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American Queen Mississippi Christmas Cruise

My wife and I have recently returned from back-to-back cruises over Christmas and the New Year centred on  New Orleans.

The first stage of this festive adventure saw us flying to Memphis where we joined the American Queen Paddle Steamer to experience an 8 day truly iconic  sail along ‘Ole Man River’,  in the footsteps of Mark Twain...

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The American Queen – the largest steamboat to sail the Mississippi  – certainly creates a different experience from the usual river cruise boats that we have been used to, so a fair comparison to European and Asian cruise boats is going to be quite out of the question. It was going to be different and we knew it.

With six passenger decks carrying up to 414 passengers,  a full size ‘Grand Saloon’  theatre and the need for two dinner seatings, this  really is a river monster with a difference.

On arrival at the berth one immediately gets the feel of her warm antebellum charm as her resident ‘Jazz’ musicians herald guests onboard…

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…and seasonal decor adorns all entrances…

American Queen boasts an amazing 12 different categories of onboard accommodation,  ranging from two ‘Owners suites’...

…each coming with eye-watering size private verandas…

…all the way down to the rather ‘cozy’ single inside cabins on Deck 4…

For this river cruise we had chosen an ‘A’ grade Deluxe Outside Stateroom with Private Veranda’…

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*****A reasonably spacious 230 sq.ft…

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…with French doors opening onto said veranda…

…ample storage and hanging space…

… and an ensuite that includes a full size bath (tub for my American readers)…

 

The majority of outside staterooms, however, do not come with a private veranda,  their French Doors actually opening directly onto public decks…

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Having settled in it’s time to take that tour and where better to start than from the top, Deck 6, the Sun Deck…

No shortage of space up here, there is also a central recessed area that contains a small swimming pool…

…and a small indoor fitness centre.

Access is from each side and the stern area as the forward end of the Sun Deck has restricted access to the Pilot House…

(more about my visit to the Pilot House later)

The rear of the Sun Deck also gives a glittering over-view of that essential  to any self-respecting steamboat, her steam calliope…

(again, more about the calliope later)

Descending onto Deck 5 aft we discover, under the calliope,  the River Grill and Bar…

The remainder of Deck 5 is essentially accommodation, as is Deck 4 with the exception of the forward end, where we find the Chart Room…

…a veritable depository of river navigation information and memorabilia, and including a flip-chart of maps covering daily progress along the Mississippi…

The open deck in front of the Chart Room is an excellent observation deck, the best on the ship I would speculate…

It also affords the opportunity to snap one of the most iconic features of the ship, the stacks…

A word about ‘The Stacks’ while passing…

Each stack can be hydraulically lowered – very useful when river levels are high and bridges low. To facilitate this lowering two ‘yolks’ are positioned on the forward verandas of Deck 5…

The majority of the American Queen’s river sailing is at night and unfortunately for me there wasn’t an opportunity to witness the stacks being lowered during the day. Late one evening however the opportunity arose just after our departure from Natchez…

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(Mission accomplished, kind of)

Back to our tour then…

The next deck down is Deck 3 which is mainly accommodation with the exception of the very forward end where the Front Porch Cafe can be found….

A casual eatery with a buffet style server, 24 hour beverage machines…

…a bar, a popcorn dispenser…

…and an ice-cream machine…

In addition the Front Porch Cafe has its own al fresco dining area…

…complete with swing seats…

Deck 2 has limited accommodation towards the rear while the remainder of the deck is given over to public areas…

Starting at the stern end is the Engine Room Bar…

A comfortable, though somewhat chilly, venue which proved mainly more popular for late night entertainment – The Night Owl’s Club’ –  particularly with its resident duo, Jay and Jim…

One great feature of the Engine Room Bar was the large rear facing portholes, great for observing the rotating paddle wheels both during the day and at night. There are also two outside seating areas which provide additional viewing of the paddle wheels in motion.  The Engine Room Bar also provided the access door to the Engine Room: more about my visit there later.

