American Queen Paddle-Steamer Review

I am fortunate enough to have taken a number of ocean cruises and several river cruises, over the past few decades. However, this time I was looking for something a little different.

I chose the ‘American Queen’ for a seven night river cruise itinerary from Memphis to New Orleans called ‘Antebellum South’, along the lower the Mississippi river.  (Antebellum meaning pre-American Civil war).  The reverse itinerary and others, are offered each season.

Jane McDonald, the U.K. singer/personality featured this boat on her ‘Cruising With Jane’ programme. In fact she embarked,  as I disembarked.

My review is about the ship and the on-board experience, NOT the ports of call.

The theme of any Mississippi cruise is music. Memphis is the birthplace of rock and roll and the home of Elvis. New Orleans is the home of  Jazz . In terms of political history, the Southern States and the ‘Ol’ Man River’ (the Mississippi) are intrinsically linked with the Cotton trade, slavery and later the Civil Rights movement.

Vicksburg National Military Park (Premium excursion)

Introduction

The American Queen, which is now operated by the ‘American Queen Steamboat Company’,  was constructed in 1995 and is a recreation of a Victorian paddle steamer. She is the biggest ever built and has a stern paddle-wheel. There are no paddle steamers from the golden age, left in operational service.

Stating the obvious, the Queen does not look or feel like a European river boat. In fact many of the new European rive boats are remarkably similar to each other. The Queen is not quite as long as many European boats, but she is more than twice as wide and almost six times taller, having six decks, including the sun deck.

Although the Queen is a recreation of a classic steamboat, given the fact that she is now 23 years old (in 2017) she feels very authentic. She is immaculate but does not feel new and fake.

Built by McDermott Shipyard, Morgan City, Louisiana, the American Queen is indeed powered by a 1932 steam plant, although fuelled by diesel and not coal. Today most boats on the Mississippi, are not powered by steam, even if they have a paddle wheel.

A real Paddle Steamer

The Queen’s steam engine came from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s dredger ‘Kennedy’. Kennedy was assembled in 1932 and decommissioned in 1984. Her engine was obtained for the Queen.

As well as a steam-powered paddle wheel, The Queen’s has secondary propulsion. There are a set of two diesel-electric propellers known as ‘Z-Drives’ (like Azipods) on either side of the stern paddle-wheel, for extra power and assisting manoeuvrability. They can rotate 360 Degrees. There are also bow-thrusters to assist with docking.

I am reliably informed that when she is travelling down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the Queen gets 90% of her thrust from the Paddlewheel and 10% from the Z Drives. However doing the reverse itinerary, going up-river, she needs a lot of extra help from the Z-drives, against the flow of the river. The ports of call become shorter and a full day on the river travelling is required, to enable her to meet her 7 night schedule to arrive at Memphis on time.

Layout

Most of the boats public rooms are on deck 1 (Main Deck) and deck 2 (Cabin deck) which curiously, despite its name, has less cabins on it than decks 3, 4 and 5. They each have wrap-around promenade decks, lined with cabins, with opening veranda doors.

The main deck (1) has the main dining room, the ‘JM white’ forward. Amidships is the main deck  lounge and Captain’s bar (although he never drinks there.) Then there is the Pursers lobby. Forward is the ‘Grand Saloon’, a two level theatre.

Cabin deck (2) has the ‘Gentleman’s Card Room’ and ‘Ladies Parlour ‘ forward,which are two intimate lounges.  Then there is the biggest lounge, the Mark Twain Gallery.  (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835 – 910, is better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer).  Amidships is the upper lever of the Pursers lobby with a small reception desk, the excursion desk and ‘The Emporium’ shop. A grand staircase joins deck 1 and 2. It’s not quite RMS Titanic standard, but it is very nice. Aft is the access to private boxers on the second level of the ‘Grand Saloon’ and the ‘Engine Room Bar’.

