CABIN: see "Cabin Review" below "Raitings"
DINING: If you are a foodie, expect to be disappointed. The food was generally good and the quantity sufficient. The service was inconsistent and often sloppy. Mostly young adults who work long hours and try hard, but do not have adequate training and supervision.
EMBARKATION: The usual cattle car of moving us from the hotel to the boat (there being by tradition no "ship" on an inland waterway in the USA). When we got to the ship we were left to ourselves to find our own cabin.
ENRICHMENT ACTIVITIES: The lecturers were generally knowledgeable. They often doubled as the evening's entertainers.
ENTERTAINMENT: Appropriate for the size of the vessel. They brought aboard some fun acts.
FITNESS & RECREATION: There is a small but reasonably well equipped exercise room. Other than back-n-forth in a passageway, there is no place to do walking laps of any significant distance without incorporating staircases.
ONBOARD EXPERIENCE: Their slogan is "Small ship cruising done perfectly." My wife and I have cruised on HAL, Oceania, Regent, NCL and Sebourn. This set a high bar for "done perfectly" that our experience aboard did not come anywhere close to achieving.
The staff was mostly young, often well-educated young adults, at least several of of whom are working the job to make more so they could return to school. They generally had a pleasant, helpful attitude, but the experience they delivered was inconsistent. For example, we ordered a fairly basic breakfast (generally yogurt, fruit, English muffin, bacon and juice) in our cabin about six times during the course of the cruise. It was delivered by at least four different staff members. Not once was everything we ordered with accompanying items (e.g. one day there was no bowl into which to pour box of cereal). And on one occasion our order got misplaced so we received no cabin service.
On balance, we are not foodies. We would rather have friendly, well-intentioned service than snooty, precise service. What was most important to us was seeing cruising the river. While major itinerary changes (discussed further down) were a significant disappointment, the boat itself is a great platform on which to tour the American heartland. It's ability to nudge up again the shore and drop its bow gangway so that we could go ashore was excellent. It was wonderful to watch the shoreline scroll by. Had we been trapping under cover by bad weather the experience would have been a serious disappointment, but like high water on the Mississippi, that is beyond ACL's control.
PUBLIC ROOMS: The boat has three not counting the dining room. In particular, the one on the second deck aft was cozy. On both the second and forth deck aft there was always an assortment of snacks, iced water, ice and soft drinks available. The public space on the fourth deck aft also made a coffee maker for cappuccinos, lattes, etc. that worked about 50% of the time.
SERVICE: (Read ONBOARD EXPERIENCE above.) Again, most of the staff was young and seemed inexperience, but was friendly and wanted to be helpful. I can forgive a lot of technical mistakes in exchange for a friendly, can-do attitude.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: We did several. As with tours the world over, they varied depending on subject matter and guide. My wife went on one tour she described as awful. Talking to people at dinner who had been on two other buses, they had enjoyed the same tour. None of the tours were 'special access' or anything we could not have done on our own if we had been land-cruising in our car.
VALUE FOR MONEY: This was an expensive trip. Our expectations of it were set high both by the original cruise itinerary and ACL's assurance of "Small ship cruising done perfectly." The shortfall in the latter having been covered above, I will focus on the former.
Our cruise itinerary was badly compromised by the high level of water in the upper Mississippi River. During the first week of our two-week trip, new bits of bad news were rolled out to us almost daily. This was not done well, nor were the solutions for cancelling three ports on the Mississippi imaginative, instead turning the boat into a very expensive hotel by elongating our stay in a couple of cities. Intellectually I can appreciate to logistical issues ACL faced, but in the end what saved the trip was good weather so that we could enjoy our top priority of seeing the river.
When I think about the numerous trips we have taken all over the world, my primary metric is the overall experience from the time we leave our home until the time we return. There are always good and bad components. Some of each involve arrangements we have made ourselves that are totally beyond the control of the primary service provider - in this case American Cruise Lines. In this review I have tried to remove such influencers from my review to distill out what was within ACL's reasonable control.
When booking the trip, we wanted to arrive at the hotel from which we would embark a day early. Unlike any other cruise line we have ever worked with, ACL categorically refused to help with extending our stay. We were advised to make our own reservation, then ask the hotel not to move us to a different room for the pre-embarkation night.
Six days before our embarkation, I got an e-mail message advising us that the embarkation point had changed from St. Paul, MN to Louisville, KY and we should change our travel plans accordingly. When my wife called to ask if ACL could help extend our stay at the Louisville hotel, she got the same answer - NO. On the plus side, during the course of our cruise I was advised that ACL had arranged for us to be reimbursed by the hotel for our additional night.
Had I not seen the e-mail about the new embarkation point, I can only speculate about ACL's actions to communicate the change to me. I do know for a fact that the message came with not request to acknowledgement of receiving it, so ACL had not idea of who had read the e-mail making me wonder whether some passengers literally missed the boat.
As the itinerary continued to dissolve, some leadership from the captain would have been re-assuring, but we heard little from him. I speculate that in Memphis we had a change of captain, but I cannot be sure because he never said a word to us over the PA system.
Two of the itinerary changes - Cape Girardeau and St. Louis - were surprising in that they were announced at the last minute. It struck me as sufficiently odd that ACL did not have shore-side intelligence to keep them better informed of local situations. It was not as though river high changes overnight, yet in the case of Cape Girardeau, ACL would have us believe that no one knew we could not do a port visit until AMERICA was steaming along the city's flood wall.
With the numerous itinerary changes and lack of imagination in a revised itinerary it was difficult not to devolve into conspiracy theories. These were exacerbated by things such as having to be back aboard in Natchez after only a half-day there, yet arriving at our next port at 10 PM that night. Why couldn't we have spent the whole day in Natchez and cruised to the next port later into the night?
I have prattled on enough for the reader to get a sense of our cruise, so I will stop. There are no doubt some spelling and grammatical errors above, but I've run out of time to edit them. Hopefully they do not interfere with the points that I have tried to make.
We chose the top deck so that we could be sure to see over the levees if the river level was low. We were aft of the central staircase.
PLUS: Easy access to outside aft. Port side when going downriver kept us exposed to the water rather than the land when docked or on the shore. (I would pick starboard side if going upriver.)
CONS: The noise from people talking in the passageway outside the laundry three doors down was an irritant. Inadequate soundproofing between cabins. Someone walking heavy-footed outdoors on the sixth deck was distracting.