The steamboat era was an exciting period of American history and happily modern day travelers can experience the old-time thrill, watching their sternwheeler ease up to the landing to then take them on a river adventure along the Mississippi and its tributaries, the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Illinois or in the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia and Snake rivers. Many stretches are notably scenic; there are locks to navigate; life in small-town America to discover; and with the locals coming down to the landing to welcome you. Embarkation and disembarkation cities provide an opportunity to linger a day or two.
The AMERICAN QUEEN* is simply the best replica steamboat that money could buy, and the AMERICAN EMPRESS is not far behind. In late summer 2017, the AMERICAN DUCHESS made its debut with a 23-night inaugural voyage up the Mississippi, offering some of the largest accommodations on the American rivers. (*While the AQ carries over 300 passengers, we consider her an exceptional exception so she joins her smaller capacity fleet mates.)
Click here for a QuirkyCruise feature article on American Queen Steamboat Company.
Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers
AMERICAN QUEEN (built 1996 & 414 passengers) and under present owners from 2012; AMERICAN EMPRESS (b. 2003 as the Empress of the North & 223 p) and under present owners from 2014; AMERICAN DUCHESS (rebuilt 2016-17 from a 1995 Mississippi River casino boat, with a third deck added & 166 passengers).
While the AMERICAN QUEEN exceeds QuirkyCruise’s passenger limit, for us she is an Exceptional Exception sailing alongside her two running mates. Expect mostly Americans 60 and up who set out to discover their own country in a thoroughly relaxed setting, to enjoy the camaraderie of others, and discover American music, history, food and local attractions. Some passengers collect as many new navigable stretches of river as are offered. Most children will find the pace too slow, and with no activities designed for them, there will be few, if any, aboard.
AMERICAN QUEEN 6 (two elevators serving all but Sun Deck); AMERICAN EMPRESS 4 (two elevators serving all decks); AMERICAN DUCHESS 3 (one elevator serving all decks).
$$ to $$$ Expensive to Super Pricey
While the price is high, there are a significant number of complimentary features to soften the blow, such as shore excursions in every port (premium tours are available at an extra cost); a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay with breakfast and a transfer to the steamboat; beer and wine at dinner; coffees, teas, soft drinks and bottled water throughout the day. Free bicycles and helmets are available on all three boats.
American Queen Steamboat Company’s AMERICAN QUEEN & AMERICAN DUCHESS steam along three distinct stretches of Midwestern rivers, between them year-round. N.B. AQ rest & refit Jan.-mid-Feb. AD rest & refit Nov.-Med-Dec.
- The Lower Mississippi (New Orleans-Memphis) featuring the Old South and Memphis-St. Louis; New Orleans and its great music, restaurants, Creole and Cajun culture; Ante-bellum plantations; Civil War history; Memphis and its music traditions and National Civil Rights Museum; plus watching considerable waterway commerce on the move. All are 9 days with shorter 5-day round trips operating from New Orleans December to February.
- The Upper Mississippi (Alton near St. Louis-Red Wing near St. Paul) characterized by rolling hills and high bluffs; locking operations to navigate Ole Man River; riverside towns that blossomed during the steamboat era; dynamism of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis; and the brilliant autumn color. 9-day itineraries July-September.
- Four full-length cruises operate between New Orleans and Red Wing, Minnesota (located just below Minneapolis/St. Paul) in July, August and September 2018 – two 16 days downriver and two 23 days upriver.
- The Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers reveal stretches of wilderness; Civil War battlefields; small town and big city America; Nashville’s country music and the Grand Ole Opry. With a wide selection of 9-day itineraries throughout the year, embarkations and disembarkations may be in Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville and Pittsburgh.
- The AMERICAN DUCHESS is nimble enough to cruise the Illinois River from Ottawa, located just west of Chicago to St. Louis and Red Wing (near Minneapolis). Collectors of rivers will go for this one. (9 days in August).