American Queen Deck Plan – HERE

The lower Mississippi does not have any locks and the ones on the upper Mississippi are wide, so this does not constrain the width or length of boats on the Mississippi. The Mississippi does not have any very low bridges, so the boats height is not excessively constrained either. However the Queen does have two tall funnels that can be hydraulically lowered, as can the pilot house.

The American Queen lowers her funnels (Movie) – HERE

Embarkation

The Memphis Beale Street landing stage is not used for the boats embarkation process, a local hotel is. I believe independent guests can simply turn up at the boat and check-in on-board, but I assume that the ships Purser’s desk could not handle all the ships passengers doing this. Therefore an American Queen booking from Memphis includes a pre-cruise night at the Sheraton Downtown hotel, with breakfast. Personally I found this hotel to be mediocre, irrespective of many good online reviews.

The boats check-in process takes place in some of the hotels conference rooms.

There was no queuing at all – you simply wander up to a desk in the afternoon or evening where you get issued a pass-card, luggage labels, register your credit card and got allocated a transfer bus time. It was very slick process, although the passenger numbers are much lower than most ocean cruise ships and the check-in was spread over much of the afternoon/evening.

The next morning our  luggage was collected, from outside ours room early and transferred to the boat, ahead of the passengers. The passengers were then bussed to the landing stage from 14:00, which is just a few miles away. The bus departures were phased every fifteen minutes, over two hours. Passengers were allocated a bus time, dependant on their loyalty status/cabin grade. However there was a gap between the hotel check-out time at 12.00 and my allocated bus time at 15.00. I found this a little inconvenient, especially given the high cost of the cruise. An extended check-out time for all passengers would have been a nice touch.

When passengers arrive at the landing stage, they simply boarded the boat. My wife and I were greeted by the cruise director in person – a nice touch.

Ingeniously, Golf Buggies are used at the landing stage to transport the less mobile passengers and luggage to the boat. (See my video blow).

First Impressions

Before I arrived on-board, I had not seen many images of the interiors, in order to preserve the surprise. I was a little worried that the decor might be a little too American and too over-the-top for my liking, but my fears were completely unfounded. In the words of Carolyn Spencer Brown “the boat is more lace-and-doily than neon-and-glitter”. The American Queen was extremely tasteful and charming. I felt that I had travelled back in time. (Please note that the images that I took definitely do not do her interiors justice).

The American Queen carries up to 436 passengers, so more than twice as many passengers than most European river boats do, but a fraction of most modern ocean ships. However the Queen never felt crowded. Her size gives her the space for a range of public rooms which you normally only find on-board an ocean cruise ship. In fact she felt more like an exclusive ocean ship and part museum, rather than a river boat.

Lounges

The Mark Twain Gallery

The boat has five lounges, which were always able to cope with the passenger numbers, in fact they were normally all half-empty.

The ‘Mark Twain Gallery’, the biggest lounge on-board and is absolutely charming . It had  mood lighting and some lovely ship models, including the historic Delta Queen Steamship. In fact the room felt like a Victorian museum, in part. It has windows looking down on the ‘JM White’ dining room, but no external views or much natural light.

There is also a ‘Gentleman’s Card Room’ and a ‘Ladies Parlor’ forward,  but the sex segregation no longer applies. It did amuse me that the gentleman’s room featured many stuffed animals.

There is a shop called the Emporium and some basic spa facilities, which I did not use so cannot comment on.

The Chart Room is a small lounge at the bow with a fake ships wheel* and lots of nautical memorabilia. The Riverlorian (history lecturer) could often be found there and knew everything about steamboats and the Mississippi, but had been afraid to ask .(*Interestingly the real pilot house does not even have a wheel.)

Accommodation

Suite 525 “Henry Miller Shreve”

There are eleven  grades of stateroom on offer, ranging from inside (from 132 sq ft), window, promenade deck suites and large/owners suites (360 sq ft, with 690 sq ft veranda). There are also some single cabins on offer.  The staterooms are priced as: expensive, more expensive, very expensive and outrageously expensive, respectively. However there are some even more expensive vessels cruising the Mississippi.  Let’s not forget that paddle-wheelers, especially steam-powered ones, are a very limited breed.

