A few weeks ago, Carol and I had the pleasure of sailing on the American Queen Steamboat as it sailed on the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. Our cruise was an extremely enjoyable experience in virtually every respect, and it was definitely a wonderful way to enjoy the scenery along one of America's most beautiful rivers. It was also an excellent way to explore and learn about the history of numerous small towns and mid-size cities as well as a superb way to view and learn about the intricacies and challenges of navigating on a river as opposed to sailing on an ocean.
The American Queen Steamboat Company began service this past April and the line is being operated by the same executives who ran the highly regarded Delta Queen back in the 1990's. Headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, this is an American company with a warm, friendly, and enthusiastic all-American staff who were recruited from that area and also from many other parts of the country.
The line offers cruises on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee rivers and their itineraries range from 4 to 10 nights in length. Many of the guests to whom we spoke during our trip were sailing on back-to-back voyages and many of them had previously sailed on the Delta Queen and were extremely excited about the relaunch of the line.
As I have described in a few of my recent weekly bulletins, the line is offering a tremendous selection of special theme voyages during the year such as Blues & Barbeque, Louisiana History & Culture, Mystical Krewe of Steamboating Mardi Gras, Dixie Fest, Southern Spirits, Gardens of the River, In the Good Old Summertime, Baseball Legends, Manifest Destiny, The Great Steamboat Era and the first annual Delta Queen Steamboat Company and Paddlewheel Steamboat Society Of America Reunion voyages.
On a category-by-category basis here is additional information about our American Queen river cruising experience ...
The American Queen is an authentic paddlewheel steamboat that enables 436 guests to truly step back in time to the golden age of river travel in the United States. Your cruise fare includes complimentary bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees, soft-serve ice cream, hot dogs, popcorn and snacks throughout the day.
American regional cuisine with menus designed by famed chef Regina Charboneau is served in the J.M. White Dining Room, the River Grill, and on the Front Porch of America. There is complimentary wine and beer with your dinner, and buffet or full menu service for breakfast and lunch. All guests also receive an overnight stay in a luxury hotel in the city in which your cruise originates, breakfast and the transfer to your ship, and the pleasure of a very relaxed casual onboard atmosphere.
Complimentary shore excursions are also included in your cruise fare and the company uses a flexible hop on -- hop off routing system with their own motor coaches to allow you to see what you like, for as long as you like, at each of the stops along the route.
There is also free wireless either in your stateroom or in any of the public areas. The boat does not have an Internet cafe with computers so you will have to bring your own laptop to take advantage of the free service. In addition, the boat has bicycles which are available at no charge should you wish to explore a town on your own and get some exercise at the same time.
Professional entertainment in the Grand Saloon is provided by four singers who are backed by an excellent six-piece band. Depending upon the theme of the particular voyage there are also many renowned guest entertainers who give solo concerts, and numerous late-night jam sessions where members of the band join individual entertainers in the Engine Room Bar for an impromptu evening of great musical entertainment.
There are daily lectures and impromptu discussions by the Riverlorian who graciously imparts his extraordinary knowledge of the history of America's towns and rivers. There are also calliope concerts, and an open engine room and pilot house which provide an in-depth look into the operation of the boat and the special navigational skills that are involved in both daytime and nighttime sailing on a river.
The boat has been completely refurbished in order to provide its guests with all of the modern amenities of a luxurious boutique hotel with all of the charm, history, and ambiance of a lavish Antebellum mansion. Upon boarding you immediately step back in time as you enter a foyer with the beautiful Ladies' Parlor on one side and the Gentlemen's Card Room across the hallway. Decorated with period furnishings, wallpaper, antiques, lamps, paintings, photographs and historical memorabilia both rooms are wonderful areas for relaxing at any time during your cruise.
You then enter the spacious and truly stunning Mark Twain Gallery whose dark wood floor and walls are accented by comfortable arm chairs, more historical artifacts, a collection of incredible historical books and the fascinating daily newspapers from the small towns along your route. There was a table set up with a large jigsaw puzzle allowing anyone who wanted to assist in its completion to take a seat and spend a few minutes working on the project.
