AMERICAN EMPRESS: PORTS ON THE SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS, PART 2

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Multnomah Falls measures 620 feet from top to bottom.  On September 4, 1995, a 400-ton rock slid from the face of the upper falls and dropped 225 feet into the upper falls pool.  It sent a 70-foot splash over the bridge and drenched a wedding party having their photographs taken!

The American Empress stayed overnight in Stevenson, so the following day, we took a tour to see the breathtaking Multnomah Falls and the panoramic views from Vista House.  Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day and not the best for photography; however, we couldn’t complain.  The weather was fabulous otherwise!

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During the afternoon, we took the hop on-hop off bus to the Bonneville Dam where we were fortunate to have an opportunity to tour the facility.  We arrived at the dam’s visitor center just in time for one of only three tours scheduled for the day.  It was fascinating to see how the dam and power plant operates.  Just as was done at McNary Dam, a fish ladder system was built for fish migration, and we were able to get a close look at it from above and below.  Viewing windows allowed us to see the fish pass through.

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When we returned to Stevenson, there wasn’t much to see in town, because it is very small.  We were quite entertained, though, just hanging out along the shoreline and back on the boat, where we watched wind surfers and kite surfers having a blast!  The dependable high winds on the riverfront is a huge draw for them, and they come from all around.  We had a perfect vantage point from our veranda—great for photography!

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Our final port was Astoria, Oregon where we had a gorgeous day to cap off our cruise.  Situated near the mouth of the Columbia River, the deep-water port city of only 10,000 residents has a growing art scene, and a cool vibe.  The Riverwalk thrives with cafes, a brewery/restaurant, and shops served by an old-time trolley that stops alongside them.

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The highlight of the hop on-hop off route was enjoying the breathtaking views of the river from the Astoria Column.  When we disembarked the bus, we were given a souvenir balsa wood glider kit.  After hiking up the 164-step spiral staircase, we flew our gliders from the viewing platform and watched the long flight to the ground below.  If you were lucky, it didn’t end up in the trees!  I was lucky– twice.  I had written our names and date on the bottom of the wing, so I would know if I had found my own glider down below.  Somebody else found it and placed the glider on a bench in front of the gift shop.  Trying my luck again, I gave it to another American Empress passenger getting ready to climb up to the top.  Sure enough, I later found my glider on the ground, and it now sits atop my computer printer as a souvenir—at least for now.

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Meanwhile, the exterior of the 125-foot Astoria Column has a beautiful wrap-around mural depicting the history of the region from 1792 to the 1880’s.  If the mural was unwound, it would be over 500 feet in length!

Our next stop in Astoria was back downtown to see the Sunday street market, an excellent market considering the small size of the town.  In addition to the usual produce and foods, there were several high-quality artists and crafters.

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Next, we toured the Flavel House.  Built for Captain George Flavel in 1885, the 11,600 square-foot Queen Anne style house was full of beautiful woodwork and antiques.

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The backyard of the Flavel House

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The woodwork was beautiful throughout the house.

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Rather than take the bus back to the boat, we walked down to the riverfront and enjoyed the views of the river along the Riverwalk.  As we passed by the brewery, restaurants, and shops, we could hear the seals barking just below.

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 The American Empress was tied up at the same dock as the Coast Guard cutters and in front of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, so there was plenty to see around the boat as we made our way back on board for our final night aboard the beautiful paddlewheeler.

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AMERICAN EMPRESS: PORTS ON THE SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS, PART 1

Since high water levels made it impossible for us to visit The Dalles in Oregon, the revised itinerary had the American Empress visiting just Richland, Stevenson, and Astoria, before ending up in Vancouver, Washington.  The following (in two parts) are the highlights of those cities as well as our river cruising in between.

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 At the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers, the American Empress stopped in Richland, one of the tri-cities in the southeastern part of Washington.  Richland is home of the Hanford nuclear site, the once-secret plant that was part of the Manhattan Project.  During World War II, the U.S. Army had bought up 640 miles of land along the river, evicted Richland’s 300 residents as well as residents from nearby White Bluffs and Hanford, and then built a community for the workers they had hired to build and run this top-secret plant.  It was so secret that the workers there didn’t even know what they were building.  The town swelled from 300 to over 25,000 between 1943 and the end of the war in 1945, when the workers finally learned they had built the nation’s first nuclear reactor.

In Richland, the highlight on the hop on-hop off bus route was The Reach Museum, where we saw a fascinating exhibit about the Manhattan Project and what life was like for the workers and families in this government-built town where it was forbidden to speculate with others about the nature of their work.

 After leaving Richland, we went through the locks of McNary Dam, which is 1.4 miles long and spans the Columbia River.  It was interesting to see the fish ladders that were built on each side of the dam for salmon and steelhead passage, allowing the fish to follow their natural migration as babies to the Pacific Ocean and back as adults.  The flow of water is regulated, so that the velocity flowing over the steps is fast enough to attract the fish to the ladder, but not too fast to exhaust the fish and wash them back downstream.