Leaving the Engine Room Bar there are passageways on both sides of the deck with staterooms on the outside and access doors to the Grand saloon boxes on the inside…

All the ‘boxes’ are reserved for Suite guests only.

Central on this deck is the Main Lobby…

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…home of the Pursers Office and Shore Excursions Desk …

Customer Services and Future Sales desk…

…and the Emporium…

Forward of the Main Lobby is The Mark Twain Gallery

…a delighfully Victorian style lounge and focal meeting point: the Mark Twain gallery is festooned with period artefacts, river-boat memorabilia, the largest private collection of Tiffany lamps in the United States  and plush upholstered comfortable seating…

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Tea, coffee and ‘cookies’ are available 24 hours a day in the Mark Twain Gallery as well as a number of complimentary computers and printer.

At the forward end of the Mark Twain Gallery are two further rooms. On the Port side is the bright lace trimmed ‘Ladies Parlour’…

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…while on the Starboard Side, The Gentlemans’ Card Room…

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And so we finally come to the Main Deck which offers access to the J M White Dining Room…

The Grand Saloon…

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…and what proved to be  our favourite drinking venue, The Captain’s Bar…

In addition to the areas already covered there is onboard a Spa…

…a self service laundry…

…a small cinema…

 

…and a small fitness centre…

 

Life on board – Dining

The Dining Room name stems from the Steamboat J.M.White which plied the Mississippi in the 1800s and the ceiling is a replica of that very famous steamboat.

The J.M.White Dining Room accommodates everyone onboard in two dinner seatings with ‘reserved’ seating. Breakfast and lunch are ‘open’ seating affairs with a semi buffet system running at both meals.

A breakfast menu while we were onboard…

…and the Avocado Toast that was one choice chosen…

…and the always available Eggs Benedict…

A Dinner menu…

The Boiler Room Shrimp from that menu…

 

…and the New York Strip from the same menu…

One quirky trait at dinner was for the Head Waiter to announce what the desserts were, hence we never saw exactly a full description. No problem as there was never any disappointment on our table for six…

Complimentary wine was served  with  dinner only. It was plentiful and there was a good variety of both reds and whites.

The food onboard was particularly good. Individual portion  sizes were always substantial and there was a good selection on offer. Of course there were descriptions of menu items that often confused the British reader but nevertheless, everything was of high quality,  well prepared and beautifully presented. Interestingly at Christmas Day lunch, we experienced the first ever occasion of being offered a choice of Turkey meat; white, brown or both.

The only downside in the J M White Dining room was the quality of service during breakfast and lunch during ‘open’ seating when waiting staff could be counted on to consistently miss items that had clearly been ordered.

Life on board – Entertainment.

Considering the size of American Queen the breadth of entertainment was quite amazing.

Three particular areas were simply outstanding though one of those, The Riverlorian, would probably not be classed as a true entertainer in his main onboard role.

First up then, what we would refer to as ‘the production company’ but on American Queen is referred to as the ‘Ensemble’ and their backing musicians, the ‘Steamboat Syncopators’

…performing stage shows twice nightly in the Grand Saloon with 4 separate shows, these talented singers and dancers were a real joy to watch.

Definitely our favourite solo artist was the engaging piano man and Captain’s Bar maestro, Phil Westbrook…

It was always an early seat for us when Phil was scheduled to play, standing room only later…

History plays such a large part of a Mississippi cruise experience.  American Queen has onboard a resident history and culture expert who imparts, through a number of lectures, the legends and folklore of the river and its navigation. The ‘Riverlorian’ for our cruise was Bobby Durham...

…who proved a knowledgeable, exceptional and multi talented musician and crew member.  Lectures and tours aside, Bobby would pop up to support umpteen musical gigs onboard…

 

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Bobby Durham was an all round talent whose star shone infinitely brighter than that of the Cruise Director.

