Battlefields, Blues and Biscuits…A Beauty of a Riverboat
“My mailing address might be elsewhere, but this is where I call home.”
Those words were among the first I heard from my American Queen shipmate, Bill, a jolly Ohioan who has more than 20 voyages on the steamboat booked through the end of 2023.
And he’s not alone in his devotion.
From the moment I board American Queen in New Orleans for a 7-day “President’s Cruise” up the lower Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis, I am surrounded by American Queen veterans who have regularly sailed the grand steamship since she was acquired by American Queen Voyages and christened in Memphis by Godmother Priscilla Presley in 2012.
Guests’ passion for the 418-foot, 436-guest steamboat—the largest steamboat ever built—dazzles even newly-named AQV President Cindy D’Aoust, previously President/CEO at Cruise Lines International Association, who joined us for the sailing. “What creates loyalty to a company is not the hardware. It’s not the destinations. It’s nothing that you can feel or touch. It’s our staff. People know our staff by name. They know what they did during layup or if they are going on holiday for two weeks. They greet each other with hugs.”
That may be true but I, as a newcomer, find myself tremendously fascinated by the “hardware.” Even before boarding, American Queen is an opulent wonder: American flags flutter in the breeze atop what looks like an extravagant vanilla-iced wedding cake, two crown-topped stacks reach to the sky while filigreed posts line the exterior of the boat’s six passenger decks and a scarlet paddlewheel—a working paddlewheel, not a mere decoration—sits at the boat’s stern looking like a whimsical amusement park ride.
Once aboard, the fascination increases as I am suddenly transported back in time to the Gilded Age, surrounded by magnificent period furnishings, relics of days past, and meticulous detail. Tiffany lamps cast an amber glow atop walnut end tables sandwiched between plush armchairs while brass accents glisten. Windows are draped with luxurious fabric and are bordered in decorative molding that leads seamlessly into built-in curio cabinets and bookshelves heavy with vintage hard cover volumes. Cozy throw rugs cover wooden floors and tasteful chandeliers provide warmth and illumination. Even corridors, dotted with artwork, antiques and artifacts, reflect the historic feel of this American steamship.
Suddenly, I feel as though I should be wearing a bustle and a bonnet adorned with ribbons instead of jeans, a t-shirt and a bright orange puffy jacket. But American Queen is a decidedly casual experience, so even my bright orange puffy jacket is welcome.
THE KING OF AMERICAN QUEEN
It’s impossible to talk about American Queen without talking about John Waggoner, the engaging founder/Chairman of American Queen Voyages who joined us for our “President’s Cruise.”
If you’re lucky enough to sail with Waggoner, as we did, he just might share with you his often-hilarious story, “A Boy, A Boat and a Dream.” This fascinating presentation takes us from Waggoner’s lifelong dream of owning a lavish steamboat to the obstacles, financial challenges and strokes of luck that led to his acquisition of American Queen and the launch of American Queen Voyages. Most astonishing is the transformation of the moldy and rusted vessel pictured in the presentation into the pristine and luxurious steamship we are sailing aboard right now!
MY HOME, SWEET HOME
The period details aboard American Queen extend into her cabins. Each cabin, from the humble 80- square-foot inside single stateroom to the extravagant 348-square-foot Owner’s Suite, is dedicated to a person or place of importance in American history. Mine is in honor of Louis Jolliet, the French-Canadian explorer who was the first non-Native to explore and map the Upper Mississippi River.
While certainly cozy, this 210-square foot superior veranda cabin features a bath with full tub and shower and Nature brand amenities. A queen bed, with two sconce reading lamps hovering above it, is the focal point of the soothing, beige fleur-de-lis wallpapered bedroom that includes a full dresser topped with oval walnut-framed mirror, side tables and easy chair.
Best of all, my cabin door opens right to the deck, a chair and side table placed directly outside in view of the mighty Mississippi. And, with the River Grill bar just a few steps away, my “neighbors” and I find that enjoying a glass of wine at cocktail time (all beverages with the exception of just a few premium selections are included in fare), is the best way to begin our evenings aboard American Queen.
A TASTE OF AMERICAN QUEEN
Oysters, charbroiled and topped with a buttery broth, or raw ones, seasoned, briny and in the shell. A quirky take on lobster tail: deep fried and studded with flakes of sweet coconut. Crispy fried chicken resting atop tender waffles drizzled with maple syrup. A Jazz Brunch that includes both a buffet and an la carte menu that offers feather-light biscuits holding a thick slab of caramelized applewood bacon and sweet jam (I devoured four of them), creamy shrimp bisque and a hearty Monte Cristo sandwich loaded with sliced ham and gooey gruyere cheese.
Southern food, in general, may not be ideal for calorie counters (although vegan and “classic” dishes like grilled fish, sauteed chicken breast and Caesar salad are available each evening) but that’s the price you pay for an authentic experience along the Mississippi. Fortunately, American Queen features a fitness center and outdoor swimming pool!
When it comes to authenticity, American Queen has a secret weapon in the form of celebrated Culinary Ambassador Regina Charboneau who, as a seventh-generation native of Natchez, Mississippi, seems born to take the appetizing helm of a riverboat that is a celebration of America and, in particular, the American South.
In her newly expanded role, chef/restauranteur/author/cooking instructor Charboneau is revamping all AQV menus (those in the formal J.M. White Dining Room as well as offerings at the casual Front Porch Café) to not only reflect regional flavors but also educate us to the influence French, German and Italian immigrants to the region have had on local cuisine.
