In June 2019, my wife and I took the American Queen paddle wheeler on a one-week trip down the Mississippi River. Trip went from Memphis to New Orleans (the Deep South).
I rate this trip as an overall 5 (on a scale of 5), based on its distinctive niche for educational travel.
The Mississippi River is America’s other “Route 66.” You can see it from shore by driving yourself along the Great River Road. Or you can see it from the water on a riverboat like the American Queen.
Though this is the largest paddle wheeler ever built, it’s still small when compared to international cruise ships. It has six decks and carries a bit over 400 passengers.
Travelers who never stop learning will be in heaven on the American Queen. It provides a comfortable level of overnight support for your daily “soft expeditions” ashore.
The American Queen is a good fit for the same crowd that savors Elder Hostel (excuse me, Road Scholar), living museums, re-enactments, historic preservation, collecting national parks, and playing history detective.
It’s also an alternative to those European river cruises -- both for Americans who want to stay home, and for Europeans who want to see a famous slice of America. Once you’ve left the airport, it’s like a prior era: a week of casually boarding and leaving the boat without TSA searches.
But it’s not a good fit for passengers who only want a relaxing escape of doing nothing. And travel agents should use caution in booking customers who expect extensive pampering and privacy. The American Queen is heavily self-service, and for a similar price, they can get an ocean crossing with a more attentive level of luxury.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
Tips from travel agents will greatly help customers to make the most of this niche experience -- and to avoid the expectation gaps that keep popping up in Cruise Critic reviews.
Needn’t be any surprises as to what it looks like aboard the American Queen. Last September, Gene Sloan did an exhaustive photo shoot (60+ images) that is published on USA Today’s travel website. Right down to the self-serve coffee machine.
And, if you don’t consider it a spoiler, you can easily use the closeup views of Google Earth to scout the whole route in advance. You’ll quickly see that the river is less than a mile wide in most places.
In other words, you’re unlikely to get seasick on this type of trip.
NATURE CALLS THE SHOTS
Days are spent on shore, and the boat paddles on in the evening.
As with flightseeing tours, nature calls the shots here. Travelers may experience itinerary adjustments, big and small, based on the seasonal water level.
The route may change if the water is low. In fact, the American Queen got stuck in the mud for a few days of its maiden voyage back in 1995 -- when the water on the Ohio suddenly got really low. And, like old aviators, they’ve been known to simply wait it out at a stop until conditions improve.
If the water is high, the crew can adapt with little fanfare by cranking down the smokestacks and pilot house to get under a bridge. If you want to see this novelty, ask when you board as to where they expect it to happen.
But if the water is really high, they may need to change your route to avoid a possible stranding between bridges. Last year, one of their trips addressed this by diverting over to the Illinois River (St. Louis to Chicago). Sounds like a good consolation prize, since the boat made quick arrangements for a lavishing of Lincoln lore.
On our own June 2019 trip down the Mississippi from Memphis, flooding blocked us from one of the dockings planned in Louisiana. So the boat just went over to the other side of the river and tied up to the trees (like the old days). And there at the end of the gangplank were the buses in a state of readiness for the next activity.
This little adjustment was certainly mild compared to some improvised landings in the 1800s. Back in the day, a riverboat could end up loading from the second story of a flooded building.
Water conditions may also get the American Queen to a stop ahead of schedule. Maybe even a “bonus” overnight docking (as we got at Natchez). So pre-plan how you might use any extra evening ashore. There are often ghost, foodie, author, or pub tours available from the locals (not part of the American Queen).
If nothing else, any overnight stop is a photo op to step ashore after dark and see the boat with all its lights.
HOW THEY DO THE DAILY STOPS
These guys do shore excursions right. The American Queen has its own fleet of comfortable buses that are well-maintained and well air-conditioned. They have their own crew of regular drivers, who follow along on shore and meet the boat every morning.
Some buses take passengers on pre-reserved day trips (which cost extra). Other buses continuously shuttle you around town to sites that you can do at your pace. At these places, American Queen has prepaid any admission fee or expected donation. You just tell them that you’re off the American Queen and walk on in.
American Queen publishes its own maps that show all the shuttle stops and prepaid attractions. These maps are more accurate, readable, and helpful than the crude port-stop leaflets I’ve seen on some international cruises.
