MEMPHIS — The christening of the 436-passenger American Queen at the Beale Street Landing here on April 27 marked the breathing of new life into overnight passenger cruising on the Mississippi River System.
The Great American Steamboat Co., which purchased the vessel from the government last year and then refurbished it, acknowledged some kinks still needed to be worked out in the coming days and weeks: New chefs are being brought onboard, Apollo Group is being brought in to overhaul staff training and a new hotel manager started April 30.
The company has promised that the ship will be up to standards within 60 days, and there is little reason to doubt that promise. The details they're addressing seem to have relatively simple fixes, ranging from small, aesthetic touch-ups to getting the staff up to speed in terms of service and food standards.
Even in the several days I was onboard during the christening cruise last week, there seemed to be almost daily improvements in the dining experience and in service, as the staff was quickly learning the ins and outs of working on a cruise vessel.
Ultimately, the American Queen experience is a hybrid between what one would expect of a larger ocean vessel experience and that of a smaller river vessel in Europe.
Its size allows for more public spaces, onboard amenities and entertainment than on river cruise ships in Europe, which is a good thing given some of the longer sailing days between ports along the U.S. rivers. It took two sailing days, for instance, to travel from Memphis to the next port of call, Henderson, Ky.
There are two dining venues: the main J.M. White Dining Room and the River Grill, an outdoor venue on the fifth deck, which serves a casual lunch and dinner and is a new concept in this incarnation of the vessel. Its menu is a work in progress, according to head chef Regina Charboneau.
The enclosed patio and outdoor area at the bow of the ship, called the Front Porch of America, has self-service coffee, juices and snacks throughout the day, and there is an afternoon tea service with sweet and savory treats in the Ladies Lounge.
A Sunday jazz brunch service was a pleasant surprise and will be a regular offering.
As for the food itself, the hits, like the crab cake Benedict and shrimp and grits at brunch or the brisket po' boy at the River Grill, were memorable, and the misses, such as the River Grill burgers, were easily forgotten.
Each day there is a program of lectures and performances in the Grand Saloon theater. Daytime offerings included everything from talks about river culture and history provided by "riverlorians," or experts on the Mississippi River System, to bingo and other audience-participation games.
By early evening, music acts strike up in the two bars onboard in addition to the main evening acts in the Grand Saloon, which churned out big band and country music and a performance by a Mark Twain impersonator. The performers were well selected for the venue, and the audience seemed to enjoy the shows.
There is also a modest fitness center onboard and an equally modest yet fully functional pool on the sun deck. While some cabins have their own private balconies, there are more than enough public balconies on which passengers can lounge, read or relax while watching the passing scenery. There are a variety of cabin classes and configurations, but one constant seems to be rather sizeable bathrooms, many of which have full bathtubs.
Shore excursions are included, and the American Queen offers a hop-on, hop-off shore excursion program that enables passengers to use the motorcoaches as shuttles in the ports of call. There is a local tour guide on the shuttles until noon providing information about the city or town.
In the end, the Great American Steamboat Co. accomplished what it set out to accomplish: to re-create an authentic, American river cruise experience. The American Queen, with its antique furnishings and historical details, Southern-influenced cuisine, mostly Memphian crew and regional entertainment, is the embodiment of the history and heritage of the Mississippi River System.