The Purser's Lobby includes a well-stocked boutique that had ample supplies of sundries and lots of American Queen logo wear and other souvenirs. The lobby flows around a lovely staircase that descends to the Main Deck Lounge and then into the J.M. White Dining Room. Further back on that deck you enter the Grand Saloon which is the main show lounge that has been designed to replicate the famous Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. The orchestra of the theatre includes chairs and banquette sofas and on the second level there are private boxes that each seat four individuals. The boxes offer a fantastic view of the entertainment and they always filled up very quickly for the shows.
On the higher decks you will find the River Grill bar and dining area, a large outdoor seating area, a small pool, a small fitness center, and the Pilot House where visits to the Captain are always welcome. Another very interesting and popular area is the Chart Room which is located forward on the Observation Deck. The Riverlorian gives many of his presentations here and it is a great little library with large leather tables and comfortable chairs along with lots of fascinating historical books and detailed navigational charts of the river where you are sailing.
All of the staterooms are decorated with similar furnishings, lamps, wallpaper and fixtures. While not overly spacious they are certainly adequate as far as storage space is concerned. Suitcases fit easily under the comfortable bed or beds, there is an armchair and footrest, a small desk, a closet with nominal space for hanging your clothes, and a number of shelves and drawers. There are smaller single-occupancy inside cabins and some of the outside cabins will be converted for single passengers in the near future.
One interesting feature of the boat is that the staterooms located forward on the Texas and Observation Deck are entered from the outside promenade rather than from an interior hallway and there are two chairs and a small table located outside of each door. Staterooms in the rear half of the ship on the same two decks have a balcony which is semi-private as opposed to the ones whose balconies are actually public walking areas. There are also some suites on the Promenade Deck which provide more spacious accommodations and which have their own large private verandahs.
The J.M. White dining room is light and airy with large windows, wooden shutters and draperies, beautiful chandeliers, and very well spaced tables. The menus have been designed by Regina Charboneau, noted cookbook author and owner of the Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. Ms. Charboneau was sailing on our voyage and has been doing so quite often since the line began operation this past April. Breakfast and lunch are served in the dining room and both meals can be enjoyed buffet style or you can be seated and order from the more extensive menu.
Overall the food in the dining room ranged from very good to excellent. The menus focus on southern American regional cuisine which gave us the opportunity to try many dishes which we had never experienced previously. Breakfast specials such as Andouille Hash and Bananas Foster French Toast were absolutely superb, while lunch and dinner items such as Peppered Brisket, Shrimp and Grits, various oyster preparations, and lots of other down-home goodies were also very enjoyable.
The Front Porch of America includes an indoor area where cereals, fruits, muffins, juices, pastries and Starbucks coffee are available for breakfast. Starting at lunchtime the aroma of hot dogs and popcorn fill the room and small sandwiches, cookies, and other treats are brought out periodically during the afternoon. This venue is open twenty-four hours a day and the espresso/cappuccino coffee maker in the Mark Twain gallery is always available.
The outdoor area of the Front Porch, which is located at the very front of the boat, includes tables and lots of traditional rocking chairs where you can relax, enjoy your meal or a snack and a beverage at any time, and get a great view of both sides of the river as you glide along at no more than 8 or 9 miles per hour.
There is also an alternate dinner menu available every evening which is prepared by a great chef who hails from Memphis and who has operated his own catering company for many years. Depending upon the weather, this meal is either served in the Front Porch, where you can dine indoors or outdoors, or at the open air River Grill which is located at the rear on the Promenade Deck.
The River Grill is a very popular gathering place during the day where one will find a lively bar, a great view of the river, and the calliope which is played by the Riverlorian on most days when the ship is sailing away from town. Excellent drinks and great bartenders, by the way. Afternoon tea is accompanied by a large display of excellent pastries and baked goods and can be enjoyed daily in the Main Deck Lounge while listening to the melodies of a piano player/singer.
Many of the American Queen's voyages have a unique entertainment theme and on our short cruise the focus was on the music of the 60's. The ship's superb band, known as the Steamboat Syncopators, accompanies the ship's singers and the production shows, which, while they have themes such as the Memphis Music Story or a Showboat Jubilee, are basically music, singing and a little bit of dancing with no special lighting or scenery.
The theatre is lovely, the sound is superb, the view from the private boxes is wonderful, and the production shows are performed before the late dinner seating and after the first seating. The band also put on its own shows during the cruise and they perform nightly in the Grand Saloon for everyone's dancing pleasure.
The other 60's related musical shows during our cruise were excellent. On the first evening a five-piece band from Memphis put on a rousing performance that consisted of songs by Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. The music and singing were fabulous and it was a shame that this group disembarked the following day since I would have loved to see them perform throughout our cruise.
