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October 24, 2019

Small Ship Cruise Review: American Queen Steamboat Company

American Queen Steamboat Company

COVID-19 UPDATE

American Queen Steamboat Company resumed cruising in October 2020.  Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

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 Rivers or in the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Many stretches are notably scenic; there are locks to navigate and life in small-town America to discover, where the locals come down to the landing to welcome you. Embarkation and disembarkation cities provide an opportunity to linger a day or two. The company began with two boats and now has four.

The American Queen is simply the best replica steamboat that money can buy, and while she carries over our limit of 300 passengers, we consider her an exceptional exception so she deserves to join her smaller capacity fleet mates in our review here. The American Duchess and American Countess join American Queen on the Mississippi, while American Empress cruises the Columbia and Snake.

American Queen Steamboat Co. owns Victory Cruise Lines, which operates the identical 202-passenger coastal ships Victory I and Victory II with itineraries along the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes, the New England and American Southeast and Mexico. An interesting aside, it also owns Hornblower Cruises & Events, operating dinner cruises, chartered private events and sightseeing tours from major American cities and destinations, including Niagara Falls, Liberty Island and Alcatraz.

RELATED: AQSC Acquires Victory Cruise Lines.  by Anne Kalosh

American Queen * Photo Credit: Ted Scull

FLEET 
  • American Queen (built 1996 & 414 passengers) – Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee & Cumberland Rivers
  • American Duchess (b. 1995 & 166 p) – Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee & Cumberland Rivers
  • American Empress (b. 2003 & 223 p) – Columbia & Snake Rivers
  • American Countess (b. 2020 & 245 p) – Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee & Cumberland Rivers
Passenger Profile

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.

Price

$$ to $$$  Expensive to Super Pricey

Included Features

While the price is high, there are a significant number of complimentary features to soften the blow.

  • Select shore excursions in every port
  • One-night pre-cruise hotel stay
  • Transfer to the steamboat
  • Beer and wine at dinner; coffees, teas, soft drinks and bottled water throughout the day
  • Bicycles and helmets
Locals come down to the river to watch the steamboat activity. * Photo: Ted Scull

Locals come down to the river to watch the steamboat activity. * Photo: Ted Scull

Itineraries

American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Queen, American Duchess and American Countess steam along three distinct stretches of Midwestern rivers.

Some cruises have themes such as Big Band, American Music Festival and the Music of the 50s and 60s.

The Lower Mississippi cruises, between New Orleans and Memphis, feature the Old South and Memphis-St. Louis; New Orleans and its great music, restaurants, Creole and Cajun culture; Antebellum plantations; Civil War history; Memphis and its music traditions and National Civil Rights Museum; plus watching considerable waterway commerce on the move. Most are 8 nights with shorter 5-night round trips operating from New Orleans.

The Upper Mississippi cruises, between Alton (23 miles north of St. Louis) and Red Wing (45 miles southeast of St. Paul), visit areas 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. Itineraries range from 7 to 8 nights.

Cruises that run the full-length of the Mississippi operate between New Orleans and Red Wing, Minnesota (located just below Minneapolis/St. Paul) with 15-night itineraries.

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 8-night itineraries, embarkations and disembarkations may be in Chattanooga, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville (50 miles southeast of Clarksville), Pittsburgh and St. Louis (Alton).

The American Duchess is nimble enough to cruise the Illinois River from Ottawa, located 90 miles southwest of Chicago to St. Louis and Red Wing (near Minneapolis). Collectors of rivers will go for this 8-night trip.

American Empress operates 6- to 8-night itineraries between Vancouver, Washington (near Portland, Oregon) and Clarkston, Washington, a town along the Columbia and Snake Rivers near the border with Idaho.

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 the 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. — Ted Scull

Sample Itineraries

A typical Mississippi River itinerary, the 8-night “Southern Sampler” cruise, sails roundtrip from New Orleans, plying the southern Mississippi to St. Francisville, Louisiana; Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi; back to Baton Rouge and Nottoway in Louisiana; and finally arriving once again in New Orleans.

Lincoln’s Illinois is a unique itinerary of the American heartland. The 8-night cruise begins with an overnight in Memphis, river cruising first to Columbus, Kentucky before heading north into Illinois with calls at Chester, Grafton, Havana and Peoria before ending in Chicago (disembark at Ottawa, IL and transfer 90 miles by road).

Red paddlewheel provides propulsion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Red paddlewheel provides propulsion. * Photo: Ted Scull

Why Go?

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 a town landing and wave farewell with the festive departure accompanied by the steam calliope playing a jolly river lore tune or two.

When to Go?

Visit the 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 theme sailings and holidays aboard coinciding with Independence Day, 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.

Activities & Entertainment

Expect fantastic live entertainment, from a swing orchestra to Elvis tribute acts, dancing sessions with the chairs removed, and daily enrichment talks on river history and famous personalities delivered by the ship’s “riverlorian,” an expert in river lore and history. A small theater shows full-length films twice a day.

Puzzles, board games and cards are stored in the Mark Twain Gallery. Kite flying, an old tradition on steamboats, takes place on the Sun Deck when there are no low bridges ahead. 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.

