This week on Avid Travel With Britton Frost I am joined by American Queen Steamboat Company’s Senior Director of Product Development, Ruth Richebacher.
Richebacher and I sat down to talk about what cruising with American Queen Steamboat Company, and it’s sister cruise line Victory Cruise Lines, is like both on board and ashore. We talked about some of her favorite excursions and itineraries, as well as what is coming up for 2020 and 2021.
Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.
Britton: Hello everyone. Today I am joined by Ruth Richebacher from American Queen Steamboat Company. I am so excited to have you here, Ruth. How are you?
Ruth Richebacher: I’m good. How have you been Britton? Doing good?
Britton: I’m doing well. Yes. And I apologize if my voice is a little bit funny. I, you know, it is cold season here so I’m a little bit sick. But other than that we’re great. Um, I, we, this is our second interview for American Queen Steamboat Company. So the first one we talked a little bit about kind of the ships themselves and what the company was doing, but with you we’re going to focus on itineraries, which I think is what a lot of people want to know about as well as the ships. Where do they go? Um, so I guess I’ll start by just asking you, you know, like where, where do your ship sail? Cause I know that you do a lot, I know that you do Mississippi and you do all over the US so however you feel like presenting that.
Ruth Richebacher: Right, yes. So it’s really exciting for our company. American Queen Steamboat Company actually goes through the Mighty Mississippi starting from the Lower Mississippi, Upper Mississippi river. We also go to the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland river, Illinois river, and a couple of the itineraries that potentially will be coming up in a couple of years. Um, and of course the Colombia and Snake are gorgeous, uh, areas in the Pacific Northwest. And now new to Victory Cruise Lines that we just acquired this year. Uh, we’re sailing through the Great Lakes, Canada, New England. New to next year going to be the Southeast USA, Yucatan Peninsula, Costa Rica, Panama. And then in 2021, we’re going to do the Alaska region. So we’re very, very excited about those regions that we’re touching base in the next couple of years and months.
Britton: And you did mention Victory Cruise Lines. So if you don’t mind quickly just kind of telling people about American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines. How they’re different just as far as like the size of the ships and where they sail.
Ruth Richebacher: Absolutely. So American Queen Steamboat Company is the leader in US river cruising. It Was founded in 2011. It is a US flag riverboat sales through America’s Heartland and the Pacific Northwest as I mentioned. Itineraries vary between six to 23 days. Um, we own, uh, three, uh, vessels as of right now, the American Queen, which is the largest riverboat ever made in the entire world. Um, we also have the American Empress, which sails in the Pacific Northwest. It started in 2014 followup on the American Dutchess, which is a unique and beautiful paddle in the US which had started in August, 2017 sailing in the Lower, Upper Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland River, just like the American Queen. And then new for next year, we’re going to have the American Countess, uh, which is currently under construction in Louisiana and we will be operating in April, 2020. Um, so those are wonderful vessels on the American Queen Steamboat Company side. Um, and then we have Victory Cruise Lines, which we acquired in 2019 in January this year. Um, which we have two vessels Victory I and Victory II expanding the company’s portfolio to include award winning small ship cruises in the Great Lakes, Canada, New England, all the ports that I mentioned. Um, and then in 2020, we will have those wonderful itineraries in the Southeast US. You Yucatan, Panama, Costa Rica, and you name it. But, um, our taste overall on all the products that we offer is great onboard enrichment, fine dining, a great award winning shore excursions and um, or itineraries are completely unique to the products.
Britton: Yeah. And I mean, I think that you cover such, I mean, obviously, and that’s why I said organize it as you will, is that there’s so much ground covered with these ships. And you know, we, we heard a lot about the Mississippi for a long time. And on River Cruise Advisor, we have so many, um, questions about Mississippi River Cruises, people wanting to plan Mississippi River Cruises. That is one of the most visited pages on our website. But recently I’ve been seeing a lot more people asking about, uh, the Columbia, Snake and, and, you know, different destinations in the US so what itinerary do you think has the most demand?