The guest entertainers during our cruise were The Loving Spoonful which currently includes three original band members who have been playing together for almost 40 years. They put on a terrific show that had the audience singing along to all of their biggest hits. Another featured entertainer was award-winner B.J. Thomas whose most popular songs (Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head and More Than a Feeling) were delivered with a voice that has not diminished at all in the forty years since these tunes were first recorded.
One final superb performer was Joe Hurley, a Kentucky-born recording artist who is an exceptional singer, keyboard player, saxophonist and harmonica player. He has recorded two albums and played with countless musical legends in his career. His shows in the Engine Room Bar, whether solo, accompanied by a terrific banjo player, or jamming into the wee hours with members of the ship's band, were an unexpected treat as was getting to know Joe personally throughout our cruise.
DAILY ONBOARD ACTIVITIES
Information about the upcoming port of call, and everything that is scheduled on the boat for the next day, are provided with the daily delivery of the River Times to your stateroom. Typical onboard activities include tours of the Pilot House and open chat sessions with the Riverlorian in the Chart Room or his complete presentations in the Grand Saloon. There are scheduled games such as Bingo or the Match Game, a different movie is presented each day in the theatre, and the schedule of individual musical entertainment, calliope concerts or production shows is also detailed as they are in every cruise line's daily program.
Shore excursions are included in the price of your cruise and The River Times includes a full-color map of the next town along as well as some overall information about the history and prime sightseeing locations in that town. The map illustrates the route that will be taken by the hop-on, hop-off busses as well as the location of the various points along the route where you can explore a particular location.
There are two or three motor coaches that follow the boat's route and they are used for the sightseeing tours in each town. There is a local historian or guide onboard each bus who narrates the entire route and provides lots of information about the history of the town, the specific sights along the route, and details about any famous figures who hail from that area and who played a major role in the development of the town and the westward expansion of our country.
The hop-on, hop-off idea works extremely well and the tour guides were excellent. This type of sightseeing enables you to spend as much time as you like visiting a specific museum, park, restored mansion, aquarium, historic cemetery, government building or farmers market as you wish. With the busses operating every 15-20 minutes you will never have to wait too long for the next one and then take the short drive to the next point of interest that you would like to visit. There are also Premium Choice Tours available at many of the stops at a nominal extra cost for those guests who want to enjoy a more in-depth exploration of specific historical sights in a particular town or city.
STAFF & SERVICE
As is typical of any newly launched ship and/or cruise line, where the onboard staff has recently been recruited and where training is an ongoing process, the level of service that is provided will vary somewhat depending upon the particular person's previous experience in the hospitality industry. On the American Queen there are many individuals who have worked on other river boats or on larger cruise ships in the past, and whether they were assigned to the dining room, the housekeeping department, the bar staff or at the front desk the speed and accuracy at which they carried out their tasks were top notch in every way.
In other cases, where a person may have previously worked in a hotel or in the restaurant industry in some capacity but is working on a boat for the first time, their performance and the pacing of their assignments could vary from day to day. Fortunately, under the direction of a very experienced head housekeeper and three exceptional dining room managers, the training process is ongoing and I would expect the service that is provided at every level on the ship to continually improve over time.
When it comes to the training and coordination of an onboard staff, these types of growing pains will, of course, be found on any new ship or cruise line. We experienced similar situations last year when we sailed on what was then the fourth voyage of the upscale Oceania Marina when there were obvious staffing and service problems that needed to be refined and coordinated. From all reports any kinks that needed to be fixed a year ago on Oceania have been worked out superbly since that time, and despite some periodic omissions or other minor faux pas on the American Queen none of these items in any way affected our enjoyment of the cruise.
When you sail on the American Queen and take the time to have conversations with many of the staff, you will find people who are extraordinarily friendly, helpful, excited and enthusiastic about working on the boat. They are having a great time in what for many of them is a brand new endeavor and they are obviously thrilled at having the opportunity to meet people from other parts of the country and to visit places where they have never been. Every request is taken care of promptly and cheerfully and every employee seems to really enjoying taking the time to chat with the guests about their home town, their lives, and to find out more about you and your background.
