So now that American Queen is back in service after Ms. Priscilla Presley re-christened it on Friday, how’s it doing? I’m onboard the inaugural run from Memphis to Cincinnati, and here’s the short answer: The world’s largest steamboat needs a little work. The good news is that the Great American Steamboat Company team, which brought the shuttered sternwheeler back to life, admits the boat wasn’t completely ready for action due to time constraints and has a plan of action in place. Over the next few weeks it will be bringing in Ritz-Carlton chefs to oversee the kitchen, hotel gurus to better instruct the wholly American staff and a work crew to clean up loose ends like torn wallpaper, leaky faucets and the like.
There’s already a perceptible difference. With every hour we meander upstream, service becomes tighter, waitstaff more efficient, public spaces tidier. After a rocky first day in which disorganization seemed to reign from dockside (a few lost bags, chaos restocking the vessel) to the dining room, the boat has settled into an infectious calm — not unlike the Ohio River on which we’re now steaming. And if there is any complaining among the 400-plus passengers onboard, I haven’t heard it.
The cabins are surprisingly functional. I’m in a 190-square-foot standard outside cabin on Deck 4. Initial fears that there would be a lack of privacy (people can stroll right past the cabin’s windowed double doors on the outside deck) have proven unfounded. Keep the doors open (they push outward) and the cabin has what is in effect a front porch — so you can chat up anyone walking by. The two single beds are tight in the room, sure, but there’s plenty of space to walk and enough room for a comfy rattan chair and ottoman. (One of the beds wasn’t completely made up when I arrived, alas.)
Storage is tricky, but by creatively using the space in the desk/bureau and the bedstand, I’ve gotten everything hidden — except for the hanging clothes, which must live on an exposed rack next to the bathroom. Not a big deal for me, but others may not wish to look at their shirts hanging around. There’s plenty of space under the beds for luggage. The bathroom is a black-and-white-tiled affair that’s more than adequate, with a walk-in shower with terrific pressure.
My favorite part: The self-regulated air-conditioning is so powerful it’s keeping bottled water chilled, a good thing for muggy days on the Big Muddy. Sound-proofing seems decent so far, except when the steam-powered calliope is chirping away one deck up — and because I’m near the stern, I feel the tug and pull of the steel arms controlling the paddlewheel. No complaints here, though, as it lulls me to sleep.
It’s even easier to gain weight on a steamboat. We’ve been on the river for the better part of two days now, and save for a small pool and an exercise room with a few cardio machines, there’s not much opportunity for moving around. So instead of rock-climbing and running around on a promenade deck, most passengers are lounging around on rockers watching Kentucky pass by. There have been a few lectures, bingo, game shows and the like, but given the option between sipping a mint julep on the top-deck outdoor Calliope Bar or actually moving, most folks seem to choose the former (myself included). Today we hit our first port, Henderson, Kentucky, home of John J. Audubon.
Meals are served in the J.M. White Dining Room, a lavish space with soaring ceilings, Southern chow that’s good but improving, and a green staff. Celeb chef Regina Charboneau — the exceedingly gracious talent behind American Queen’s menus — is onboard and working to get things right, and she’s a marvel. In an airy indoor/outdoor chill zone called the Front Porch of America, there are light snacks (hot dogs, popcorn, sandwiches, ice cream) available 24/7 and continental breakfast, but it’s fairly meager fare. I waited 45 minutes for an ok lunchtime burger at the River Grill, the al fresco eatery surrounding the Calliope Bar; I’d been warned the kitchen was backed up, however, and the time sped by watching the paddle-wheel churn through the river.
There’s nightlife on a paddlewheeler. There’s a good amount of entertainment onboard American Queen, much of it taking place in the Grand Saloon, modeled after Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Much is also on the sedate side: This week’s performances include the Harry James Orchestra (special guests) and a Mark Twain impersonator. A Dixieland band performed during Sunday’s jazz brunch, and the calliope player tickles the ivories a couple of time each day on the top deck; I stood right behind him and was showered in mist from the steam forced through the organ’s pipes. Too cool. There are Victorian parlor rooms for cards and conversation and a cozy little theater with a big-screen TV.
But it’s not all bridge games and Twain. While the Calliope Bar is the most popular watering hole during the day (there’s always a nice breeze up there to boot), the Engine Room Bar has really been hopping after the sun goes down. Last night it closed at 1:30 a.m. with about a dozen people still toasting one another, the turning paddlewheel just outside the window a constant reminder that this is not your grandfather’s cruise. Oh, wait, it is — and so far a particularly memorable one at that.
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