Steamboat American Queen.
Ted had a chat with Bill Forsstrom, a retired banker, who has found his ship and tells QC all about his cruises aboard American Queen Steamboat Company‘s fleet.
Ted: Bill, you live in Cincinnati, a city that developed along the banks of the Ohio River, and you also lived in Pittsburgh where two rivers come together to form the Ohio. Being river cities, did where you grew up and where you worked have an influence on your interest in steamboats?
Bill: Now that you ask, there was an event when I was young that I remember quite well. I don’t recall if she came to Oakmont, PA where I grew up or simply in Pittsburgh, but I saw the old steamer Sprague, also known as Big Mama! It made quite an impression. Also in my younger days the American Wind Symphony made annual visits to Oakmont for a concert on the river from their barge.
In Cincinnati during the 1990’s we had a big event every three or so years called Tall Stacks where most of the existing steam boats and those that looked like steamboats would come for a one-week riverfront festival. The Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen, and American Queen would always be there as well as the Belle of Louisville, plus other boats from New Orleans to Pittsburgh.
Bill Forsstrom on an American Queen cruise
Ted: What was the first steamboat that you sailed aboard?
Bill: The first was the American Queen in 2012 after she came back into service.
Ted: What factors led you to making a first cruise?
Bill: I always wanted to take one of the river cruises on a steamer, but the Delta Queen Company had gone bankrupt once I could afford it. Once the American Queen came back into service, I wanted to sail her. Luckily, you and your wife were sailing through Cincinnati that first year back in service and I came aboard. Once I saw her beautiful interiors, I knew I had to book a cruise.
America Queen tied up at Marietta, Ohio. * Photo: Ted Scull
Ted: What was the itinerary and did you have favorite stops?
Bill: That first year they offered a short three-day cruise so I booked it to see if I liked it. It was round trip St. Paul and went to Wabasha, MN; cruised Lake Pepin, MN; Red Wing, MN; and back to St. Paul. The top stops that cruise were the National Eagle Center in Wabasha and the time we spent cruising Lake Pepin. I had no idea that the Mississippi was that wide.
Ted: Tell me your very first impressions when you boarded the American Queen?
Bill: The first impressions were the beauty of the vessel and the Victorian feel of her interiors — from shiny wood floors, ornate ceilings, beautiful wall coverings, and her décor……set off by the Mark Twain Gallery with her antiques and feeling of warmth and comfort. Seeing the dining room was also impressive. The vessel felt classic and old, yet she was built in 1995 and is not old. The charm is of another era and is beautifully executed.
Ted: Did some public rooms have a wow factor?
Bill: The Mark Twain Gallery was a total WOW! The dining room is stunning in every way and true to her heritage — it is called the J.M. White Dining Room after the grand steamer of the same name. The Grand Saloon, the show lounge, is also exceptional with the private boxes on her second level. It is said that she is modeled after Ford’s Theater in Washington.
Mark Twain Gallery at Christmas. * Photo: Bill Forsstrom
Ted: Did you experience any “Antique Roadshow” moments?
Bill: Furnishings in the Mark Twain Gallery definitely were antiques — including those in the Ladies’ Parlor and the Gentlemen’s Card Room. The chandelier over the stairs down to the Main Deck Lounge is also quite exceptional and was given to the boat by the Anheuser Busch Company. I do not recall where it was originally used.
Ted: What type of cabin do you prefer and why?
Bill: I like all the outside cabins, but my favorite in terms of price and features is a B-grade outside with open veranda and also an entrance from the interior corridor. This makes it ideal in good and bad weather. A grade B also has plenty of room. The grade C’s are a bit smaller but fine and no second entrance.
Veranda cabin open to the side deck. * Photo:: Ted Scull
Ted: How many cruises have you made aboard the American Queen?
Bill: I have completed 11 cruises on her and one on the American Empress (Snake and Columbia Rivers) for a total a of 80 nights.
Ted: What keeps you coming back?
Bill: The boat is very relaxing and the staff, all American, is excellent. The food is delicious in the J.M. White Dining Room, and fellow passengers are very friendly. Days cruising the rivers are so pleasant when sitting outside. Entertainment by the American Queen Ensemble is first class as is the talent of the orchestra, the Steamboat Syncopators.
Ted: Rate your itineraries and add if you have a favorite preference for the time of year you like to go.
Bill: Favorite itineraries include the rivers of Tennessee, the northern Mississippi, and the Ohio River (though cruises are rare here). All are good if you have not done them before. The fall is a nice time to travel when the trees are changing colors, but the weather is still warm.
I have twice done a Christmas Markets Cruise in December and that is a treat as well, though the weather may not be as nice on the lower Mississippi. A surprisingly good port offered on some Mississippi River and some Ohio River cruises is Paducah, KY. It is on the Ohio near to where it joins the Mississippi. It is a very scenic town, has great restaurants, and a surprisingly good museum called the National Quilt Museum.
While it does not sound like a museum with universal appeal, it really is. It is truly an art museum in every sense of the word — but in fiber art and quilting from around the world.
Ted: Do you always get off at each port?
Bill: I get off at every port, even if I think I have seen everything. There is usually something I have missed.
Ted: Do you use the coach that makes a loop through town or do you go on your own?