We arrived in Cincinnati the day prior to our cruise and if you ever travel to the Queen City we can highly recommend the Cincinnatian Hotel, which dates back to 1882, and Scotti's Italian Restaurant, currently operated by the great-grandson of the founder of this unique establishment over 100 years ago.
If Cincinnati is a stop on your cruise the hop-on, hop-off bus tour would include stops at the Underground Railway Freedom Center which is located along the Ohio River in between the stadiums where the Cincinnati Reds and the Bengals play. Other points of interest are Fountain Square, a mid-city dining and entertainment venue that was located only one block from our hotel, the Krohn Nature Conservatory and Observation Point, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. The tour also crossed the river to the town of Newport, Kentucky where there are stops at the Newport Aquarium and the Newport on the Levee shopping center.
This town is the gateway to Kentucky's Bluegrass region. It was an important stop on the Underground Railway, and, most notably, is the birthplace of Rosemary Clooney. Founded by Daniel Boone among other noted pioneers, one of its distinct features are the ten incredible painted murals along the flood wall facing the river which trace the history of the city. It is a very easy town to stroll around or you can explore and get some exercise at the same time by using the bicycles which are available at no charge on the boat.
Stops along the tour route are the Floodwall River Mural Museum, the Opera House, the Kentucky Museum Gateway Center, and the famous, Spanish-style Russell Theater where Rosemary Clooney's movie The Stars are Singing premiered in 1953. A more extensive optional Underground Railroad Tour is also available.
POINT PLEASANT, WEST VIRGINIA
This diminutive town is located at the confluence of the Kanawah and Ohio rivers and was originally settled by the French in the mid-1700's. The town also gained nationwide notoriety as the site of the collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967 which killed 46 people.
The bridge collapse played a role in the 1975 book called The Mothman Prophecies which was turned into a 2002 film starring Richard Gere. There is a store devoted to the Mothman theme and a presumably haunted hotel but few other notable sights in the tiny downtown area.
The Riverfront Park features a series of beautiful murals on the flood wall that depict scenes of local history. There is a four-acre state park at the junction of the two rivers, a small town museum, and the Mansion House which was erected in 1796 and includes displays of antiques and heirlooms of that era. A Premium Choice Tour is available to Fort Randolph and Krodel Park and checking the town out on bicycles is also recommended.
Unquestionably our favorite stop during our cruise, Marietta is a beautiful city of approximately 15,000 people located at the junction of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers. The area was first surveyed by George Washington in the 1770's and the town was actually founded and laid out in detail by a group of 48 men from Massachusetts in 1788. The town's name, incidentally, was chosen to honor France's Queen Marie Antoinette for her country's assistance during the Revolutionary War.
The main shopping district is beautified by baskets of colorful flowers that are hung on all of the light posts, and there are lots of restaurants, art galleries and quaint shops within easy walking distance of where the ship is tied up. The district includes numerous brick-lined streets with many mature shade trees and beautiful historic mansions, museums and the lovely campus of Marietta College. The boat made a full day stop in Marietta which gave everyone ample time to explore many of the towns sights and features.
WHEELING, WEST VIRGINIA
Wheeling is comprised of an island in the middle of the Ohio River while the downtown district and suburbs spread out into the hills on the other side of the water. The city is the starting place for vacationing in this area of West Virginia and it also is a cultural center with award-winning events and big name concerts throughout the year. For sports fans there is auto racing not too far out of town and the Wheeling Island Stadium, located just down the block from where the boat was tied up, is the home of the Wheeling Nailers, the Pittsburgh Penguins' minor league hockey team.
The tour of the downtown area included stops at Independence Hall, the Eckhart House (a Queen Anne style townhouse which dates back to 1892 and is located in Millionaire's Row), and the historic Capitol Theatre which hosts a variety of Broadway shows and theatre productions. We spent some time visiting the Artisan's Center which includes an incredible selection of unique regional gourmet foods, fine artwork, ceramics, and a wonderful selection of blown glass pieces all made by local West Virginians.
Across from the downtown area on the island part of the city one will find a football stadium, hotel, casino and racetrack. Not too far out of town is the Oglebay Resort & Conference Center which is a very popular vacation resort that features 72 holes of golf including courses designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Arnold Palmer. In total, while the downtown area is by no means a feast for the eyes the city and surrounding area are an incredible place to start a vacation experience in West Virginia.
Pittsburgh is a visually stunning city that is located at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The American Queen docked before dawn and the boat was tied up directly in front of Heinz Field which is the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Heinz's world headquarters were right down the block and the PNC Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was another few blocks away.