While river cruises can produce a traffic jam in Europe, passenger boats on the Mississippi are rare. Visits by the American Queen are a novelty, and the company seems to have cultivated a warm rapport with the locals at every stop. Often they’re volunteers.
For instance, the boat’s shuttle bus dropped us off to see the Church of the Holy Trinity in Vicksburg. A parishioner in his 80s detailed the story of its six Tiffany stained-glass windows.
The old Vicksburg depot is right by the dock and boasts a large collection of 250 ship models. They’re spread around the museum, and the friendly docent made sure that I knew where to find them.
In contrast to the jaded herding of tourist-saturated Europe, I found the people of Memphis, Vicksburg, and Natchez to be among the most genuinely welcoming in the world.
A MENU OF MANSIONS
European river cruises have their palaces. On this route, the American Queen gives passengers their choice of 12 southern mansions built in the 1800s. A remarkable range of building styles and stories, often tragic. Some of these mansion visits come with extras like local cuisine, gardens, a costume museum, or a personal tour by the owner.
For instance, the owner of Twin Oaks is quite the celebrity chef. She fed us well, told great stories, and gave us the run of her home. Shared her cooking secrets and left everyone with a copy of her colorful 200-page recipe book (Regina’s Kitchen tour). One of our all-time favorite shore excursions anywhere.
The key here is pre-trip planning. Choose how to spend your day by studying the mansions’ websites. Even more online detail is available at the National Register of Historic Places. (www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/database-research.htm )
One notable mansion was missing, though, and might be worth adding to the boat’s itinerary. While Hawaii had its well-known colony for leprosy at Molokai, the lesser-known mainland equivalent (the National Leprosarium) was at the old Indian Camp mansion on the Mississippi.
Today there’s a driving tour of this former Carville colony. And a museum that tells how federal research at this site found the world a cure in the 1950s. Leprosy could now be treated with pills instead of exile for life. (www.hrsa.gov/hansens-disease/museum )
EVEN A CASTLE
Like Europe’s rivers, there’s an old castle on the route: the former state capitol building in Baton Rouge. Just three blocks from the dock. Complete with towers and rooftop battlements. Interior like a gothic cathedral, with arches everywhere and a massive 2000-pane stained-glass dome.
And, yes, this is the piece of medieval imitation that Mark Twain lampooned in “Life on the Mississippi.” With sharp language, he urged the state to demolish it and fund a replacement rather than a restoration.
Interestingly, the outside looks a lot like the castle logo used by the Army Corps of Engineers. And the inside reminds me of the ornate Victorian decor found in the American Queen’s own Mark Twain Gallery.
One wing of this castle now serves as a palatial venue for weddings. Another wing has the state’s Museum of Political History, with its candid look at the monarch-like reign of Governor Huey Long back in the 1930s. (https://exploresouthernhistory.com/louisianacapitol2.html )
The legislature debated Long’s impeachment in this castle. Long then built them an art deco skyscraper that remains the nation’s tallest state capitol building. There Long was shot to death, with some mystery remaining to this day.
Historians contemplate how a Huey Long stint as President might have unfolded in the years surrounding World War II (instead of FDR). Long was already a U.S. senator when he was killed.
THE 600-MILE ART WALK
European river cruises have their art galleries. The American Queen’s version starts on the boat itself.
Every public area of the boat is used to display a collection of 66 paintings that detail the history of American river travel. Paintings with a purpose, rather than mere decorations. Ask at the desk and they’ll give you their free booklet for the “Self-Guided Art Tour.”
(There’s a “missing” painting, though. The boat needs a copy of Thomas Benton’s 1947 mural of “Achelous and Hercules,” which celebrates the efforts of the Corps of Engineers to tame the flooding Missouri. See https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/achelous-and-hercules-1910 )
Historic Hotels of America says this boat “has the largest private collection of Tiffany lamps in the United States.”
And don’t forget to look upward. This is the Gilded Age, and there’s art in those ceilings. Like a sky mural above the Grand Staircase.