AMERICAN EMPRESS operates nine-day itineraries between Vancouver, Washington (near Portland Oregon) and Clarkston, Washington, a town along the Columbia and Snake rivers near the border with Idaho. Early season (March) and late season (November) 5-day cruises are round trips from Vancouver sailing upriver just beyond the upstream end of the Columbia River Gorge. Between mid-March and late November, passengers enjoy each other’s company, and come to learn about Pacific Northwest history, wildlife, ecology and natural beauty. The 450 river miles between the Pacific Ocean breakers at the mouth of the Columbia and the Snake’s white water rapids in Hells Canyon pack in more varied landscapes, natural and man-made wonders and destination choices than any water journey in the Americas. Explorers Meriweather Lewis and William Clark came this way, setting out in 1803 and arriving here in 1805, with 2016 marking the 211 th anniversary of a young America’s pioneering expedition arrival in these parts. During their trek, they recorded plant, bird and animal life and established relations with Native Americans, one of whom became their all-important guide — Sacagawea.
To celebrate Americana: its history, glorious and varied scenery, river lore, music, food, small town and big cities, all in a thoroughly relaxed fashion aboard a steamboat. The glue that binds are the amazing river routes and the welcome one receives when people stop to watch the boat paddle by or view it passing through one of the lock chambers. Locals are on hand to greet the boat when she arrives at the town landing and wave farewell with the festive departure accompanied by the steam calliope playing a jolly riverlore tune or two.
When to Go?
AMERICAN QUEEN & AMERICAN DUCHESS: Lower Mississippi from mid-February to New Year’s; Upper Mississippi (including Illinois River in summer) from summer into fall; Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers from summer into fall. Theme cruises may draw some to specific sailings such as music of the Big Band Swing, Blues, and 50s and 60s eras; Gardens of the River; Remembering Elvis Presley; Civil War history with lectures aboard and battlefield excursions on land; fall colors; and holidays aboard coinciding with Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year.
With the climate varying widely from maritime weather along the Pacific Coast to thick forests leading to the Columbia Gorge and semi-arid landscapes upriver, the temperatures and humidity will vary during the course of the cruise and in different seasons. Summer, however, can be searingly hot along the Snake River and in Hells Canyon.
The two steamboats will be described separately.
The majority of the 221 staterooms are most attractively decorated with polished wood floors and colorful Victorian patterns on the furniture, fabrics and wallpaper; beds can be arranged as twins or a queen.
Staterooms range from 22 airy suites with verandas boasting about 500 square feet of space down to eight minuscule insides of just 80 square feet. Overall, the majority would be considered small by oceangoing cruise standards, from 130 square feet for the inside cabins to 190 square feet for the deluxe outside staterooms with verandas, plus 25 superior outside staterooms located on the top deck at 230 square feet with verandas.
While the cruise line loosely uses the term veranda, in most cases the double cabin doors open out onto a shared promenade with your neighbor, matching the style of the old steamboats. Small ship socializing is a natural result. However, the superior outside staterooms with truly private verandas — the AA category units on Texas Deck — offer balconies akin to oceangoing cruises. Cabins have two outside-the-door plastic-mesh chairs and a small table for drinks, reading and sightseeing.
Stowage space is adequate for a casual cruise and luggage fits neatly under the beds. Cabins come with safes, complimentary bottled water, hair dryers and flat-screen TV’s with a good number of basic cable options. The boat’s free Wi-Fi reception varies in speed, and it helps to keep the cabin door ajar, or go the Mark Twain Gallery, equipped with electrical outlets and tables for laptops.
Bathrooms are black and-white-tiled with showers and tubs or walk-in showers, a large mirror and multilevel toiletry stand, plus generous tubes of American Queen-branded lotion, soap and shampoo. Cabin sound-proofing is good. ADA-accessible cabins are available in all categories except for singles that are both outside at 140 sq. ft. and inside and tiny at about 80 sq. ft., but still a blessing for those traveling solo.
