Our Ratings of American Serenade:
Boarding and Disembarkation: 10/10
Design and Appearance: 10/10
It’s called the Mighty Mississippi for a reason. Steeped in legend and lore, this major waterway continues to play a vital role in our nation’s commerce. And just as they’ve done for almost 200 years, riverboats make the journey from New Orleans in the South to Minnesota in the North.
But make no mistake — those riverboats of yesteryear can’t compare to American Serenade, one of the newest ships from one of the leaders in U.S. river cruising, American Cruise Lines, which has been sailing U.S. waters for over 50 years on American-crewed and American-flagged ships.
We are taking their Upper Mississippi, fall foliage cruise, which starts in Alton, Illinois, just outside St. Louis, and ends in Red Wing, Minnesota. This is where the river is the most scenic, flowing by tall bluffs and through habitats populated by bald eagles. Along the way, we’ll stop at towns embodying both history and charm.
This is our second cruise with ACL. In May, we were on American Constellation as it sailed through Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. Since it is our second time, we are enrolled in their Eagle Society loyalty program, which includes special benefits and offers.
One thing we particularly like is the welcome packet ACL provides their guests. It includes information about the ship, dining options, name badges and a welcome letter from the hotel general manager, Trey.
Our cruise includes all beverages, gratuities, meals, Wi-Fi, shore excursions and a pre-cruise hotel stay, which in our case was at the Alton Best Western Premier. Here we got a chance to meet some of our fellow cruisers before boarding buses that would take us to the ship, which included an Alton city tour (where we saw a statue dedicated to Alton’s Robert Pershing Wadlow, the world’s tallest man, at 8 ft. 11 in.)
After boarding, we were greeted by glasses of champagne and went directly to our staterooms, where our luggage had already been delivered. The ship’s capacity is 175 passengers, and on this cruise we have 110. Not only does the smaller size make for a more personal experience, but also provides more interaction with both guests and crew. In fact, we met and bonded with more guests on this cruise than any in memory.
Demographically, most of the guests are Baby Boomers or older. Some had taken more than seven trips on ACL, and for this cruise, there also was a sizeable number of first-timers. You can leave your fancy clothes and tux in the closet; the dress here is distinctly casual.
Here are some of the key takeaways from our week on the Upper Mississippi:
— The ship.
As mentioned, American Serenade is one of the newest ships in the fleet, launched in 2023 from the line’s own shipyard in Salisbury, Maryland. It has five decks built around a four-story atrium, and gleams throughout. Featuring furnishings that are both contemporary and casual, it has both intimate lounges on decks 2-4, as well as the River Lounge on deck 3, which hosts activities and entertainment, and the Sky Lounge and Ellipse Cafe on deck 4, perfect for reading, playing games and relaxing. There’s more seating on the Sun Deck (5), as well as outdoor viewing areas along the sides and front — great for viewing eagles, passing barges and going through locks.
Tip: The terrace on Deck 2 forward is rarely used and offers a good vantage point. And reacting to customer feedback, they have added seating outside the River Lounge as well.
You’ll find games and puzzles in the small lounges, along with books and computers. Speaking of computers, ACL is using Starlink for their Internet access, and we had little issues using social media or streaming content.
— Our stateroom.
All the staterooms onboard are large by cruise industry standards. We had a Veranda Stateroom on Deck 4. Spacious, with a casual, elegant flair, it featured a private balcony and a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door. Operating the door may negate trips to the onboard fitness room: It will test your muscles.
There was a seating area at the foot of our king-size bed, a desk and plenty of storage for our week’s worth of clothing and gear. With a little extra maneuvering, we managed to get our suitcases under the bed. Like most newer ships, it offers a good number of electrical outlets and USB ports, which is always welcome.
The bathroom is modern and roomy, with a single sink, a nice-sized shower and included the necessary toiletries and hair dryer. Early on, we had a water issue with our toilet but it was quickly resolved by maintenance.
Each room has a flat-screen TV with a nice selection of live channels along with movies on demand.
Tip: Outside your room is a dial-sign that alerts the staff whether you want the room made up or do not disturb. They pay close attention to both, so make sure you have dialed to the right function.
— The food. American Serenade has one main dining room on Deck 1, along with the Ellipse Cafe, located in the Sky Lounge on Deck 4, which offers light snacks and casual fare from 11 am to 5 pm. You can also go here for the Early Riser’s Breakfast, 6:30-10 am. Breakfast in main dining is offered 7:30-9 am; lunch is 12-1:30 pm and dinner, 5:30-7:30 pm. You can stay longer for dinner, but they ask that you are seated by 7:30.
Dining is open seating, and after a few days, guests tended to gravitate to the same table or at least the side of the room to have the servers they have come to know. By the end of the cruise, it feels like dining with family.
For lunch and dinner, you choose between two appetizers, three entree selections and two desserts. At breakfast, you have an opportunity to select what you want for lunch and dinner, and whether you want a full or half-portion — that provides some guidance for the chefs, but you still have the option of changing your mind.
Much of the food is locally sourced, and judging from where my belt now resides, I found it ranged from very good to excellent. You can submit a special request if you don’t see what you want on the menu, as well alert the staff to any dietary restrictions you might have.
Another food highlight is the arrival of fresh, hot cookies every day at 10 am and 3 pm in the Sky Lounge. That was something you didn’t want to miss. Also popular is Cocktail Hour in the River Lounge, daily from 5:30-7 pm. Order your favorite drink and select from an array of hot and cold appetizers. Later, starting at 8 pm, the River Lounge offers up milkshakes, sundaes and popcorn to go along with the evening entertainment.
