First impressions of a US river cruise on American Queen

I’ve taken a number of river cruises in my time as a cruise author, however till this summer season, they have been all on international rivers just like the Rhine and the Mekong. I assumed I knew what to anticipate on U.S.-based American Queen river cruises — I researched the ports, pored over information in regards to the boat and even appeared up native sights prematurely — however nothing ready me for the sheer splendor of seeing American Queen Voyages’ most iconic vessel in particular person.

My first glimpse of the boat within the wild (or, slightly, docked in Pittsburgh, on the Ohio River close to Acrisure Stadium, the place the Steelers play) left me impressed. Not solely was it so much greater than I anticipated, however it instantly made me really feel like I had stepped again in time — or, maybe, onto a journey at Disney World.

American Queen Voyages’ American Queen docked in Augusta, Kentucky. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

A quintessential American paddlewheel steamboat, American Queen appears to be like each bit the half. Its crisp white exterior, vivid pink paddlewheel and black smokestacks topped with festive crowns befitting a queen full the image of grandeur. Wherever the boat goes, it attracts curious, awestruck stares, and locals line up alongside the riverbanks to greet it when it arrives and wave goodbye when it leaves.

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From its lacy gingerbread trim to its shrill-but-wholesome calliope music, the boat evokes an air of southern Gilded Age luxurious so sturdy I totally anticipated to stumble upon Mark Twain in one of many onboard lounges.

This is what I beloved and what I did not throughout my voyage.

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What I beloved

The boat’s dimension

Designed to hold about 400 passengers, American Queen is the most important paddlewheeler within the U.S. river cruise business. The actual fact that there have been solely about 250 cruisers on board throughout my crusing was an added bonus. The vessel’s dimension signifies that it has some facilities — like a plunge pool, health middle, spa, a navigational chart room and theater with a stage — not discovered on different riverboats. However the low capability meant most areas did not really feel crowded.

One other nice end result was that we steadily bumped into the identical folks time and again, which added to the jovial and considerably familial onboard vibe.

The ports of name

The Lanier Mansion in Madison, Indiana. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Whereas ocean vessels typically deal with massive cities or beachy locations, the small cities discovered alongside American rivers are replete with appeal and hospitality which are laborious to come back by elsewhere. The locals I met have been exceptionally welcoming, and American Queen’s every day tour schedule directed me to hidden-gem sights I might need in any other case missed.

Free for the vessel’s passengers in all ports, buses run alongside a predetermined route at common 15- or 30-minute intervals. Designated stops alongside the best way function factors of curiosity the place passengers can hop off for a go to earlier than catching the following bus to a different attraction or again to the boat.

Highlights for me included the Schroeder Saddletree Manufacturing facility Museum — the place a neighborhood household spent two generations making the inside frames for horse saddles — and the historic mansions in Madison, Indiana, in addition to the Augusta Distillery in Augusta, Kentucky. There, we deviated from the steered actions and stopped in for a superb tasting the place we have been allowed to attract or “thief” our personal bourbon from barrels the place it was getting older.

The main target is basically on smaller stops, however that does not imply there aren’t huge cities on the listing, too. Probably the most highly effective place I visited was the Underground Railroad Museum throughout our name on Cincinnati. Reveals coated every little thing from the historical past of slavery to modern-day human trafficking and implicit bias. It was a sobering have a look at the quantity of labor we nonetheless have left to do.

The tempo

Mere inches separate American Queen from the concrete partitions of a lock on the Ohio River. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

As I get older, I’ve seen I want to decelerate a bit once I cruise. I am now not at an age the place I need to see and do every little thing at a break-neck tempo. Given that the majority U.S. river cruise passengers are usually of their golden years, the tempo of onboard life is as leisurely as a float down a river. I discovered loads of methods to calm down, from becoming a member of low-key hosted trivia and doing self-led puzzles through the day to listening to stay music at evening.

I spent many a night on the boat’s outer decks, taking within the sights from passing cities, riverside factories and locks, which regularly left mere inches on both facet of the vessel throughout transit.

Whereas ashore, I loved leisurely strolls alongside the riverbank each time I wasn’t lazily making my manner between factors of curiosity.