Eternally interlinked with the Mississippi is the name Mark Twain.   As with the Riverlorian, it would be difficult to file the next onboard guest as either lecturer or entertainer: he filled both criteria. Meet Lewis Hankins, aka Mark Twain.  He was utterly spellbinding

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Now tell me how close is that resemblance: here is the man himself...

And finally for entertainment it would be remiss of me not to mention two visiting artists. The versatile Piano Bar entertainer  Frank Chase…

…and the other, veteran actor James Sutorius

James gave, in a special Christmas Day matinee performance, his humorous and magical rendition  of Dylan Thomas’ ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’. What made this even more amazing was the fact that he delivered the poem, word for word, without any notes or script, for a full 20 minutes.

Okay, I’ve spent some time on entertainment and, considering the high quality and versatility of what was offered on American Queen, that is only right.

Life on board – Other events

Engine Room Visit:

I have previously mentioned that the majority of the passage down the Mississippi was made overnight. There were however a number of occasions when daytime sailing gave the opportunity to visit the Engine Room…

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Whilst there the opportunity arose to also stand on the Paddle Deck with the wheel in motion…

…and emboldened by the experience, even take a quick video of the action…

 

Equally, no visit to the American Queen’s Engine Room would be complete without a posed photograph on the ‘throttle levers’…

(Many thanks to the Duty Engineer Josh for his patience)

Steam Calliope:

Driven by historical authenticity, the American Queen’s design is based on meticulous research into 19th-century documents and records. The result is a grand steamboat that pays homage to the floating palaces of the mid-1800s. And essential to any self-respecting steamboat is her Steam Calliope…

 

A calliope is a musical instrument: a steam-whistle organ to be exact. It consists of a set of whistle pipes and a music box-style organ.

American Queen’s beautiful set of 37 shining, gold-plated whistles, along with the keyboard on which they are played, can be found on Deck 5 Aft…

The organ’s keyboard…

…controls the steam entering into the pipes to play the appropriate cord or sound. And it just so happens I made a video of the versatile Phil Westbrook playing on Christmas Day…

 

Pilot House Tour:

Another of the Riverlorian’s duties appeared to be the organisation of tours of the Pilot House…

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We were given a comprehensive briefing which included a blast or two from the American Queen’s Steam Whistle…

though the most interesting fact was that on this particular cruise down the Mississippi we had onboard the only female pilot on the whole river. Another photo opportunity not to be missed…

That just about covers life onboard American Queen however before I cover the itinerary I should explain the basis of the American Queen’s excursion coaches…

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…and their interface with the boats excursion programme.

As with all non-budget river cruise lines the American Queen includes shore excursions in the price. They also, as with other lines, operate ‘premium’ excursions, at an additional cost, that optimize the port experiences.

American Queen’s signature Hop-On Hop-Off guided shore excursions are basically a ‘freedom of choice’ way of visiting the attractions at the various stops.

Each guest would receive a map of the Hop-On Hop-Off tour route with numbered stops and local attractions…

Guests decide what time they would prefer to start their tour and would collect a timed ticket from the auto kiosk outside the shore Excursion Office…

 

The narrated tours made scheduled stops along the route corresponding with the map numbers…

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The coach journey was narrated, mostly by a local guides, and passengers could alight and visit their preferred attraction(s) and continue on completion in the next coach to come along.

The Itinerary:

Day 2 Tuesday 19 December and our first stop after departing Memphis the previous evening was Greenville…

Greenville is a city with many different cultural backgrounds, where historical sites take you back to a time when fortunes were made in cotton. It actually sits on the banks of Lake Ferguson and we had an exciting morning navigating along the narrow fog bound channel between the Mississippi and the lake.

It is also home of the 1927 Mississippi Flood Museum…

…and the  Greenville Washington County Court House…

…a historic courthouse dating back to 1847, though the original was burned down during the Civil War. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Day 3 Wednesday 20 December and following an overnight passage we stopped at Vicksburg…

…the first of the American Civil War’s truly historically rich stops, Vicksburg is also probably the most famous.