All the staterooms have numbers and names, being named after places or historic figures.

I started off in 261 an ‘inside stateroom’, as booked. Although quaint, it was  rather cramped (140 sq ft), the room being not so much bigger than the double bed itself. A couple would need to synchronise their movements to avoid any frustration. However I secured a deal on-board, to upgrade to 525, an empty ‘superior outside stateroom with open veranda’ (210 sq ft). I saved a small fortune compared to pre-booking this grade of cabin, but I was lucky that it was available.

The suite was named after Henry Miller Shreve, (born 1785) an American steamboat captain and pioneer steamboat builder who significantly contributed to developing the potential of the Mississippi river.

The suite was not exceptionally large, but comfortable – it had extra space around the bed to allow freer movement for two people. It had space for two of chairs and a small table. There were double doors which opened onto a public promenade deck. This was the only way in and out of this grade of stateroom.

Outside on the promenade deck were another two upright chairs and a table to catch the sun. Although the occasional person would walk past the doors, it was not an issue for me. The doors had plantation shutters for privacy.

The furniture looked vintage and was well-worn, but added to the old-world ambience.

The bathroom looked like one I had seen on the original Queen Mary. It felt like a ‘real’ bathroom and not a ‘modular’ one built of-site and installed on most modern ships. There was no plastic. It had a low bath (rare on many boats/ships) with shower attachment above it and black and white tiling. The shower worked reasonable well and the toilet had a good flush. Amusingly the cruise director advised us not to put anything down the toilet that we have not eaten first, except toilet paper. The complimentary toiletries were of very good quality, according to my Wife.

There was a TV which showed some classic movies such as “Showboat” and “Gone With The Wind”. These were ‘rolling’ rather than being ‘on-demand’. There were no interactive features.

The air-conditioning worked well for us, but it was not the height of the summer.

The wardrobe was a little on the small side, especially if your cruise was longer than a week.  Some staterooms had bathrobes, but our did not. Maybe we had to request them?

There was a safe in the wardrobe, but it was quite old and unreliable. Many passengers, including me, had to request the ‘safe man’ to visit their cabin and give it some attention. Given the fare paid, this was unacceptable.

Two small bottles of mineral water were provide each day in your room. You could also pick up bottle pre-shore excursions, at no charge.

A small fridge would have been very useful addition, especially in the summer, but there was little room to accommodate one.

The walls allowed noise transmission from the next cabins, especially if the they liked the TV turned up lould.

Berthing

Many of the ports of call along the lower Mississippi do not have a proper berths. In these cases, the boat carries out a controlled grounding with the bow resting on the sloped ‘levee’ (flood defence gradient). The boat has two gang planks on her bow which are used to reach the shore (see image below).

Ports Of Call/Excursions

The ports of call between Memphis (embarkation port) and New Orleans’s (disembarkation port)  were Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, St. Francisville and Nottoway.  Most of these were relatively small towns (apart from Baton Rouge) and showed me a side of America that I had not seen before.  There were a number of impressive plantation houses to visit along the route, although built on the profits of slavery, of course.

Small Town America – St. Francisville

The American Queen Steamboat Company operates a small fleet of hop-on-hop-off buses at each port of call, included in the fare. Each evening on-board the boat you can obtain a map of the 20-30 minute route and the bus stops. These buses run all day until boarding. Although there are hop-on-hop-off by name, you do need to get a ticket (free), from a machine at the Purser’s desk, for your initial departure time i.e. 9.00, 9.15, 9.30. 9.45. After 10.00am no ticket is required. Narration on-board the buses is provided on route, by local guides. Fees to local museums are also covered in your holiday cost. Therefore you can tour the town’s tourist sites at virtually no cost.

Hop on, hop off,  at Vicksburg

In addition ‘Premium’ excursions are offered, these are like regular cruise excursions (half and full day), for an additional charge. They normally travel further afield that the local town/city, which is covered by the hop-on-hop-off buses. These excursions are of good quality, but quite expensive. There were never any taxis waiting at the ports or any sign of local buses. There was little opportunity to DIY apart from taking the free hop-on-hop-off.