When the boat docks at Vicksburg, you’re greeted by a series of 32 outdoor murals on the floodwall. (www.riverfrontmurals.com )
One of these murals depicts the deadliest maritime disaster in American history -- more killed than on the Titanic. In 1865, an overloaded troopship exploded near Memphis. The military man in charge was tried in the old courthouse that’s now a Vicksburg museum. After his conviction was reversed, he became a local judge and founded a suburb. Memory of the disaster was overshadowed by other events, that is, Lincoln’s death, Booth’s death, and the end of the Civil War. (Book: Jerry Potter, “The Sultana Tragedy”)
Another Vicksburg mural recalls the deadly tornado of 1953 -- went right over the spot where we parked the boat. Locals wrongly assumed that the river protected them from tornados. This was a year before weather radar was invented, and the town’s paper got a Pulitzer for its continued coverage without utilities. (See www.weather.gov/jan/1953_vicksburgtornado )
In New Orleans, the most popular art forms are, of course, the floats and costumes for Mardi Gras. There are at least five museums about the event that are a reasonable distance from the dock. If, like us, your cruise ends upon reaching New Orleans, these are things for you to find, and pay for, on your own.
About a mile south of the dock is our favorite: a factory that has built Mardi Gras floats since the 1940s. (www.mardigrasworld.com ) About a mile north of the dock is the Mardi Gras Museum. (www.themardigrasmuseum.com )
The state’s Presbytere museum in the French Quarter focuses on Mardi Gras. There’s also a lesser-known (and free) museum of “royalty” wear in the back of Arnaud’s restaurant -- if you know to ask for access. (www.arnaudsrestaurant.com ) And African American costumes are displayed at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which is just west of the French Quarter. (www.backstreetmuseum.org )
My favorite commercial art galley (anywhere) is M.S. Rau, on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Many of the paintings and sculptures are found behind a door disguised as a bookcase (seriously). Those in the know can ask to tour that hidden collection. Parts of it are online in the store’s archived exhibition catalogs at www.rauantiques.com/catalogs. (Be sure to check out the one from their “Vice and Virtue” exhibition.)
But let’s be candid here. If you can afford to do more than just admire the inventory at M.S. Rau, you probably have your own yacht and aren’t reading this review.
MUSEUMS OF SOCIAL JUSTICE
Obviously, old mansions along the Mississippi didn’t start out as tourist attractions. Nor were they built by volunteers. On this Deep South route of the American Queen, you’ll find nine museums that focus on slavery and civil rights.
Here’s the list: (1) National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis); (2) Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum (Memphis); (3) Cotton Museum (Memphis); (4) Frogmore Plantation (Natchez); (5) Forks of the Road slave market (Natchez); (6) Afro-American Culture Museum (Natchez); (7) William Johnson House (Natchez); (8) Rosedown Plantation (St. Francisville); (9) Oak Alley Plantation (Nottoway).
Two further stops have some related nuances if you know a bit of the background.
In Vicksburg, the boat’s bus will drop you off at a museum that was the county’s courthouse during the Civil War. A small exhibit in the courtroom recounts an early war crimes trial by the Union army. Nine Union soldiers were hung for killing a plantation owner’s wife during a looting. All nine were black soldiers. (Book: Gordon Cotton [former curator], “The Murder of Minerva Cook”)
At St. Francisville, the boat did a bus trip over to the nation’s largest hard-core prison. Known as Angola or “the farm,” it was the American version of Devil’s Island back in the day. Some cite the convict lease system as a covert continuation of slavery up until World War II. (Book: Douglas Blackmon, “Slavery by Another Name”)
The media continue to report concerns about conditions at Angola. All agree that the majority of its current inmates are lifers and black.
Once again, the key is to choose your stops of interest with some pre-trip surfing of museum websites.
One lesser-known civil rights site might be worth adding to the American Queen’s itinerary. During World War II, Japanese Americans were confined at two “relocation centers” near the Mississippi River at McGehee, Arkansas. There were 10 of these wartime camps around the country. McGehee has a museum about the ones there. (http://rohwer.astate.edu )
Once you get to New Orleans, there are some further options that you can arrange on your own. There is the New Orleans self-guided Slave Trade Marker Tour, with its free downloadable app. (www.neworleansslavetrade.org) And at least one company offers a tour about the city’s civil rights movement. (http://toursbyjudy.com )
THE BOAT ITSELF
Perhaps the most unusual structure of the trip is the American Queen itself –- the largest paddle wheeler ever made. Back in 1995, the original owner resurrected the Victorian decor of the most lavish riverboats and produced a composite out of modern (much safer) materials.
Though the boat’s a replica, it’s still a transportation icon. The missing link between covered wagons and the railroads. Belongs right up there with the Spirit of St. Louis.
Before the railroads took over, steamboats like this one took passengers as far west as Montana. There was even a brief effort at running steamboats from Baja up to present-day Las Vegas.
