Full Steam Ahead - the AMERICAN QUEEN!
226 Photos to accompany this review:
American queen - 11/1/2012 - a set on Flickr
After numerous ocean cruises, or "blue water" cruises as they prefer to say on the Mississippi, the opportunity presented itself to ride an authentic paddlewheel steamboat. The AMERICAN QUEEN (AQ) was built in 1995 as the largest and most luxurious overnight steamboat plying America's Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Originally built by the now defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company, she was laid up for a few years before being reactivated earlier this year by the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC). She is the last of her breed and one of a kind. AQSC spent a good bit bringing her machinery up to speed and also refreshed her passenger spaces. AQ is unique in that she still uses boilers and steam to power her paddlewheel. In addition she employs two Z-drives for added propulsion and maneuverability, as well as two bow thrusters making her quite nimble on the river. If the technical aspects of the boat interest you, once onboard it's no problem to visit the engine room and pilot house. Another interesting technical feature of the AQ is her telescopic stacks and retracting pilot house. The stacks fold down and the pilot house lowers which enable her to pass under low bridges and wires. It's very interesting to watch and quite a production. Oh yes, AQ is called a "boat" and not a "ship". That is something I learned quite quickly although it took a little getting used to.
I picked up the boat in Davenport, IA. This was day three of her seven day passage up the Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul and I would be onboard for four nights. In actuality passengers were not able to embark in St. Louis due to repair on Lock 25, so embarkation was switched to Hannibal. My stops were Davenport, Dubuque, La Crosse, Red Wing, and St. Paul. Seeing AQ for the first time was quite a treat. She was larger and even more impressive than I had imagined. Her beautiful tiered decks and ornate rails remind one of a wedding cake. I was escorted up to the Purser's Desk to check-in and I was presented a key, yes a real key for entry into my cabin. In addition to the cabin key I was provided a key card such as you find on most cruise ships for charging privileges and to swipe when going "up the hill". That's going ashore to folks like you and I. I was assigned the "Alaska" cabin located on Texas Deck. All cabins on AQ have a name which really adds a unique touch. My cabin was also known as #348. It's currently sold as category A but starting in 2013 it will be classified as category AA. What makes this cabin category unique is that it includes a private veranda similar to what you would find on your average cruise ship. On a riverboat it's not so common. The majority of cabins open to a shared promenade deck, which frankly is just fine if you don't mind the fresh air. If an enclosed corridor is important to you than you might want to consider this cabin type, as most of the cabins that open onto the promenade deck have only one entry and that is from the outside deck. Decor of the cabin along with the rest of the AQ is what you might expect on a traditional riverboat. Antique style furnishings and Victorian details which provide an authentic feel and touch. Don't let the look and feel fool you though, as every modern convenience is provided. A personal safe, robes, slippers, three outlets, flat panel TV, individually controlled a/c and heat, wireless internet, phone, and perhaps the most comfortable bed I've experienced on the water. Crisp white sheets on a supremely supportive mattress, which in my case converted from two single beds to a queen size. There is turndown service each evening where the cabin is refreshed, and the River Times daily program is laid out along with some chocolates. There is adequate storage for clothes in the drawers and closet, plus a wicker chair and ottoman for relaxing. Both the cabin and bathroom were fully wallpapered and sound proofing was good. The bath featured a full size tub, pedestal style sink, a small shelving unit, and a fully tiled floor. Amenities included spa style soap, shampoo, conditioner, bath salts, and lotion. Hot water was strong and plentiful provided by a premium Speakman shower-head. Two french doors in the cabin led to a private veranda which featured two chairs and a table. Surprisingly on a boat of this quality the hand rails on the veranda and on the rest of the boat were unfinished, so you just leaned on the top metal bar of the rail. The only thing in the cabin I would change are the curtains on the french doors. They tie together in the center during the day and the problem is that they block most of your view and don't let in a lot of light. Although they fit the decor, they are not very practical and a different design would be preferable.
The AQ has an astonishing amount of public space for a boat this size, and never did I feel crowded or have to wait in any lines. You enter the boat through a lovely foyer with a Gentleman's and Ladies' Parlor just off to your left and right. Believe it or not there were men in the Ladies' Parlor and likewise with the Gentleman's Card Room! My have times changed. Moving aft you enter a truly lovely and popular space called the Mark Twain Gallery. This is the central gathering place on the boat and featured plenty of comfortable seating areas for reading or having a coffee, or just admiring all the art work and various decorative objects. The centerpiece is a beautiful model of the DELTA QUEEN, once a running mate of the AQ and now tied up in Chattanooga as a floating hotel. Coffee, newspapers, and an internet corner with computer are all available in the Mark Twain Gallery. An interesting architectural feature of this space is that it runs directly above the center of the dining room and has windows looking down to both sides of the J.M. White Dining Room below. Heading back we enter the Purser's Lobby which as you guessed contains the Purser's Desk as well as the Shore Excursion Desk and AQ Emporium which is the onboard gift shop. A beautiful staircase and ceiling mural complete the space. Also located on the Main Deck is the Grand Saloon, which is a lovely two level show lounge where most of the entertainment takes place. AQSC likes to tout that it's modeled after the Ford Theater, but personally I think that is a bit of a stretch. None the less it's a beautiful space and includes a balcony and six "boxes" on the Cabin Deck above. I watched all the shows from Box A and enjoyed the vantage point. There is no charge to use the boxes but I do recommend obtaining one early as they seemed quite popular. The spacious J.M. White Dining room is located on Main Deck along with the adjacent Main Deck Lounge and Captain's bar, which are the perfect venues for drinks & music either before or after dinner. A few smaller public venues include the Engine Room Bar which is the late night spot on the AQ. It includes a large bar, a great view of the paddlewheel in action from the large portholes, and a live band. There are two small open porches off the Engine Room Bar if you want some air or a really up-close view of the paddlewheel. Tucked away is a small staircase leading down to the engine room. If it's unlocked you are welcome to walk down and see the Engineers and engines in action. It's very interesting and I highly recommend a visit at least once. The Engineers are very friendly and enjoy talking about their duties and the inner workings of a steam powered engine. It's obvious they are proud to be part of history. They require a steam license to work on the AQ which is not easily obtained these days as it's such a rare breed. Up on Texas Deck there is a small theater for movies and probably my favorite spot on the boat, the Front Porch of America. Here you can find a selection of food 24 hours a day, plus wonderful coffee and hot chocolate and best of all a 24 hour soft serve ice cream machine with all the toppings! Not to be outdone by the food, the view is spectacular as you have an ever changing view of the river and a large outdoor seating area. One deck up on the Observation Deck is the Chart Room which acts as the library of the AQ, and it also includes you guessed it ... charts of the river. This is where the Riverlorian will give talks throughout the journey up or down the river. The River Grill is located aft on Promenade Deck and unfortunately it was never used during my trip. It's supposed to act as an alternative dining venue but considering that it's completely outside it's use will be limited. The Calliope is played from the River Grill, and I was disappointed it was never used during my trip. I heard various reasons as to why but none seemed to add up. Lastly there is a small pool and the AQ Athletic Club which in reality is a small gym but decently equipped for a boat this size. The pool was never filled during my trip as the weather was too cold at least for me, but there may have been some that might have braved it!