The slower, extra relaxed tempo helped me to maximise my enjoyment as a result of I felt like I used to be capable of be within the second as an alternative of fascinated with the place I needed to be subsequent. As a result of I used to be touring with my dad on our first father-daughter journey, that was particularly essential to me.

The historic components

The Mark Twain Gallery on American Queen Voyages’ American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

The whole American Queen expertise — from the ship’s exterior design and inside furnishings to the historical past of the locations we visited — evokes the mid to late 1800s. Though it has backup engines that assist with maneuvering, American Queen boasts a big wood paddlewheel that is powered by a pair of 90-year-old steam engines rescued from a retired steamboat.

Parts like a steam-powered calliope (which one of many onboard musicians performs a number of occasions on every cruise, normally throughout sailaways) and the J.M. White Eating Room with its critical New Orleans ambiance add to the sensation of authenticity all through.

Moreover, the lounges and cabins are largely furnished with antiques that match with the time interval the boat represents. My private favourite is the Mark Twain Gallery, a wealthy, heat, darkish lounge that is nice for working, studying, lounging with a cup of espresso or anachronistically checking electronic mail on the supplied financial institution of computer systems. Bonus: Show circumstances crammed with vintage oddities flank each side of the lounge, and the home windows in between supply each cozy seating alcoves and views into the eating room beneath.

A resident “riverlorian” — a historian who’s well-versed within the historical past of the rivers on which the vessel sails — additionally provides a number of talks throughout every voyage. Ours supplied numerous enjoyable information in regards to the effectivity and capability of cargo riverboats, which far exceed these of semi-trucks and trains.

The out of doors areas

American Queen’s Solar Deck pool space. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

True to its title, the Entrance Porch — the boat’s foremost out of doors lounge space — was simply that however on a grand scale. Rocking chairs and swings typically made me really feel like I used to be on the coated entrance porch of a southern farmhouse as we glided previous small cities and made our manner by means of an interesting system of locks alongside the best way.

After we have been underway, I spent lots of time there, both writing or studying. Plus, with the Entrance Porch Cafe buffet connected, it was simple to take pleasure in alfresco lunch or dinner, climate allowing.

Different nice areas included the River Bar, which affords spectacular views of the paddlewheel in motion (however watch out for the calliope, which is extraordinarily loud and can startle you in the event you’re not anticipating it) and the boat’s two solar deck areas — one close to the plunge pool and one simply outdoors the Chart Room.

Additionally, preserve your eye out for hidden out of doors areas that may permit you to view the paddlewheel up-close.

The surprises

A personal balcony field on American Queen Voyages’ American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Hidden out of doors areas aren’t the one surprises on American Queen sailings.

I totally loved poking across the vessel and discovering new areas, together with The Theater, which is used only some occasions per voyage to indicate films.

I am additionally a fan of the Engine Room Bar, the place I loved nightly music and views of the boat’s paddlewheel. However the secret lies behind a door within the bar with an indication that is barely noticeable. Pop inside, and you may make your manner all the way down to the engine room, which is open to passengers excited by studying extra about how the vessel operates.

One other shock got here once I chanced on a sequence of doorways in the identical hallway that results in the Engine Room Bar. On every was an inventory of cabin numbers, indicating that my cabin — 505, an open-veranda suite — had entry to the Grand Saloon’s non-public balcony bins. Because of this, my dad and I had implausible views of the reveals we noticed there.

Nonetheless, the quirkiest shock was that, no less than as soon as throughout each voyage, passengers are allowed to play the calliope. Beneath the steering of the boat’s pianist — calliope keys are just like keys you’d discover on a piano — any cruiser who was capable of play no less than 5 notes would obtain a certificates from the captain, declaring them official calliopists.

What wants work

The staffing points

A little bit of grime and dirt on the again of American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

I’d be remiss if I did not begin this part by saying that each crew member I met on the crusing was pleasant, useful and wanting to please. They all the time gave me passing smiles, waves and greetings, regardless of how busy they have been, and it was apparent they have been all working laborious.