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Osprey

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 As we headed west during our scheduled day of cruising the Columbia River Gorge, the topography became much more lush and green.  The gorge stretches for over 80 miles and is up to 4,000 feet deep with a wide range of elevation and precipitation.  In the westernmost region of the gorge, temperate rainforests get up to 100 inches of rainfall each year!  Compare that to the 6-7 inches of rain in the desert of Richland, and it’s understandable why it is so much prettier on the western parts of the Columbia River.

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 Upon our arrival to Stevenson, the hop on-hop off buses drove American Empress’s passengers out to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum.  Originally, it was scheduled to be a premium tour out of The Dalles; however, the cancellation of that port meant having to get bused there an hour each way from Stevenson.  As a nice concession by American Queen Steamboat Company, they refunded the tour fee to the passengers booked for that tour and made it available to everybody for free.

Along the way, we could see evidence of the horrible Eagle Creek fire from last fall.  Taking three months to extinguish, the fire scorched 76 square miles of forest and destroyed eight buildings. The area was still beautiful, though, thanks to the tremendous amount of rain and regrowth since the fire.

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A view of Mt. Adams from the museum, which was behind me.

When we arrived at the museum, which has the largest collection (325) of still-flying antique planes, cars, motorcycles, and tractors in the country; we were treated to a beautiful view of Mt. Hood behind the exhibits.  There, visitors had the opportunity to catch a ride in a vintage auto,

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Inside the huge hangars, there were rows of beautiful antiques, everything from a 1909 Franklin Model D to a WWII glider.  Check out their website for details, and you will be amazed at what they have displayed in their huge museum!

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The first car is a 1917 Willy’s Overland

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1931 Chrysler Imperial

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In the afternoon, for a belated birthday celebration, we treated Adam (the bartender/cocktail waiter we had met on the American Duchess) to a beer at Walking Man Brewing, a nice place to hang out and relax.

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 Next up:  AMERICAN EMPRESS:  PORTS ON THE SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS, PART 2

 

 

LEWISTON (IDAHO) AND CLARKSTON (WASHINGTON): CAN YOU GUESS WHO THEY ARE NAMED AFTER?

After being bused from the Historic Davenport Hotel in Spokane, we boarded the American Empress in Clarkston, Washington on the afternoon of May 21.  Since the boat wasn’t scheduled to depart until the next afternoon, we had time the following morning to explore Clarkston and Lewiston via the hop-on, hop-off bus.  We had never been to Idaho before (one of eleven states we hadn’t visited), so I was excited to see at least a fraction of the state!

Clarkston was named after William Clark, of Lewis and Clark.  Across the river, Lewiston, Idaho was named after Meriwether Lewis.  Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase, the two men joined up for the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States, from May, 1804 to September, 1806.  They were tasked with exploring and mapping the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route to the Pacific Ocean.  Along the way, they studied the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, in addition to establishing trade with the Native American tribes.  The “Corps of Discovery Expedition” began near St. Louis and passed through Lewiston, across the river from where the American Empress was set to begin our cruise west on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Both Clarkston and Lewiston are small cities with a combined population of about 55,000.  Surprisingly, though, there was a Costco just down the road from the dock!  Once the reason was explained by the local guide on our hop on-hop off bus, it made good sense.

Located at the confluence of the Snake River and Clearwater River and thirty miles southeast of Lower Granite Dam, Lewiston is reachable by some ocean-going vessels because of the lock system on the Snake and Columbia River.  The Port of Lewiston is Idaho’s only seaport and has the distinction of being the farthest inland port east of the West Coast of the United States.

According to our guide, farmers and their families drive to Costco from hundreds of miles around to do their shopping.  (There are a lot of farmers in Idaho.  In addition to lentils, peas, garbanzo beans, and barley grown in the state, 49% of all wheat grown in the U.S.A. gets barged out of Lewiston.)   They will come in and spend a night, see a movie, and stock up before heading home.  One of the founders of Costco (based in Kirkland, Washington) was from Lewiston, so he convinced his partner to build a location in Clarkston.  Evidently, they do a very good business!

Clarkston is also the gateway to North America’s deepest gorge, Hells Canyon (8,000 feet!), a year-round recreation resort, thanks to its mild desert climate and only ten inches of average annual rainfall.  In addition, the area has a rich history of the Nez Perce Native American tribe who assisted Lewis and Clark with their expedition and still reside in the area today.

We were able to get a good look at the area on our way to the Nez Perce National Historical Park as well as the drive out to the First Territorial Capitol Interpretive Center where we hopped off for a visit.

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The next stop was the Bridablik/Schroeder House where we were hosted by the Schroeders for an exclusive tour (for American Empress passengers only) of their fully restored 1906 home full of gorgeous antiques, and then homemade refreshments on their back patio.  The panoramic view of the river below was spectacular!

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Finally, we hopped off to visit the Nez Perce County Historical Society Museum before heading back to the riverboat for our departure.  (There were other stops on the route; however, we didn’t have time to see them all.)

 

Fortunately, it was a beautiful and warm day, so the afternoon cruise towards Richland, our next stop, was delightful!