Bill: The River Coaches, as they are called, are unique to this company and are painted to look like the American Queen. They have designated stops around each town and are included in your fare. I usually don’t go through town on my own, but in the future, I may want to see other than the scheduled stops. The River Coaches have local guides that provide insight to the town.
River Coaches for local sightseeing run on a fixed route while the steamboat is in port. * Photo: Ted Scull
Ted: Do you ever book an optional excursion? If so, what were they like?
Bill: I have not yet booked an excursion, but now that I have seen so much of the included stops by bus, I may. Some sound quite interesting and the cost is a reasonable optional.
Ted: We can’t leave out the dining, so what do you like or not like about the food?
Bill: The J.M. White dining room has exceptional meals. Before I sailed, I thought it would be “down home” country cooking, but this is not the case at all. There are good varieties of meats, fish, and vegetarian meals. It is rare to find something that is not delicious. Also wine and beer are complimentary at dinner. Soft drinks and bottled water and numerous other beverages are complimentary all day.
The Front Porch is the casual dining venue on Deck 3 forward. All three meals can be taken there, but the selection is not as good as the main dining room. I have never had dinner there, but it looks very good — especially the prime rib that they seem to have all the time. The staff there is very friendly and there is a bar there with exceptional service all day.
Ted: Do you eat some or all your meals in the J.M. White dining room?
Bill: I take all dinners in the J.M. White dining room. I enjoy having the same table mates each evening; I am a fan of assigned seating. If I have breakfast it is usually at the Front Porch and most lunches are there too. Be warned, when the weather is bad, typically too cold or windy, people don’t eat outside at the Front Porch, and it can be difficult to get a table inside.
There is no such problem in the J.M. White Dining Room.
J.M. White dining room. * Photo: Ted Scull
Ted: Where do you like to sit?
Bill: I prefer a table for 6 (sometimes 8 is okay) on the starboard side of the J.M. White Dining Room, second seating. The first night, dinner is at 8:00 PM and after that at 7:45. Early seating is too early — 5:15 PM after the first night.
Ted: If you also eat elsewhere, what draws you there?
Bill: I can catch a late breakfast at the Front Porch as late as 9:30 and the fare is the standard American cooked and continental breakfast buffet. I don’t eat a big breakfast. If I want a quick lunch and there are tables available inside or out, I like the Front Porch. The advantage of dining in the J.M. White for lunch is to be seated with other people who may soon become your friends.
Ted: When the American Queen is underway, what are your favorite spots to enjoy the scenery?
Bill: Daytime, most outside cabins have space with table and chairs on the open veranda outside the stateroom door. If I have enjoyable fellow passengers around my cabin, it is nice to pull chairs together and chat. Outside at the River Grill up on Deck 5 aft it is nice to sit and watch where we have been. Looking out from the open deck at the Front Porch on Deck 3 or outside the Chart Room on Deck 4 is very nice too.
In the evening, sitting out on the Front Porch or outside the Chart Room one deck up is very pleasant. If the River Grill stayed open at night that would be a nice place to sit as well and maybe have a beverage, but they usually close it early.
On my last cruise, a number of us complained and they kept it open a bit later. At night on the narrower stretches of river, it is interesting to follow the boat’s searchlights as they scan for buoys and/or the river banks. This is most dramatic on the upper Mississippi.
Front Porch * Photo: Ted Scull
Ted: Is here anything that you do not like or you feel could be improved or even changed?
Bill: Lighting could be better in the staterooms. I’ll often ask a cabin steward if she can find me an extra desk lamp. Also, I ask for a table beside the easy chair or sofa in the room. They usually can find something in the way of a table – extra lamps are more rare. Worst case you can bring your outside table from the deck into the stateroom, but I don’t like to do that.
Ted: Have you been aboard the American Duchess?
Bill: The Hotel Manager on the Duchess is a friend of mine from the American Queen, and I was invited on her while in Madison, Indiana earlier this year, given a tour top to bottom, and had lunch in the main dining room.
Ted: What do you think of her?
Bill: The American Duchess is not particularly good looking on the outside, but better in person than in pictures. I assumed she had very little outside deck space for sitting, but she actually had more than I thought. Still there is nowhere near the outdoor space of the American Queen. Interiors are glitzy and modern. The boat is said to be all suites — well yes and no. I did see a two-level loft suite with private balcony with a very elegant bathroom on the second level and the standard Duchess bathroom on the first level.
The interior décor of the public rooms is very modern with high ceilings. I liked it, though it is very different from the American Queen. The inside cabins are called interior suites and would be very nice if they had a view, but they don’t. All cabins have a Keurig Coffee maker and mini refrigerator. These are nice touches also found aboard the American Empress on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. From looking at the prices for the Duchess, she is quite expensive.
American Empress cruises the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
Ted: I believe you are about to sail again.
Bill: I will soon be sailing from Pittsburgh to Louisville. This is a cruise that has not been done in a number of years and will not be done in 2019 on this vessel. The Duchess will probably do it next year. This year’s trip should be popular as many people who I met on a round-trip Louisville cruise in 2017 had booked it.
I booked it since it will be from my original home of Pittsburgh, past Cincinnati where I live now, and terminates in Louisville. The stops along the way should be interesting since I have not seen them from the water before — particularly Marietta, OH.
Bill with friends in his home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. * Photo: Ted Scull
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