Like the remainder of the U.S. hospitality business, American Queen Voyages acknowledged that it’s experiencing staffing shortages. Many of the issues that might have been improved on my American Queen crusing have been possible attributable to a scarcity of employees. With extra crew, they’re virtually sure to vanish.

The day I boarded, I could not assist however discover that the again of the boat was wanting sort of dingy. I noticed fairly a little bit of grime and dirt across the paddlewheel space, with the pink paint on the wheel itself wanting light. That evening, whereas I used to be outdoors watching the celebrities as we sailed, I seen the outer decks have been overrun by an alarming variety of spiders and their webs.

It took a number of days, however throughout our name on Cincinnati, I returned to the boat to discover a crew member laborious at work scrubbing every of the decks and climbing up into the eaves to wipe down the cobwebs with rags. (I am not sure if it was a part of the common schedule, however I think it might need needed to do with the truth that John Waggoner, the road’s founder and chairman, was booked on the following voyage.) The engine room crew additionally labored diligently to restore paddlewheel boards and energy wash the construction to revive the wheel to its vivid pink shade earlier than our cruise was up.

One other place the place the expertise fell brief was the onboard eating. General, the meals was respectable. I am a choosy eater, however on American Queen I used to be capable of finding one thing I loved at each meal. Nonetheless, on the second morning, throughout breakfast, I reduce into my pancakes and was dismayed when uncooked batter oozed out.

An undercooked pancake within the J.M. White Eating Room on American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Not desirous to make a giant deal about it (notably as a result of we arrived quarter-hour previous to the closing time), I did not say something. Our waitress, who was skilled sufficient to see there was an issue with out my saying a phrase, despatched the pinnacle waiter over to ask what was fallacious. I quietly advised him, and he apologized, stressing that passengers ought to all the time converse up so the crew can do higher subsequent time.

That very same head waiter sat us each evening at dinner and all the time made certain we had what we wanted. Nonetheless, by the ultimate evening of the crusing, he appeared frazzled and exhausted. The entire waitstaff did.

The truth is, we hardly noticed our dinner waiter. Each evening, he greeted us, took our orders and introduced every course, however there was just about no following up in between programs to see how we have been doing. I anticipate he was too busy juggling numerous tables to have time to verify in routinely with any of them.

Certainly one of our final nights at dinner, about midway by means of, we seen damaged glass on the desk. It is apparent one thing broke earlier than we sat down. It was cleaned up, however why the desk setting wasn’t modified is a thriller. We did alert our waiter earlier than we left, simply so he would not reduce himself whereas cleansing up.

Cobwebs on considered one of American Queen’s outer decks. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

I discovered little requests have been typically met with lackluster service, too. My dad loves a banana together with his breakfast every morning. On days once they weren’t instantly obtainable on the buffet, he would ask for one. It wasn’t an issue till one morning when a very haggard waiter went to seize one for us and got here again a couple of minutes later with an apology that he “simply cannot discover them proper now.”

There have been different incidents, too. From our cabin, per directions from the in-room literature, we referred to as the entrance desk twice to request an ironing board, which by no means confirmed up. Neither did our room service breakfast order, regardless of our having put the menu card outdoors our door properly earlier than the deadline the earlier evening. We did not pursue the ironing board additional and as an alternative merely wore rumpled garments to dinner, however a name to the entrance desk in regards to the breakfast meant meals confirmed up at our door inside 20 minutes.

These are, in fact, small niggles that did not drastically have an effect on my enjoyment of the cruise general. However, for such an expensive ship, they have been a bit surprising and definitely not reflective of an expertise that begins at about $3,000 per particular person for weeklong cruise.

The optics

It is unimaginable to speak in regards to the heyday of riverboating with out additionally broaching some painful topics. Whereas rich, white vacationers have been busy having fun with themselves on riverboats up and down U.S. waterways within the early a part of the 1800s, enslaved folks fought for freedom all through the nation — notably within the pre-Civil Warfare south.

With that in thoughts, the truth that — even on my latest 2022 crusing — American Queen’s onboard visitor inhabitants is predominantly white whereas the crew is predominantly Black struck me as notably poignant.

Once I requested in regards to the line’s demographics, a consultant from American Queen Voyages advised me that the corporate is actively trying to broaden its buyer attain.