And with Charboneau conducting regular cooking demonstrations of favorite Southern dishes like broiled oysters with pepper marinade, slow-cooker Memphis pulled pork with barbecue sauce and even her world-famous biscuits (biscuits which lead to The New York Times christening her “The Biscuit Queen), you can enjoy your favorite Southern recipes even when you return home!
ENTERTAINMENT…WITH A SOUTHERN DRAWL
Music is all around American Queen…even on deck thanks to the riverboat’s gold-plated brass pipe calliope, steam puffing out of each pipe as each note is played.
The Engine Room Bar is the place for late-night jazz (be sure to pop out on deck for a close-up look at that hypnotic paddlewheel) and the Captain’s Bar, located at the bottom of the sweeping carpeted staircase that leads to the riverboat’s formal dining room, is the spot for pre-dinner gatherings against the sophisticated backdrop of a tinkling piano. It is the breathtaking two-story Grand Saloon, fashioned after Washington DC’s Ford’s theater, however, that is the jewel in American Queen’s entertainment crown. A riot of red and gold with tier boxes hovering above the orchestra and an extravagant chandelier suspended from the room’s ornamental ceiling, the stage is illuminated by an oval façade of glowing lights that makes any production—whether it be blues and jazz legend Joyce Cobb, a tribute to Diana Ross, a celebration of Broadway or a banjo or guitar extravaganza—a dazzling triumph!
On our sailing, however, the superstar is—without question—Mark Twain. Actor Lewis Hankins brings Twain to life in the Grand Saloon, his monologue, movements, expressions precisely capturing the spirit of the American writer and humorist. The result is hilarious as “Twain” recalls growing up on the Mississippi; touching as he recalls his love for his late wife Livy; even educational as he, in the context of a story of his time as a steamboat pilot, explains engagingly, humorously—exactly how a steamboat works. Bravo!
AMERICAN QUEEN ASHORE…PLANTATIONS, PRESLEY…A PRISON??
I don’t get on the boat to get off the boat!” This, another declaration from Bill, the jolly Ohioan, as he tries to explain why he chooses to remain aboard American Queen rather than go exploring at each port. Sorry, Bill—you’re missing a lot!
As a jaded New Yorker, I wasn’t sure what I’d find in Mississippi but I certainly didn’t expect to find Natchez, a vibrant and friendly city where music and food reign! Perhaps it helps that Culinary Ambassador Regina Charboneau is our guide as we explore Stanton Hall, the palatial Antebellum Classical Revival mansion, dine at the adjoining Carriage House, enjoy a local blues concert by phenomenally-talented local Amy Allen at her and partner Tracy’s glorious combination B&B/music hall and visit Charboneau’s cooking school where we are treated to a potent French 75, a cocktail of gin, simple syrup and champagne. On this, my first step into the state of Mississippi, I can’t help but wish American Queen offered us an overnight visit at the quaint but sophisticated port of Natchez!
While the majority of American Queen excursions along the lower Mississippi justifiably focus on the battlefields of the Civil War, plantations and the horror of slavery, AQV offers a handful of enjoyable alternative experiences among its tour selections (some free; some premium tours ranging from $99 to $149 per person), including a home visit with locals Ginger and James in Natchez and, in Nottoway, Louisiana, Life in the Bayou, a guided kayak tour of the Cajun swamplands—watch out for alligators! Or you might simply choose to grab a map and do your own thing via American Queen’s complimentary hop on/hop off coach with stops clearly marked along the roads throughout the city.
Certainly the most mind-blowing tour, however, is St. Francisville, Louisiana’s Redemption and Rehabilitation, a visit to Angola, one of America’s most notorious prisons. Named by SeaTrade in 2015 as the best shore excursion in the world, Angola is an 18,000-acre facility that houses 4,000 inmates, three-quarters of those serving a life sentence, and includes a death row that currently houses 59, one of them female. From the horrors of Red Hat, the maximum-security facility that, up until the 1960s, stuffed 10-12 inmates into each narrow cell, and the original execution chamber, American Queen guests can see first-hand the prison’s new dedication to rehabilitation through missions like PAWS, a program where offenders may volunteer to train service dogs to assist and comfort veterans suffering from depression and anxiety. The three inmates that we met, convicted murderers all, showed a keen devotion to PAWS and, with the dogs, demonstrated just a few things they have taught these animals to assist a veteran in need.
If Jailhouse Rock is more your thing, American Queen’s arrival in Memphis will bring music to your ears—literally—with The Elvis Experience, a guided tour of the hot spots in Elvis’ town, and Soundtrack of Memphis, a musical celebration that visits the iconic Beale Street, Sun Studio, Elvis’ first stage, and the church where Johnny Cash got his start.
And you can rock right up until it’s time to board your flight home since AQV eases the pain of disembarkation with a tour that combines a visit to Graceland with a transfer to the Memphis Airport.
Hmmmm…maybe Bill, my jolly Ohioan shipmate, would be willing to do that one.
- American Queen (cover photo)
- Cabin: Superior Veranda Cabin opens right on to outside deck
- MT Gallery: American Queen transports guests back in time!
- MARK TWAIN: Actor Lewis Hankins brings Mark Twain to Life
- Southern Fried Chicken: A celebration of Southern food!
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