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Entering a lock

 

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Coming up next:  AMERICAN EMPRESS:  PORTS ON THE SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT COMPANY’S AMERICAN EMPRESS

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Welcome aboard American Queen Steamboat Company’s second paddlewheel riverboat, the 223-passenger (and 83 crew) American Empress.  She’s a beauty with her traditional black smoke stacks, red paddlewheel, ornate trim, and beautiful décor.

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Having been on the grand dame of the fleet, American Queen, and the newest addition, the upscale boutique hotel inspired American Duchess, we were curious to spend a week aboard the four-year-old American Empress and get a feel for their Washington-based riverboat.

What makes this boat different from the others is that all of the staterooms are outside with balconies/ verandas.  Although our stateroom was located on the walking deck, and the veranda wasn’t as private as the balconies on the other decks, I loved having easy accessibility to get quickly around the boat when I wanted to check out the view from all angles for photography.  It was also convenient for my deck walks (8-1/2 laps equaled a mile), since there wasn’t a gym available.

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As always when we cruise, we selected the least-expensive cabin, since we don’t need the extra space or spend much time inside our room.  At 150 square feet, it was the same size as most inside cruise ship cabins, and it was appointed with a mini refrigerator, coffemaker, flat-screen TV, desk, safe, and plenty of closet space.  A nice touch was the addition of a nice pair of binoculars.

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Just a short walk down the hall from us was the River Grill, the casual dining option for breakfast and lunch buffets, or reservation-only dinners.  Although we didn’t dine there for dinner, we enjoyed all of our breakfasts and lunches either on the deck outside of the River Grill, or just inside with great views looking out.  When the weather was nice, they would open the doors, so you could enjoy the comfortable temperatures inside, but still feel like you were dining alfresco.

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What made the convenient location dangerous for our waistlines was the 24-hour soft serve ice cream machine (with several toppings) and cookies.  (Thankfully, I did so much walking during the week that I didn’t gain any weight!)

The other dining option, the Astoria Dining Room was fabulous for dinner.  Although we had second seating (7:45 PM), it wasn’t assigned seating, so you could choose to dine alone or share a table with other passengers.  The dining room was never full for the later seating, because first seating was more in demand.  The River Grill was also a popular option, so it took the pressure off the dining room.  As a result, dining was relaxed, the service was excellent, the food was delicious, and we weren’t rushed out of the dining room at the end of the evening.  Baja, the Maitre D’ also made sure the wine was always flowing.

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The highlight of our dining experience was being invited to have dinner with Captain Andrea Mickelson.  As it turned out, my previous three cruises (two with Bruce and one I took my mother on) totaled more cruising days with the company than any other passenger, so that is why we were invited!

We were quite impressed with the captain’s eight-year rise in the ranks from housekeeper to earning her USCG Captains license in 2002.  She has been on the rivers ever since, and her passion is evident.  Thanks to Baja seating me next to Captain Andrea, I was able to ask her a lot of questions and get to know her a bit.

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Baja, along with Adam (bartender/ cocktail waiter), Evan (waiter), and Gail (Excursions Manager), were all working aboard the American Duchess when we were on in January, so it was fun seeing them again and getting to know them better.  Adam remembered the dates we would be on, because it was his birthday during our cruise, and Baja scheduled us in his phone; so, we had a very warm welcome from them both on the first day!

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Adam, Evan, and Baja with Bruce

In between the show and dinner, and then again after dinner each evening, we made our way to the Paddlewheel Lounge to hear Frank play piano and sing.  What a hoot!  His quirky sense of humor added even more enjoyment to his wonderful singing and phenomenal piano playing.  He had us thoroughly entertained!  And, when he wasn’t playing, we enjoyed the great views of the scenery out the side windows and the turning red paddlewheel out the back.  Off to the side, there was a small library with comfortable couches, and four computers to access the free WiFi.

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In the show lounge, Lawrence gave informative lectures during the day (We particularly enjoyed his two-part talk on Lewis & Clark).  At night, there were excellent shows featuring various combinations of the four talented staff singers accompanied by a fabulous four-piece band.  Sammi and Daniel were so much fun and friendly, and they seemed to truly enjoy performing together.  Greg (Cruise Director), and his wife, Lindy (Hotel Manager) reminded us so much of husband and wife team, Max and Darcy, the cruise director and assistant cruise director/ entertainers aboard the American Duchess.  Not only did they all remember our names after the first time we met, but they were very personable, friendly, and amazingly talented.  “Lindy on a High Note” was Lindy’s fantastic cabaret, which highlighted her operatic training while singing selections from Broadway musicals.  Greg followed up with his own one-man show of Broadway musicals, complete with on-stage costume/character changes for each one.  From Fiddler on the Roof to Don Quixote to Phantom of the Opera, we were totally captivated by his versatility and talent!

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Lawrence, the Riverlorian

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Daniel and Sammi

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Sammi and Daniel got Bruce up to join them as a “Pip” for a Glady’s Knight & The Pips tune!

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Lindy and Me with my prize for being the most-traveled Steamboat Society member on this cruise

The dining and entertainment on all three boats is truly top-notch quality, and the best we have experienced on the water, including the many ocean cruises we worked on as Arts & Crafts instructors with two major mid-level cruise lines.

