If you`re looking for a cruise vacation that is uniquely different from any other, you must come aboard this authenic paddlewheel steamboat. Once you step aboard this magnificent boat you will soon discover that old-fashioned ambience and it will transport you back in time ... when life was much simpler ... a time when Victorian elegance prevailed throughout the boat and in the comfortable and charming accommodations. It is a cruise that's as unique as the steamboats themselves, and so different from big-ship cruising.
My wife Mary and I are seniors and have been on quite a few cruise ships, such as; Bahama Star, Emerald Seas, Victoria, Amerikanis, Nieuw Amsterdam, Costa Riviera, Costa Romantica, Costa Victoria, Princess Sun, Westward, Regent Sun, Regent Star, Regent Sea, Oceanbreeze, Crown Dynasty, Royal Majesty, Golden Princess, Regal Empress and Century.
We booked this one, our second cruise on the American Queen, on the internet over 8 months ago to take advantage of their 2-for-1 cruise specials that were offered for that time of the year.
Since we have given up flying forevermore, this offered us the opportunity to slowly drive to New Orleans from our home in Gainesville, Florida. It is a 500+ mile trip that we broke up into two days by driving along the beautiful Emerald Coast of Florida, and along the gambling casino coasts of Alabama and Mississippi. Destinations are certainly something special to look forward to; but, the time spent in getting there is also just as enjoyable. The drive along the Gulf Coast is certainly one of the most beautiful and interesting drives.
We timed our second day's drive to arrive at a motel just 7 miles from the French Quarter. With an early start the next morning, we arrived in the French Quarter and parked our car at the parking garage of the Place d' Armes Hotel, ($8 a day) where we had often stayed on previous visits. We went to the Café Du Monde where we had our usual breakfast of beignets and coffee latté.
We then sauntered over to the French Market to do some unusual shopping for hundreds of their special Tabasco Sauces which have colorful names such as "Bottled Hell," "Scorned Woman," "Butt Burner," and "Holy S__t." Nearby is Jimmy Buffet's famous Margaritaville nightspot. Afterwards, we sampled some Louisiana specialties like Jambalaya and Muffulattas. Life in the "Big Easy" blends special Dixieland Jazz with unique architecture, laid-back "laissez-faire" lifestyle, and world renowned cuisine from Cajun to Creole.
Around noon we picked up our car and headed for the Robin Street Wharf area where the American Queen is docked. I could feel my heart racing wildly. You all know the feeling ... don`t you?
Easy. We drove our car into this old waterfront warehouse building, dropped off our luggage, and had our car valet-parked for $10 a day. We then walked through this beautiful inside terminal area with our carry-on bags and onto the dock, and up the ramp onto the boat. There were no baggage inspections or X-ray machines. We even brought our own special wine on board without any trouble. We were presented with a necklace strung around our neck that was beaded and with a Delta logo emblem attached.
We then walked down to the main lounge where we had a terrific luncheon buffet. Afterwards we handed in our tickets, picked up our boarding pass/charge cards, and had our dining arrangements verified. We then returned to the terminal to listen to a terrific Dixieland Jazz band until our rooms were ready. Since this was our second cruise with Delta, we were given special Paddlewheel Steamboat Society of America pins and cards which entitled us to certain privileges, parties and discounts.
Before boarding, we stood on the dock and lovingly gazed up at the American Queen and wondered how this all happened. Although I had read a lot about this boat, I don't know if I can do justice to describing the beauty and grandeur of this magnificent steamboat. There is a long and interesting history involved. To make a long story short, many years ago there were hundreds of these paddlewheelers sailing on the Mississippi River. Steamboat owners competed for patrons by embellishing their vessels with intricate filagree, fancy fretwork, luxurious fittings, gingerbread architecture called "Steamboat Gothic"; and the finest dining rooms and opulent accommodations. As Mark Twain stated:
"Mississippi steamboats were magnificent, they were "floating palaces," ...terms which did not over express the admiration with which people viewed them."
As we boarded the boat and headed to our cabin, we were awestruck by the beauty of the holiday tree decorations, wreaths, poinsettas, and garlands strung along the railings ... and Christmas carols being softly played in the background. It was a very delightful and charming setting and send-off for this special holiday cruise.
As we walked down the wide and attractively carpeted hallway towards our cabin, we particularly noted the lovely Christmas wreaths on each cabin door. Also on each door were decorative cabin numbered plaques that memorialized famous people, historical places, cities, states and presidents.
The American Queen was put into service in 1995 and it still looks brand new. It is absolutely immaculate, with no signs of wear or tear. It carries only 436 passengers, and an all-American crew of 180. It only travels at 8 miles per hour ... no chance for seasickness. As to the passenger makeup, I would guess that 75% of the passengers were seniors. There were at least 15 children on board and there were special activities for them.