I sometimes found the ‘Excursion Desk’ closed, just when I needed it. However I would not expect the two staff member to work around the clock. Interactive cabin TV’s would be useful that enabled excursion booking and cashless account review. The boat is big enough to need this. It’s hardly traditional, but very practical.

The normal ocean cruise ship system of swiping on and off with a pass-card, is used. The card is also used to pay for drinks etc. being linked to your cashless on-board account. The on-board currency is in dollars, of course. However real keys were provided to open your cabin door.

The Scenic Mississippi?

The Mississippi is about 2,350 miles long. The widest part of the Mississippi can be found at Lake Winnibigoshish, Minnesota, where it is 11 miles wide.

The lower Mississippi, between Memphis and New Orleans is not particularly scenic at all. As the river is generally wide, the boat is often a long way from the river banks, minimising the views. Europe’s narrower rivers, such as the Rhine for example, lined with picture-postcard villages and castles and is considerably more scenic.

Much of the Mississippi river banks appear to be just trees and vegetation, with infrequent buildings/lights. The Queen often travelled after dark, on this itinerary. If you stood on deck at night, it often felt like you were in the middle of the open ocean, rather than on a river. There was little nearby to see, apart from blackness.

However as we approached New Orleans, there was quite a lot of industry on the river banks: mainly the petro-chemical industry. This was interesting to see, but hardly scenic. Occasionally tugs with barges and freight ships passed us. The barges were pretty amazing: a single tug would push up to sixty barges.

There was virtually no water movement felt on-board the boat, so there was zero chance of seasickness. There was some vibration from the paddle-wheel/engines, felt mainly at the aft of the ship and in the rear of the main restaurant.

Dining

Like most ocean cruise ships, the Queen offers an early and late sitting for dinner (around 5.15pm or 7.45pm) each evening. The main show, in the Grand Saloon is also repeated for each respective sitting.

I was a little worried that the main dining room fare might consist of the over-sized portions of the southern states staple diet of fried chicken, steak and ribs. However my fears were unfounded. The food was varied and was definitely fine-dining. It was quite international in style, with American influences of course. The food was very consistent – every course, of every meal, was of a high quality. It was some of the most consistent food that I’ve enjoyed on-board any cruise. Beef, pork, lamb, lobster, crab and even L’escargot were featured, but no ribs and no fried chicken.

Four courses were served, plus coffee. However I often ordered both a salad and soup, potentially making the meal a five course one, although I generally skipped the sweet. I don’t have a very sweet tooth.

Curiously the waiter would announce  the deserts were each evening, they were never written down on a menu.  Nevertheless, they rarely disappointed me.

Sample Menu (Courtesy AQSC)

The crew are all American on-board the Queen.

Free-flowing wine or beer are included with dinner, at no additional cost. The wines often changed each evening and were all very good. I’d always leave the dining room, heading for the theatre, with a large full-glass of wine.

The main dining room, the ‘J.M.White’, is based on the design of the dining room on-board a classic steamboat of the same name (1878). The room is generally white, with large mirrors and chandeliers and is mostly double-height, which the most impressive dining rooms always are. It is one of the most attractive dining rooms that I have ever seen afloat.

The tables were of various sizes, seating from 2 to 8 persons and were well spaced out. The chairs were very comfortable and many had two wheels on the back legs, making them easy to move. There was a very minimal dress code, but the passengers generally wore what they liked. Some passengers made an effort to look smart-ish, but I always saw shorts, trainers and T-shirts, each evening. I would have welcomed at least one semi-formal evening.

Part of the JM White Dining room

Curiously the restaurant had windows on its port and starboard sides, but plantation-shutters often covered them, even during the day. However many tables were quite a long way away from the windows anyway. I also noted that some windows were obstructed by deck equipment. In short river-views were minimal in the dining room

The ‘Front Porch’ was a small self-service café at the front of the boat. There were tables and chairs for just 32 passengers inside and a lido area of outside seating overlooking the bow, with tables, a swing chair and some rocking chairs. The food choices in this room were a little limited, but often included a station that serve omelets and pasta, made freshly while you wait. However this intimate space was very friendly and informal in style.

