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CRUISE: Going small on the “Father of Waters”

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While the world’s largest river cruise outfit considers offering cruises on the largest US river, one small-ship operator is already doing it. Chicago to New Orleans, anyone?

Last fall, I told you that Viking River Cruises was exploring the idea of offering cruise vacations on the Mississippi River.

That was big news because Viking is river cruising’s 9,000-pound gorilla. It dominates in Europe, the world’s worldwide biggest river cruise market, is expanding into South America and Asia, and cranking out new ships at a furious pace.

So when an outfit like that starts making noises about bringing one of its sleek, slender river cruisers to the largest and most important river in your country, you pay attention.

What I didn’t know then was that there was a cruise line that was already there, Blount Small Ship Adventures. And when these folks say “small ship,” they’re not kidding.

ON THE MISSISSIPPI
You won’t find its vessels anywhere in Europe, South America or Asia. You’ll find them instead in the Caribbean and Central America, on the our Eastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes.

And you’ll find them on our “Father of Waters.”

Blount offers a 15-day Mississippi River cruise between Chicago and New Orleans — in either direction, nearly 2,000 miles each way. It also does shorter cruises of eight, nine or 12 days on the Mississippi.

Actually,the cruise takes you on portions of seven different rivers flowing into the heart of the country, including the Ohio, the Cumberland and the Tennessee.

But the Mississippi definitely is the star, snaking its way down the Mississippi Valley from Great Lakes country on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

River cruisers like those that Viking operates are a fraction of the size of ocean-going cruise ships, accommodating hundred or so passengers where one of the floating palaces of Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean or NCL would typically number their passengers in the thousands.

SMALL SHIPS, BIG RIVER
Blount’s two river ships are even smaller than that, with a maximum capacity of 88 passengers in 44 cabins.

How’d you like to be on a small ship on a big river?

When you speak of the Mississippi River and its valley, you’re talking about a nation’s agricultural breadbasket, industrial heartland and home to one of the most diverse populations of wildlife on the planet.

It has been witness hundreds of years of human history, traces of which you can see on its shores. Whole nations of native peoples once called it home.

Blount ships aren’t just small. Their shallow draft means they can sail in less than seven feet of water, which means they can take you where larger cruise ships dare not try, and put you directly ashore by means of a built-in bow ramp. No dock required.

They even come with a retractable wheelhouse to sail under the lowest bridges, a truly handy feature when the Mississippi is running high due to heavy rains and winter storm runoff upriver.

Another thing I like about these vessels is that they’re sleek and modern. No faux antebellum Mississippi paddlewheeler.

Disadvantages?

HEFTY PRICE TAG
One is price, the bane of small-ship cruises from the consumers’ point of view. The smaller the ship, the fewer the passengers, thus the greater the cost per person.

In the case of their Chicago-New Orleans cruise, that cost ranges from $312 to $431 per person per day, depending on your choice of cabin. Multiple those costs by 16 days, and you’ll get an answer you probably won’t like.

The cabins themselves will be fairly tight compared with what veteran cruisers see on the ocean-going behemoths, and public spaces will be at a minimum. So don’t come looking for split-level theaters, giant water slides or broad, glitzy promenades lined with shopping.

The star of the show is the river itself, the third longest in North America, and the endlessly changing scene on its banks.

Not everyone would see that as a drawback, however. The Mississippi is more than capable of putting on a show. This is no lazy river.

So while the river cruise industry’s Goliath makes up its mind on whether it wants to take on this river, the industry David is already doing it. Check them out.

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