Delta Queen Hotel: A Tenuous Link to the Past

One of the big problems with writing a review is answering the question: “Compared to what?” When reviewing a Thai restaurant, should I compare the taste to something from Hardees? When writing about a Victorian bed-and-breakfast, should I reference a Holiday Inn?

Reviews at sites like Yelp can be fun to scan through, but many people just don’t give enough thought to that “compared to what” dilemma. I was reminded of this when I was browsing through reviews of the Delta Queen Hotel last week. I read complaints about the standard rooms being too small, that the rooms had spiders, that rooms lacked individual climate controls and TVs, that you can’t park anywhere near the boat, etc. I wondered where these folks thought they were going to stay—the Hyatt, maybe?

So here’s what you really need to know. The Delta Queen Hotel used to be an excursion boat that traveled the inland waters of the United States. It was built in 1926 for an astronomical $875,000 (over $11 million in 2012 dollars) and took its maiden voyage the next year. For you steamboat geeks, the Delta Queen was powered by a stern paddlewheel propelled by a cross-compound, condensing, reciprocating steam engine. During its life, it ran overnight cruises from Sacramento to San Francisco, served in the Navy during World War II, entertained representatives of the 51 founding members of the United Nations in 1945, and carried passengers on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers from 1948 to 2008. In 1989, it was declared a National Historic Landmark.

The Delta Queen would still be on the waters today if not for the 1966 Safety of Life at Sea Law. The law, which was really aimed at improving safety for ocean-going vessels, made it nearly impossible for passenger boats with wooden superstructures to carry more than 50 overnight passengers. I say nearly impossible because the US Congress granted the Delta Queen exemptions every year until 2008, when two members of Congress refused to do it again. That ended the Delta Queen’s service as an excursion boat, so the owners moved it to Chattanooga, Tennessee and opened it as a floating hotel in 2009.

So that’s the background. It’s an old boat; it’s probably been around longer than your grandparents. Folks who decide to stay here are usually people who are interested in history and who value staying somewhere unique and not just another cookie-cutter room you can find in any chain hotel. When I think about how to evaluate the Delta Queen Hotel, my reference is other historic hotels and inns and not the Holiday Inn built last year. Here’s what I think.

Customer service: Satisfactory but should be better. I had a hard time making a reservation. Not until my third call did I get to talk to a person instead of a recorded message. That’s not good. Some people complained about lousy customer service on board, but that wasn’t my experience. I thought the service at the desk, in the bar, and at breakfast was very good, with one exception. I redeemed a Groupon for this stay. When I got home, I was surprised to see a $34 dollar charge on my credit card from the hotel. When I checked the fine print on the Groupon, it clearly stated that taxes were not included, and that’s what the extra charge was for. I can live with that, but I wish the staff who checked me in would have pointed that out, so I didn’t get a surprise later.

Standard Rooms: Yes, standard rooms are small and—gasp—they don’t have TVs. If you are a very large person, perhaps morbidly obese, you should reconsider staying here. If you’re not morbidly obese, you’ll be fine, especially if you don’t need to bring your entire wardrobe with you for a weekend getaway. The beds are really comfortable, so comfortable that I had a hard time convincing myself to get out of bed in the morning, preferring to laze around and enjoy the contentment of feeling spoiled, which was a good thing because as soon as I got in the shower I no longer felt spoiled. I never found much hot water; in fact, I would describe the water as lukecold. No lingering there. Not good.

Ambience: The Delta Queen is still an attractive boat with ornate woodwork, especially in the common areas, which are also decorated with art glass windows and antiques. In some places, the paint is peeling and the carpet a bit worn, but it never feels run down. Overall, the Delta Queen holds her age well. You feel like you are on an old steamboat. I just wish the hotel did more to accentuate that atmosphere, like sounding the calliope more often or offering live jazz in the evening. Without those extra touches, the Delta Queen is just a floating hotel with old bones.

Location: I’m disappointed that the Delta Queen isn’t moored somewhere along the Mississippi River, but honestly, it’s hard to find fault with it being based in Chattanooga, especially in the scenic location at the foot of Coolidge Park. A cluster of restaurants and shops are an easy walk from the boat, and, if you want to see more, a 10-minute walk across the river will bring you to an even busier area with more stuff to do. During my brief stay, lots of folks were out and about enjoying the central city and riverfront. Chattanooga is a lively small city. If you don’t want to walk, you can rent a bicycle cheaply thanks to the multiple locations for Chattanooga’s public bicycle system or ride a free shuttle. Overnight parking is available in a lot that is about one city block from the boat (or you can pay $15/day for valet parking), you just have to be willing to walk a couple of minutes.

Food: I wasn’t crazy about the breakfast buffet. The quality of the food was OK, but I expected something better from a place that is trying to set itself apart as something special because of its history.

Price: I got two nights for the price of one with the Groupon. Rates for a standard room are over $139 a night. All things considered, I think that price is too high for a standard room, but deals are often available through on-line search engines.

Bottom line: If history to you is just a list of websites you visited last week, then this is probably not the place for you. If, however, you want the experience of staying in a place that has seen something more than a half dozen passes of a floor vacuum, you’ll like the Delta Queen Hotel, warts and all. The Delta Queen Hotel is a tangible link to the glory days of steamboat travel, even if the boat is stationary these days. In spite of the shortcomings, I’d stay there again.

But, you might want to go soon. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the hotel is struggling financially, so corners are being cut. There is also a proposal being floated to move the boat to New Smyrna Beach, Florida where it would be a floating hotel, after the engines are stripped out. While hope looks dim for a return to overnight cruising, a move to Florida would end the reign of the Delta Queen permanently.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2012

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