Our morning was spent utilising  the Hop-on Hop-Off coaches to explore the town where, amongst other sites, we visited the Old Courthouse Museum…

This really was a fascinating place and one could write a whole review on it.

The old court room taken from the judge’s raised pedestal…

…and the Museum of Coca Cola Memorabilia…

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….where we were particularly fascinated by an original Soda Fountain…

The afternoon was spent on our first `premium Shore Excursion’ and another coach visit to the…

Ohio Light Artillery 30 Battery 3 with the Illinois Memorial in the distance…

 

This really was an outstanding excursion and included an opportunity to stop at the Illinois Memorial…

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On completion of the battlefield tour we had an additional bonus on this excursion before returning to the American Queen: a visit to the USS Cairo Museum…

The USS Cairo was one of the first American ironclad warships built at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War.

On December 12, 1862, while clearing mines from the Mississippi River, Cairo struck a mine/torpedo detonated by volunteers hidden behind the river bank and sank in 12 minutes. She was raised in December 1964 and eventually retired at the Vicksburg site in 1977…

Day 4 Thursday 21 December and we arrive at Natchez…

Cotton made Natchez wealthy and back  in 1860 it was the richest city in the US. Needless to say it is adorned with many old plantation owners stylish period homes, historically preserved and open to the public. Two examples are  Stanton Hall…

…and Rosalie Mansion…

The historic homes are all well presented with period furniture and memorabilia…

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…and due to it being the Christmas season at the time of our visit we also benefitted from the individual homes Christmas decorations…

Natchez supports a very good Visitors’ Centre, and other places of interest we visited where the Natchez Museum of Afro American History…

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…and  Charboneau Rum Distillery…

Amusingly billed as the first legally distilled rum produced in Mississippi.

 

 

Day 5  Friday 22 December and we arrive at St. Francisville

 

The oldest town in the Florida parishes of Louisiana – yes folks, overnight we left Mississippi and are now in Louisiana – St. Francisville has been called the town of two miles long  and two yards wide due to its position along the banks of the Mississippi River.

This was also the stop from where our second ‘Premium Excursion’ would depart. Indeed, without the number of  premium excursions on offer here it would have been difficult to justify  more than a three hour layover in St Francisville itself.

We did give it a go, abandoning the need for the Hop-On Hop-Off coach,  and actually took in most of what was on offer including, yes folks, another courthouse...

The West Feliciana Historical Society…

…and the most intriguing Grandmother’s Buttons store…

The second premium tour was to prove a most unusual experience and one not to be missed. It was an exclusive visit inside the gates of one of America’s most infamous prisons, the Louisiana State Penitentiary known colloquially as Angola Prison…

Formerly America’s most dangerous penitentiary,  with a reputation for brutality and a high inmate death rate, Angola is today seen as a model facility.  It takes great pride in the faith-based rehabilitation of its inmates, most of whom will never regain their freedom: in Louisiana ‘Life’ means ‘Life’.

Angola occupies some 18,000 acres of land,  houses 5,700 inmates,  4,300 of whom are serving a life sentence while 73 are resident on ‘Death Row’…

In terms of inmate facilities the Angola estate is made up of a number of secure ‘Camps’ – basically  high security compounds surrounded by farmland where inmates work.

Our first stop ‘inside’ was a tour of the first ‘Death Row’ cell block, given the name ‘The Red Hat’…

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Who couldn’t resist sitting in the electric chair

The main focus of the visit was into one of the ‘Camps’ where we had the opportunity to talk to a number of inmates as they shared their stories and experiences on Angola’s ‘Redemption & Rehabilitation’ programme.  This certainly was an unusual and riveting experience: unlike anything experienced before and the only regret was that, prior to passing ‘behind the fence’,  we had to surrender (temporarily) our cameras and iPhones.