The American Queen is indeed propelled by a genuine steam-driven paddle wheel. But two modern propeller pods are available for tight maneuvers and emergencies.
Unlike international cruise ships, passenger visits to the bridge (pilot house) and engine room are encouraged rather than forbidden. Due to the noise, you may want to visit the engines during a port stop if you really want to talk with the engineer on duty. There’s a good “steamplant” handout with enough details of the system for most of us.
Time aboard the boat feels like a very realistic stage set, or “Night at the Museum.” In fact, the onboard shows and lectures occur in a “Grand Saloon” modeled after Ford’s Theater. A bit smaller, but you can still sit in a balcony box like old Abe did. (The two most forward boxes are open to anyone who gets there first.)
I started to search the various public databases for the ship’s listing as a historic property. Then I remembered that this is a replica less than half my age. When it gets older, it should make the cut for the nautical category of the Historic American Engineering Record.
The dining room recreates that of a legendary steamboat (J.M. White) whose wreck in the 1800s formed the Maurice Towhead, an island we passed near St. Francisville.
Each of the three passenger lounges is a museum in itself, with wall-to-wall antiques, exhibits, artwork, and books related to the period. For serious study of the route, passengers have access to a real chart room (no, it’s not a bar).
You even get a chance to play the boat’s steam calliope.
Every area of the boat is well air-conditioned. Those who chill easily will need to bring along a sweatshirt (though you can adjust the temperature in your room).
SCENERY ALONG THE RIVER
On the Mississippi north of St. Louis (not this trip), a boat will transit up to 29 locks (sort of an extended Panama Canal). But our route from Memphis down to New Orleans had no locks or dams.
The river south of Memphis is mile after mile of tree-lined banks, often with high levees. With the boat being six decks high, you get the unique perspective of a helicopter flying low and slow above the water.
Common traffic on the Mississippi consists of tugboats (towboats) pushing long strings of barges. If you’re curious about life aboard the towboats, the Corps of Engineers has a well-labeled one as a museum by the dock in Vicksburg. With some climbing, you can explore the inside from top to bottom at your own pace. (Don’t miss the exhibit in the engine room about the Army’s construction problems with the “Big Shaky.”)
Since there are no locks or dams on this route, there’s usually little to see at night beyond lighted buoys, towboat spotlights, and the silhouette of trees on the banks. However, there was quite the magenta sunset on our last night. Another night had a half-hour show of cloud-to-cloud lightning that rivaled the aurora.
New Orleans is the southern end of the line for the American Queen. After New Orleans, the Mississippi River extends through its delta and eventually reaches the ocean. To see this last 100 miles of the river, you’d have to book an international cruise that starts at New Orleans and heads on into the Gulf.
STAR OF THE SHOW
The river on this route can get pretty monotonous if you don’t know what’s hidden in plain sight. Like the monotony of an opera unless they give you a written translation for following along (libretto).
Fortunately, the American Queen has an onboard historian (Jerry Hay) who has authored mile-by-mile guidebooks for every river the boat travels (and a few more). Though designed for boaters, they’re your libretto for appreciating all the local lore you’d otherwise miss. Lots of shipwrecks and military history buried out there. (To buy these books, see www.riverlorian.com.)
But you still have to know where you are on the river. Bring along your GPS or smartphone equivalent.
A key feature of the trip is the talks that Jerry Hay gives about the river, the boat, and the stops. Since you’re here for the history, he’s the voice of the American Queen, your emcee, and the star of the show. He does up to four talks a day at various spots around the boat, such as the pilot house, chart room, and Grand Saloon.
Backwaters all have their backstories, and Jerry Hay sure knows a lot of them.
Seems fitting that the American Queen was originally christened by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Harvey. The couple who broadcast “the rest of the story,” what we’d otherwise have missed. (There was a “re-christening” by Priscilla Presley about two decades later.)
Despite all the efforts at flood control, the river still seems to get its way much of the time. The charts show abandoned channels, oxbow lakes, and even parts of one state exiled within another state. Congress sets the boundary; nature resets the Mississippi. (See www.semissourian.com/blogs/pavementends/entry/36305 )
The national research center for river control is the huge Corps of Engineers lab that dominates Vicksburg. Since the facility is generally not open to the public, any shore excursion that the American Queen could arrange would be an impressive addition to future itineraries. Taxpayers are often unaware of good things that the government has done with their money. (See www.erdc.usace.army.mil/About/ )
Much of the music that we’ve heard on international cruises has musicians playing along to a soundtrack. On the American Queen, 100% of the music on stage was totally live (no soundtracks). Just like the old days.
