For a boat its size, there's a surprising amount of entertainment to be found on American Queen -- and some of it breaks out at unexpected times. We're talking about the singular delight (or horror, depending on your tolerance for high decibels) of the boat's calliope, found on the top deck next to the bar that bears its name. There are red-white-and-blue concerts when leaving river ports and passing through locks that have visitors' viewing platforms. Stand close enough, and you can feel the mist from the steam producing the music.
The main entertainment venue is the Grand Saloon, a posh two-story showstopper. The theater is a sea of gold and red, with dark wood and box seats surrounded by thick curtains, plus an ornate lighted proscenium that frames the stage. Its design is based on Washington's Ford's Theater and it even has a replica of the box in which Lincoln sat on that fateful evening; on the ship, the "Lincoln box" is named after Ralph Waldo Emerson. A wide variety of performances take place there, though most are geared toward an older clientele. Expect lots of music, from big band sounds to a revue of made-in-America classics and Broadway favorites. Depending on your sailing, you might also be treated to magicians or Mark Twain impersonators. In addition, some voyages feature the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Rat Pack Show (a Sinatra tribute) and groups of yore like the Platters and the Lovin' Spoonful. It's all good fun, and there's a chance for dancing with the chairs cleared away at least once per cruise.
You can catch daily lectures in the Grand Saloon by the boat's "riverlorians," experts who provide historical and often lyrical context on the boat, famous American figures connected to the rivers, and the passing landscape. They're mini-celebrities onboard; many passengers latch onto them as they pass by on deck, and they're always happy to answer any questions. Often one can be found in the Chart Room, where maps of the river are laid out for inspection.
Puzzles and various board games, as well as large tables, are available in the Mark Twain Gallery and Ladies' Parlor. Bridge players can post their availability. There is no casino onboard.
American Queen has two main watering holes. The alfresco, horseshoe-shaped River Grill and Bar is atop the paddlewheel (and adjacent to the pool). Late afternoons, the peckish head here for chilidogs and bagged snacks. There’s no entertainment (save for a television blaring sports) but the real star here is the view. On deck 2 is the Engine Room Bar, which features live music most nights and is the ship’s haunt for late owls. It’s a mesmerizing place, particularly when the paddlewheel’s moving, as it’s located directly off the aft and the view of the spinning wheel through the windows is beautiful. Don’t miss the balconies off to either side; on portside it’s a designated smoking area.
Whatever you do, don't miss a trip to the engine room itself, down a flight of steps to the right of the bar. The crew is happy to chat up passengers about the amazing mechanism that brings the paddlewheel to life.
The Captain's Bar is located just outside the dining saloon as part of the Main Deck Lounge; there's piano music or singalongs every night.
In every port of call, American Queen offers passengers a free hop-on, hop-off tour. Buses adorned to look like American Queen, courtesy of a "skin" overlay, transport passengers around ports of call, and you're free to hop on or off at any number of predetermined spots. A guide narrates the route and explains what's attractive about each stop. Most routes take 20 to 40 minutes to complete the full circuit, and good walkers can also do most of the loops on foot at their own pace (varies by port), should they wish.
Depending on the itinerary, you may end up in a small town you've never heard of. For instance, we visited Henderson, Kentucky, and Madison, Indiana, the latter being a particularly winsome find with its shops, restaurants and interesting architecture and history. In other cases, ports include some of America's most interesting cities. In Louisville, for instance, passengers can pick and choose among the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts (for a 35-minute multimedia extravaganza called "Kentucky Show!") and the Louisville Glass Works, among other spots.
Conversely, passengers can also book Premium Choice Tours for an extra fee in a number of towns. Akin to standard shore excursions on bigger vessels, they include private transportation, more personalized service and occasionally a meal. Louisville's Premium Choice option is a $59, four-hour excursion that includes a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs and lunch at Lynn's Paradise Cafe, a local legend that serves the town's famous Hot Brown sandwich.
And don't hesitate to borrow one of the cruiser bicycles from the ship's collection; many of the smaller towns we visited had lovely (and flat) towpaths that flanked the river -- perfect for cycling.
No need to worry about getting lost on American Queen; despite its 418-foot length, the boat is easy to traverse, and the many staircases on its outside decks make it a snap to get around. Let's retire the word "ornate" here -- just about every public space on the vessel is steeped in rich Victorian flourishes.