Our cabin, #334 on Texas Deck, was the same cabin we had last year. It is about 250 square feet in area. The veranda is about 45 sq. ft. The first thing Mary noticed was the vase of fresh roses next to a lighted Tiffany lamp. Nice! The beauty of this cabin choice of ours was that we could both lie back in our beds, open the lace-curtained french doors to the veranda and view the passing scenery and the busy riverboat traffic that goes on 24 hours a day. On our first night on board, after an exhausting day, we left the french doors open all night and listened to the sounds of the "Big Muddy" as it slowly lulled us to sleep.
The cabin is basically Victorian Antique in its design and decor; there are twin beds with a nightstand in between, dresser drawer in one corner and a cushioned wicker chair with a footstool and nearby table. There is a hallway with a built-in cabinet and closet. There are antique wall lights on the walls and above the beds, a telephone, radio, a/c and heat controls, smoke detector and sprinkler. The bathroom is quite large with a bathtub/shower, antique sink and shelves. There are antique framed pictures on the Victorian-papered walls. All in all, there is a certain cozy and comforting feeling that seems to prevail throughout each cabin and throughout the boat, but no TV. Is this heaven, or what?
The First Day
There were an amazing number of activities that took place the first day. The fire drill consisted of us wearing our life jackets and standing outside our rooms. There was a pleasant sing-a-long at the Captains Bar, a Showboat Jubilee in the beautiful Grand Saloon, a jazz musical, ballroom dancing, a Night Owls Club, a Midnight Buffet, but no gambling casino. And, unbelievably, hardly any smoking anywhere.
The Dining Room
The dining room is elegant and charming and aptly named for the famous 1880s steamboat, the J.M.White. The elaborate dining room is two stories high with floor-to-ceiling curtained windows topped with huge circular stained glass windows decorated with Christmas wreaths during our cruise. The ceiling is beautifully embellished with "Steamboat Gothic" filigree and fancy wood-beamed fretwork. The first night's menu had such entrees as roast duck, salmon, scallops, catfish, and tenderloin steak. As an appetizer, they had some of the biggest and tastiest shrimps I had ever seen. They were plentiful and almost always available as hors d'oeuvres at most cocktail parties, sing-a-longs, and jazz get-togethers.
I should also mention that there were always fresh flowers at every table each day. We had an excellent waiter named Richard. He was African-American and about 6'5" tall. We called him "Little Richard." With a wide grin on his face, he would give us an elaborate description of each item on the menu, often inserting something like Alpo Dogfood to see if we were paying attention. One evening we had pecan pie for dessert. I had pronounced it as "pee-can." He said it is pronounced "pick-khawn." He said a pee-can is what you keep under your bed at night.
One afternoon we had a fantastic picnic Luncheon in the Main Lounge. To the tune of some Western music and some hoedown dancing, we savored BBQ ribs, fried chicken, roast beef, corn on the cob, baked beans, potato salad, and pecan and pumpkin pies with ice cream. Mmmmmm!
At the two formal dinners and the two cocktail parties, they requested you not to wear t-shirts or shorts, and to just come in your "steamboatin' best." I never saw a single tuxedo on the two cruises we have taken.
The Front Porch
I must tell you about the special breakfast- and lunch-eating spot called The Front Porch. It has an indoor and outdoor eating area. The buffet food area is on the inside and has some of the best soups I have ever tasted. Breakfasts and luncheons are the usual buffets you find on most cruises. Coffee, tea and ice cream are available all day, plus free egg nog at the small bar. The inside porch is simply furnished with antique ice cream parlor type furniture.
Now, the outside Front Porch is something else. It is furnished with rocking chairs, swings, wicker chairs, and park benches; when we were there, it was decorated with Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and flags. Breakfast is from 6:30 am to 10:30 am, and people are asked to come to breakfast in their pajamas, housecoats, bathrobes and slippers. We did, and it was fun to see others doing it also.
One morning we had a lot of fun and laughter at the Calliope Bar on the top deck where the calliope is located. The calliope actually uses the steam from the engine to play. After a brief calliope concert, everyone lined up to play a few notes ... for which we were later awarded a Vox Calliopus Certificate which allows us to play a calliope in such exotic places as the Panama Canal, Long Island Sound, Atchafalaya River, etc. We all had a great time, and I also tasted my first Mint Julep. Later that evening, the Paddlewheel Steamboatin' Society of America held their repeaters cocktail party.