Ruth Richebacher: Absolutely on the American Queen Steamboat Company, our bread and butter, the Antebellum South. It’s the most popular itinerary. It offers unique and authentic Southern culture that the guests cruise through the South and the Lower Mississippi River. Um, it, it’s available on both, uh, the American Queen, American Dutchess and then American Countess next year. It goes from port in Memphis, New Orleans, Baton Rouge. Um, it’s all along the great river road. Um, it’s, it is unique to its authenticity of the Southern hospitality, the Old South, um, with jazz clubs in New Orleans, the French quarter. So I think the guests, that’s what they think every time they try to look into the Lower Mississippi, or the Mississippi in general. So that has been our most popular itinerary. That goes all the way from, you know, February to the summer, about June, mid June, and this is on the American Queen. And then we come back into that region when it gets colder in the North. So we’d go down South, back in the Lower Mississippi starting in October, late October all the way till December, which is the end of the year. So I think that’s why it’s so popular for us.
Britton: And so we’re talking about the Lower and the Upper Mississippi. Do you mind just telling the listeners a little bit about the difference in cruising those two areas and, and the difference in those segments of river where they stop and start?
Ruth Richebacher: Absolutely. Um, both gorgeous regions, I mean the Mighty Mississippi Upper, Lower, it just encompasses a lot of great river ports. Um, as far as the Lower Mississippi the key thing about this, the rich history and culture is the Southern hospitality as I mentioned, and the charm of the South. Um, it stretches the Mississippi from New Orleans over to Memphis. There’s a lot of river legends. Century old shaded Oak trees. Elegant antebellum plantation highlights that we take our guests to from cotton to sugar plantations, uh, the Cajun and Creole culture. And the actual cuisine. It’s, it’s gorgeous. And I mean a lot of the ports that we visit, it’s the Delta, Vicksburg, Natchez, St Francisville, Baton Rouge, and then river road, which is Nottoway, it’s the exclusivity that we have with them as a port and we’re very proud to be partners with them. And then of course, New Orleans and Memphis, your bigger cities. Um, as far as the Upper Mississippi, it’s the heart of America. It offers a lot of hidden gems around each bend of the river. It’s all about the picturesque geography, abundant wildlife. It’s Mark Twain’s hometown. So, um, that’s when you will get all that history about the paddlewheel life back in the days. Um, ports that we visit include Winona, La Crosse, Dubuque, Bettendorf, Burlington, Hannibal, which is Mark Twain’s, hometown. And bigger cities such as Minneapolis, Red Wing and other small towns, super charming such as New Madrid, Cape Girardeau, and Chester.
Britton: Yeah. And I mean, I think that’s something that we don’t really focus on. You know, in with American cruising so much as is European river cruising, it was like the history that so many of these places have because I think that we kind of as Americans view our culture as more modern. And I mean obviously our country is newer and so, but there is so much history and you know, talking about Mark Twain and talking about these plantations, it’s like these are things that, I mean I don’t necessarily think about on a daily basis where as when I go to Europe and I’m river cruising, you can kind of see all of those landmarks, but it’s really nice to be able to have an experience where you can go and kind of delve more into that history that you might not have thought about since elementary school or middle school.
Ruth Richebacher: Absolutely. I mean, there’s so much history you touched base on, that’s a key word. There’s so much to explore in our backyard here in the US. The Mississippi has so much history, um, that you learn things that you’ve never thought that you would find in those regions. So I think this is a great opportunity for us to discover the little hidden gems that, you know, the Lower Mississippi and Upper, and other regions, you know, that we visit on our cruise, on our voyages, that we get to actually experience and submerge in that whole culture that they offer to our guests and to us as well.
Britton: And I know that there are so many itineraries and so many excursions, so I’m just going to ask you like, do you have a favorite itinerary or of course you have a favorite, I guess I should say. What is it that’s offered?
