A lazy cruise down the Mississippi River — or the Columbia — sipping cocktails while watching the paddle wheel turn: It’s not just a vision of bygone days. Europe’s boom in river cruising has reached the United States in the form of luxury paddle-wheelers.

A little more than a year after rolling out the Queen of the Mississippi, the first new paddle-wheel boat to be set in the river in almost 20 years, American Cruise Lines announced that it is building four more, the first two of which are under construction. The boats will be set in the Mississippi and the Columbia and Snake river systems between spring 2015 and the end of 2017.

“The river cruise appeal is making the destination the focus,” said Britt Rabinovici, a spokeswoman for American Cruise Lines (americancruiselines.com).

“European river cruising is very popular, and people want that kind of experience here in America,” she said, adding that most of the company’s passengers had gone on large-ship cruises and were looking for a more personalized experience, full of history, in places travelers wouldn’t typically think of as “cruising ground.”

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Like its current riverboats, the new ones will accommodate 150 to 200 guests and will be outfitted with luxury amenities, including private balconies in “the largest staterooms ever,” according to the company.

The cruise along the Columbia and Snake will take passengers hundreds of miles
along the Columbia,
following an itinerary similar to that of the company’s Queen of the West, which has been sailing that system since its renovation in 2010 (from Portland, with a detour to Astoria, Ore., at the mouth of the Columbia, then east to Clarkston, Asotin County.

The boats will join the American Queen, a paddle-wheel cruiser built in 1995, which fell into disuse in 2008 and was revived by the American Queen Steamboat Co., formerly the Great American Steamboat Co., in April 2012. (americanqueensteamboatcompany.com)

The American Queen company plans to add a second refurbished boat, the American Empress, to its fleet this spring, which will expand its cruise service to the Pacific Northwest. The voyages will feature daily lectures from what the company refers to as a Riverlorian, an expert on the history and culture of the river systems, as well as short excursions.