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First impressions of a US river cruise on American Queen

Oct. 12, 2022
18 min read
2Photo Aug 08, 3 25 43 PM
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I've taken several river cruises in my time as a cruise writer, but until this summer, they were all on foreign rivers like the Rhine and the Mekong. I thought I knew what to expect on U.S.-based American Queen river cruises — I researched the ports, pored over facts about the boat and even looked up local attractions in advance — but nothing prepared me for the sheer splendor of seeing American Queen Voyages' most iconic vessel in person.

My first glimpse of the boat in the wild (or, rather, docked in Pittsburgh, on the Ohio River near Acrisure Stadium, where the Steelers play) left me impressed. Not only was it a lot bigger than I expected, but it immediately made me feel like I had stepped back in time — or, perhaps, onto a ride at Disney World.

American Queen Voyages' American Queen docked in Augusta, Kentucky. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

A quintessential American paddlewheel steamboat, American Queen looks every bit the part. Its crisp white exterior, bright red paddlewheel and black smokestacks topped with festive crowns befitting a queen complete the picture of grandeur. Wherever the boat goes, it draws curious, awestruck stares, and locals line up along the riverbanks to greet it when it arrives and wave goodbye when it leaves.

From its lacy gingerbread trim to its shrill-but-wholesome calliope music, the boat evokes an air of southern Gilded Age luxury so strong I fully expected to bump into Mark Twain in one of the onboard lounges.

Here's what I loved and what I didn't during my voyage.

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What I loved

The boat's size

Designed to carry about 400 passengers, American Queen is the largest paddlewheeler in the U.S. river cruise industry. The fact that there were only about 250 cruisers on board during my sailing was an added bonus. The vessel's size means that it has some amenities — like a plunge pool, fitness center, spa, a navigational chart room and theater with a stage — not found on other riverboats. But the low capacity meant most areas didn't feel crowded.

Another pleasant result was that we frequently ran into the same people over and over again, which added to the jovial and somewhat familial onboard vibe.

The ports of call

The Lanier Mansion in Madison, Indiana. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

While ocean vessels often focus on large cities or beachy destinations, the small towns found along American rivers are replete with charm and hospitality that are hard to come by elsewhere. The locals I met were exceptionally welcoming, and American Queen's daily tour schedule directed me to hidden-gem attractions I might have otherwise overlooked.

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Free for the vessel's passengers in all ports, buses run along a predetermined route at regular 15- or 30-minute intervals. Designated stops along the way feature points of interest where passengers can hop off for a visit before catching the next bus to another attraction or back to the boat.

Highlights for me included the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum — where a local family spent two generations making the inner frames for horse saddles — and the historic mansions in Madison, Indiana, as well as the Augusta Distillery in Augusta, Kentucky. There, we deviated from the suggested activities and stopped in for an excellent tasting where we were allowed to draw or "thief" our own bourbon from barrels where it was aging.

The focus is largely on smaller stops, but that doesn't mean there aren't big cities on the list, too. The most powerful place I visited was the Underground Railroad Museum during our call on Cincinnati. Exhibits covered everything from the history of slavery to modern-day human trafficking and implicit bias. It was a sobering look at the amount of work we still have left to do.

The pace

Mere inches separate American Queen from the concrete walls of a lock on the Ohio River. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

As I grow older, I've noticed I prefer to slow down a bit when I cruise. I'm no longer at an age where I want to see and do everything at a break-neck pace. Given that most U.S. river cruise passengers tend to be in their golden years, the pace of onboard life is as leisurely as a float down a river. I found plenty of ways to relax, from joining low-key hosted trivia and doing self-led puzzles during the day to listening to live music at night.

I spent many an evening on the boat's outer decks, taking in the sights from passing towns, riverside factories and locks, which often left mere inches on either side of the vessel during transit.

While ashore, I enjoyed leisurely strolls along the riverbank whenever I wasn't lazily making my way between points of interest.

The slower, more relaxed pace helped me to maximize my enjoyment because I felt like I was able to be in the moment instead of thinking about where I had to be next. Because I was traveling with my dad on our first father-daughter trip, that was especially important to me.

The historical elements

The Mark Twain Gallery on American Queen Voyages' American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

The entire American Queen experience — from the ship's exterior design and interior furnishings to the history of the places we visited — evokes the mid to late 1800s. Although it has backup engines that help with maneuvering, American Queen boasts a large wooden paddlewheel that's powered by a pair of 90-year-old steam engines rescued from a retired steamboat.

Elements like a steam-powered calliope (which one of the onboard musicians plays several times on each cruise, usually during sailaways) and the J.M. White Dining Room with its serious New Orleans ambiance add to the feeling of authenticity throughout.

Additionally, the lounges and cabins are largely furnished with antiques that fit with the time period the boat represents. My personal favorite is the Mark Twain Gallery, a rich, warm, dark lounge that's great for working, reading, lounging with a cup of coffee or anachronistically checking email at the provided bank of computers. Bonus: Display cases filled with antique oddities flank both sides of the lounge, and the windows in between offer both cozy seating alcoves and views into the dining room below.