The principal lounges and bars are located on the two lowest decks with additional spaces found higher up both fore and aft. The rich interior design is High Victorian, evoking opulence with lavish details. A generous budget from the original owners produced fine antiques, high-quality replica furnishings and decorative features. The overall effect is a “Wow” as you step aboard and climb the forward staircase to enter the Cabin Deck public rooms. The Grand Saloon traces its origins to Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. and features several boxes on the mezzanine level.
Promenades encircle three decks and ample outdoor lounge areas, both covered and open to the sky, allowing relaxed river viewing, with the best location all the way forward in a rocking chair on Texas Deck known as the Front Porch of America.
By far the most dramatic space is the J.M. White Dining Room, modeled after the dramatic space found on an 1878-built vessel of the same name. The soaring interior, bathed in natural light streaming in through the tall side windows, is bracketed by large mirrors hung at one end and a pair of handsome tapestries at the other. Tables (reserved) for two are placed by the windows, most with unobstructed river views. The rest are square tables for four and round tables for six, with a few for eight.
Breakfast offers a generous buffet with a waffle station and a menu that includes southern menu specialties such as Andouille (sausage) hash with corn cakes and eggs. Lunch is from a menu or the buffet and dinner is always from a menu. The sumptuous Jazz Buffet is a real treat.
The five-course dinner seatings are 5:15 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., while breakfast and lunch are open seating. Dinner menu items I liked were mock turtle soup, fried green tomatoes with blue crab and corn meal, shrimp Creole with tomatoes and peppers over Jasmine rice, lobster stuffed with crabmeat, and lamb chops with tomato-mint marmalade. Complimentary red and white wines and selected beers are served at dinner, and soft drinks are gratis throughout the day.
Alternative continental breakfast and a light lunch with salads, a carvery, poboys, and grilled hot dogs are served in the Front Porch Café, an indoor setting, with additional outside and under cover tables positioned to look forward over the bow. Soft drinks, coffee and tea, soft ice cream and fresh popcorn are available all day long. Cabin service is also available.
The River Grill, next to the bar aft on Promenade Deck 5, offers a good weather venue under the stars for dinner selections of double-cut lamb cops, grilled filet mignon, char-grilled salmon fillet and grilled or steamed lobster tail. The accompanying buffet serves side dishes, salads and a freshly baked crème caramel or pecan pie; do expect a few pounds added. As in the dining room, selected wine and beer are included. Dress is casual at all times, though many freshen up a bit for dinner in the elegant dining room.
Activities & Entertainment
The opulent two-level Grand Saloon acts as the main entertainment venue that may include a Glenn Miller Orchestra, singers, Rat Pack and Elvis imitators, dancing sessions with the chairs removed, and the riverlorian’s daily enrichment talks on river history and famous personalities. A small theater shows full-length films twice a day. The Engine Room bar winds up the atmosphere with live music after dinner, and the Captain’s Bar adjacent to the Main Deck Lounge features a pianist and often a singer.
The riverlorian also hangs out in the Chart Room to describe the river scenes, interpret the navigation charts and share reference books. At night, he or she may be out on deck pointing out the lighted navigational markers.
Puzzles, board games and cards are stored in the Mark Twain Gallery with tables provided to spread them out. Kite flying, an old tradition on steamboats, takes place on the Sun Deck when there are no low bridges ahead, and is also the location for a small pool and gym.
Pilothouse tours take place when the boat is tied up, and the engine room is nearly always open for viewing the paddle wheel mechanisms and to have a chat with one of the engineers. It is reached through the Engine Room Bar.
American Queen Steamboat Company’s itineraries include a river port every day, sometimes tying up for the morning or afternoon and occasionally all day. An included shore excursion program provides convenient hop on, hop off company-owned steamcoaches decorated to resemble a steamboat and plying a fixed route with numbered stops. One might first make the complete narrated circuit, lasting roughly 20 to 40 minutes, then begin over again and step off where it appeals, often with included admission to the cultural sites. Many river ports are compact towns, and in most cases, one can return to the steamboat on foot. In addition, a program of premium choice tours are available for an extra charge that go further afield to the front lines of the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, a Kentucky Derby tour to the museum at Churchill Downs, and General Ulysses S. Grant’s home and town tour of Galena, Illinois.