Most days start in the center of the boat on Deck 2, home to the Purser's Lobby, which centers on an intricately carved staircase leading down to the J.M. White Dining Room and the Grand Saloon. A massive chandelier hangs above the stairs, its light providing an ethereal glow on the cherubs painted on the ceiling above. You can get information on shore excursions in the lobby or pore over a distinctive selection of souvenirs in the American Queen gift shop (check out the $1,000 red guitar that’s made out of old boards from the paddlewheel). The shop’s not duty-free so it’s open in port and out, and also sells t-shirts and toiletries.
Just beyond the Purser's Lobby are American Queen's most over-the-top spaces. The sprawling Mark Twain Gallery is a plush, jam-packed living room of sorts that serves as the vessel's main meeting area. Comfy leather chairs, couches, tables, steamboat models, birdcages, bookshelves, a piano ... you name it, you'll find it. We saw a lot of card games going on down there. It's also one of the best spots to tap into the boat's free Wi-Fi, and there's a cappuccino machine to keep the pulse racing. A handful of Internet-connected desktop computers are tucked away to one side, free to use.
Just beyond the Mark Twain Gallery are two of the boat's most intriguing rooms. Even though American Queen was built in 1996, designers adhered to the sexist ways of yore to keep things authentic. Hence, there's the unisex Gentleman's Card Room, a super-comfortable space with high-backed leather chairs, a giant fish mounted on the wall and, of course, a game table. Behind the table on the wall is "Killer," the stuffed head of a wild boar that was allegedly slain when it strayed into the path of the paddlewheel of the now-scuttled Mississippi Queen riverboat.
And if the men get their own space, then the woman should as well, right? The Ladies' Parlor, which likewise is open to anyone who ventures inside, is another Victorian-era ode to excess, though with more potted plants and flowers, a lighter color scheme, a "swooning couch" and seats by the windowsill. Like its counterpart across the hall, it's an ideal spot for card playing, jigsaw puzzle-solving, reading and Web browsing.
Nab one of the best seats in the house on the covered Front Porch Cafe, a lovely alfresco area on Deck 3. It's furnished with rocking chairs and hanging swings, all the better to enjoy the breeze off the bow. Here's a tip: go at night, and you'll have it almost to yourself. The view of tiny towns twinkling in the distance with the moon beaming overhead is breathtaking.
True mariners will want to check out the Chart Room on Deck 4, just above the Front Porch. There are shelves full of books and, naturally, charts. It's also a good place to sit back and chill. If you want some fresh air, head just out the door and grab a rocker.
Travelers with mobility issues can use the bank of elevators midship. From our observations, few people seemed to have trouble getting around the boat, and the staff were quick to assist. One persistent difficulty, however, is getting on and off the boat. We saw more than a few people struggle with the bobbing, slanted gangway that provides access to some ports. In addition, there are often hills to climb once you get off the boat because towns on the rivers are elevated to protect from flooding. Fortunately, staff run around in golf carts (stored onboard when the ship is cruising) to aid passengers in port.
The free Wi-Fi is not all that fast or available (in cabins it can be very difficult to pick up a signal); we found the Mark Twain Gallery to be the best spot. (Beware that both Internet and phone service can be spotty particularly when entering locks).
There are also several washers and dryers located around the ship for light loads on long trips; you can use them for free, and soap is provided. There is no dry-cleaning service.
There are no medical facilities, but the boat is rarely far from shoreside treatment, and trained first responders are always onboard.
Surprise! American Queen advertises spa services but on our trip the one-man (or woman) operation was not staffed (in vain, we asked the concierge for in-town suggestions and finally got advice from locals once in port). If the spa is operational on your cruise, prices -- though not cheap -- are not as horrific as spas you'll find on coastal cruise ships. Hour-long massages cost $95, while the Restorative Body Scrub will set you back $85. Facials, pedicures and manicures are also generally available. Book your reservation at the purser's desk.
Another surprise: American Queen has a top-deck "bathing" pool and a fitness room. While tiny, the pool is a welcome retreat on those hot Southern days (and nights, actually). The surroundings have been upgraded since the ship launch with nice decking and lovely padded loungers though there’s no shade here (you can find shade on the deck above, that wraps around the pool). Likewise, the fitness room is compact but perfectly amenable; there are a few cardio machines and a weight-lifting device that sat largely unused during our voyage.
Walkers have plenty of deck space to discover, as three outdoor decks traverse the entire boat.
The ship carries a dozen bicycles that are free to use in port. We suggest that American Queen prepare cycling maps for passengers to use.
While this is not a family-oriented ship, there were kids traveling on our trip and they were having a blast. There are no amenities geared to them, however.