A resident "riverlorian" — a historian who is well-versed in the history of the rivers on which the vessel sails — also gives several talks during each voyage. Ours provided lots of fun facts about the efficiency and capacity of cargo riverboats, which far exceed those of semi-trucks and trains.

The outdoor spaces

American Queen's Sun Deck pool area. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

True to its name, the Front Porch — the boat's main outdoor lounge area — was just that but on a grand scale. Rocking chairs and swings often made me feel like I was on the covered front porch of a southern farmhouse as we glided past small towns and made our way through a fascinating system of locks along the way.

When we were underway, I spent a lot of time there, either writing or reading. Plus, with the Front Porch Cafe buffet attached, it was easy to enjoy alfresco lunch or dinner, weather permitting.

Other great areas included the River Bar, which affords spectacular views of the paddlewheel in action (but beware of the calliope, which is extremely loud and will startle you if you're not expecting it) and the boat's two sun deck areas — one near the plunge pool and one just outside the Chart Room.

Also, keep your eye out for hidden outdoor areas that will allow you to view the paddlewheel up-close.

The surprises

A private balcony box on American Queen Voyages' American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Hidden outdoor areas aren't the only surprises on American Queen sailings.

I thoroughly enjoyed poking around the vessel and discovering new areas, including The Theater, which is used only a few times per voyage to show movies.

I'm also a fan of the Engine Room Bar, where I enjoyed nightly music and views of the boat's paddlewheel. But the secret lies behind a door in the bar with a sign that's barely noticeable. Pop inside, and you can make your way down to the engine room, which is open to passengers interested in learning more about how the vessel operates.

Another surprise came when I stumbled on a series of doors in the same hallway that leads to the Engine Room Bar. On each was a list of cabin numbers, indicating that my cabin — 505, an open-veranda suite — had access to the Grand Saloon's private balcony boxes. As a result, my dad and I had fantastic views of the shows we saw there.

However, the quirkiest surprise was that, at least once during every voyage, passengers are allowed to play the calliope. Under the guidance of the boat's pianist — calliope keys are similar to keys you'd find on a piano — any cruiser who was able to play at least five notes would receive a certificate from the captain, declaring them official calliopists.

What needs work

The staffing issues

A bit of dirt and grime on the back of American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

I would be remiss if I didn't start this section by saying that every crew member I met on the sailing was friendly, helpful and eager to please. They always gave me passing smiles, waves and greetings, no matter how busy they were, and it was obvious they were all working hard.

Like the rest of the U.S. hospitality industry, American Queen Voyages acknowledged that it is experiencing staffing shortages. Most of the things that could have been improved on my American Queen sailing were likely caused by a lack of workers. With more crew, they are almost certain to disappear.

The day I boarded, I couldn't help but notice that the back of the boat was looking kind of dingy. I saw quite a bit of dirt and grime around the paddlewheel area, with the red paint on the wheel itself looking faded. That night, while I was outside watching the stars as we sailed, I noticed the outer decks were overrun by an alarming number of spiders and their webs.

It took several days, but during our call on Cincinnati, I returned to the boat to find a crew member hard at work scrubbing each of the decks and climbing up into the eaves to wipe down the cobwebs with rags. (I'm unsure if it was part of the regular schedule, but I suspect it might have had to do with the fact that John Waggoner, the line's founder and chairman, was booked on the next voyage.) The engine room crew also worked diligently to repair paddlewheel boards and power wash the structure to restore the wheel to its bright red color before our cruise was up.

Another place where the experience fell short was the onboard dining. Overall, the food was decent. I'm a picky eater, but on American Queen I was able to find something I enjoyed at every meal. However, on the second morning, during breakfast, I cut into my pancakes and was dismayed when raw batter oozed out.

An undercooked pancake in the J.M. White Dining Room on American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Not wanting to make a big deal about it (particularly because we arrived 15 minutes prior to the closing time), I didn't say anything. Our waitress, who was experienced enough to see there was a problem without my saying a word, sent the head waiter over to ask what was wrong. I quietly told him, and he apologized, stressing that passengers should always speak up so the crew can do better next time.

That same head waiter sat us every night at dinner and always made sure we had what we needed. However, by the final night of the sailing, he looked frazzled and exhausted. All of the waitstaff did.

In fact, we hardly saw our dinner waiter. Every night, he greeted us, took our orders and brought each course, but there was virtually no following up in between courses to see how we were doing. I expect he was too busy juggling a large number of tables to have time to check in routinely with any of them.

One of our last nights at dinner, about halfway through, we noticed broken glass on the table. It's obvious something broke before we sat down. It was cleaned up, but why the table setting wasn't changed is a mystery. We did alert our waiter before we left, just so he wouldn't cut himself while cleaning up.