The city features dozens of bridges spanning the three rivers and towards the south are the dramatic cliffs of Duquesne Heights and Mount Washington. There is an authentic tram (The Duquesne Incline) which dates back to 1877 and takes you from the riverside to the top of the heights, and that vantage point, especially at night, has been described as one of the most beautiful and dramatic views of any major city in the entire country.
We decided to spend an additional day and night in Pittsburgh before flying back home to Florida and that was not nearly enough time to enjoy the many sights, sounds, and tastes of this incredible culturally diverse city. Should you head there in the future our highest recommendation goes to the Omni William Penn Hotel. This historic property dates back to 1916 and its breathtaking main lobby will simply blow you away the minute that you enter the hotel.
We checked out a wide swath of the downtown area and ended up spending the late afternoon and evening in Market Square which is a lively plaza that features dozens of restaurants and periodic live entertainment. Having done quite a bit of research in advance of our stay we selected a restaurant called La Cucina Flegrea for dinner and our meal was truly superb from start to finish.
THE RIVER CRUISING EXPERIENCE
Our cruise on the American Queen was an extremely enjoyable, fun-filled, nostalgic, and educational experience in many ways and it certainly is recommended as a truly unique and memorable vacation. River cruising in Europe, of course, has become extremely popular in recent years because it enables you to enjoy continuous, ever-changing, beautiful scenery, get an up close look at many historical sights, connect personally to the people of a town or village, and see, touch and taste many aspects of modern-day life.
The American Queen sails year-round on the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. There are other small ships that are currently offering cruises on the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Erie Canal, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Sound, the Columbia and Snake rivers in the great Northwest, and various other waterways around the country.
Cruising on a river, of course, is very different from sailing on the open ocean where most of the time you see absolutely nothing but water in every direction. As we discovered while sailing on the Ohio River, the scenery in many places is quite beautiful as you travel through the Allegheny Mountains, and the changing colors and textures of the water and the hills and the trees at sunrise and sunset are extraordinarily dramatic.
We stopped at small towns where word of the arrival of the steamboat spread like wildfire through the community and where dozens, even hundreds of people take time from their daily routines to come down to see the boat. Our boat tied up at places where the photographer from the local paper came down to set up his tripod to take pictures of the boat, and you know that your arrival will be the top headline in tomorrow's edition.
We passed small communities along the river where families stopped in the middle of dinner to run outside because "hey, the steamboat is coming" and for them and their neighbors this is a really, really big deal. You cannot help but smile when you see the flash from hundreds of cameras and the kids jumping up and down and frantically waving. We always got a kick waving back at them, of course, and you just know that the five minutes that it took for your boat to pass by their home is something that they will remember for a long time.
We stopped at towns where women from the Ladies Auxiliary set up tents and tables at the dockside and handed out their local newspaper and other literature and welcomed us in the most gracious way possible. We visited diminutive communities where the modern-day economic reality may not be much to look at, but as we learned these are places where important people were born and where significant historical events occurred during the westward expansion of the United States.
We passed spots on the shoreline where we saw teenagers race down the river bank, grab a rope that hung from a tree, swing out over the river and then splash down for an afternoon of swimming and fun. Many evenings we passed spots where a couple of fellows had taken their boat out after dinner to spend some time fishing along the shoreline until dark. They waved and shouted hello, and we waved back, and once again this brief connection to a different and slower lifestyle than ours was something that simply cannot be experienced elsewhere.
Our experience on the American Queen was a very enjoyable one and the combination of the boat, the staff, the dining, the entertainment, the time sailing on the river and the places that we visited made for a terrific time. In many ways this type of cruising will take you back to a time and lifestyle that has vanished in many places.
You will travel back to the days of Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and what you see and experience during your journey is even more meaningful because you are sailing on a boat that genuinely reflects, expresses, and appreciates another place and time and the remarkable history of this great country of ours.
Obviously, this type of trip will not meet everyone's criteria for a cruise vacation. If you are primarily interested in sophisticated food and elegant service, lavish production shows and ultra-modern perfectly decorated cabins and public rooms, then this boat is not for you.
On the other hand, if you want to just "kick back" and enjoy down home Southern cooking and service, and watch America go by in a very casual atmosphere, then you might want to give the American Queen Steamboat a try.