Guests can lounge on the ship’s deck. // © 2015 American Queen Steamboat Company
Feature image (above): American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built. // © 2015 iStock American Queen Steamboat Company
The 436-passenger sternwheeler American Queen, the largest steamboat ever built, inspires something beyond brand loyalty. In fact, brand fanaticism might be closer to the mark.
During an August cruise with American Queen Steamboat Company on the Upper Mississippi, I watched in amazement as passengers compared notes on previous cruises and critiqued every refurbished feature as if it were in their own homes.
Most guests had sailed with the company on the Lower Mississippi, some as many as 11 times in the four years since American Queen Steamboat Company bought the sternwheeler from the U.S. Maritime Administration.
As clients came onboard, many voiced their appreciation of the new carpeting. They approved of the new mahogany rails in the Front Porch of America and praised the new aft mirror in the J.M. White Dining Room, inspired by The Ritz-Carlton in London. They liked the new dining-room chairs and the glowing varnish on the mahogany and walnut in the staterooms, and they loved the brilliant white polyurethane paint that makes American Queen glow. They even remarked on changes in the floral arrangements by the elevators.
On our sailing, roundtrip Minneapolis/St. Paul, guests were fascinated by the lock system we sailed through — we had 22 transits in a week — and by the lowering of the ship’s hinged smokestacks to sail under low bridges. Travelers were excited by the warmth of the communities we encountered in spots where American Queen docked, such as in riverside parks where we could go for strolls or even check out live performances.
Onboard entertainment is high-quality and showcased mostly in the Grand Saloon, a copy of the historic Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was shot. Performers interacted with passengers after the shows and also chatted at a popular morning coffee session. Equally popular was “riverlorian” Jerry Hay, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the river and a stock of wonderful stories.
Dining is sumptuous, guided by Southern celebrity chef Regina Charboneau. Breakfast and lunch choices are so vast that a double-sided, 25-foot buffet doesn’t accommodate everything; there are also freestanding stations and a la carte table service. The dinner menu is varied, from lobster and prime rib to red beans and rice, all served with complimentary wine and beer. Desserts are straight from the South, such as bread pudding in a rum sauce.
American Queen has created distinctions for its top category passengers. Luxury suites include private balconies, and those in the highest categories receive exclusive access to the elegant box seats in the theater. River butlers offer 24/7 service, including serving breakfast and dinner on the private verandas, escorting guests to the theater and providing canapes and afternoon tea, in addition to unpacking and repacking, shoe-shining and more.
American Queen’s four-tier loyalty program offers significant perks, from complimentary laundry service, priority boarding and an onboard credit after five cruises to a two-category upgrade after 30 sailings.
The ship caters to an older demographic, with a smattering of multigenerational groups. On my sailing, this faithful clientele kept a steady stream of business going at the onboard booking desk, arranging their next cruise (or two).