You’ll find coffee, tea and snacks in the main lounges 24-7. Still, we suggest creating an option for late snacking after 9 or 10 pm, such as pizza by the slice or to-go sandwiches and desserts. You never know when hunger will strike.
— The service.
Overall, the service on Serenade, just as we found on Constellation, was excellent. Guests are pampered and given the staff’s full attention from the time you board to when you leave. We have never cruised on ships where the managers and crew, including the captain, make such a special effort to mingle and interact with the guests.
We were delighted to find two managers who were on our previous ACL cruise — Jerry, the cruise director, and Skylar, who just happened to share the same birthday as Pam. Yes, they celebrated all week.
The one area that could use some polish is the dining room, where they seemed at times overwhelmed. It’s not that everyone doesn’t work hard to please — they do. And to be fair, staffing has been an issue with all the cruise lines since COVID.
— The excursions.
Having been on two ACL cruises, I can say confidently that no cruise line does excursions better than ACL, starting with the ship’s excursions director, Mark. He was there at all times to make sure everyone gets on the right bus, handing out umbrellas if it’s raining and insuring everything is running smoothly.
The line utilizes modern, privately chartered motorcoaches, wrapped in ACL colors and logo. The drivers are courteous and friendly and follow the ship from town to town as the cruise progresses.
Guests can choose from several complimentary excursions to ones that are premium, extra-charge. We went on both and were amazed at not only how friendly and welcoming each stop was, but also just how much we learned about our own country. We explored Mark Twain’s cave and had a visit with the man himself in Hannibal, Missouri; viewed bald eagles in Winona, Minnesota; rode the Fenelon Place Elevator funicular in Dubuque, Iowa and bought donuts from Hanisch Bakery in Red Wing, Minnesota — “the best bakery in the state.”
At each stop, volunteers were on hand to greet us personally and share tourism information. At Dubuque, they even staged a formal ribbon-cutting when we arrived, an indication of how much the river towns appreciate ACL.
— The entertainment.
Unlike larger, ocean-going ships, you won’t find opulent theaters, casinos, virtual reality game rooms or water parks on ACL. Most of the entertainment on our sailing came from the onboard river experts, Steve and JoAnn. This couple has been lecturing and performing on ACL ships since 2012, and when they weren’t telling us about the river and wildlife, they were singing and playing piano in the River Lounge.
On the first night, a magician performed and also making two appearances later in the cruise were The Gigis, an all-girl trio from Orlando who harmonized on classic songs from the 40s to Motown. They even inspired a few of us to hit the dance floor for “Dancing Queen.”
During the day, Bean Bag Baseball was a hit (except my team lost), as well as Bozo Bingo (Cruise Director Jerry did the clowning around). There were also cooking demonstrations from the culinary staff.
— Also notable.
* A tip of the visor to Capt. Tim Thorsan, a maritime veteran who not only provided a smooth ride but also shared fascinating insights about navigating the Mississippi and its extensive system of locks. On this sailing, Serenade went through some 20 locks, the times of which were provided on a helpful handout for guests to view.
* The ship boasts a fully equipped Fitness Center, but most of the exercising we saw was on the Sun Deck, which has a walking/jogging track. Why not get fit where you can admire the passing scenery?
* When we docked in Dubuque we got a look at the ship’s patented bow deployment, where the front of the ship raises up and extends a ramp to the shore. It’s pretty cool.
* ACL makes it easy-peasy to both board and disembark the ship. They take care of your luggage both ways and provided bus transportation to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, some 50 miles from Red Wing.
* Along the way, we encountered several cable swing bridges. Unlike the drawbridges we have here in Florida, a whole section of bridge is moved aside so barges and boats can pass. Fascinating. We were also surprised at our wide the river is at some locations — up to three miles.
* Sometimes, when going through a lock, the locals would gather next to the ship and talk and wave to us on our balconies. It was probably much the same for the riverboats that came by the same towns in the 1800s. That was a nice bit of Americana.
If you’re looking for a more intimate, personalized cruise experience, ACL fits the bill. With a motto of “small ship cruising done perfectly,” they provide guests with the closest thing to a turnkey, all-inclusive vacation. Their ships can be found on every major U.S. waterway and along the coastlines all the way to Alaska, showcasing the best America has to offer.
The Upper Mississippi has a lot going for it — you’ll see the river like you’ve probably never seen it, immersing yourself in its natural beauty, plus the culture and history of the towns along the way. As we traveled farther north, we did see splashes of fall colors, but Nature’s “big show” is still a few weeks off. Regardless, these Floridians got a nice taste of Fall.
This year, ACL debuted a new line of vessels, dubbed “Coastal Cats.” Featuring a new catamaran bow and a shallow draft that allows them to dock almost anywhere, each one will accommodate 100 passengers. The first one, American Eagle (named after their first ship in 1972) has launched, and the second, American Glory, is coming later this year.
If you think you’ve seen America, you probably haven’t seen the country the way you can on ACL. And for once, we didn’t need to worry about packing our passports.
PHOTOS by Gerry and Pam Barker
- Our Veranda Stateroom on Deck 4
- The Serenade’s bow raises to extend a ramp
- Capt. Tim Thorsan gives us a tour of the wheelhouse
- A Mark Twain actor entertains in Hannibal, Missouri
- The Sun Deck on American Serenade (cover)
- We see a bald eagle in Winona, Minnesota
- The Gigis perform in the River Lounge
- View of the river from the Sky Lounge terrace
- Sunset on the Mississippi
- Dessert in the dining room
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