Ruth Richebacher: Yeah, there’s, there’s absolutely many itineraries. I started eight years ago when the company started, so I’ve been seeing how the itineraries built up and the wonderful places that we go. I’m going to go with my favorite when I started that the company, which is our Memphis to New Orleans, the antebellum South, the Southern hospitality charm that they offer, I think that would be my highlight. Um, when you get to experience little ports, um, the passion that the people have in town, you know, creates that atmosphere, that wonderful, uh, warmth that, you know, the ports have to offer to our guests. I think that that’s what stayed with me and has stuck with me since the very beginning of the company’s startup.
Britton: Yeah. And I mean, I think that that’s kind of like when people think Mississippi, that’s what they think as well is that they think that lower stretch, they think about the South. But as we mentioned, I mean, you’re going up very far North on the Mississippi as well if you choose to do an Upper Mississippi sailing. And then you also have these combination sailings. Can you talk a little bit about those that connect both segments of the river?
Ruth Richebacher: Yes. So, um, little ports go from Memphis to St Louis, we have ports such as Paducah, Chester, New Madrid. People are passionate about their cities and when we’d go there, they’re welcoming is just outstanding. Um, we love to go to those ports because they just, you know, received them with arms wide open. Um, and we appreciate the partnership that we’ve built with them. So that’s something that we love to take our guests with them to explore towns that they’ve never heard of. So like taking them to those hidden gems, it’s totally worth it. It’s really, really worth it.
Britton: Yeah. And I mean we’re talking about the Mississippi and I think this is going to let us continue talking about the Mississippi, but there are a lot of theme sailings that are offered. Um, can you touch on some of those that maybe special to you or something that you really enjoy?
Ruth Richebacher: So as far as sailing in themes that we create, uh, we craft uniquely themed river cruises that feature special entertainment, um, exclusive, um, authentic off boat events and then opportunities that you will never experience in other boats or sailings out there. So one of them is our upcoming holiday theme voyages. So we’ve got Christmas Markets that are happening at Nottoway, a huge plantation that we are partnered with them and we’ve been doing now for the past four or five years. Um, we also partner with Natchez where we also have our Christmas markets there. We have up to 25 vendors that are coming throughout the region that come here and visit our guests, see our guests and offer them the unique product that they have that they, you know, craft themselves. Um, we also have the Mighty Mississippi, the 15-day voyage that started with the traditions of the American Queen and we’re now expanding it with the Countess and the Dutchess, which it travels all the way from the beginning of, um, Red Wing and it goes down all the way to New Orleans. So that’s a great opportunity for you to explore and transport back in time to an era that leisurely romantic travel is all about. We also have the Kentucky Derby, we did it a couple of years ago and we’re bringing it back. Um, it was very successful, sold out cruise. So we’re offering this opportunity for the guests to experience this tradition. Not only that, but also the Kentucky Derby festival and the Great Steamboat Race offered in Louisville. So we’re going to have the American Dutchess defend her title championship, um, as we won the race a couple of years ago. So we’re looking forward to that. And then Mardi Gras on the river offers the most unique hassle free experience for a very spiritual event in New Orleans. So those are a couple of the themes that we’re going to be offering in the next couple of years.
Britton: Yeah. Uh, that, that Kentucky Derby sounds awesome. I mean, I watch the Kentucky Derby with my grandma and yeah, that’s, that’s such a cool experience. Wow. And then, yeah, Mardi Gras, it’s like you mentioned, it’s hassle free cause you’re getting on and off the ship and you’re not having to deal with hotels and it being really busy and yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s amazing. Um, I did shy away from excursions a little bit, which you mentioned, um, and got straight into itineraries, but can you talk about the excursions and you know, what people may be doing off the ship.