On selected days, at lunch time, a member of staff in the front porch made fresh sandwiches to your specification and asked if they were “to stay or go”. These were great for takings ashore or on an afternoon excursion.

Tea and coffee were available all day from several stations on-board the ship at no charge.

Note: There were some dining tables in the main deck lounge, next to the ‘JM White’ Dining rooms entrance. Some guests appeared to be assigned to these tables there each evening. Although there were screens providing them with some privacy, they were not in the beautiful main dining room. I can only assume that it is an ‘over-spill’ room. I’m not aware that they got any special treatment. I do not know why all the passengers could not fit into the JM White.

Entertainment

Cruise Director Alex Bernhardt was excellent. Not only was he charming, he had an excellent voice and could also line dance well. I’ve encountered a lot of cruise directors over the years and he is definitely one of the very best.

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Alex – The excellent Cruise Director

All the ships music was live. There was not a ‘disco’ type club or DJ. There was no piped music in elevators or corridors.

A pianist/singer performed in the main deck lounge each evening. The house band, the ‘Steamship Syncopators’ (piano, bass, drums, clarinet, trumpet and trombone) were simply brilliant and could play almost anything including Broadway numbers and Dixieland jazz. The ‘Syncopators’ occasionally played solo, but also backed the ‘The American Queen Ensemble’. The Ensemble was composed of four singers, two boys and two girls who were all very good singers, which is much rarer afloat that you might imagine. They performed an hour show in the Grand Saloon most evenings. In fact some evenings, two different shows were offered per evening.

The Ensemble sung a very wide range of material from pop (1970’s), disco, jazz, Broadway and country, very competently. They also did some dancing.

A musical duo also performed in the engine room bar each evening.

Various day time/early evening events were put on including movies; history talks from the ships resident Riverlorian, future cruise talks etc. A tour of the pilot house was also offered. Unfortunately as the boat was in port every day, I had to miss many of these activities, as I chose to go ashore instead. However full marks for offering a good range of activities for those passengers that did not choose to go ashore. Ocean ships should take note.

The Grand Saloon

Private box, Grand Saloon

The Grand Saloon is the attractive Victoria theatre. The stage is at the very aft of the ship. It has two levels, a non-raked stalls area, with a mixture of non-raked cabaret tables/chairs and some fixed seating around the edge. Although non-raked, the sight-lines from the floor were pretty good. The non-fixed furniture could be moved to reveal a dance floor.

Drink were served at your table, if you could attacked the waiters attention. They seemed under pressure in this room.

Above the stalls was a balcony of private boxes, reserved for selected levels of suite guests.

The Engine room Bar

The Engine Room Bar was the location of the ships nightlife.

The bar is at the aft of the boat, located above the engine room. The rear of the bar (facing the stern) has six large portholes through which the rotating red paddle wheel can be seen. It was quite mesmerising. There is a door to descend to the engine room and passengers are welcome to view the mechanics of the steam engine, at any time that they wish. (What ocean ship offers that?)

The bar is quite small with little natural light. It could be considered rather gloomy during the day, but atmospheric at night. It has a small dance floor and managed to accommodate a two piece band (keyboards and guitar). The band played a wide variety of music including pop, rock, R&B and blues. Not surprisingly Elvis numbers proved popular. Given the fact that the band started playing at 9.30pm each evening – until late, and the majority of passengers went to bed early, this small bar always managed to accommodate all onlookers.

The Calliope

The Calliope is a traditional musical instrument consisting of a number of steam whistles on the boats sun deck, connected to a keyboard. It is often played when the ship leaves a port. It has a fairground like, slightly out-of-tune quality.

Who are the Clientele?

Most passengers were from America. Those who were not, were generally English speaking from Europe, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.  Out of 436 passengers, there were 25 British. The long-haul airfare adds considerably to the cost of the holiday for non-North-American’s of course.