“Like all cruise traces, we’re all the time in search of visitors new to cruise and new to U.S. river cruising,” stated Michael Hicks, a spokesperson for American Queen Voyages.

AQV additionally prides itself on hiring from the native communities alongside the rivers it travels. On condition that American Queen normally sails the Mississippi and hires from the encompassing communities, a lot of its workers are Black.

“American Queen Voyages riverboat crew members come from throughout the USA,” Hicks stated. “An emphasis is positioned on hiring from port companion cities, together with St. Louis, Memphis, Cincinnati and New Orleans, in addition to regional communities together with Jackson, Mississippi; Metairie, Louisiana; and Owensboro, Kentucky.”

Moreover, the road is working with native teams within the locations it visits with a view to be certain that programming is traditionally correct, even when it means telling tales which are sobering and troublesome to listen to.

“American Queen Voyages works with the ports [it visits] to pick out and curate experiences that inform the total historical past of locations,” stated Hicks. “These embody such wealthy and immersive experiences because the Nationwide Underground Railroad Freedom Middle in Cincinnati; the Lodge Metropolitan in Paducah, Kentucky; The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Middle in Cleveland, Mississippi; the Mississippi Delta Chinese language Heritage Museum in Terrene Touchdown, Mississippi; and the Natchez Museum of African American Historical past and Tradition in Natchez, Mississippi.

“We’re frequently working with conference and guests bureaus and [using] these organizations’ native experience to enhance, in addition to present new and various experiences for our visitors.”

The stench

For some cause, the boat’s rubbish is saved ahead on the primary deck, the place it sits in open dumpsters outdoors. My cabin, which was 4 decks up, was virtually straight above it. Each time I needed to benefit from the veranda outdoors my cabin, I used to be met with the overwhelming scent of rotting refuse baking within the 80-degree warmth. For that cause, I did not make the most of my room’s out of doors area as a lot as I’d have appreciated.

One suggestion for fixing this could be to retailer the trash beneath deck or transfer it to an outside space in the back of the boat, the place the wind would blow the scent again over the wake as an alternative of into passenger areas.

The environmental impacts

Single-use sugar packets, cups and lids in The Entrance Porch Cafe on American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On the whole, cruises aren’t identified for being notably environmentally pleasant, however at a time when different traces are making a giant deal of changing into extra gas environment friendly and slicing again on single-use merchandise — notably plastics — I used to be stunned by a few of what I noticed on American Queen.

First, it is essential to acknowledge that paddlewheel vessels are much less gas environment friendly than boats that function with extra fashionable engines. A part of the appeal of American Queen is the paddlewheel itself, so some allowances are made by default. A little bit of gas effectivity is sacrificed within the title of nostalgia.

Nonetheless, the road might attempt tougher to make some smaller issues greener. These have been most noticeable within the boat’s Entrance Porch Cafe buffet space, the place plastic spoons and paper bowls have been the one choices obtainable subsequent to the soft-serve ice cream machine, and paper cups with plastic lids have been put out for drinks, slightly than reusable cups, glasses or mugs that might be washed between makes use of.

The opposite expertise that made me cringe was once I boarded one of many line’s free constitution buses for a journey to city throughout considered one of our port stops. I used to be considered one of 5 folks on a bus constructed for 50. It struck me as tremendous wasteful. It is possible the ship has no manner of understanding how many individuals will want the buses later within the day, however maybe smaller automobiles might be thought-about as options after the preliminary passenger rush dies down.

Backside line

American Queen is a phenomenal boat that permits modern-day vacationers to expertise a few of what life on the rivers might need been like 200 years in the past. It is a formidable ode to historical past, full with snug and richly furnished lodging, nice service, scrumptious meals and visits to a few of America’s small cities. Though American Queen Voyages, like the remainder of the home journey market, remains to be battling staffing points, the expertise was superior general.

The cruise expertise is basically geared towards older vacationers, however that should not cease youthful vacationers from checking it out. Anybody who has an appreciation for leisure, old-timey vibes and the Americana related to tiny riverside cities will possible take pleasure in a crusing on American Queen.

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