Every morning, Clara, the onboard "Riverlorian" gave captivating stories about the river. Among the many activities: you could fly a kite, play table tennis, bingo, cards, games, read a book, take a walk, make lifelong friends, quilting, cooking demonstrations, movies, boat tours, gingerbread class, crafts, navigation seminars, sing-a-longs, wine tastings, and engine room tours. Or you could participate in the Crazy Hat or Christmas Tree decoration contests held on Mike Fink night. I should mention that the boat also had a beauty salon, gift shop, exercise room and swimming pool.
One of the really fun activities on board was the well-attended Sing-a-Longs held in the Engine Room Bar. Loads of some very large and tasty shrimp cocktails were available as we sang some of of the old favorites like "Cruisin' Down the River." Beautiful gold embossed songbook souvenirs were available. Bob Leary was the Banjo player, and probably the most talented banjo player I have ever heard. I got to talk to him and found him to have a great sense of humor as he told us of some very funny banjo jokes such as, "What's the difference between a banjo and a trampoline? You have to take off your shoes before jumping up and down on a trampoline." Or, "What`s the difference between an onion and a banjo? You have to peel an onion first before you cut it up into little pieces." Okay, one more: "What`s a Perfect Pitch? When you throw a banjo into a dumpster without hitting the sides."
Meeting The Captain and A Word About Excursions
At the Captain's Champagne Reception we met Captain Davitt, who happened to be a graduate of Florida State University. Well ... since we live in Florida Gator Country, we gave him the famous Gator Chomp with our arms. He always returned it with a Seminole hatchet chop. We all laughed about it.
On Sunday morning, we docked in St. Francisville. A few people went ashore to attend church services, but it wasn't easy. There is a very steep boat ramp, up which some people had to be pushed on wheelchairs by porters for a tip. We didn`t take any shore excursions this time; we didn`t think they were worth it last year. But we did take a very interesting Pilot House tour in which we saw how the towering fluted smokestacks are lowered, and how the gazebo-type Pilot House is lowered into the body of the ship whenever they encounter a low bridge. We missed seeing it done because it always happened when we were having dinner.
Shows and Music
Although we missed some of the shows in the beautiful, ornate Grand Saloon showroom with its proscenium stage and coveted box seats, we made sure we would not miss the Great Dixieland Jazz Show which highlighted the music-filled history of the lively days and exciting nights of New Orleans-style dixieland jazz. We were mesmerized and totally blown away by the sights and sounds from some of the best dixieland jazz musicians I had ever heard as they played such jazz classics as "Mississippi Mud," "Tiger Rag," "Birth of the Blues," "St. Louis Blues," "Muskat Ramble," "Darktown Strutters Ball," "High Society," "St. James Infirmary Blues," and finished with "The Dirge" as played at a jazz funeral. Oh man!
The Mark Twain Gallery
Probably the most magnificent, elegant and charming public room on this boat is the Mark Twain Gallery, overwhelming in the warmth of its dark woods and paneling, embellished with its Victorian and antique design and decor, and featuring cushioned high-back easy chairs, love seats, sofas, antique tables and chairs. There are also lighted Tiffany lamps, antique vases and books, riverboat memorabilia showcases, player pianos, gingerbread houses, steamboat models, and framed pictures of Mark Twain. In one corner were several large antique dispensers where coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cappucino are available all day. People come here to relax, play cards, meet with friends, read a book or newspaper, write cards or letters, and generally soak in the cozy and comfortable atmosphere. To the rear of this room is a very feminine Ladies Parlor and a very masculine Gentlemans Card Room.
Final Thoughts and Disembarking
The last nights Captains Dinner and Parade was rather wild with Mardi Gras-costumed and masked crew members parading throughout the dining room with many passengers following them to the tune of New Orleans jazz music. A very festive finale to the cruise.
If I were to find any fault with this cruise, it would have to be the very thin walls of the cabins and the near-chaotic last morning breakfast buffet, which had the effect of the crew hustling and pushing us to get us in and out of the dining room as quickly as possible.
After breakfast we got our carry-on luggage from our cabin and simply walked off the ship into the terminal, where a porter picked up our luggage and took it to our car just 25 feet away. We were on our way by 8:30 am, and onto the Interstate about a mile away.
It was an absolutely beautiful cruise that was done in a grand style and cozy comfort. We were pleasantly immersed in nostalgia, romance, history, heritage, and tradition. And we can hardly wait to do it again ... and again ... and again.
Peter Bugda and his wife Mary grew up in central Pennsylvania and later moved to Long Island, New York where they both retired in 1981. They sold their house and furnishings at a garage sale, purchased a motor home, and travelled the USA for the next five years. Peter and Mary have taken over 20 cruises so far, but from now on, they say they will only cruise on the American Queen Steamboat Paddlewheeler. Peter and Mary can be reached for questions or comment at: PeterPaul-Mary@webtv.net.
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