River Report: First Impressions From American Queen

April 30, 2012 | By | 10 Comments

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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    10 Responses to “River Report: First Impressions From American Queen”

    1. Tammy Selee
      April 30th, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

      We will be setting sail on the 8th of May with Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Stacey Wayne as Elvis from Cincinnatti to Memphis.

    2. Scott
      April 30th, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

      Tell us about the safety/lifeboat drill.
      Where are the lifeboats?

    3. Scott
      May 1st, 2012 @ 11:28 am

      I only saw 1 capsule type liferaft on the forward starboard side. I imagine that there is also one on the port side, but this hardly seems enough.

    4. Tom Mui
      May 1st, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

      Thank you for your River Report.

      Having missed the first trip on the AQ – health problems – I look forward to going on the AQ in the future and your report just makes the anticipation greater!

    5. Jerry Hay
      May 3rd, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

      Lifeboats are not necessary on river cruises. If there is an emergency that requires passengers to abandon the boat, the pilot will simply land along the shore and everyone would exit on the gangway. This could be done much faster than trying to get passengers into small lifeboats. That is one of the advantages of river cruising. There is always a shoreline and the steamboat can land about anywhere.

    6. ruthandjohn
      May 4th, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

      We sailed on the American Queen in 2003 (I think) under the Delta Steamship Co and thought the boat was lovely. Loved the rocking chairs on the outside veranda…which we hope they still have. The cabins were smallish but nicely appointed and the food marvelous. Sailed up the Mississippi. Loved the boat…the cruise was ok.

    7. Scott
      May 8th, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

      The idea of no lifeboats seem very risky to me. Things don’t always go as planned, so simply pulling to the bank might good in theory but could be a disaster in reality.

      What if it couldn’t make it to the side or was taking on water?
      I would be very worried about entering the water.The current in the Mississippi river can be extremely dangerous especially with the amount and size of debris that the river carries.

    8. robyn Morris
      May 10th, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

      A few years ago I had the wonderful experience to work on the American Queen.

      I will never in my life forget that. It was such a wonderful experience.

      I will always be proud to have been a part of American history. I worked there the spring after Katrina.

    9. Jeff VanDerford & Nancy Ries
      June 13th, 2012 @ 8:20 am

      We were on the inaugural cruise round trip from NOLA to Vicksburg. There were a few shakedown glitches, but overall the experience was terrific. The American crew worked hard, were very friendly and helpful. There was a lifejacket drill before sailing and I never felt insecure as to the difficulty of getting ashore in an emergency.
      The food was superb, the stops interesting and the river scenery grand. Steamboatin’ the day away in the rocking chairs on the Front Porch was worth the investment of time and money. Highly recommended.

    10. Ben Patterson
      June 25th, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

      Lifeboats not needed? America’s worst maritime disaster, taking more lives than did the Titanic’s sinking, occurred on the Mississippi when the Sultana, overloaded with troops returning home, caught fire near Memphis in April 1865. That disaster was only the worst of many occurring on the Mississippi. In too many cases the only way to get to shore was to swim.

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