What makes American Queen Steamboat Company’s cruises unique, though, is the included hop on-hop off buses that follow the boat throughout the itinerary.  They make frequent stops at several of each town’s highlight attractions, and admission to those attractions are included as well.  (Check out this blog post for more about the buses.)

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Premium excursions are also available, and we scheduled our first one for this cruise.  (More on that in a later post.)

The most enjoyable aspect of each cruise we have taken with American Queen Steamboat Company, however, has been the staff, from the captain all the way down to our stateroom attendant.  As personable and friendly as they are, it appears as if they wisely hire for personality and train the skills needed to perform the job.  The company also does a great job promoting from within.  Lindy was originally hired as an entertainer when the American Empress first started; however, she was asked by the owner of the company, John Waggoner, to become Hotel Manager.  After initial protest by Lindy (I’m not a hotel manager; I’m an entertainer!), she agreed under the condition that she would still be able to perform her cabaret.  Mr. Waggoner agreed, and she now pulls double duty and seems very happy.

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Bruce & Olivia, our stateroom attendant

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Sean had to sit out all day checking people in and off the boat, so he kept himself (and the passengers) entertained solving his collection of Rubik’s Cubes.  He was fast!

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The best part of the dance party was the crew getting to join us!

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Romano “Roro” was a hoot!  That’s him in the previous picture (white shirt) kickin’ up his heels at the dance party.  He wowed us with his splits and other fancy dance moves!

The staff also goes out of their way to make sure their guests are happy and having a good time.  I witnessed one man at the River Grill looking at the selection of ice cream toppings and asking where the nuts were.  Edward, the River Grill chef promised he would get some for him the next day.  Sure enough, the following morning, we watched Edward pour out a bag of mixed bar nuts on his workstation, so he could pick out the peanuts for this passenger’s ice cream.  Then, he spent his work break going into town to buy a can of peanuts to keep this passenger happy the remainder of the cruise!  That’s going above and beyond, don’t you think?

Knowing I liked the chocolate chip cookies, Evan surprised me one night at dinner with a wrapped plate of the treats to take back to our cabin.  I hadn’t asked for them, but he thought to do it anyway.

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In addition to seating me next to the captain, Baja brought us out lobster tails on the last night of the cruise, because he knew how much we had enjoyed them the night before.

It is all of these reasons that we will continue cruising with American Queen Steamboat Company.  We already have one booked for next summer!

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Next up:  LEWISTON (IDAHO) AND CLARKSTON (WASHINGTON):  CAN YOU GUESS WHO THEY ARE NAMED AFTER?

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICAN EMPRESS PRE-CRUISE: SPECTACULAR SPOKANE

One year ago, before taking the American Queen on the three-week “Mighty Mississippi” cruise and American Queen Steamboat Company’s newest paddle wheeler, American Duchess (again, on the Mississippi), we had booked a cruise on the American Empress.  After having such great experiences last summer and in January on the other two paddlewheelers, we were looking forward with great anticipation to cruising the Snake and Columbia rivers aboard the company’s second boat in their three-boat fleet.

We chose an east to west itinerary rather than the reverse, which was a good call.  The eastern part of Washington is barren desert with an annual rainfall averaging about ten inches.  As you travel west, the scenery becomes much more lush and green, thanks to the 70+ inches of rain falling closer to the coast.  During our cruise, it got prettier each day as we made our way from Clarkston to Richland, and then to Stevenson and Astoria, before disembarkation.  (The Dalles, Oregon, was also on the itinerary; however, the water level was too high to stop there.)

Prior to boarding the river boat, we spent one night on our own in Spokane at the Ruby 2 and then stayed another night with the other American Empress passengers at the Historic Davenport Hotel, just a short walk away.

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The Ruby 2 was in a great location and quite a bit more budget-friendly than the Davenport.  We figured being totally spoiled for one night would be more than enough for us, since we were perfectly happy in our clean, comfortable, and quiet room at the Ruby 2.

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The view from our room at night.  The old steam plant across the street has been renovated and now has a restaurant, shops, and offices.

As luck would have it, we arrived in town on the morning of Spokane’s annual Lilac Festival, and the evening parade was routed just a block away from our hotel.  This was such a big deal in this city of 208,000 residents that people started staking out their viewing spot the night before by leaving lawn chairs on the curb.  By the time we arrived, there were colorful rows of canvas-backed chairs covering the entire parade route in the downtown city center!

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Lilac Festival Parade

It was a gorgeous day, so we took advantage of the beautiful weather by seeing the downtown area on foot.  Spokane Falls is the main attraction, and it borders one edge of the city center.  Pictures don’t do it justice, because it’s not just about seeing the falls; you need to hear and feel the power created by the tremendous rush of water.  According to www.visitspokane.com, “Flows can reach upwards of 31,000 cubic feet per second—that’s the equivalent of nearly 232,000 thousand gallons of water racing through a single square foot of the Spokane River in the blink of an eye.”

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Between Spokane Falls and the downtown city center is Riverside Park, a nice place to walk through while checking out the various views of the falls.  Along the way, we saw plenty of geese enjoying the pond (and bread being tossed to them), and children enjoying the gigantic red Radio Flyer and beautiful carousel.