The average age of the clientele was ‘deceased’ (sorry an old maritime joke). The average age could not have been much higher. For example, one charming guy was 97. In fact I met many charming passengers, irrespective of age. However it’s a pity that people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s do not generally seem to find steamboats appealing, or maybe they just can’t afford it. Children are not permitted which of course excludes families.

There was much assistance for those with walking difficulties, including golf buggies that shuttled the less-mobile passengers up the steep levee’s to the awaiting buses at the top.

Two elevators served all decks of the ship.

Miscellaneous Comments

The boat has a laundry room where guest can do washing and drying free of charge. Even the washing power is free. Strangely this was omitted from the pre-cruise information booklet. There is no in-room laundry service.

There was no hard sell and no ships photographer hounding you like the Paparazzi. No baked Alaska parade. There was a Captain’s ‘welcome aboard’ cocktail party and a ‘farewell’ party, but without a photographer.

The boat had much excellent artwork, n the corridors and lounges, mainly of steamboats and Mississippi, by Michael Blazer.

There is a shop called the Emporium and some spa facilities

The stern has a lido area (deck 5) with an open air ‘River’ grill and bar, but this was not used on my winter cruise, although some days it was warm enough to open them.

The sun deck (6) has a small plunge pool and a small gym.

The ship surprisingly does not have a casino, given Americas love of gambling and the history of steamboat gambling. I do not require one, though.

Tips are not included in the cruise fare; gratuities of $17.50 per person, per day, are added daily to passengers on-board accounts. In addition, a 15 percent service charge is automatically added to all alcoholic drinks.  These help pay the crews wages. It is worth noting that an American crew are likely to be more expensive than the crew on-board ocean ships from the Philippines, India and Eastern Europe etc.

The Wi-Fi was complementary but ran so slow at times,  that it was hardly worth trying.

Disembarkation was a breeze. As I got off (November 2017), U.K. TV singing star, Jane McDonald and her production crew were getting embarking to film an episode of “Cruising with Jane McDonald”.

In conclusion

The boat, the river and the local culture all offered a very different experience from ocean or European river cruising.

The American Queen is one of the most attractive vessels that I have ever had the pleasure of cruising on. She feels like a ‘real’ vintage paddle steamer. She successfully recreates the golden age of paddle steaming in the same way that Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 recreates the era of the great Ocean Liners.

The American Queen carries more than twice as many passengers than most European river boats do. However she does not feel crowded. Her size gives her the space for a range of public rooms that you normally don’t find on-board a river boat.

Her fares are high, even for the cheapest inside cabin. However she was well worth it. She is a unique vessel and command top dollar, although there are more expensive Mississippi paddle-wheelers.

The average age of the clientele was very high and mainly American.

The food and service were excellent and the entertainment was exceptional. Live music was abundant. The European river cruise lines could learn a lot from this.

The lower Mississippi is not particularly scenic. The boats public rooms are not as well-connected with the river as they on-board most European river boats, which have lounges mainly constructed of glass. However most cabins on-board the American Queen do offer a river view.

You get to visit some incredibly scenic small towns on route, which shows a side of small-town America that I had only seen in Hollywood movies.

The American Queen is a good option for those with mobility problems.

River cruising has a reputation for being relaxing (possibly boring, for those than need a lot of stimulation) but the Queen had more activities and entertainment on on-board than most other river boats.

If your bank balance is healthy, you are looking for something unique, enjoy American culture, good entertainment and nostalgia, I’d thoroughly recommend the American Queen.

Malcolm

More Paddle-wheelers (slide-shows) HERE

Prologue: Viking River Cruises are planning to operate boats on the Mississippi, in the future. These will be modern style vessels and will not resemble paddle wheelers. Given the tremendous success story of Viking, I wonder how the existing paddle-wheelers that currently operate on the Mississippi will handle the competition.  I hope it does not lead to their demise. The one thing that the ‘American Steamboat Company’ does not seem strong at is overseas marketing, including the U.K.  In contrast Viking are great at it.

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