Champaign, Ill. (WCIA)
Cruising the Midwest on the American Queen
By Marcia Frost
When you picture cruising, huge ships with thousands of people probably come to mind. These voyages require flying to your embarkation and hoping the weather is cooperative and you aren’t in the line of a hurricane.
That may be what comes to mind, but it’s not the only way to go. You can take a cruise without ever taking a flight, getting a passport, or worrying about tropical storms. I just did it with American Queen Voyages.
The Riverboat Difference:
The American Queen is one of five steamboats owned by AQV, all built in the United States and fully staffed with a U.S. crew. It was christened in Memphis and its Godmother is Priscella Presley. It was built in 1995 and refurbished in 2007 to add modern touches, such as water filling stations on every floor, to its classic décor, centering around Mark Twain and other authors of that period.
The Queen is the largest of the fleet and actually considered the biggest steamboat ever built. It is still nowhere near an ocean liner at 213 staterooms. It only has five decks and is easy to get around, as well as get on and off – the biggest attraction in a river boat.
Riverboats have been long thought of as European offerings. There are now more options than ever in the United States, and I choose to do the Upper Mississippi as my first American river cruise.
The trip we chose starts in Red Wing, Minnesota, and we had arrived the day before to nearby Bloomington, Minnesota (more about that in a later segment). We were going down the Mississippi River and finishing a week later in Alton, Illinois. We would be stopping at five states, all in the Midwest.
Most of the people we met were avid cruises who had decided it was a great way to explore this country. While there were no children, they were rather active and took advantage of the complimentary bicycles, hiking sticks, and fitness room.
Unique Cabins & Common Areas:
My friend, Lynn, and I have been on a lot of cruises. I have even done a river cruise on the Danube in Europe. I thought I knew what to expect but was really blown away with the American Queen.
The ship was immaculate and the furnishings formal, though the mood was very informal. Embarkation was quick and easy with just under 300 passengers. There was plenty of room to spread out with the Ladies Parlor, Card Room, Mark Twain Gallery, Library, and multiple bars. I loved the River View Bar, where you could sit on a rocking chair and watch the scenery of the Mississippi River.
We had the John Wesley Powell Junior Suite. It was larger than what I had on the European Cruise, where all rooms were the same size. It also had a very large modern bathroom with a tub. We had water bottles provided, as well as robes and slippers. The room was also accessible.
Cabins on the American Queen range from small one person ones for singles on a budget to an Owner’s Suite with a veranda bigger than most people have backyards. We had French doors that led to an open veranda, where neighbors could sit and chat while watching the river go by.
I cannot say enough about the food on the American Queen. Every meal was a treat, and the quality and presentation rivaled any Michelin Star restaurant I’ve been to. Each menu was filled with something for every taste, from vegetarian to seafood to poultry and meat.
The only problem was that you can’t get a wonderful dish (like a mushroom walnut burger I loved) again. What you could get every day if you wanted was a lobster tail (or two). It was on the everyday menu as well as chicken breast, and burgers.
The food was a mixture of fine cuisine such as frogs’ legs and crème brulee, and American fare, like Muffuletta sandwiches and the best chocolate fudge cake I’ve ever had. With lunch and dinner, the waiters would come around with two special wines, one red and one white. If you wanted something different, they would bring that to you.
Food was available at all times on the boat. In addition to the formal dining room, the Front Porch Café had a small buffet that always had prime rib. All day and night there would also be sandwiches, popcorn, fresh baked cookies, and soft serve ice cream with a selection of toppings. Room service was also available and included.
To wash everything down with at the cafe, there was a selection of regular and specialty coffees, and one of four bars on the American Queen, all with unlimited complimentary drinks. There was just a charge for premium drinks and very few were in that category.
Broadway Style Shows:
We were also very impressed with the shows on the American Queen. The Grand Saloon was modeled after the theater Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in and it was quite impressive. Since we had a suite, we had reserve balcony seating.
It was a beautiful venue, and the performances were top-notch. There was a show filled with 70s songs and TV show themes. One night Jim Waddell came aboard to do a show as Mark Twain, and it was quite an insight into the author’s life. My favorite show was the Broadway one and they did a wonderful job belting out the hits.
After the shows, we typically went to the Engine Room bar for a nightcap and to listen to the band there.
Visit the American Queen Voyages website to see all the options available. Be sure to sign up for special offers as they have them throughout the year for most of their itineraries.
Visiting Five States on the Upper Mississippi
with American Queen Voyages:
River Cruising is one of the best kept secrets in the Midwest. I just completed my first with my longtime friend and travel companion, Lynn, and I am hooked.
I’ve done a lot of cruises in various spots around the world. While always enjoyable, there is still a lot of hassles getting on and off the boat. There’s also lines and loud announcements, and the feeling of exhaustion when you get out. Then, there is the bill and you realize how much was not included. I didn’t have any of that on my American Queen Voyages cruise on the Upper Mississippi.
I was able to spend a lot of time opening my French Doors and watching the flowing river, but still got to visit five Midwest states without packing and unpacking.
The Most All-Inclusive You will Get:
The term “all-inclusive” has been used loosely over the years, but American Queen Voyages means what they say. It starts at the beginning with a free pre-cruise night in a top hotel so that you are nice and relaxed when you board the next day.
Once onboard, all your food, snacks, specialty coffees, and most liquor (a few high-end brands are an exception), wine, and beer are unlimited. You also get free bicycles and hiking sticks to use, and something else that you don’t see often: free tours.
