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Slideshow: River Cruise Queens of the Mississippi

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    River cruising on America's Mississippi is in growth mode these days. While river cruising in Europe has already exploded into one of the most popular ways to see the Continent, American river cruises possess quieter appeal and are garnering attention more slowly.

    American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines, two U.S.-based cruise lines, both operate modern replicas of the historic steamboat along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Their ships feature paddlewheels, historic ambience and itineraries that concentrate on the river's culture, food and sightseeing from New Orleans to Memphis, from Memphis to St. Louis, and from St. Louis to St. Paul (and, on the Ohio, to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh).

    What's it like to float Mark Twain-style down America's greatest river? We set out to sample both ships, sending Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic's Editor in Chief, on American Queen and Dori Saltzman, our News Editor, on Queen of the Mississippi. They reviewed the key aspects of both ships, and found a lot in common, from Americana-themed entertainment and Southern cooking to friendly crewmembers and plenty of opportunity to learn about life on the river. For more details -- and what both editors agree is the best part of the Mississippi river experience -- see our slideshow on these river queens.

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    American Queen Cabins: We're not huge fans of too communal a cruise experience, so the prospect of American Queen's balcony scenario (most verandah cabins open out onto a promenade deck) was daunting. Ironically, between solitary musing during quiet periods and fun banter during pre-dinner hours with anyone who wandered by, we found our verandah to be one of the most fun parts of the cruise. (Note: A handful of cabins do have private verandahs.) Staterooms themselves beautifully mixed Victorian-style furnishings with 21st-century comforts and amenities like flat-screen TVs. Cabins are not decorated identically, and it was fun to snoop around and see different setups. Also worth noting: The bathrooms are gorgeous, with black and white checkerboard floors (just like grandma's) and, in some cases, real tubs.

    Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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    Queen of the Mississippi Cabins: The 78 cabins onboard Queen of the Mississippi are comfortable with plenty of storage space. A closet, one to two dressers, a desk with drawers ... there are even drawers in the bathroom. Modern amenities are on hand, as well, including complimentary Wi-Fi and a flat-screen TV with DVD player and 20 channels (though no movie channels). One of the best things about the cabins on Queen of the Mississippi? There are 12 specially priced single-occupancy cabins, 11 of which have private balconies. As a sign of the ship's older demographic, every cabin is outfitted with a medical emergency button.

    Photo by Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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    American Queen Entertainment: On American Queen, the entertainment pretty much ticked the usual boxes, focusing on Americana and ye olde Hollywood and dance music. Definitely geared to a more senior generation, the shows didn't appeal to us (though an Irish sing-along, which was tempting, would have been a lot more fun in a more intimate location). But here's the thing: Days are busy, and you don't need much beyond that. Meals generally run long (we had a convivial group), and we preferred to fill the rest of the evening with a quiet drink after dinner, an early turn-in with a good book or time spent hanging out on the Front Porch (the outdoor sitting area off of the Front Porch Cafe, the boat's casual eatery) listening to the crickets. Do keep an eye out for themed cruises, mostly music-oriented (such as the Harry James Orchestra, Vegas Rat Pack Show and Alabama Blues Brothers, among others).

    Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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    Queen of the Mississippi Entertainment: Banjo sing-alongs, jazz music and dance, Golden Oldies movie trivia, kite-flying -- the entertainment onboard Queen of the Mississippi is varied, but with a penchant for traditional Americana. It's also purposely aimed at the senior demographic with bands playing music from the 30s, 40s and 50s and activities geared toward people with less mobility and endurance. Nightly entertainment begins at 8:15 p.m. and is pretty much over by 9:30. While you're welcome to stay in the lounges as late as you like, drink service is over and done with, and there's no music to keep you company. A party boat Queen of the Mississippi is not.

    Photo by Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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    American Queen Enrichment: If you go home ignorant of the history, culture and traditions of the Mississippi River region of yore, it's your own fault. American Queen has a resident riverlorian, who, when not in the Chart Room -- which serves as his office and the ship's nautical library -- often holds court in the Grand Saloon. What we missed, however, was more of an opportunity to learn about life now in the ports that we visited, or even other more general sorts of skills-improvement, such as photography, painting, and journaling.

    Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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    Queen of the Mississippi Enrichment: Passengers onboard Queen of the Mississippi are treated to a slew of lectures pertaining to life along the country's great rivers, from river ecology to the way locks and dams work, as well as the history of steamboating in general. For instance, did you know the first steamboat plied the Hudson River or that the paddlewheel is in the back in order to make more room for cargo and passengers? Neither did we before a pair of riverlorians introduced me to a slice of American life we knew nothing about. At least two enrichment lectures are offered each day, and the riverlorians are always around to take passengers' questions.