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 The following day, we checked in to the Davenport, left our bags, and took the bus to Manito Park, because it was too hilly and non-pedestrian friendly to get to on foot.  What a beautiful place!  I was envious of the homeowners that bordered that wonderful park—until I remembered how cold it gets there in Winter!

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After returning to the hotel, we took the hotel’s interesting self-guided tour.  What a beauty!  As for our room, we lucked out with a corner room, which was huge—and, the nicest hotel room we had ever stayed in.

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The following day, American Queen Steamboat Company bused us to Clarkston, Washington to board the American Empress.  For a tour of the boat, check out my next blog post coming soon!

Coming up next:  AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT COMPANY’S AMERICAN EMPRESS

 

 

 

 

 

A TOUR OF THE AMAZING AMERICAN DUCHESS

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My previous post included a sneak-peek of the American Duchess; however, I wanted to provide a more detailed look at American Queen Steamboat Company’s newest riverboat and her fabulous crew.

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Created from a 1995 hull, this 340 foot-long paddlewheeler features four decks and employs 80 American crew to run the boat and manage its 80 suites—the first all-suite paddlewheeler to cruise U.S. rivers.  The maximum passengers she will sail with is only 166, so the crew-to-passenger ratio is quite high.

Our cruise was sold out; however, the boat never felt crowded at any time, even in the show lounge where there were always plenty of seats.  (There were 165 seats available, including the chairs that line each wall.)

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One of the reasons there was always so much space to roam was the fact that the suites range in size from 180 square feet (for an interior cabin like ours) to 550 square feet for a two-story loft suite featuring 19-foot ceilings.  Those suites (and the Owner’s Suite) had their own “River Butler” to spoil them rotten, so I’m guessing those passengers spent a lot of time in their cabins!

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Our 180 sq. ft. interior cabin.

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There was a refrigerator on the right side of the desk and a coffee maker.  Once the luggage was unpacked, it fit nicely under the bed. leaving plenty of space in the walk-in(!) closet.

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The toilet was located just to the left, and the walk-in shower with a rain shower head was behind me when I shot this photo.

For those passengers who had the “Commodore Services” included with their suite and had a butler, he was available for them throughout the ship.  We saw him everywhere, and he made sure his passengers knew it.  Have you heard of helicopter parents?  Well, he was a helicopter butler.

Although the décor of the boat wasn’t to my taste, the abundance of blown and fused glass artwork was.  Bruce and I absolutely loved it, especially since Bruce is a glass artist (www.CookedGlassCreations.Etsy.com), and glass is our favorite art medium.

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The American Duchess had a modern boutique hotel feel to it, rather than a traditional riverboat ambiance.  In all honesty, we preferred the 1800’s motif of the American Queen, built and decorated to replicate the paddlewheelers of their heyday.

Most notably, the Duchess lacks a promenade deck, a must for open air enjoyment of the views, especially for a sunset stroll.  Of course, Winter Storm Inga didn’t allow for much of that; however, I would have sorely missed a promenade deck had the weather been better.  (The Duchess does have a large sun deck; however, it just doesn’t have the appeal of the top deck space on the American Queen.)

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Sadly, the Duchess also lacked a calliope, a charming feature I enjoyed so much on the American Queen.

The most impressive area of the Duchess was the bar, dining room, and stairs leading up to the Lincoln Library.

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The windows on each side looked down into the dining room.

The dining room layout was similar to the American Queen in that it had tall ceilings on each side with a lower ceiling in the center.  Without a doubt, the dining room on the Duchess was nicer, though, because even though the boat was sold out (like it was when we were on the Queen), there was much more room in between the tables.  In addition, there was only one seating; however, you could be seated any time within the open hours (5:30 – 8:00 PM for dinner) and dine either alone or with others.  There was no assigned seating, and they accepted reservations for parties of six or more.

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Since the American Queen Steamboat Company has an executive chef who creates the menus for all three of their boats, the menus were similar to what we enjoyed on the Queen, and the food was similar—fabulous on both boats.  The service on the Duchess was better, though, and much more relaxed.  (By the way, we had the same Maitre D’ on both cruises!  Oscar boarded the Duchess the same day we did.)

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Chef Jeff had a sense of humor, too!  Check out the comment about the cookies.

The desserts (at least the chocolate ones!) were better on the Duchess, though.  Rachel did a great job!  I especially liked the creative little birthday dessert that was left in my cabin along with a card.  I also received an incredible piece of chocolate ganache cake in the dining room for dessert!

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Rachel, in the galley.

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The galley is larger and better equipped than on the American Queen, a 414 passenger boat!

In addition to the dining room, the River Club and Terrace was a more casual option for meals.  Breakfast and lunch were buffets, whereas dinners were table service.  We enjoyed a lobster tail there on our first night aboard, when we joined the other Steamboat Society of America members (repeat cruisers with the company) for an invitation-only dinner.

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The final option for food was in Perks, a little café with a self-serve cappuccino machine, juice dispenser, popcorn maker, and windows to sit and watch the river.  Those were all well and good; however, it was the fresh-baked chocolate chunk cookies I was after.  Yeah, there were other varieties, too, but it was always extra special when I could nab my favorite!  (In the morning, they had pastries, and fresh fruit was always available.)