AMERICAN DUCHESS entered service in late summer 2017 on the Mississippi River system and inaugurating cruises along the Illinois River approaching Chicago. 166 passengers will occupy cabins ranging from 180 sq. ft. to 550 sq. ft. All cabins, except interior rooms, have verandas, and five face aft. 3 owner’s and four loft suites measure 550 sq. ft. Unique are the two-level loft suites with lounge, dining area, queen sofa bed and private bathroom on one level, and above, a loft creates space for a bedroom and private facilities. Dining is at one sitting in the Grand Dining Room with The Grill Room an 80-seat alternative one deck above and facing aft. The lobby, bar and the auditorium share the high-ceiling Main Deck with the main dining area. There is a small fitness center. Deck space appears to be at a premium. The entertainment, activities, dining and shore programs will be similar to the AMERICAN QUEEN. For interior photos of the cabins and public spaces, please see Feature Articles via the home page.
All accommodations are outside and arranged over four decks, and apart from the windowed cabins on the lowest Explorer Deck, all offer verandas furnished with a couple of chairs and a table. Vista View Deck’s semi-private verandas open onto the side promenade creating a neighborly atmosphere with those living next door and others passing by while doing their constitutionals. Impromptu chats often break out. A pair of Luxury Suites (410 sq. ft.) has two separate rooms, while the Suites with Veranda (310 sq. ft.) are really one room with a larger sitting area than lower categories (150-250 sq. ft.). Décor is Victorian with period furniture and artwork reflecting the region, the subjects being exploration, steamboats, and Native Americans. Bathrooms are rather plain by comparison. Cabins have a flat-screen TV, small fridge, coffee maker and safe.
The Show Lounge is forward with moveable chairs clustered around tables and a stage. A second more intimate room is located one deck above and all the way aft looking out at the thrashing sternwheel, a bit of mesmerizing sight. Light musical entertainment takes place here.
Passengers have the choice of two locations — the Astoria Dining Room on Explorer Deck or more informally high up at the River Grill on Vista View Deck. Seating is open in the main dining room with a window of arrival times for all three meals, sometimes adjusted a bit depending on the shore program. Meals are served at tables of from two to eight seats. The River Grill is mostly sheltered from the elements, but as it faces an open deck, heat lamps will warm the space in chilly weather, so unless it is really cold outside, don’t miss a chance to eat here. Reservations are required for dinner as seating is limited to about 25 per cent of the ship’s passenger capacity. Breakfast and lunch are come-when-you-wish, so early risers will be happy to have a cozy place to start their day. The food is very good, and many ingredients are locally sourced such as Pacific Northwest shellfish, fish, and fresh produce. The Columbia River Valley is major wine country. Local beers and a variety of wines, some local, are complimentary at dinnertime.
Activities & Entertainment
Lectures on board about the formation of the Columbia Gorge, history of the early 19th century Lewis & Clark expedition, Native American culture, and the wine industry take place in the show lounge while the sternwheeler is under way.
Steamcoaches follow the boat and provide circular sightseeing routes to access the fish ladders that allow the salmon to get past the dams; to stand below cascading Multnomah Falls; and to get a feel of what the Lewis & Clark expedition might have experienced at Fort Clatsop during one wet winter. Premium tours at an extra cost take one further afield at Astoria located at the mouth of the Columbia, for a jet boat ride deep into Hells Canyon with a stop at the Nature Conservancy’s Garden Creek Ranch, and a drive up Mt. St.Helens, a now quiet volcano that erupted with considerable force in 1980 and devastated the surrounding countryside.
All three vessels are sternwheelers and their layouts vary widely. Some of the hotel used are classics: Peabody in Memphis; Brown in Louisville; Roosevelt in New Orleans; and Union Station in St. louis.
Along the Same Lines
American Cruise Lines also operate sternwheelers on the Mississippi and along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
American Queen Steamboat Company; One Commerce Square, 40 South Main Street, 21st Floor, Memphis, TN 38103; www.AQSC.com; 888-749-5280
© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.