    Photo by Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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    American Queen Food: Diet before you leave home so you won't gain too many extra pounds. With dishes like pan-seared catfish, chicken boursin, barbecue escargot and mushroom ragout on savory grits, dining is a highlight. American Queen, via its beautiful JM White Room restaurant, focuses on Southern specialties with a modern touch, overseen by noted regional chef and Mississippi native Regina Charboneau. We loved the ability to choose food from a buffet or to order from a menu at breakfast and lunch. (The Sunday Jazz Brunch is not to be missed.) The multicourse dinners, with complimentary wine, are extravagant. Rare for a riverboat, there's a lovely in-cabin menu, and up in the Front Porch Cafe, there are hot and cold options all day into the evening. Soft ice cream and, in the afternoons, freshly baked cookies and popped popcorn are always available and oh so tempting.

    Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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    Queen of the Mississippi Food: Cajun minestrone, buttermilk-brined chicken, door county fish broil -- like so much else on Queen of the Mississippi, the food is a slice of American life, with an emphasis on Southern cuisine. It's tasty, but there's not much choice -- typically two entrees to choose from for lunch and three for dinner. But the dining staff does aim to please, so if you don't like what's on offer, you can ask for something else. Given the demographic of the ship (average age is probably 70 or so), all dietary needs can be accommodated. But there's no shortage of sweets, especially cookies and ice cream.

    Photo by Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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    American Queen Service: American Queen draws its crew entirely from the U.S. They almost always are really terrific, enthusiastic and happy to lend a hand, whether it's accommodating extra requests at the JM White restaurant or helping wobbly passengers wind their way down the gangway. When you run into crew in parts of the ship where they're just passing through, they're also unfailingly friendly. There was a blemish on our trip, however: The bartender at the River Grill, located aft, overlooking the ship's wake, was surly and rude. (He'd blare sitcoms from the bar's television so loudly you couldn't even hear the paddlewheel.) Passengers -- including us -- responded by staying away from what, in our opinion, was the loveliest part of the ship.

    Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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    Queen of the Mississippi Service: The service onboard Queen of the Mississippi is among the best you'll receive on water. The crew, many of whom pull double duty as waiters and room attendants, are friendly, eager to please and always around to help out. Even the senior crew (hotel and cruise directors, food and beverage manager, etc.) are ever-present, serving coffee in the restaurant, stopping by to chat and just generally there to offer genuine concern for your happiness. Don't want to do one of the offered excursions? Tell a crewmember, and they'll come up with something else for you. Need an extra pillow or a bottle of water in your cabin? They'll have it to you in less than five minutes.

    Photo by Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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    American Queen Salons/Public Rooms: The biggest surprise onboard American Queen was how many fabulous and cozy public rooms there were to lounge in -- and how each had a distinct personality. Altogether, the ambience was more historic boutique hotel than riverboat. The Mark Twain Gallery, the center of indoor activity, had lots of deep chairs and couches, overlooked the JM Dining Room below. It offers great people-watching opportunities, and it also has the best Wi-Fi signal. We love the light and airy Ladies Parlor and, opposite, the Gentleman's Card Room, a Victorian era "man cave," complete with the head of a bear who, apparently, got caught up in the ship's paddlewheel many years ago. (Men and women are able to use either room, by the way.)

    Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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    Queen of the Mississippi Salons/Public Rooms: There isn't an overwhelming number of salons and public rooms onboard Queen of the Mississippi, with two small libraries, a map room and three lounges composing the majority of the public space. The libraries are small with a couch and a selection of books and DVDs (mostly movies released pre-1970). The Paddlewheel Lounge is all dark wood, brass and Tiffany-esque lamps, while the Sky Lounge is a light-filled space with floor-to-ceiling glass doors and wicker furniture. The larger Magnolia Lounge, where most of the ship's entertainment takes place, is a hodgepodge of comfy couches and straight-backed chairs, and it's constantly being rearranged depending on what's on the schedule for that day.

    Photo by Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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    American Queen Indefinable Extras: On shore at each port of call, a complimentary American Queen-themed hop-on, hop-off bus offers guided commentary and a chance to explore what you want as you please. Also fabulous: The ship stocks bicycles (and helmets) to borrow, and, as flat towpaths line much of the Mississippi, it's ideal cycling territory. The gift shop is amazing, too: so many cool things to buy, from books about the area (I picked up a copy of Eudora Welty's "Delta Wedding"); treats, from soaps to chocolate, made by local artisans; and pretty artwork and memorabilia. But the real highlight of an American Queen trip is sitting up on the Front Porch in a rocking chair with a chocolate chip cookie or at the River Grill with a beer and watching America roll by. I've never felt such a sense of contentment.

    Photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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    Queen of the Mississippi Indefinable Extras: It's not a feeling that can be adequately put into words, that sense of peace you get as you lazily toe your rocking chair into motion and the riverbanks slowly glide by. A crane wings its way past the greenery, and a swallow swoops along the water's edge. Logs slowly bob past the Queen of the Mississippi, making their way toward the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The breeze takes away the sting of the heat, and all in the world seems sane and in harmony for the moment. The hum of the boat's engine and the gurgle of the boat's wake fill the air, yet it's quiet. Everything moves slowly, but it's not boring. It's simply just right.

    Photo by Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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