The tour ended with a visit to the Penitentiary’s Museum

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Day 6 Saturday 23 December and we continued to sail along the Mississippi in the forenoon before a lunchtime arrival at Nottoway Plantation…

The afternoon was spent exploring the plantation estate and resort…

prior to attending in the evening the ‘Christmas Ball Dance’ held in Nottoway’s Randolph Ballroom…

where music was provided by the American Queen’s musicians…

The Christmas Ball was followed by a series of bonfires on the Levy…

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…accompanied by a spectacular firework display…

 

Day 7  Sunday 24 December and we remained at our Nottoway mooring throughout the day…

For those wishing there was a selection of ‘Premium Excursions’ and for those who wished, private small group visits to Nottoway House were arranged…

Nottoway House is the South’s most magnificent remaining antebellum mansion, a monument to the days of plantations, glory and grandeur. The house was completed in 1859 and occupied by its owner, John Hamden Randolph, his wife and their 11 children.

The White Ballroom

 

Drawing Room

The Dining Room

One of the Many Bedrooms

We departed Nottoway at 10.00 pm in the evening and continued our journey in the direction of New Orleans.

Day 7 Monday 25 December Christmas Day on the River

There was a full programme of entertainment, talks and visits throughout Christmas Day as we continued steaming towards New Orleans.

My wife and I were delighted to see that the traditional Christmas day meal was scheduled for lunchtime. The meal and entertainment are all covered in their various sections above.

The Riverlorian came up trumps again as he sought me out mid afternoon to let me know we were soon approaching Baton Rouge…

…as he knew I was particularly interested in photographing the USS Kidd Museum from the river…

 

We obviously made better progress than expected as again he let it be known that we would be approaching New Orleans a little before sunset…

and we were soon manoeuvring  into the cruise ship berth at Julia Street…

…ready for our disembarkation the following day, Boxing Day. We have a five day stay in New Orleans before returning to the cruise terminal for part 3 of our adventure – a Caribbean cruise onboard Carnival Dream.

 

Summary

This was a river cruise that certainly turned out to be something very different from those we have previously taken in both Europe and Asia.

The American Queen is altogether one very different river cruise boat and is an ideal mode of transport on which to explore the laid-back world of Mark Twain’s riverside America. The part of the Mississippi that we journeyed along – Memphis to New Orleans –  is not renowned for its scenic beauty: and neither is  that the point of this journey. It is in fact a stylish journey through American Civil War history, and what better a way to do it.

It is a simulation of an era of leisurely, romantic travel visiting storybook American towns that each played their role in the development and history of the American South during the  classic 19th-century Mississippi river boat era.

One could almost argue that the American Queen is the destination: a magnificent replica of the iconic showboats, fluted smokestacks, and packed with Victorian excess once known as Steamboat Gothic; a timeless style dovetailed with 21st Century technology.

We thoroughly enjoyed the food which was always plentiful and varied and the entertainment, across the board, was outstanding.

Excursions were well organised and those ‘Premium’ ones we participated in proved good value for money.

We did purchase the onboard drinks package at $399.00 per stateroom which included the 15% gratuity.  This proved reasonable value particularly as we used the bar service during showtimes as well as at the other entertainment venues. Bottled water and soft drinks were complimentary.

We did think gratuities were a trifle steep at $16.50 per person per day, particularly as we experienced some poor service in the Dining Room, however on balance the remainder of the service was excellent so we did not adjust them on the final account.

This proved yet another different river cruise adventure – an iconic steamboat and exploration of  a slice of American history – that my wife and I would not have missed for the world.  Overall we deemed it,  once again, an excellent cruise and pretty good value for money.

 

 

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©2015 – 18 * Solent Richard’s Cruise Blog * All Rights Reserved

Duplication in part or whole without prior written consent is prohibited by international laws.

 

Disclosure to potential conflict of interest:

It is common throughout the travel industry for travel journalists and many cruise bloggers to be provided with complimentary cruises for the purpose of their reviews.

Solent Richard has no ‘conflict of interest’ as he is not an accredited journalist, he pays for his cruises, and is happy to confirm that all his reviews are his own given without fear or favour.

 

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