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The Mature Traveler

The Livin' Is Easy When Cruisin' Ol' Man River

February 01, 1987|BILL HUGHES | Hughes is a 30-year veteran travel writer living in Sherman Oaks.

VICKSBURG, Miss. — The overwhelming percentage of passengers on America's two paddle-wheel steamboats, the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, are mature travelers. Take my word on it, or simply look at the steamboat line's photo-filled "Steamboatin' " brochure.

Nowhere in the 65-page booklet will you find a photo of a child aboard ship. No bikini-clad young things, no paunchless young playboys, either. Instead, all the promotional photos show mellow matures and serendipitous seniors enjoying the good life.

I found that true on two earlier cruises on the venerable Delta Queen several seasons ago, And it's been reinforced after this first cruise on the newer Mississippi Queen, a four-day quickie out of New Orleans.

Some family groups are occasionally found aboard, but mostly in mid-summer when schools are out. And most of these gravitate to the larger Mississippi Queen that has far more deck space and a pool to enjoy.

Even yuppies would enjoy themselves if they can adapt to the relaxing pace that steamboat travel evokes, if they prefer Dixieland to disco and big-band rhythms to rock.

An Easy Pace

The average age of passengers on board both Queens is easily past 55 years. Though the steamship line is loathe to admit in print that this is true, its promotional literature and photos confirm that paddle-wheel cruising is made to order for mature and senior travelers, as easy to slip into and enjoy as an old pair of comfortable shoes, albeit expensive old shoes.

Steamboat paddle-wheel cruising on America's rivers is not inexpensive. Especially when compared with the per diem costs of comparable cabins of the many liners serving the Caribbean and Mexican Riviera. Larger, oceangoing liners are substantially lower in rates.

That's partly because of the higher operating and labor costs of running an American ship in American waters. But the chief reason is the old law of supply and demand.

The present overabundance of oceangoing cruise liners dictates competitive rates and discounts to fill what has become a prolific berth increase for the cruise industry.

On the other hand, the Delta Queen can only carry 192 passengers at most and the Mississippi Queen is limited to 460. There are dozens of Caribbean liners that can carry more than both paddle-wheel boats on a typical cruise.

If the river boat cabin supply is low, the demand is not. Though occasional winter sailings are light, most others are not. Both the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen could be filled twice over on mid-summer dates. Plus, there is no competition.

That's what the two paddle-wheelers sell--glamour, tradition, American heritage and a cruise experience not matched anywhere. Besides, it's almost impossible to suffer mal de riviere.

On this cruise both paddle-wheelers left New Orleans together, passing each other frequently for photo opportunities (though the weather did not cooperate) and stopping at the same ports of call: St. Francisville, La.; Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss., then Baton Rouge, La., and back to New Orleans.

After cruising on the Mississippi Queen, I've been won over from my previous allegiance to the old Delta Queen, which though charming and graceful, lacks the modern creature comforts and extra space of its newer big sister. Someone once described the Delta Queen as being like a fine country inn on the river. Still true.

Thus the Mississippi Queen might be called a fine resort hotel on the river but still retaining the tradition and trappings of steamboat travel . . . but with better air conditioning, larger public rooms and dancing areas and scads more deck space than the Delta Queen. On the other hand, drinks are 25 cents a cocktail cheaper on the smaller ship.

Die-hard steamboating fans prefer the Delta Queen. More active mature passengers, seeking more dancing room and a bit more of a lavish entertainment schedule prefer the Mississippi Queen. And though some fans of both ships hold otherwise, cuisine and service aboard both are about the same--better than good, somewhat less than excellent in this writer's view.

It is important that you check with a travel agent, not just to help make your decision about which paddle-wheeler is for you, but to help explain the wide array of sailings available (more than 60 for each ship through the rest of this year, ranging from two to 10 days), the various cabin categories and rates, the add-on air fares to any one of several port cities and other factors.

One of these is deciding not only what part of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee or Cumberland rivers you'd like to see, but to find one with a special theme as well. Some feature an accent on Dixieland, some on the blues. Others can be a Mystery Cruise where passengers help solve a shipboard "crime," or simply fall foliage or holiday cruises.

Despite the obvious mature and senior market the ships attract--or perhaps because of it--there are no outright discounts because of age.

But they are available if you look around.

Looking for Discounts

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