American Cruise Lines offers at least one complimentary option per port on the Mississippi River and Columbia and Snake rivers. These are usually 90 minutes to three hours in length. On the Lower Mississippi, they consist primarily of plantation tours, and coach tours of battlefields or cities. On the Upper Mississippi, the complimentary tours are coach tours, and visits to historic homes or a bald eagle sanctuary.
Special shoutout to the boat's staff, which works hard to make sure that passengers with mobility issues can take part in excursions. Golf carts are available at most stops to get people over the steep levees to the tour buses. Some plantations, however, do have stairs and lack elevators, so if you do have issues walking, you might not see the entire home.
* May require additional fees
In many stops, American Cruise Lines also provides a complimentary shuttle for passengers who want to be more independent. Maps and brochures of the major sights, as well as a port information sheet, are placed on Deck 1. Just make sure you know what time America leaves, as the company doesn't keep track of who is onboard. On our sailing, we had a couple miss the ship in Vicksburg; the staff arranged for a driver to provide them dinner and transport them to a dock downriver.
In addition to the complimentary excursions, America has several for-fee excursions. On the Lower Mississippi cruise, these included a visit to the Atchafalaya Swamp outside Baton Rouge ($75), a tour of Frogmore Plantation in Natchez ($45) and a city motor coach tour of New Orleans ($45 with airport drop off; $35 with local drop off). On the Upper Mississippi, you can tour the Hixon House in La Crosse or take a narrated trolley tour in Hannibal, Missouri, with a Mark Twain impersonator.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
As a small ship, America has a limited range of activities, but that didn't seem to bother the passengers on our cruise. Between the daily shore excursion, lecture, cocktail hour and evening entertainment -- plus meals -- many people opted to nap in their free time.
For those who didn't, scheduled activities included kite flying, galley and pilothouse tours, magic and card trick demonstrations and pastry lessons. We wondered why there wasn't trivia onboard, but we saw passengers filling their free time with cards and board games.
The boat has music after dinner every night, either through guest performers brought on from a local port, or through an onboard entertainer (on our cruise, the river historian Bill Wiemuth did double duty, performing with his wife, singer Laura Sable). We found the shows entertaining, if a bit short; 45 minutes to an hour was the norm. Highlights included the Victory Belles, an Andrews Sisters act from the World War II Museum in New Orleans; Wendell Brunious and Tom Hook, jazz players with serious cred from New Orleans; and Osgood & Blaque, a blues act from Vicksburg.
Think Civil War history is dry and boring? We did, until we met America's river historian. On our cruise, Bill Wiemuth gave daily lectures on subjects ranging from steamboats to Mark Twain. A former cruise director and entertainer, Wiemuth has written audio books about American rivers, and he brought passion and energy to his lectures. Besides his prepared talks Wiemuth also held well-attended Q&As about the Mississippi River, taking questions and pointing out other vessels on the waterway. Bill and his wife Laura have such a following with American Cruise Lines that a schedule of their upcoming sailings is displayed at the front desk so people can sign up with them.
Other onboard experts are hired by the line for specialty themed sailings, such as the Civil War and music. The line lists them on their website by itinerary. On the Upper Mississippi, for example, there's a Mark Twain impersonator and also a naturalist. Karen "Toots" Maloy and Jim Williams are other riverlorians who receive praise.
We appreciated cabins having a button for narration, so lectures can be broadcast into your room.
As we mentioned earlier, America has no alcoholic beverages for sale. There are lots of lounges and public spaces, though, where you can get snacks, cookies or just read a book and enjoy the river.
The problem with there being no bar isn't so much about alcohol consumption; you can take bottles of wine from the dining room after dinner and you are encouraged to bring your own. What it does mean is that there's no gathering place after entertainment shuts down, so if you like to socialize after 9:30 p.m., you have to prowl around to find like-minded people.
Magnolia Lounge (Deck 2): This large lounge at the front of the boat is the primary entertainment space for lectures during the day, the pre-dinner cocktail hour and music in the evening. There's a nifty electronic screen in the corner that displays the position of America on the river, along with other vessels. There's also a small piano that a few musically inclined passengers played during the day. This is where Wi-Fi is the strongest.
Paddlewheel Lounge (Deck 2): This handsome lounge at the back of the boat has lots of wood and feels the most like an old-timey room. You'll find the early riser breakfast here, as well as snacks and sodas during the day.
Sky Lounge (Deck 4): This airy lounge has glass windows all around, as well as comfy garden-style wicker chairs and sofas. It's a nice place to read or play cards. An early riser breakfast is here as well, and there's also snacks, soda and a specialty coffee machine. Afternoon tea service takes place here, as well as occasional lectures and Eagle Society parties for past and future cruisers.
America has an expanse of outdoor seating and sun decks, although summer temperatures on the Lower Mississippi can make it prohibitively hot; it's a bit better on the upper part of the river. There's a sun deck on Deck 5 and one above that's accessible only by stairs; both have white rocking chairs and cushioned loungers. On deck four, there's a shaded area with rocking chairs, as well as cushioned chairs, sofas and tables with cute lanterns. This is where kite-flying is offered once per cruise. There is a small putting green on deck four as well.
Rocking chairs are also placed on deck three near the exercise area in the back of the boat, as well as in the front.
Embarkation takes place at the front of the ship on Deck 1. Near the elevator bank on Deck 1, there's a list of all passenger and crew names and where they are from. Past American Cruise Lines cruisers and the number of sailings they have done is also posted, as well as information about the river historian and entertainer. You'll also find brochures for places in port, complimentary postcards and other materials about the sailing in this area
The reception desk is on Deck 2. This is where you can talk to the hotel director and his staff, book extra-fee excursions or sign up for the Eagle Society, the cruise line's loyalty program. The lounge near the elevators on Deck 2 has books and jigsaw puzzles.
The Chart Room on Deck 3 has navigational maps and binoculars. On Deck 4, you'll find the patriotically decorated Mark Twain library with a computer and a printer, plus DVDs to use in your room, and games.
Self-service laundry, with complimentary Tide pods, is available on Deck five.
Wi-Fi is complimentary and available throughout the ship; it gets spottier, however, the farther up river you go. We found the fastest speeds in the Magnolia Lounge.
America has no spa, but the concierge desk will work with passengers to find a salon or spa on shore, if needed.
The boat has two elliptical machines, two recumbent bikes and two weight machines outdoors at the back on Deck 3; the space is not covered. There is a jug of water nearby to cool off. There is no walking track onboard and no bikes to use on shore.
America does not bill itself as a cruise for families, and very few children travel on the line. When they do, the cruise director works to finds activities to interest them; however, the program is not active enough to suit teens, kids or twenty-somethings. While cabins are spacious, there are no third berths available. There is no minimum age to sail.