Ruth Richebacher: Of course. So new to this year we’re going to start doing, well, next year, 2020, we’re going to offer some wine cruises for those wine lovers on board the American Empress. So we’re going to take you through the Pacific Northwest on this wine cruise, doing special events on board the vessel with wine connoisseurs. And then we’re going to take you off the, off the off the boats and go to wineries. Have a live symphony exclusive for American Empress guests in Astoria where the guests are going to be able to be greeted by, um, our staff and, and listen to this wonderful Columbia River symphony that we partner with. Uh, but not only that, we’re also excited to enjoy a barbecue challenge with the American Riverboat BBQ Cruise that will be offered next year on all of our vessels with American Queen, American Dutchess, and American Countess. So we’re going to have talented culinary teams coming to the cities in offering the guest a taste of the town of that barbecue charm that they have in town and compete against our culinary team on board and our guests are going to be able to then determine who is the winner. And then whoever has the best barbecue throughout the itinerary, they will get a prize and they will be recognized as the best barbecue, uh, challenge, uh, company that, uh, is doing all this for our guests. So those are really good, exciting excursions that we’ll be doing off the boat and also on board of course.
Britton: Yeah, that barbecue, I was reading about that as well and that just seems like such a fun thing. I don’t know all of these. I just hear about these experiences in the US river cruising and I, it just gets me excited because I have never had the opportunity to do one. And I just feel like there is so much to do that I wasn’t aware of. And whenever I do these interviews, I do get excited about them because it’s something that’s so accessible for us living in the United States. Um, it’s so much easier than flying to Europe. It’s so much less expensive than flying to Europe to just, you know, go on a cruise a couple states over or maybe across the country, but you get to see something that’s different and that you’re not seeing every day, but you don’t have to spend $1,500 on airfare. So, I mean it, yeah, it’s really great. So if we, if we move away from the Mississippi for a second, what are some of your other favorite itineraries that are offered?
Ruth Richebacher: Well, I just experienced Victory Cruise Lines. I was on board Victory II, and I think that itinerary, the great lakes is gorgeous. Um, little small towns that, you know, like Quebec, Quebec city is a big city, but it’s so charming and for us to be able to go there to a very French, uh, inclined, uh, culture. You don’t have to go to France and be able to experience that European charm. Quebec has that to offer or we go to Mackinaw Island, we go to, um, where we get to experience the grand hotel there. In an authentic partnership that we have with them. We also, um, go to Cleveland and the US of course, um, we go to Detroit where we get to experience Motown music. I think that is very exciting for us to be able to experience that side of the US and also Canada now.
Britton: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s nice that I, that you have these two products. I, I know that we don’t, I don’t really like that word, but you have these two different experiences. You have the experience with American Queen Steamboat Company and then you also have the experience with Victory Cruise Lines and, and they’re both…I mean, they sound amazing, but I, it’s, it’s nice that you have the options to do something that’s on the river or cover a little bit more ground maybe with something with Victory Cruise Lines.
Ruth Richebacher: I mean, um, and if I may, I mean, we are also to do the Yucatan Peninsula, Costa Ricaa and Panama. Such a great culture, um, hidden gems in those that we are partnering with in the countries. So I think that’s exciting for us. We’re looking forward to it, we’re creating unique experiences not only on board but also off the boat and immerse into that culture, but a lot of people don’t know about. So we’re looking forward to learn more about the history and show that to our guests by creating unique and exclusive opportunities.
Britton: Yeah. And you’re giving the chance for people as well who are going to be repeat customers to experience that product in a whole new light. So that’s also, yeah. Um, I know that we’ve talked a little bit about 20, 20, you mentioned a few things, but what, what are we going to see happening with both of the companies in the next few years or in the next year, two years?
Ruth Richebacher: So we’re excited that Ocean Victory is coming in 2021. Um, it’s a 200 passenger ocean vessel, intimately designed. In depth destinations with access and discovery that we’re going to provide the guests with a world class, accommodations, amenities, everything that we’re known for, but just immerse in the Alaskan wildlife, um, exploring that area in the British Columbia area with a lot of on board enrichments, lectures, um, starting to sail in May, all the way through September, 2021. It will complete about 20 voyages to Alaska, uh, equipped with almost 20 Zodiacs and dozens of kayaks that the vessel will be providing the guests with endless opportunities for active adventure and up-close animal viewing, such as like the humpback and killer whales, bears. And not only that, there are onboard crew of Marine experts, biologists, scientists, naturalists that will lead expeditions and provide educational lecture for our guests, which is something that our guests always asked for. And look for.
