Rollin' on the river: American Queen steamboat brings river cruising back to the mighty Mississippi

By Marjie Lambert

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Saturday, June 23 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Then most people headed to bed. But up in the Engine Room Bar, half a dozen women did the Twist as Jackie and Bob performed "Rockin' Robin" and "Devil with a Blue Dress On," and another dozen or so people sang along.

Outside, the big red wheel just kept turning, splashing water against the glass, making memories for the guests.

© 2012 The Miami Herald

If you go …

The boat: Built in 1995, it is the largest passenger steamboat in the world. It is 418 foot long, 90 feet wide, and holds 436 guests in 222 staterooms on six public decks. Its paddle wheel is powered by a diesel-fired steam engine from 1932. You can visit the engine room (Hint: The entrance is in the Engine Room Bar, one deck above) and a crew member will answer your questions. Usual speed is about 8 mph going upstream, 10 mph downstream. Its smokestacks stand 100 feet above the water line, which is higher than many bridges, so the stacks fold down 90 degrees, parallel to the deck. In addition, the pilothouse is on scissor jacks and can be lowered, and the trim on top can be removed. An old-fashioned calliope on the top deck sometimes announces the boat's arrival or departure.

Public spaces: The Grand Saloon, with live entertainment; a movie theater; two bars; a small pool that was closed on early cruises; a small fitness room with exercise equipment; a spa offering a modest menu of massages, scrubs and wraps (60-minute massage $95); card rooms; one shop; and the Chart Room, with river charts and books on steam boating. There is no laundry or dry cleaning service, but there is a DIY laundry with two washers and dryers.

The main dining room is on Deck 1, but several other places offer food: The Front Porch of America has indoor and outdoor seating, is open 24 hours, and features snacks, including fresh-baked cookies. The outdoor River Grill is a work in progress but is intended to serve casual lunch and dinner. Afternoon tea is served in the Main Deck Lounge.

Staterooms: The boat has 222 staterooms and suites. Most interior cabins are 130 to 140 square feet, with a few 80-square-feet interior cabins for singles. Outside cabins run 140 to 210 square feet; most open onto a public veranda. Suites have 230 to 500 square feet. A few staterooms have private verandas. Most have both tub and shower; inside cabins have showers only.

Cost: A typical nine-day (seven nights on board, one night in a hotel) lower Mississippi voyage runs $1,995 to $2,895 per person double occupancy for an inside cabin, $3,195 to $5,195 for an outside cabin, and $5,595 to $5,795 for a suite. Prices include one night in a hotel before or after the cruise; all meals and snacks (there are no extra-fee restaurants); soft drinks, bottled water and coffee; a limited selection of wine and beer with dinner; entertainment; and bus tours at each port. The fare does not include taxes or gratuities.

Port calls: Typically from about 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with the boat sailing afternoons and overnight. An innovative program is several hop-on, hop-off buses that make a loop through each town, with a local tour guide pointing out landmarks and recounting local history. This free shore excursion proved very popular. In addition, at least one premium shore excursion, costing $50 and up, is available at most stops.

Dining: Source of most guest complaints, the food service was haphazard and the food below the gourmet standard one might expect from a luxury cruise. However, the company was working to solve this problem quickly, hiring an executive chef and bringing in a team to train the staff. The menus and recipes were designed by Regina Charboneau, former San Francisco restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Natchez. The menus are built around traditional Southern products — shellfish, grits, okra, pecans, Andouille sausage, peaches and the like — and cooking styles, but they were not well executed. Breakfast and lunch are buffets, although a few items can be ordered from a hard-to-find menu. There are two dinner seatings, with the 5:30 seating most popular.

Entertainment: The core of the boat's entertainment is the Steamboat Syncopators, plus four singers who perform two shows most nights in the Grand Saloon. Programs are aimed at an older crowd and on this cruise included Dixieland Jazz, Memphis blues, a medley of show tunes, a medley of river songs, a jug band, and a Mark Twain impersonator. The Syncopators play dance music after the second show, but the room usually emptied before 11:30 p.m. In the Engine Room Bar, a duo of singers perform till midnight. They were surprised when guests asked for more '70s music, more dance music. Movies are shown on some days. Riverlorians — river historians — give talks on steam boating, local history and the rivers.

Crew: Most of the crew members are new and were hired in Memphis. However, many did not have experience in their new jobs and were hired for their friendliness and positive attitudes. They were roundly praised by guests, both in end-of-trip surveys and in interviews with The Miami Herald, for their helpfulness and friendliness. Cruise line executives said another few weeks of training should bring their skills up to par. Some crew members with specialized skills — some musicians, the riverlorians, maitre d', pilots, engineers and others — have worked on the American Queen for many years.

Information: 888-749-5280, www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com.

— Marjie Lambert, MCT

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