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Entertainment included “Riverlorian” talks during the day, as well as the usual bingo, Name That Tune, trivia, etc.  What we enjoyed the most, however, were the lounge shows each evening.  Max (also the cruise director), his wife, Darcy, and Matt were three talented and personable singers who performed each night backed by a top-notch band.  We had a few chats with Scott, the bass player, and it turned out we new several of the same San Diego-based jazz musicians!

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Matt and Max

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Max, Darcy, and Mike (Riverlorian, Lights, Sound)

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Me and Darcy on my birthday

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Me, Max, Darcy, and Bruce

By far, the best feature of the American Duchess was its crew, from the captain on down.  They bent over backwards to make every passengers’ experience a memorable one—especially when we were hit with snow and temperatures that averaged twenty degrees below normal.  The day after the blizzard, Captain Joe McKey was out on the River Club Terrace scraping snow off the deck and cleaning things up.  (Yes, you read that right; the captain!)  In the dining room, Executive Chef Jeff Warner constantly came out to the “front of the house” (in restaurant speak) to help serve or pick up plates.  He was very personable and made sure all his passengers were happy.  Read the book Waiter Rant, and you will soon learn that is not typical.  I know, because I worked in the restaurant/ hospitality business for several years, most notably at the University Club in San Diego for my last seven years. Unless it was to take a bow at an event or receive kudos from a requesting club member, the chef never left his comfortable domain of the kitchen.

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One thing that brought a smile to my face one late evening in the Lincoln Library was seeing one of the bartenders playing Monopoly with a young passenger who had nobody her age to pal around with on board.  At another table, the Riverlorian was playing a card game with some other passengers.  Whether that was permitted by the hotel manager or not, I don’t know; but, I sure hope they didn’t get reprimanded.  As a matter of fact, I hope they will be encouraged in the future to do more of the same!  It is an example of the congenial atmosphere that is evident between the crew and passengers, and it was, in a word, special.  I hope they always keep the magic they have created.

American Queen Steamboat Company has a winning formula down to every detail.  The success they have had and the awards they have won are well-deserved.  It is my hope they can sustain it and never cut back or cut anything out like what has happened with several of the large cruise ship lines.  Ask any of the long-time cruisers with Princess Cruises or Royal Caribbean Cruise Line what I mean, and they will tell you.  As a former guest lecturer with both companies, I speak from experience.  When you start cutting back, people notice, and you will lose your most loyal customers.  More importantly, word gets around.  American Queen Steamboat Company, you have a great thing going.  May it always stay that way!

For additional pictures, check out my album here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROLLIN’, ROLLIN’, SNOWIN’ ON THE RIVER

When we booked an American Duchess riverboat cruise while aboard the American Queen last August, we knew we would be in for some cold weather in January; however, the lyrics of “Proud Mary” hadn’t come to mind quite in that way.  We wanted to experience the new American Queen Steamboat Company riverboat, though, and they were offering the January cruise at a low enough price to catch our attention.  Besides, Bruce said he wanted to take me for my birthday.

I grabbed my ski jacket, gloves, ear muffs, and scarf (Bruce is a lot tougher than I am), and off we flew to Memphis, on January 14.  Since we had seen the ports on this itinerary as part of our three-week “Mighty Mississippi” voyage, we looked forward to this being a cruise where we would mainly relax and enjoy the new boat.  As it turned out, that was for the best…

Having watched the 10-day forecast on weather.com, we learned that not only would we be in for some cold weather, but it was going to be VERY cold!  Upon arrival in Memphis, we were greeted with a 27-degree slap in the face and ice on the ground from an unusual (for Memphis) snowfall.  One step outside, and I knew I was in for a challenge due to having Raynaud’s in my toes, fingers, nose, and ears.  (The nose is a particularly difficult body part to keep warm without looking like a bank robber!)

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We were troupers in Memphis, making the best of our first afternoon and following day in the city, seeing a few things we had missed during our last visit to Memphis.  Touring the Gibson Guitar Factory was especially interesting, since we had toured Martin Guitars during a previous road trip and could compare the guitar-making processes. Unfortunately, Gibson didn’t allow photography in the factory, though, so I only have this picture from their store, in addition to a few photos I shot around town:

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Instead of enjoying the downtown music scene at night, we decided to hunker down at the hotel for dinner.  Between the icy sidewalks and 9-degree temperature, we thought it to be the wiser choice!

As we boarded the American Duchess we had a nice surprise, immediately recognizing Ginny, the Engine Room bartender from the American Queen.  She remembered us, too, especially Bruce’s harmonica playing when he sat in with Jim and Norman on that cruise.  Our champagne greeting by the staff was such a nice warm welcome from the cold!

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Ginny, with me and Bruce in her new (temporary) digs at the River Club & Terrace

Over the next few days, the American Duchess had a difficult time staying warm while Winter Storm Inga unleashed a blizzard (the first night) along with twenty degrees below average temperatures.  The dining room, with its high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, was an ice box.  After I placed my lunch order, I hustled to our cabin to retrieve my ski jacket.  Like everyone else in the dining room, we enjoyed our delicious lunch fully zipped up!