Cobwebs on one of American Queen's outer decks. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

I found little requests were often met with lackluster service, too. My dad loves a banana with his breakfast each morning. On days when they weren't immediately available at the buffet, he would ask for one. It wasn't a problem until one morning when a particularly haggard waiter went to grab one for us and came back a few minutes later with an apology that he "just can't find them right now."

There were other incidents, too. From our cabin, per instructions from the in-room literature, we called the front desk twice to request an ironing board, which never showed up. Neither did our room service breakfast order, despite our having put the menu card outside our door well before the deadline the previous night. We didn't pursue the ironing board further and instead simply wore rumpled clothes to dinner, but a call to the front desk about the breakfast meant food showed up at our door within 20 minutes.

These are, of course, small niggles that didn't greatly affect my enjoyment of the cruise overall. But, for such a luxurious ship, they were a bit unexpected and certainly not reflective of an experience that starts at about $3,000 per person for weeklong cruise.

The optics

It's impossible to talk about the heyday of riverboating without also broaching some painful subjects. While wealthy, white travelers were busy enjoying themselves on riverboats up and down U.S. waterways in the early part of the 1800s, enslaved people fought for freedom throughout the country — particularly in the pre-Civil War south.

With that in mind, the fact that — even on my recent 2022 sailing — American Queen's onboard guest population is predominantly white while the crew is predominantly Black struck me as particularly poignant.

When I asked about the line's demographics, a representative from American Queen Voyages told me that the company is actively looking to expand its customer reach.

"Like all cruise lines, we are always seeking guests new to cruise and new to U.S. river cruising," said Michael Hicks, a spokesperson for American Queen Voyages.

AQV also prides itself on hiring from the local communities along the rivers it travels. Given that American Queen usually sails the Mississippi and hires from the surrounding communities, many of its employees are Black.

"American Queen Voyages riverboat crew members come from across the United States," Hicks said. "An emphasis is placed on hiring from port partner cities, including St. Louis, Memphis, Cincinnati and New Orleans, as well as regional communities including Jackson, Mississippi; Metairie, Louisiana; and Owensboro, Kentucky."

Additionally, the line is working with local groups in the places it visits in order to make sure programming is historically accurate, even if it means telling stories that are sobering and difficult to hear.

"American Queen Voyages works with the ports [it visits] to select and curate experiences that tell the full history of destinations," said Hicks. "These include such rich and immersive experiences as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati; the Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah, Kentucky; The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Cleveland, Mississippi; the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum in Terrene Landing, Mississippi; and the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture in Natchez, Mississippi.

"We are continually working with convention and visitors bureaus and [using] these organizations' local expertise to improve, as well as provide new and diverse experiences for our guests."

The stench

For some reason, the boat's garbage is stored forward on the main deck, where it sits in open dumpsters outside. My cabin, which was four decks up, was almost directly above it. Whenever I wanted to enjoy the veranda outside my cabin, I was met with the overpowering smell of rotting refuse baking in the 80-degree heat. For that reason, I didn't utilize my room's outdoor space as much as I would have liked.

One suggestion for fixing this would be to store the trash below deck or move it to an outdoor area at the back of the boat, where the wind would blow the smell back over the wake instead of into passenger areas.

The environmental impacts

Single-use sugar packets, cups and lids in The Front Porch Cafe on American Queen. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

In general, cruises aren't known for being particularly environmentally friendly, but at a time when other lines are making a big deal of becoming more fuel efficient and cutting back on single-use products — particularly plastics — I was surprised by some of what I saw on American Queen.

First, it's important to acknowledge that paddlewheel vessels are less fuel efficient than boats that operate with more modern engines. Part of the charm of American Queen is the paddlewheel itself, so some allowances are made by default. A bit of fuel efficiency is sacrificed in the name of nostalgia.

However, the line could try harder to make some smaller things greener. These were most noticeable in the boat's Front Porch Cafe buffet area, where plastic spoons and paper bowls were the only options available next to the soft-serve ice cream machine, and paper cups with plastic lids were put out for beverages, rather than reusable cups, glasses or mugs that could be washed between uses.

The other experience that made me cringe was when I boarded one of the line's free charter buses for a ride to town during one of our port stops. I was one of five people on a bus built for 50. It struck me as super wasteful. It's likely the ship has no way of knowing how many people will need the buses later in the day, but perhaps smaller vehicles could be considered as alternatives after the initial passenger rush dies down.

Bottom line

American Queen is a beautiful boat that allows modern-day travelers to experience some of what life on the rivers might have been like 200 years ago. It's an impressive ode to history, complete with comfortable and richly furnished accommodations, great service, delicious food and visits to some of America's small towns. Although American Queen Voyages, like the rest of the domestic travel market, is still struggling with staffing issues, the experience was superior overall.

The cruise experience is largely geared toward older travelers, but that shouldn't stop younger vacationers from checking it out. Anyone who has an appreciation for relaxation, old-timey vibes and the Americana associated with tiny riverside towns will likely enjoy a sailing on American Queen.

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Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.