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River Cruising Ports Unique…and Some Anonymous

North America's most prolific river cruiser, American Cruise Lines, has boats on the water in 30 states. That means many river ports, too many to mention here, but some of the "big ones" may surprise you.

This year, the cruise line polled its passengers to see which stops they like best. Call it river cruising's Top Ten.

hooper-lighthousePoughkeepsie, New York? Hannibal, Missouri? And the one they like best…St. Michael's, Maryland — a placew river cruisers recognize by Hooper's Lighthouse (right).

Nothing against these hamlets, which are clearly enchanting places that people enjoy visiting. But how many people outside driving distance have even heard of them?

There are some on the "favorites" list that fit the recognition category…the kind you don't have to ask the state. Nantucket. Astoria. Savannah. Glacier Bay…

Wait a minute — there's a river in Glacier Bay, where ocean-going ships cruise?

River cruising is full of surprises, isn't it? Maybe that's why it's growing so fast.

Caribbean Princess
7 nights
January 25, 2014
Houston (return): CozumelRoatanBelize
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

Two Tastes of River Cruising

This isn't a commercial (like "Like Milk?")…

Like jazz? Like lobster?

If — like us — your answer is "yes" then American Cruise Lines has an inviting dilemma for you. Actually, one of the "invitings" is the Queen of the Mississippi, and don't take that the wrong way. She's a river cruise ship and in August she'll be takingpassengers on an 8-day jazz special on the Lower Mississippi, from New Orleans to Memphis.

What's a jazz special?

On-board performances by jazz artists — and in that part of the country there's a lot of them — and on-shore tours that focus on the music's history and how it sculpted America's music and the big river itself. And in a place like Oak Alley, Louisiana, you think you might find a performer or two.

If your taste is  more tangible, think lobster.

American Glory will poke along the coastline from Portland, Maine, and for eight days in July visit the places the lobsters go. You get a chance to catch lobster — "trap" would be the right word — and enjoy a traditional lobsterbake in Rockland. Hmm, do you think that's where rock lobster is found.

On the Glory, one of the events involves "health-conscious cooking and cuisine."

That doesn't mean holding the butter, does it?

Norwegian Epic
7 nights
May 22, 2013
Rome (return:) Florence, Marseille, Palma de Maillorca, Barcelona, Naples
Inside: $619
Cost per day: $88

Reflections on Cruising in 2012

Ten stories in 2012 that caught our attention, in no particular order of significance…

1. The 100th anniversary of the best-known (because it sank) cruise ship of all time, the Titanic. At the precise hour the Titanic went down, on April 15 a century earlier, there were at least two cruise ships (Azamara Journey and the Fred.Olsen Balmoral) were on the scene in what originally seemed like a macabre reminder but in the end was touching and emotional.

2. In an unrelated "the way we were" event, American Cruise Lines unveiled a paddle wheeler that on the outside looked much like the kind of river boats that went up and down the Mississippi in the early 20th century. The Queen of the Mississippi, the first paddle wheeler built for the rover in 20 years, is just as luxurious as her ancestors, relatively speaking…among the then-unimaginable improvements was the Internet.

3. Viking made headlines for the river cruisers by adding six new Longships in 2012 and announcing 10 more would arrive in 2013 with plans for 10 more in 2014. While capacity is far less than ocean cruisers (usually less than 10 per cent), one-week cruises cost a lot more. Are we about to find out if Viking has saturated the river cruise market?

4. The face of Godmothers changed. Oceania introduced an openly lesbian godmother (Cat Cora) for the Riviera, Celebrity gave the title(s) to four women who were cancer survivors or cancer survivor advocates on its Reflection, and Norwegian announced its New York-based ship (Breakaway) would have the Rockettes from Radio City Music Hall as godmothers in perpetuity…because there will always be Rockettes. Yet none was more moving than Tracy Mourning, Godmother of the Carnival Breeze and a woman whose charitable efforts continue to impact young women in Florida.

5. After all the analyses and speculation and concern about hurricanes in the Caribbean and their impact on cruise ships, the one that had the greatest effect on ship itineraries was in the waters of the north-eastern seaboard, Hurricane Sandy.

6. New catchphrases for upscale marketing, when Oceania reinforced its "upper premium" status with the arrival of the Riviera and Celebrity introduced "modern luxury" after Michael Bayley replaced Don Hanrahan at the head of the No. 2 line in the Royal Caribbean family.