Britton: And I know that we touched on this a little bit in the last podcast that I did with American Queen Steamboat Company, but can you talk a little bit about just in case someone didn’t maybe listen to that one and I will link it in the description if anyone wants to listen to that as well. But um, a little bit about what the experience onboard is like and what you’re doing at night when you’re not maybe in port.
Ruth Richebacher: Absolutely. We have fine dining, um, on all of our vessels. We’re known for that caliber of fine dining inspired by America’s Heartland, uh, through where wherever we go in the region, we tailor to that regional cuisine with Southern heritage menus that showcase a lot of culinary influences on our great nation. We also have award winning Broadway caliber entertainment. Um, the majesty of American rivers has been an unwavering source of inspiration for old style music and storytelling. So each day, each evening we lend the opportunity to give the guests to delve into a very dramatic history and musical influence with amazing crew members. It brings them into the boat, the region in which we travel, whether it’s a special event, there’s a special theme, um, from sounds from Nashville, you know, the South, the jazz of New Orleans, an arrousing medley of silver screen movie hit songs, the guests will always be treated with world-class entertainment on board. We do provide cultural and enrichment experiences either on the boat and off the boat. Um, our main attraction on any American Queen Steamboat Company cruise are our award-winning shore excursions. Uh, we’ve been winning for the past couple of years since 2012 number one shore excursions in the entire world. So we’re very proud that our hop on hop off actually showcase and design the program for our guests to do it at their own leisure, at their own pace. Um, showcasing a lot of culture history, education about the towns that we visit. Um, we have a dedicated fleet of deluxe motor coaches with talented drivers and shore excursion staff that are waiting for, um, to assist the guests at any of the vessels that we have in each port of call that we visit. For example, guests sailing along the Lower Mississippi River will stop at the Souths largest and most glorious remaining antebellum mansions such as Nottoway Plantation, as I mentioned, with an exclusive partnership that we have with them. So this excursion that we do there includes a guided walking tour of the plantation of the big house, the mansion that they have there showcases a great opportunity for the guest also to see the grounds the garden. Um, and it’s such a true Southern hospitality and history and mystery that this, um, townhouse off of this plantation has offer.
Britton: Yeah. And it’s, it’s unique as you said, it’s exclusive partnerships, so that’s great. Um, if anyone wants to learn more about the accommodations or anything onboard the ship, as I mentioned, I will link the other podcast in the description. And then as far as the itineraries go, I’ve done a write up on the Mississippi river cruises offered by American Queen Steamboat Company. So I will link that in the description as well for anyone that wants to read more about that. Ruth, is there anything that you feel like we didn’t touch on today? Do we need to talk about anything else?
Ruth Richebacher: I think we covered everything. I mean we’re just looking forward to, um, new opportunities, new itineraries starting next year, a couple of vessels that are coming, the Countess coming next year and then Ocean Victory in 2021 and of course wonderful itineraries that we’re looking forward to for Victory Cruise Lines. And of course keeping the charm that we have with American Queen Steamboat Company grow in Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, uh, Upper Mississippi. Everything that we have to offer to our guests. So, um, it’s an enjoyable product and we love what we do and we have wonderful crew members that are passionate about what they do and their Southern charm and hospitality is just wonderful. And the guest always feel that they’re coming back home with our vessels.
Britton: And I was going to say, you love what you do and clearly your guests love what you do too. Everyone raves about the product. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
Ruth Richebacher: Of course. Thank you for this opportunity and we’re looking forward to have everyone coming to our, uh, American Queens Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise products.