Cruising returns to Jacksonville terminal with American Queen's 202-passenger Ocean Voyager

·3 min read

American Queen Voyages is starting new 12-day cruises sailing out of Jacksonville, but the company and its small-scale ship are no strangers to the city.

The second of American Queen's cruises aboard the 202-passenger Ocean Voyager left the Jaxport cruise terminal on the St. Johns River on Monday, setting sail for stops in Savannah and Charleston before turning back south and visiting Brunswick, Ga., Amelia Island, Port Canaveral and Freeport in the Bahamas. The company has plans for 11 more cruises out of Jacksonville this year.

The ship bears little resemblance to a traditional cruise ship. It has no water slides, no go-kart tracks, no casinos. That's no surprise, since it has about 1/10th of the capacity of the Carnival Miracle, the large cruise ship that also homeports in Jacksonville. Cabins aboard the Ocean Voyager for the 12-day Southeast USA cruise start at $5,599 per person.

The Ocean Voyager was originally built in 2001 by American Marine in Jacksonville and went through extensive renovations a decade later in Green Cove Springs. It was operated by another cruise line before it and a sister ship, the Ocean Navigator, were brought into the American Queen line in 2019. Plaques on display aboard the ship show that it has been from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Earlier: JaxPort: Carnival cruises still on hold from Jacksonville until March

American Queen Voyages is part of the Hornblower Group parent company, which also operates river cruises on the Mississippi and Columbia rivers and small-ship cruises on the Great Lakes. Hornblower also operates dinner cruises and ferries, including the ferries carrying passengers to and from the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz.

The Compass Lounge on the Saloon Deck of the 202-passenger Ocean Voyager cruise ship.
The Compass Lounge on the Saloon Deck of the 202-passenger Ocean Voyager cruise ship.

John Waggoner, founder and chairman of the company, said he didn't initially intend to get into the cruise business. But then he found the American Queen, the world's largest paddlewheel steamer, at a dock in Green Cove Springs and arranged to purchase it, intending to operate as a one-boat line. Within weeks, though, he was offered a second ship. Now the company owns 230 vessels and operates in 111 countries, but none have capacity for more than 400 passengers.

"We like the boutique-y cruises," Waggoner said. "We like to keep it unique."

When the Ocean Voyager made its first cruise from Jacksonville earlier this month, it was the first time passengers had embarked from the Jaxport cruise terminal in nearly two years, due to the pandemic shutdown. Frederick Wong, chief operating officer at the port, said that's a big deal.

"It's significant because it's a restart of cruising," Wong said. Carnival returns to the port in March, meaning the cruise terminal can return to full staff. A homeported vessel like the Ocean Voyager or the Carnival Miracle means the port needs security guards and baggage handlers and embarkation teams, and local hotels and taxis should see an increase in business, he said.

"It's a huge deal for us," Wong said. "It's is so important for the local economy to get back to cruising."

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Ocean Voyager brings first passengers back to Jacksonville port