7. Norwegian, the biggest cruise line that isn't in the Carnival or Royal Caribbean conglomerates, unveiled plans to supplement its 2013 (Breakaway) and 2014 (Getaway) new ships with a "Breakaway-Plus" ship in 2015 and an option on another one for 2017.

8. The Costa Concordia. Long after it capsized and took 32 people to their deaths 13 days into the year, its impact lingered all year, and will continue to linger until long after the ship is raised and destroyed, either in name or in body.

9. An Australian mining billionaire, Clive Palmer, unveiled plans to build a Titanic replica, prompting this from Carnival CEO Micky Arison to quip: "Mr. Palmer is a billionaire with ambitions to become a millionaire!"

10. The George Bushes — as in George and Barbara — crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 the way they do most things…quietly.

Carnival Imagination
4 nights
February 25, 2013
Miami (return): Key West, Cozumel
Inside: $219
Cost per day: $54

Legendary Queen of the Mississippi


For those of us who didn't grow up on the banks of the Mississippi, our introduction to its boats was Davy Crockett. You remember Davy…and the keelboat races with Mike Fink, and the river pirates, and all the other comic book stories that turned into books and movies and a merchandise business that surpassed 42 billion.

The sometimes fictitious accounts of this legendary American folk hero were an introduction to what is arguably the nation's greatest river, stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, fast forward.

On Saturday, another legend arrived on the Mississippi, in the form of a riverboat unlike anything Davy and Mike could have imagined. If the Queen of the Mississippi isn't a legend, she will become one, as the vessel that changed river boating as we know it. She is a 21st-century paddlewheeler with all the modern amenities, taking her passengers back 75 to 100 years, a time warp in luxury.

On one hand, the Queen of the Mississippi passengers currently on the inaugural, 8-day return trip from New Orleans are on a ship that looks, from the outside, that it might have been in Mississippi waters a century ago. On the inside, the flagship of the American Cruise Lines fleet has "hotel-room" staterooms — 300 square feet or more, private balconies with sliding doors, full bathrooms just like the hotels have, and the opportunity to dine in private whenever they want.

On one hand, on-board educational events and themed entertainment will take them back to the way it was, and seeing historical plantations and mansions and landmarks. On the other hand, they can step off the boat and see Baton Rouge, New Orleans and cities of the south the way they are today.

The first paddlewheeler built for the mighty river in two decades, Queen of the Mississippi takes its people on a trip that's a merging of centuries on the Mississippi, the way it was and the way it is. Davy and Mike and their men would be proud…although they might have trouble getting their heads around WiFi.

Carnival Fascination
5 nights
November 5, 2012
Jacksonville (return): Half Moon Cay, Nassau
Inside: $269
Cost per day: $53 $53

American Cruising Rivers of Wine

In the world of cruising, wine is much more than a four-letter word. It is powerful.

Celebrity has a room dedicated to wine, 24 hours a day, called Cellarmasters. Norwegian has a wine cruise whenships are being re-positioned on the way to or from Alaska. Oceania has a sommelier for every 50 or so passengers on the Marina and Riviera.

Theme cruises are often built around the grapes. One of them is simply called the Wine Theme Cruise — in October — on two rivers in Washington state on the America Cruise Lines ship Queen of the West. It operates between Lewiston, Idaho and Astoria, Oregon but 95% of the travel is in Washington. You can board at either end and journey up or down the Columbia and Snake Rivers for eight days.

There are wine tastings on board and there's plenty to interest the history bugs, especially if it involves the Lewis and Clark expedition almost 207 years ago. The explorers followed the rivers to the Pacific Ocean, at the mouth of the Columbia, on the last leg of their journey. But even for historians, it's not all about the Lewis and Clark Trail.

There are forts and museums and gardens and meeting some of the indigenous peoples who were in this part of the country long before Lewis and Clark. There are city tours of Portland and Astoria, there's Mount St. Helen's and the Columbia River Gorge and the cowboys of Pendleton. And there is wine…with 160 wineries within 50 miles of the ship when it stops in Walla Walla country.
Walla Walla?

Of all the years we have been buying wine from Washington state, Walla Walla trumped our past when we visited the area last year. As Queen of the West goes, it's a little off the beaten path, but close enough that passengers will undoubtedly be sampling wines from what you could call the "France of the U.S." — perfect soil and temperatures for producing wines to rival those of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Curiously, the eight-day trip offers 12 shore excurions. Guess how many are wine-related? One.

You think "wine" is a powerful draw?

Norwegian Dawn
7 nights
November 18, 2012
Tampa (return): Roatan, Belize, Costa Maya, Cozumel
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85

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