Thankfully, the Lincoln Library was comfortable enough, so we spent our afternoon reading and staying warm, after freezing in the gym that morning.  Helena, Arkansas was supposed to be our first port; however, the south isn’t equipped to handle snow and ice, and the town literally shut down during the storm.

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Lincoln Library

I’ll have to admit that the first couple of days aboard the American Duchess was not the most comfortable—only because of my Raynaud’s.  I mean, how do you keep your nose warm when you are dining on fabulous food in the dining room?

The following day, we were in Vicksburg and attempted to go out; however, we didn’t even make it off the boat before the 15-degree cold caused us to make a quick U-turn and run back indoors.  Besides, Vicksburg is very hilly, there was ice everywhere, and most of the town was shut down!  Instead, we stayed on board and signed up for the afternoon pilot house tour.

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The sun (and, snow!) deck

Wow, never did I think I would enjoy that hour with John Cook so much!  Between learning about piloting the river and hearing his entertaining stories, we were thoroughly fascinated.  It turned out to be one of the highlights of our American Duchess experience.

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Speaking of the American Duchess, in my next post, I will take you on a tour of the boat and introduce you to her wonderful staff.  As the week continued, the storm passed, and the boat warmed up; we enjoyed the experience more each day.  The friendly and accommodating staff did all they could to make everybody comfortable, and they surprised me in ways I have never seen on any cruise ship.  More details to follow!  Meanwhile, here are some scenes from around the boat following the blizzard:

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Coming up next:  A TOUR OF THE AMAZING AMERICAN DUCHESS

 

LAST BUT NOT LEAST, NOTTOWAY

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“The White Castle of Louisiana,” as the riverside mansion of Nottoway Plantation has been nicknamed, was the last stop on American Queen’s three-week cruise down the length of the Mississippi River.  The plantation’s location was quite convenient, because all we had to do was walk up and over the levee embankment, and we were there.  No hop on-hop off bus was needed for this tour!

Before touring the mansion, however, we did attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for American Queen’s newest bus.  Isn’t she a beauty?

The expertly-guided tour of the South’s largest antebellum mansion was interesting.  Completed in 1859, the 53,000 square-foot, three-floor, 64-room mansion is Greek Revival and Italianate in style.  It features 200 windows, 22 massive exterior columns, 15-foot ceilings, 12 hand-carved Italian marble fireplaces, 11-foot tall doors, modern bathrooms with running water, and its own gas plant to provide gas lighting throughout the mansion.  (All that was missing from this place was the partridge in a pear tree…)

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Commissioned by John Hampden Randolph, Nottoway Plantation was built as the ultimate showcase of his wealth, which was accumulated off the backs of his 195 slaves that harvested the 1,000 acres of sugar cane on his property.  No expense was spared, and when the mansion was completed, it became home to Randolph, his wife Emily, and their eleven(!) kids.

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The centerpiece of this lavish mansion is the oval ball room, which is stark white from top to bottom—one of the reasons Nottoway got its “White Castle” nickname.  The custom trim in the ballroom and throughout the mansion was made from Spanish moss, clay, plaster, and mud.  (Spanish moss was also used as stuffing for the furniture cushions.)

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This seat cushion exposes the Spanish Moss stuffing.

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Our last evening aboard the American Queen was magical.  It was as if the sky was putting on an encore performance to punctuate the beautiful sunsets we had enjoyed throughout the cruise—and the memorable experiences we shared with the other passengers, staff, and each other during our three weeks on the Mississippi River.

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…And, the big wheel just keeps on turning…

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Stay tuned for a review of the American Duchess, American Queen Steamboat’s newest paddle wheeler…

BUSY IN BATON ROUGE

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The American Queen stayed a full day in Baton Rouge; however, I still found myself racing against the clock to get everything in that I wanted to see.  Bruce joined me for the first half of the day; however, he came down with what turned out to be a nasty case of bronchitis, so he was down for the count before the day was done.

We set out in the morning for the Saturday farmer’s and craft market in town, conveniently located near the hop on-hop off bus stop.  Thanks to the American Queen staff, they were thoughtful enough to make that arrangement for us!

As veteran craft show vendors ourselves (www.CookedGlassCreations.Etsy.com), we always appreciate and enjoy seeing what others create.  This particular market had some interesting and fun creations available.

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Enjoying tasty Farmer’s Market treats!

Our next stop:  Louisiana’s State Capitol.  I had visited Baton Rouge before with the American Queen in 2013; however, Bruce had never seen the city.  Knowing how much he would enjoy seeing the capitol, we made sure to get a visit in while he still had the energy.

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It was a prettier day when I was there in 2013, so you may want to check out my photos from that post.  Other than the state capitol, we didn’t see much that day, however, because it was Good Friday, and much of the city was closed down for the weekend.  This time, it turned out that there was so much to see, a day wasn’t enough time to get it all in.

