The hour is 11:30 on this Saturday night aboard the American Queen, somewhere south of Natchez, Miss. The dance floor in the Grand Saloon is deserted, and a lone man sits in the 24-hour Front Porch lounge, reading a paperback novel. The evening's holdouts, perhaps 30 people who, like most of the passengers, appear to be 55 or older, are in the Engine Room Bar.
Jackie Bankston, who plays the piano, and Bob Schad, who plays guitar, are singing the '70s Kenny Rogers song, "Lucille," which has roused these last-to-bed passengers into a sing-along. Only one couple is dancing, laughing and jabbing their index fingers accusingly at each other during the chorus, "You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille ..." while most of the crowd sings along with Jackie.
Behind them, visible through six large portholes, a red paddlewheel turns, kicking up a constant spray of muddy water from the Mississippi River.
The American Queen, the largest passenger steamboat ever built, has returned to service on the Mississippi River, propelled by a vintage 1932 steam engine and a true paddlewheel. Taken out of service in 2008 when the federal government foreclosed on the ship and steam boating appeared to be dead, the American Queen is the first passenger steamboat to make regular overnight cruises on the river in four years.
A new company with some old river boating hands bought the boat for $15.5 million, spent $6 million on renovations, and put it back into service on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers at a time when river cruising is exploding in popularity in Europe and elsewhere.
Well-off veteran cruisers, history buffs, steamboat lovers and Americans who prefer a domestic vacation are buying up berths; some cruises are sold out.
Not that it's a huge feat to sell out a cruise. This boat carries only 436 guests, compared to 2,000 to 6,000 on major cruise ships. But the price is high: Fares start around $250 per day per person double occupancy for an inside cabin, around $400 a day for an outside cabin, $700 per day for a suite for a cruise on the lower Mississippi.
On the river
Neither the ship nor the daily activities are like those on a big oceangoing cruise ship, although there are some parallels with luxury lines. The ambience is low-key and dinner dress is casual. The staterooms feel more like small hotel rooms than cruise-ship cabins. There are no hairy-leg contests, but pool-side karaoke may be added. Hop-on hop-off bus tours of riverside ports are included in the basic fare. Typical evening entertainment is performances of show tunes or Dixieland jazz. "Riverlorians" -- river historians -- give talks on steam boating and the river.
"American history resonates with a huge number of people, and this is ... in many ways the original American vacation," said Christopher Kyte, president of Great American Steamboat Co., which owns the American Queen. He says the boat draws people -- mostly affluent and retired -- who like the intimacy of a small ship or are river boating buffs or don't want to fly to Europe to take a cruise.
Another company is bringing a riverboat to the Mississippi for cruises with similar itineraries this summer. American Cruise Lines, which runs small-boat cruises on several U.S. rivers, is building the Queen of the Mississippi and will launch it in August. A key difference is size. The Queen of the Mississippi will hold only 150 passengers -- about a third of the capacity of the American Queen -- and will boast bigger staterooms.
Sense of history
The American Queen was built in 1995 and sailed the Mississippi for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., along with the older and smaller Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen. But the company, which had other subsidiaries that ran into financial problems, declared bankruptcy in late 2001. The company was sold twice, and The U.S. Maritime Administration, which had guaranteed the loan to build the American Queen, repossessed the boat twice, most recently in 2008. The Delta Queen, docked in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been converted into a hotel; the Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap.
The American Queen was launched on the Mississippi in early April, doing two lower Mississippi cruises before it was christened by its godmother, Priscilla Presley, in Memphis on April 27.
Most guests appeared to be charmed by the cruise. They loved being on the river and could watch the scenery for hours. They liked the old-fashioned decor, the lounges, the show tunes and Dixieland jazz, and the sense of history.
The hop-on, hop-off bus tours of each port city, accompanied by a local tour guide and included in the base cost of the cruise, were hugely popular. Guests liked having the tour guide aboard. Some stayed on the bus; others got off and shopped or toured museums, antebellum plantations and Civil War sites.
Cruise info: 888-749-5280, www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com.