Big wheel keeps on turnin, American Queen keeps on churnin


NEW ORLEANS -- From the Calliope Bar aboard the American Queen blared the New Orleans-born spiritual, When The Saints Go Marching In.

It was signaling those of us on the deck that the paddle wheeler was pulling away from the Robin Street Wharf, carrying its passengers on a three-night cruise up the Mississippi.

All aboard

Oh Lord I want to be in that number ...

We passengers had been picking up steam since the first of us began boarding at noon. Along with other revelers, I stood on the top deck and cheered as the captain maneuvered the boat into the middle of the river.

As the American Queen turned and headed north, the calliope pumped out a medley of Dixieland tunes, accompanied by the steady churning of the boats bright red paddle wheel.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. calls this, the American Queens route, the uncruise because its fairly far removed from the rest of New Orleans cruising.

Many of the majors (Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International) base their ships right here on the Mississippi, on the Crescent Citys curve.

But those ships are heading down river, into the Gulf and international waters. The American Queen is heading north, straight into the heartland.

Americana pie

When the air is pure and clean ... oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the air is pure and clean.

Few travel experiences offer as hearty a slice of Americana as a steamboat cruise.

Here passengers have the rare opportunity to see what river travel was like more than a century ago.

Between 1850 and 1880, more than 10,000 paddle-wheel steamers plied the Mississippi and other major U.S. waterways.

Nowadays the Mississippi remains vital to the nations economic well-being. Its still a major artery for the transport of cargo on barges, tankers and a variety of vessels of every size and configuration.

One of the simple pleasures aboard a steamboat is to relax in a deck chair and observe the nonstop parade of traffic up and down the river.

Noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest steamboat ever built, the American Queen boasts twin smokestacks 100 feet high and resembles a lavishly decorated wedding cake with two enormous candles.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of its debut as the third member of the steamboat companys fleet, and like its sisters, the American Queen was constructed in a U.S. shipyard and is manned by a U.S. staff and crew.

Getting younger

When the sun begins to shine ... oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the sun begins to shine.

Traditionally, most passengers on the three Delta Queen steamboats have been older couples, and seniors still make up the majority of passengers on seven-day cruises on the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen.

But the American Queens shorter itinerary and reasonably priced cruises combined with the lure of a pre- or post-cruise New Orleans stay is attracting a younger clientele, according to a company spokeswoman.

Increasing numbers of passengers are booking American Queens weeklong Riverboat Adventure package, which includes a stay in New Orleans (see accompanying story below).


The diverse passenger mix on this cruise ranged from seniors and 50-somethings to couples in their 30s and 40s, some traveling with children, some without, plus a few honeymooners and multigeneration families.

Dining at my table was a recently married couple from Dallas in their mid-30s; a middle-age couple from Spokane, Wash.; a senior, single woman from New York; and a father-and-son pair from Pascagoula, Miss.

The American Queen has broadened its selection of onboard activities to appeal to a younger clientele.

Especially popular on this cruise was the Saturday afternoon Fun in the Sun deck party, where passengers feasted on barbecued ribs and bratwurst washed down with ice cold beer (soft drinks for the kids) to the accompaniment of contemporary and Dixieland jazz.

There are the traditional indoor cruise activities, like bingo and trivia contests, but you also can make and fly your own kite from the sun deck.

Music plays a big role in the American Queens entertainment lineup. There are sing-alongs in the Engine Room Bar led by songstress Jackie Bankston, and pianist Phil Westbrook entertains in the Captains Bar and the Calliope Bar. (Its Westbrook who gives the rousing calliope salute at every departure from port.) 

Stage shows are performed twice nightly in the Grand Saloon theater by a troupe of singers, dancers and musicians.

The repertoire includes a musical tribute to the Mississippi entitled Take Me to the River, a spirited New Orleans-style Mardi Gras with audience participation and Yesterday, a retrospective of Beatles tunes.

The American Queen doesnt have a casino or a spa, and onboard recreation is limited to a tiny, poorly equipped gym, a mini-size swimming pool and a couple of Ping-Pong tables and shuffleboard courts.

Those who crave exercise can walk around the promenade or borrow one of the boats bicycles (at no charge) during port calls.

Hearty meals

When we all have food to eat ... oh Lord I want to be in that number, when we all have food to eat.

Although far from gourmet, meals feature tasty steamboat cuisine, with a plentiful selection of Southern and other American specialties. Dinner menus list four appetizers, two salads and five entrees along with four desserts. 

Among the preferred starters are fried green tomatoes and shrimp, and sweet potato bisque. Entrees include seafood gumbo, blackened redfish, filet mignon and breast of roast duck. Meals conclude with New Orleans bread pudding topped with hot bourbon sauce and Mississippi mud pie.

Dinner is served at assigned seatings (5:15 p.m. and 8 p.m.) in the J.B. White dining room, which also hosts open seating for  breakfast and lunch. A continental breakfast is available every morning at the Front Porch (inside and outside), and a light lunch buffet is offered daily in the Grand Saloon. 

Port calls 

Come and join me in my journey cause its time that we begin ...

The American Queens three-night cruise calls at two ports on the Lower Mississippi -- Vacherie and Baton Rouge.

Shore excursions in both ports evoke the feel and flavor of Cajun country.

At Vacherie, I joined the Cajun Swamp Tour, which provided a glimpse of daily life on the Louisiana bayous and backwaters.

In Baton Rouge, the Art on the Front Porch motorcoach tour visits rural towns where passengers meet and observe local artists at work.

Other options include visits to 19th century plantations and a stop at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, where the Angola Prison Rodeo is put on for the public by inmates and staff every Sunday in October.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to t[email protected].

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