress of the North and Queen of the West will sail weeklong trips out of Portland up the Columbia and Snake rivers (starting at $1,700 per person, double occupancy), and three- to four-night Columbia River trips. From mid-May to mid-August, Empress will return to five- and six-night Alaskan coastal cruises out of Juneau (starting at $3,300 per person).
For information and reservations, call (800) 434-1232 or go to www.majesticamericaline.com. (The online reservation system is expected to be up this week.)
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