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Following our visit to the capitol, we ended up spending far more time at the Capitol Park Museum than intended, because the exhibits were excellent.  Upon arrival, we headed straight up to the second floor to learn all about the various cultures in Louisiana, a state very different from our native state of California.

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Louisiana was first inhabited by numerous tribes of American Indians, but then it was colonized by the French, Spanish, and English.  It was built largely by African slaves, and then acquired by the United States.

In 2005, Bruce and I had visited New Orleans for several days on a dedicated trip to the city; however, the second-floor exhibit at the museum encompassed the entire state.  The presentation of the exhibits was done in such a fun and colorful way, and today’s pop culture was included along with the history of each region.  In the colorful exhibit on Mardi Gras, for example, they even covered New Orleans’ gay krewes, including the Krewe of Yuga, the first organized krewe founded by and for gay men.

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It was interesting to learn the difference between a Cajun and a Creole.  Cajuns were historically a French-speaking group that now mostly speak English.  Prior to 1955, French was their first language.  They are quite culturally mixed in heritage, because the Acadians who settled in Louisiana in the late 1700’s intermarried with other ethnic groups, including Spanish, Germans, and Anglo-Americans.  Today, they remain a culturally distinct group, linked by their shared cuisine, music, and geography.

During the early 1800’s, native-born Lousianians began defining themselves as “Creoles” to distinguish themselves from foreign-born and Anglo-American immigrants, and, in the case of free people of color, from enslaved African Americans.  After the Civil War, a white Creole was someone who traced his or her heritage to white French or Spanish colonials, and a Creole of color was of mixed ancestry (African, Native American, French, or Spanish) or else descended from French-speaking slaves.

Today, there is still no consensus in Louisiana on the term “Creole,” and it was interesting to listen to videotaped interviews of experts on the subject who all seemed to disagree.

One thing I know for sure about Creoles, though; they sure have an interestingly mixed cuisine, and New Orleans is known around the world for their fabulous food.  Influenced by American Indians, Africans, Anglo-Americans, French, Spanish, Germans, Italians, and those from the Caribbean; the resulting mix of spices, flavors, and styles of cooking is tasty!  Just remembering how good the food was in New Orleans made my mouth water as I perused the exhibits at the museum.  Thankfully, the food aboard the American Queen was wonderful, including the Cajun and Creole dishes we enjoyed throughout the Louisiana portion of the cruise.

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After spending so much time enjoying the second-floor exhibit, we only took a glance through the first floor, because Bruce was out of steam and ready to return to the ship.

I went back out to see the old state capitol building located just across the street from our dock.  What a surprise it was!  As I entered the lobby and looked up, I literally exclaimed, “Wow!”  I was alone, but I couldn’t help myself.  The stained-glass ceiling window was that beautiful.

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Built in 1850 (and restored in 1880 after the war), the capitol building was cast aside in 1932, when the new capitol was built, which is the tallest state capitol in the United States at 349 feet.  (Megalomaniac, narcissistic Governor Huey Long made sure of that.  Does that remind you of our current president, perhaps?)

The most interesting exhibit in the building, I thought, was on Huey Long, and it was done in a very clever way.  As you walked into the room a black faux crack went across the floor, up the wall, and across the ceiling, dividing the room in two.  In the yellow-painted right half of the room, the exhibit detailed all of the good things about Governor Long’s character and his accomplishments.  The left, blue-painted half of the room pointed out the ugly and evil side of the governor, and all of the ways he tarnished Louisiana.  It was this half of the room where I saw the uncanny parallels between Long and President Trump.

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When we return to Baton Rouge aboard the American Duchess, I look forward to showing Bruce the Old State Capitol.  We also plan to return to see the first floor of Capitol Park Museum, and perhaps take a stroll through the Louisiana Arts & Science Museum, located directly across from the Old State Capitol and adjacent to the riverboat.

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For my final post about our three weeks aboard the American Queen, coming up next:  LAST BUT NOT LEAST: NOTTOWAY

 

 

 

 

 

SCAMPERING AROUND ST. FRANCISVILLE

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The oldest town in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, St. Francisville, has a population of less than 1,800.  It doesn’t take long to see the charming and quaint town; however, we thoroughly enjoyed two highlights:  The Myrtles Plantation, which was a stop on our hop on-hop off bus tour, and the picturesque cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church.

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The Myrtles Plantation dates back to 1796 and is surrounded by beautiful Spanish moss-covered live oak trees.  We were given a guided tour of the mansion that currently serves as a bed-and breakfast and features beautiful furnishings, as well as a 125-foot verandah with ornate ironwork.  Photography wasn’t permitted indoors, however, photos of the rooms can be found on their website.  Following the tour, we wandered around the property that includes bed-and-breakfast cottages situated around a lovely pond.

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Back in town, we strolled through the historic grave sites at the church cemetery:

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There were some attractive boutiques in town, including Grandmother’s Buttons. Located in a former 1905-era bank building, the boutique features a button museum in the former bank vault.

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Located just 35 miles from St. Francisville, we cruised down river in the early evening arriving in Baton Rouge in time to enjoy the beautiful sunset and see the lights of the downtown skyline.

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Coming up next:  BUSY IN BATON ROUGE