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Cruisin' the Mississippi

One of the newest additions to Cruise West’s small-ship fleet, the 102-passenger Spirit of America is slated to begin offering seven-day Mississippi River cruises next March.

One of the newest additions to Cruise West’s small-ship fleet, the 102-passenger Spirit of America is slated to begin offering seven-day Mississippi River cruises next March.

Company bringing small-boat tours east

A Seattle, Wash.-based company is bringing its small-ship tours to the Mississippi River next year, offering passengers an up-close look at the Father of Waters as well as tour stops in Natchez and Vicksburg.

Earlier this month, Cruise West, a company that has been offering small-ship tours for more than 60 years, announced that it was relocating its ship Spirit of Glacier Bay, which had been cruising in the Pacific Northwest, to the Mississippi, and has renamed it Spirit of America. The company is planning to offer seven-day cruises from New Orleans to Memphis as well as from Memphis to Nashville, Tenn., beginning in March 2011.

Cruise West said its decision to offer Mississippi River tours was demand-driven.

“This market has been underserved since 2008 with the departure of Majestic Cruise line,” said Dietmar Wertanzl, Cruise West’s president and CEO.

Dick West, Cruise West chairman, managing director and son of the company’s founder, said, “Many of our loyal customers asked us to bring the Cruise West small-ship experience to the Mississippi and other ‘heartland’ rivers… My family is extremely proud to offer guests the opportunity to sail an American-flagged ship on one of the most iconic American rivers.”

The Spirit of America can accommodate 102 guests. The vessel measures 207 feet in length, has a cruising speed of seven knots and is one of the newest additions to Cruise West’s 13-ship fleet.

The first New Orleans to Memphis cruise will launch March 19. A second cruise will sail from the Big Easy April 16, and reverse cruises (Memphis to New Orleans) will be offered April 9 and May 7.

Among the cruise’s stops are Natchez, to explore the city’s antebellum and Victorian architecture, and the Vicksburg National Military Park.

The Memphis to Nashville cruises will sail from Memphis March 26 and April 23 with reverse tours set for April 2 and April 30. It will sail north to Cairo, Ill., to the confluence of the Ohio River before cruising the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.

This marks the first time Cruise West has offered tours of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The company’s roots go back to 1946 when Chuck West, a former Flying Tiger during World War II and Alaska bush pilot, and his wife, Marguerite, the first Miss Alaska, began offering sightseeing and “flight-seeing” tours over the Arctic Circle. The company, called Westours, grew over the next three decades, opening the first hotel chain ever in Alaska, starting the first motorcoach line in the state as well as the state’s first small-ship cruises.

For his pioneering ways, Chuck West earned the nickname “Mr. Alaska.”

The Wests sold Westours in 1971 to Holland America Line. However, the family returned two years later, establishing West Travel with sightseeing and motorcoach tours of the Alaska-Yukon Highway and in the state’s major cities.

In the 1980s, the company experimented with multi-night daylight-only yacht cruises. In the 1990s, the company, which was eventually renamed Cruise West, began acquiring larger ships and expanding its tours outside of Alaska. Today, the company offers tours of Europe, the Pacific, Mexico, Central America, inland American Rivers and more with capacities ranging from 48 to 178 passengers.

Cruise West has yet to commit to Mississippi River tours past 2011. Andrea Jones with Remer Inc., an advertising and marketing company that handles Cruise West, said Cruise West will see how the initial tours go before deciding on future operations, but added that the company historically does not offer one-time service.

She said that Cruise West has already booking passengers for the new service, and that the company has been pleased with the early response.

The Cruise West service does not offer direct competition to any Mississippi-based companies such as the Tunica Queen, which offers a 90-minute sightseeing tour and two-hour dinner and entertainment cruise.

One company could actually get a boost from Cruise West’s arrival. Mississippi River Tours, LLC, operates the boat Sweet Olive out of Vicksburg. The service offers sunset tours each evening lasting a little over an hour on the Sweet Olive, which can accommodate 49 passengers.

Co-owner Ann Jones said she has not noticed an impact from the oil spill as tourists look to somewhere other than the Coast to vacation. But another disaster is still affecting operations.

“Hurricane Katrina was a watershed event,” Jones said. The storm disrupted motorcoach service from points north to New Orleans and the Coast, she added. That, coupled with the fall in gas prices that made auto tours more affordable, has hurt her business, which has been offering tours since 2003.

“We still get people from all over the world,” Jones said. “Everybody wants to see the Mississippi River and the mystique of the South.”

For more information on Mississippi River Tours and the Sweet Olive, visit www.msrivertours.com.

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