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!
One of the best aspects of a Mississippi River cruise is the river itself. It's constantly changing and there is always something to see, especially on the Upper Mississippi. The US Army Corps of Engineers maintains and operates a series of locks from St. Louis up to St. Paul. Think of each one as a miniature Panama Canal that raises or lowers the boat about 10-15 feet. There are 29 locks in all and it's fascinating to experience. Many of the locks are located in small towns and have viewing platforms, so the residents of these towns enjoying coming out at all hours to see the AQ. The locks are operated 24 hours a day so the AQ will pass through the locks at all hours of the day and night. I was surprised more than once stepping out on my balcony and being face to face with the local residents on the viewing platform! I learned quickly to be fully dressed or at least look outside the window before stepping out on the veranda. In addition to the locks it's fun to watch other traffic on the river as well as the various towns and often beautiful homes lining the river banks. I enjoyed tying up at each of our stops. First up was Dubuque where I had the pleasure of visiting the riverboat TWILIGHT while she was in dry-dock. Walking underneath a vessel out of the water is truly a unique experience. Special thanks to to my friends Frank and Vic for making this happen. They are true steamboat aficionados and their knowledge and friendship greatly enhanced this trip. They are both members of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen which publishes the S&D Reflector quarterly for those interested in riverboats and river history. I highly recommend joining this organization prior to your trip on the AQ as it will greatly enhance the experience and put you in the right state of mind. Other attractions in Dubuque include the National Mississippi River Museum and the Fenelon Place Elevator. I highly recommend both. This is probably a good time to mention the "Steamcoaches". These are provided by AQSC in each port and are included in your fare. They will be waiting when the boat ties up, and essentially are hop-on, hop-off motor-coach that takes you directly to all the points of interest in each town. The concept is superb and I heard nothing but praise about the service. The are called "Steamcoaches" because they look like a miniature version of the AQ from the outside. Very clever and you can't miss them around town. Great advertising for AQSC as well! I found both La Crosse and Red Wing charming, small-town America at its best. In both towns I casually walked around taking in the sights, took in a little shopping, and marveled at some of the beautiful old homes and architecture. Red Wing was probably my favorite stop, and it reminded me a bit of Alaska in its style and charm. I loved the old railway station and performing theater, and some of the homes just on the outskirt of downtown are stunning. In each town the boat always had a warm welcome of curious local residents and commerce folks, and some would even be in full period costume. It all added to the experience!
Back on the boat there was no shortage of activities. The daily River Times was the guide to everything happening on the AQ. Daytime activities would consist of River Chats with the Riverlorian, a movie, wine tastings, pilot house tours, afternoon tea, a casual parlor show, and even bingo. As I mentioned before the best entertainment was just watching the river go by! Evening entertainment consisted of various musical offerings, dancing, and a main event show in the Grand Saloon. Some of the main event shows included Lewis Hankins' Marking Twain which I found quite entertaining; "A Tribute to the Great Ladies of Song" with Laura Sable who was excellent (and also the Cruise Director's wife); and "My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra" performed by Fred Bishop. Many of these entertainers are no strangers to the riverboats, having worked for Delta Queen Steamboat Company and Majestic America after that. I suppose it's the unique way of life that draws them back to the river again and again. One thing nice about being on a small boat such as the AQ is the ability to really chat with the performers and staff on a more personal level. It's something that is not overly common on the mega cruise ships due to their massive size.
No trip on the AQ would be complete without mentioning the cuisine and service. Regina Charboneau of Natchez is the Chef de Cuisine for AQSC and she happened to be onboard for this trip. She is a fun and charming lady, but that aside I really enjoyed her creative approach to cuisine. It's a bit more spicy with southern flair than you will find on a typical cruise ship. Personally I loved it. Lunch consisted of a combination of buffet and menu offerings with dessert being buffet style from a separate table. It's a bit of an odd arrangement, and if you prefer strictly waiter service you may be disappointed but I thought it worked ok. Dinner is more formal and everything is ordered off the menu and delivered by the wait staff. Wine and beer are included at dinner and there was no shortage of either, although the wine selection could be better. Three of the four nights had the same red wine offering. The last night was a Captain's Farewell Reception and dinner but it was a bit of a letdown. I had heard about a festive "second line" which is tradition on the riverboats and was looking forward to it, but it never happened. There was no farewell toast or anything that made this last night feel special. I think something a bit more memorable for the final dinner would be appropriate. Thanks to my pals Frank and Vic, we enjoyed various special guests at our table throughout the trip. An entertainer one night, two Engineers, and even Michael Blaser one afternoon for lunch. Michael Blaser is a fantastic painter of the rivers and the boats that ply them. His beautiful artwork can be found throughout the AQ and hopefully there is more to come. I found Michael Blaser to be the river world equivalent of Stephen Card. For those that don't know Captain Card, he a marine artist that specializes in painting ocean liners and his beautiful works can be found on Holland America, Cunard, and some other lines. I feel privileged to have met both these artists, and you can find their work online just by performing an internet search of their names. Overall the service was good, but it generally lacked the polish you might find on blue water vessels. There was no lack of enthusiasm it's just that the training and experience are not quite up to speed yet. It was that little attention to detail and finesse in serving that was lacking. You would often see staff and crew walking around talking or texting on their cell phones, and somehow this detracted from the experience in my opinion.
For anyone that has priced out a trip on the AQ you know it's not inexpensive. It's one reason I haven't taken a trip on the river until now. Being onboard and experiencing AQSC first hand I began to understand and appreciate why this product is costly to deliver. The boat requires steam licensed engineers, as well as three pilots (one is a Captain) to operate the vessel. The entire staff and crew is American, so US labor laws such as overtime and a minimum wage apply. I was amazed at how much more difficult it appeared to pilot the AQ compared to a typical ocean going vessel. It's a completely manual process and there is no auto-pilot. Navigating the river and locks day and night requires constant vigilance and the engines are always in use. In addition AQSC is including premium amenities and experiences such as the Steamcoaches, wine & beer with dinner, water & soft drinks, shore excursions, expressos & specialty coffees, 24 hour casual cuisine; and added luxuries such as the bedding and bathroom amenities. When you put it all together the value becomes more clear. This is not a nickel and dime operation, and while it's completely different than a luxury line like Silversea or Seabourn, it is a unique niche experience on a quality boat that you simply can't find anywhere else. I suppose that in itself is priceless! Bravo to AQSC for bringing back overnight riverboat cruising to the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers, and for restoring the authentic steam driven AMERICAN QUEEN!
For those that have skipped to the end, here is a quick synopsis of my experience ...
What really impressed me:
- the river itself including the locks and the overall experience
- the entertainment onboard AQ
- the cabin facilities and the bedding especially
- the cuisine by Regina Charboneau
- the Front Porch of America 24 hour concept
- the steamcoaches in every town
- complimentary wine with dinner and no nickel and diming
- no lines or waiting
- the enthusiastic crew
- the whistle (yes I loved hearing the steam whistle blow when leaving port)
Areas of opportunity:
- the dining room service needs more polish (training and experience)
- drink prices were more expensive than ocean based cruise ships
- deck rails are unfinished
- the cabin curtains blocked the view even during the day
- the staff should refrain from using cell phones in front of passengers
- there was no "second line" during the Captain's dinner and a more festive atmosphere should prevail on the last night
- some areas of the boat need a little maintenance such as some of the public restrooms
- the Calliope was not used the entire trip, and that is part of a river experience
Overall I hope you can tell I truly enjoyed my first river experience on the AMERICAN QUEEN. Please enjoy the pictures and if you have any questions don't hesitate to contact me.