She was born in 1995, the biggest river steamboat ever built: 418 feet long and 89 feet wide, a six deck re-creation of a classic Mississippi riverboat with 222 staterooms for a capacity of 436 guests and a crew of 160.
Re-launched in April 2012 after a $6.5 million makeover, the “new” American Queen is a Victorian beauty, her decks graced with white gingerbread trim, her grand staircase illuminated with a sparkling chandelier, upholstery refurbished, dark wood polished, and so on. Cabins have new bedding and flat-screen TVs. The River Grill restaurant and bar was created on the upper deck.
In 2013, more upgrades were made, to the J.M. White dining room and the Front Porch (buffet venue). Early in 2014, prior to her third (current) season, American Queen was once again refurbished, with new paint and coating systems, a major rehabilitation of her decks, new sound and lighting for the Grand Saloon and an added digital content management system. On the technical side, the Queen received electrical upgrades, new steam-powered “combi ovens” in the galley and a state-of-the-art combustion control system to save fuel and reduce emissions.
Today, the American Queen sails five- to 10-day cruises along the Upper Mississippi, the Lower Mississippi and the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.
My American Queen experience was a holiday cruise (a one-off) that sailed from Memphis to St. Louis, arriving in St. Louis in time for the spectacular Fourth of July celebrations. It began, as all cruises do, with an overnight stay in a luxurious Memphis hotel, which allowed for some relaxation after my flight and some sightseeing, which included a tour of Graceland and a stopover at the Peabody Hotel to watch the Peabody Ducks march to and from the Grand Lobby (a tradition that dates back to 1933).
Boarding the American Queen was a truly impressive experience. She is truly a lovely vessel and very different from the river boats that ply international waters. As I looked around, I was reminded of the 1951 movie, Showboat, which starred Ava Gardner — and an old-time river boat. I was fortunate enough to have one of the splendid Promenade Deck suites, which was furnished with period antiques and which had French doors that opened up to the Promenade Deck. The spaciousness and amenities of the suite made me feel as if I were in a floating boutique hotel.
There was so much to like on this cruise, especially the food, created by celebrated American chef Regina Charboneau. Her movable feast enhanced the sense of place and referenced her southern heritage, with such dishes as delectable beignets and Bananas Foster French Toast.
In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner in the splendid J.M. White dining room, there are casual meals, occasional cookouts at the River Grill and a Southern Tea in the Main Deck Lounge. Meals can be prepared for special need/requests: low sodium, Gluten-free, vegetarian Heart Smart, etc.
To work off excess calories, the Queen carries bicycles, so conscientious passengers can explore the river towns on their own. There’s also a gym with Kinesis One equipment, a treadmill, adjustable bench and an exercise bike. My preference was for the Spa by Pevonia, which offers some lovely body treatments, including scrubs and wraps.
Entertainment is rich and varied – and appropriate to the itineraries. One of my favorite places to while away an hour or two was the Mark Twain Gallery, the boat’s library, where I could browse the impressive collection of books, check email on my laptop or just enjoy the quiet.
On every cruise, a resident “riverlorian” tells tales about the towns the Queen visits along the upper and lower Mississippi and the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. In keeping with the Victorian decor, there’s calliope music (passengers have an opportunity to play), as well as sing-alongs. More extravagant entertainment – lavishly produced shows, for example — takes place in the Grand Saloon. On the lighter side, there might be a culinary competition between crew members – a stark contrast to one of Chef Charboneau’s demonstrations (on my cruise she showed us how to make melt-in-your-mouth biscuits).
A nine-day RT Lower Mississippi cruise (New Orleans) starts at of $2,549 (per person double occupancy) for an inside cabin up to $7,099 (per person, double occupancy) for a gorgeous upper deck suite, furnished with antiques with French doors opening to a verandah and a full bathroom with tub and shower. While these prices are higher than for some ocean cruises, they do include the pre-cruise hotel stay, transfers to the boat, shore excursions, beer and wine with dinner, bottled water, soft drinks, coffee (including cappuccino and espresso) and tea all day.
The American Queen Steamboat is a member of Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.