It’s a full onboard band of veteran session musicians from around the country. They do evening shows of American tunes from the last 150 years. Just as enjoyable as the onshore music of the French Quarter.
Except for dinner, meals are self-serve buffets with several basic American entrees. Certainly enough to keep you going, but nothing like the pig-outs with endless variety that you find inside casinos or luxury liners.
Self-serve machines are available for your basic soft drinks, coffee, tea, popcorn, and soft ice cream. Each deck has a water fountain (“hydration station”) to fill the sports bottle that they give you at the start of the cruise.
If strong, branded coffees (Starbucks, Peets) are part of your life support system, you’ll have to bring you own survival kit from home. Same deal if you insist on bottled water. The boat simply doesn’t have these things.
You’ll get free beer and wine with dinner, but alcohol beyond that gets added to your bill. On the other hand, there’s no onboard casino to take your money.
Dinner is the only table-service type of meal. You get an assigned time and table for the trip’s duration, and everyone in the room gets every course on the same tight schedule (or you’ve waived that part of the meal). You can, of course, skip this regimen and just do another self-serve buffet for dinner (like breakfast and lunch).
Dinner had creative, nicely-presented regional entrees that changed throughout the week. Service was fast, and the food always arrived hot. Our three American waiters were just as skilled, attentive, and charming as the European waiters touted on international cruises.
There’s one serious caution for travel agents, though. Two tables in the dining room are positioned directly above machinery whose noise and vibration make it difficult to converse (probably a generator). Travel agents should insist that their customers not be assigned to these two tables –- make it a deal breaker.
With the boat pointed forward, the two tables to avoid are found in the forward part of the left side of the dining room. On the deck plan for the dining room, you’ll see an H-shaped service area. Draw a line from (1) the left bottom corner of this H across to (2) the left-side window with a hull access tower outside. Though the dining room may be completely full, the American Queen simply shouldn’t space its tables near this line.
Travel agents should alert customers that the American Queen will automatically add on a “gratuities” charge of $37 per day per couple. While we only did a one-week leg, the brochure advertises “epic 16 to 23-day voyages” of the full Mississippi. In other words, they’ll be tacking on roughly $550 to $800 for couples who do the whole river.
And, no, you can’t use your onboard credit to pay this add-on noted in the fine print.
Since the “gratuities” charge is not based on any individual’s actual performance, it’s just a way of adding payroll to the quoted base fare. Like the unbundled (fragmented) billing of airlines, hospitals, and “resort fee” hotels.
Theoretically, the boat says you can get nasty and negotiate this extra charge downward if you feel it’s undeserved. However, if a passenger really feels that abused, the better route might be a travel agent’s post-trip request to the line’s headquarters.
For this type of trip, the extra cost for a window or outside entrance wasn’t worth it to us. We picked the cheapest inside cabin they had (no window), and it met our needs. The cabin was just our sleeping room while the boat was moving on to the next day’s stop.
Since this was summer in the Deep South, good air conditioning was more important to us than a window. Our room’s air conditioning was effective and adjustable to our liking.
However, travel agents should alert customers to a few idiosyncrasies. For instance, our cabin was far from soundproof. We could hear coughs, coat hangars, and conversations in the adjacent cabins. Also, some Deck 3 interior cabins (like ours) are above the Grand Saloon. Choose accordingly if you want silence before the second show ends about 9 pm.
And, per the past reviews by others, you may want to sleep away from the laundry room.
The instructions on the old room safe are ambiguous and tricky. You may want to ask the desk to translate before you throw all your goodies in there.
You have to use your metal key to lock the door when you leave your room. It doesn’t automatically lock like modern hotel doors.
Minimal towels were provided in our bathroom. So plan for that contingency (maybe bring along a roll of paper towels).
The room’s free wireless Internet worked well with our PC. But we didn’t have cell phone coverage unless we opened the door a little. Probably not an issue for the outside rooms with a window.
There are endless things to see and ponder along this route, if you know where to find them.
If I had my cruising retirement to do over, I’d spend more time in my own country, do more pre-trip homework, and take more trips like this one.