Riverboat cruising on the Mississippi River

If you’re heading to New Orleans anytime soon, be sure to check out the artwork at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport before heading out on one of the riverboats that now cruise the Mississippi River.

Courtesy American Cruise Lines

The Queen of the Mississippi, a new paddlewheel riverboat operated by American Cruise Lines and built specifically for the river, launched Saturday in New Orleans.

The five-deck, 150-passenger sternwheeler has modern amenities such as elevators, Wi-Fi and satellite TV, along with other features reminiscent of Victorian-era river cruising, such as a calliope. “There’s no pool or casino, but there are large staterooms, a library, a putting green, lectures and musical entertainment,” said Charles Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines.

The launch of the new sternwheeler is part of a comeback this year for cruising on the Mississippi. The traditional form of river travel was absent for at least four years due to the economic downturn and to heightened shipboard fire safety regulations that cruise lines avoided by retiring rather than retrofitting historic vessels such as the Delta Queen, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen.

The launch of the Queen of the Mississippi “is a massive big deal,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of cruise review site Cruise Critic.com. “With this new riverboat and the refurbished 436-passenger American Queen, which the Great American Steamboat Company returned to the river in April, the Mississippi is back on track as a river cruising destination.”

The Queen of the Mississippi will make its first seven-night, round-trip cruise between New Orleans and Vicksburg, Miss. After that, the schedule includes itineraries on the Mississippi River as far north as Minneapolis-St. Paul and on the Ohio River as far east as Pittsburgh.

“We just booked two people on the Queen of Mississippi,” said Roy Ramsey of Naples Fla.–based Betty Maclean Travel, Inc. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for cruising on the Mississippi. Especially for people who put a great deal of value on Civil War history, plantation history and travel the way it used to be.”

While the style and pace of modern-day riverboat travel harkens back to the days of Mark Twain, the price of a week on the Queen of the Mississippi is definitely 21st century. Rates begin at $3,995 per person for a stateroom with no balcony and rise to $6,685 for an owner’s suite with a private balcony.

“The price is on par with a luxury cruise experience,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s not about lying at the pool, getting a suntan or going to a belly flop contest.”

Kim Priez, vice president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city expects many riverboat cruisers to spend a few nights in town. “A lot of the revenue we’ll experience is from cruisers who stay in New Orleans one or two days before the cruise begins and make it two vacations in one.”

(My story about the Queen of the Mississippi first appeared on NBCNEWS.com)