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.

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.

Columbia and Snake River cruises offer 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. Steamcoaches follow the boat and provide circular sightseeing routes to the fish ladders that allow the salmon to get past the dams, the cascading Multnomah Falls, and Fort Clatsop.

AMERICAN QUEEN

The best spot to be is in a rocking chair on the Texas Deck. Located all the way forward, it’s known as the Front Porch of America. — Ted Scull

The largest steamboat ever built, American Queen is the flagship paddlewheeler of the company. Built to carry 414 passengers (we’ve bended our 300-passenger limit to include her), she comprises six decks served by two elevators that reach all but the Sun Deck.

The rich interior design is High Victorian, evoking opulence with lavish details that include 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 principal lounges and bars are located on the two lowest decks with additional spaces found higher up both fore and aft. The Grand Saloon traces its origins to Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. and features several boxes on the mezzanine level.

American Queen's theater

The American Queen’s theater is modeled on a small-town opera house. * Photo: Ted Scull

Promenades encircle three decks and ample outdoor lounge areas, both covered and open to the sky, allowing relaxed river viewing. The Sun Deck has a small pool and a gym.

The J.M. White Dining Room is modeled after the dramatic space found on an 1878-built vessel of the same name. Three meals are served here; the dinner menu can include regional specialties such as Shrimp Creole, Smothered Crawfish and Grits and Mississippi Mud Pie. 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. An Alfresco dinner is also served here, a lovely place to dine outside yet under cover, on a warm evening. Cabin service is also available.

Steamboat American Queen

J.M. White dining room. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins are 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.

A stateroom aboard the AMERICAN QUEEN with a reminder of her predecessor DELTA QUEEN seen in the painting above the bed. * Photo: Ted Scull

A stateroom aboard the American Queen with a reminder of her predecessor Delta Queen seen in the painting above the bed. * Photo: Ted Scull

Suites can be as large as 500 sq. ft., however most cabins measure from 130 sq. ft. to 190 sq. ft. – small by oceangoing cruise standards. While many have verandahs, some are simply a shared promenade with your neighbor similar to the style of old steamboats, while others have private verandahs.

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, complimentary bottled water, hair dryers.

RELATED: Ted interviews traveler Bill Forsstrom about his many American Queen cruises,

AMERICAN DUCHESS

The 166-passenger American Duchess entered service in late summer 2017 on the Mississippi River system, inaugurating cruises along the Illinois River approaching Chicago. This smaller boutique sternwheeler has three decks, all connected by an elevator.

American Duchess is a consort to the American Queen. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Company

Dining is at 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.

Cabins range from 180 sq. ft. to 550 sq. ft., and all except interior rooms, have verandas. Unique two-level loft suites include loft space with a bedroom and private facilities.

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, complimentary bottled water, hair dryers.

AMERICAN EMPRESS

The largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi, the 223-passenger American Empress has four decks and two elevators serving all.

AMERICAN EMPRESS at rest on the Columbia-Snake. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

American Empress at rest on the Columbia-Snake. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Passengers can dine at two locations — the Astoria Dining Room on the Explorer Deck or more informally at the River Grill on Vista View Deck. The food is very good, and many ingredients are locally-sourced such as Pacific Northwest shellfish, fish, and fresh produce and the Columbia River Valley is major wine country.

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.

Show Lounge - AMERICAN EMPRESS. * Photo: AQSB Co

Show Lounge – American Empress. * Photo: AQSB Co

All cabins are outside and arranged over four decks, with most measuring from 150 to 310 sq. ft. 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. 

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, coffeemaker, hair dryers.

AMERICAN COUNTESS

The fourth of the line’s sternwheelers, American Countess is built for 245 passengers and offers four decks, all but the topmost accessed via elevator.

American Queen Steamboat Company

AMERICAN COUNTESS. * Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co.

Two dining venues, the Grand Dining Room and casual River Grill, serve menus that highlight Southern heritage cuisine, while a pantry has self-service snacking.

The 120-foot-long portside bar has floor-to-ceiling glass for panoramic river views. There’s also a library, chart room, card room, theater and a gym with windows out to the scenery.

Not all cabins are outside, a number of inside cabins measure 170 sq. ft. Most cabins, however, are outside, measuring between 180 sq. ft. for single occupancy to 255 sq. ft. Many have either private balcony or open verandah, a shared outside space similar to old-style steamboats.

In cabin: en suite, TV with cable programming, free Wi-Fi, safe, complimentary bottled water, hair dryers.

RELATED: Small-ship Cruise Updates Sept 25, 2020.  by Anne Kalosh.

Special Notes

All four vessels are sternwheelers and their layouts vary widely. Some of the hotels 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 (mostly for show rather than propulsion) and European-style riverboats on the Mississippi and sternwheelers along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Contact Info

American Queen Steamboat Company; www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com; info@aqsc.com; +1 (833) 598-0119

222 Pearl Street, New Albany, IN 47150

— TWS

 

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American and Canadian Waterways, Cruise Regions, North America, Rivers Ship & Line Reviews, Ship & Line reviews, Uncategorized


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