There are bus tours on every stop with American Queen Voyages. The buses are hop on, hop off, so you can spend as much or as little time at each place that you want. An app is available for your phone so you even know exactly when and where the bus is coming. They are all accessible with comfortable seats and air conditioning, so many people chose to just stay on and do a bus tour. If there is an admission charge at a stop, AQV pays it.
The night before each stop, we’d get a talk about what was available at the next port. While the buses were complimentary, there was always a reasonably charged premium excursion, such as a kayak trip for about $80. There is also a Riverlorian on board, Frank Rivera on my voyage. His talks on the history of the Mississippi made the anticipation of visiting even stronger.
Our journey actually began in Bloomington, Minnesota, at the Mall of America, but I’m saving that adventure for my next segment. The American Queen began our journey from nearby Red Wing.
We boarded on Monday afternoon at our leisure and stayed docked until the next day so we could get an early start. Our first stop on the bus was at the Pottery Museum, where we learned about the history of pottery in this area and saw a demonstration of how it is made.
Lynn and I walked around town and stopped at Red Wing Confectionary to watch chocolates being made, enjoy a mocha, and make a few purchases to take home. We walked (actually I was on my scooter) to Red Wing Shoe Factory to pick up the bus.
Other passengers told us about the giant shoe, and their time at the Aliveo Military Museum and Red Wing Marine Museum. Before boarding the boat, we spent some time looking through Red Wing Arts in the old train station by the pier and found a beautiful scarf.
La Crosse was our only stop in Wisconsin and it is a beauty. One of the best things about a river cruise is the fact that you can discover these small towns that are easily accessible from the boat.
The Riverside International Friendship Garden was where we wanted to go, and it did not disappoint. There were beautiful plant and floral displays representing places around the world.
We did not have a lot of time and It was an especially warm day, so it was nice to have the bus tour take us through the Pearl Street Shopping and Complex, Dahl Auto Museum, Hixson House, and La Crosse Heritage Center.
We decided to get off one stop before the dock and took in the sites of the boat and the pier. La Crosse is somewhere I would like to go back to and spend more time.
Just like on an ocean liner, a steamboat can need to skip a stop because of weather. In our case, it was the exact opposite of running into a hurricane. The drought we had been having in the Midwest had left the Upper Mississippi water level low. We were unable to dock in Dubuque or Quad Cities, Iowa.
I had previously been to Dubuque and really enjoyed it, especially the Great Rivers Museum. I had been looking forward to checking out the Fenelon Place Elevator, but we did a day of more relaxing on the river and an unexpected day in Clinton, Iowa.
I had decided to spend my time in nearby LeClaire instead of Quad Cities anyway. It happened to be not that far from where we docked in Clinton.
The American Queen was only docked until early afternoon so I woke up early and had a quick breakfast before heading out for a ride in my scooter to explore Clinton. I did drive along the beautiful waterfront area that joggers and strollers alike enjoyed the view from.
Bob Schiffke, Executive Director of the Buffalo Bill Museum volunteered to pick us up and drive us to his city. LeClaire is quite a find on the Great River Road beyond being the home to American Pickers Mike Wolf. I wish I could have spent more time at the Shameless Chocoholic (where I didn’t leave without a purchase), shops, breweries, and Mississippi River Distilling, but time was limited, and the museum had a lot to see.
Buffalo Bill grew up in LeClaire, Iowa, and people from all over donated to this extensive museum on his life and history. The amount of memorabilia is astonishing, and it really tells the story of the life of this soldier and showman. The museum also tells the story of this town in an important spot on the Mississippi River and that history alone is worth a trip.
Burlington was our last stop in Iowa. It was another hot day and there was a lot of construction, so we really enjoyed the opportunity to see and learn about most of the city from the air-conditioned bus, though we did get off at Mosquito Park, which is on a bluff that offers beautiful of the Mississippi River. We also went to the Art Center of Burlington and stopped to cool off with some iced tea at Diggers.
I was extremely impressed with the Port of Burlington. For a fairly small town in Iowa, they had gone all out for the port feel, with everything from brochures from around the state to wine tastings and local products for sale.
It may sound strange, but the stop I was most looking forward to on the American Queen cruise was one I had spent four days at not too long ago: Hannibal, Missouri.
Hannibal was the home of Mark Twain, and the scenic and accessible town has everything you’d ever want to know about the author. I was excited to show Lynn the reconstructed town of his boyhood home, and the Norman Rockwell drawings at the Mark Twain Museum.
We also visited one of my favorite Midwest wineries, Cave Hollow West. (See my segment on Hannibal for more about this city.)
There was an option to stay in St. Louis for a tour and overnight before or after the cruise. I have been to the city often and we chose not to, though we did make sure we stopped at Pappy’s Smokehouse for some barbecue brisket.
The only Illinois stop on this Upper Mississippi River Cruise was the final one in Alton, just across the river from St. Louis. The disembarkation was smooth a quick on this river cruise. There was a bus to take us back to our car in St. Louis.
Alton-Grafton is an area I visited long ago and put immediately back on the list when the memories came back. It was Labor Day so it was difficult to make any plans for, and we had already been gone eight days, so we decided to head straight home.
Tours are also included in the price of the American Queen Voyages cruise. I’ll be talking more about the stops on my Upper Mississippi River Cruise in my next segment. See the story here.
Thank you to American Queen for hosting me and cheers to the helpful and talented staff aboard, including Tour Director Lucy, Cruise Director Alex (who is an amazing performer), Maitre d Michael, and all the dining room staff, especially Jade, who always made sure my scooter and I were in the right spot.
Visit the American Queen Voyages website to see all the options available. Be sure to sign up for remarkable offers as they have them throughout the year for most of their itineraries.