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Groups on Cruises: Aboard American Queen

For 10 months of the year, the stern-wheeler American Queen plies the waters of America’s heartland, including the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.  Billed as “the largest, most opulent riverboat in the world,” American Queen offers what is likely going to be the traveling public’s last opportunity to cruise in high style and charming decor aboard an authentic steamboat.

Built in 1995 as the flagship of the late, lamented Delta Queen Steamboat Company, she went through a succession of owners before being purchased from the federal government by one of the company’s premier towboat operators, which completed a major refurbishment of the vessel before introducing her as the initial entry of the new, Memphis-based American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC). I am happy to report that AQSC is a resounding success, not only in delivering an excellent product, but also in turning a profit that had been elusive for its predecessors.

Last November, I was fortunate to join my longtime friend and industry colleague “Gig” Gwin for a one-week lower Mississippi American Queen sailing from New Orleans.  Neither Gig nor I, both veterans of numerous excellent European river cruises, quite knew what to expect from this “home grown” product, but to say that we were pleasantly surprised and satisfied with our cruise would be a significant understatement.

First, American Queen demonstrated that an all-American staff can indeed deliver a world-class product. Gig commented that after encountering on our departure day a deck patch that had come somewhat undone — the entire deck has subsequently been refinished during a January dry-docking — he could find nothing whatsoever that was lacking or less than first class throughout the remainder of the week.

Although we were treated to outstanding Promenade Deck Category AAA Suites With Verandas, American Queen’s 222 staterooms in 14 separate categories include many less costly, smaller but still comfortable cabins, both inside and outside, that would appeal to many groups.  And while AQSC cruises are not inexpensive, the high quality of the product provided results in good value for the price paid.

Food in both the J.M. White Dining Room and the alternative Front Porch Café, available for all three meals, was varied and uniformly delicious, and entertainment in the Grand Saloon was top-notch all week.  Guests especially appreciated the lectures, the pilot house tour and the daily performances on the historic steam calliope from “riverlorian” Travis Vasconcelos.  Incidentally, complimentary Wi-Fi Internet access, wine and beer with dinner, and unlimited cappuccino, espresso, bottled water and soft drinks are all AQSC features, and the line’s “country club casual” ambiance requires no formal wear.

I’ve reserved special mention for the splendid itinerary and program of shore excursions that have seemingly been given special emphasis aboard American Queen. Although “premium” in-depth options, usually at a reasonable $59 per person, were also offered at every stop, we found the included program of “hop-on, hop-off” tours and plantation visits to be an outstanding choice for those wishing less structured, more flexible sightseeing arrangements.  In addition to tours of both the historic Houmas House Plantation and Gardens and the spectacular Oak Alley Plantation, famous for its quarter-mile canopy of giant live oak trees, the hop-on, hop-off programs in St. Francisville and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi, aboard AQSC’s traveling fleet of luxury coaches was well designed to maximize opportunities for individual exploration without requiring a lot of walking.

To sum up, American Queen offers a most memorable vacation experience, one which group coordinators should consider including on their bucket lists.