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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FROM PASSENGER TO PERFORMER ABOARD THE AMERICAN QUEEN

The entertainment aboard the American Queen paddle wheeler was top-notch during our three-week Mississippi River cruise.  From the guest entertainers to staff singers/dancers and musicians, we were quite impressed with the quality of the shows we enjoyed after dinner each evening.

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Bobby was also the Riverlorian and gave presentations on all things Mississippi River and riverboats.

Even the captain had us impressed when he sat in with band with his electric guitar made from the planks of the ship’s old paddle wheel.  That guy could play!

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Following one of the shows early in the cruise, we made our way back to the Engine Room Bar to listen to the duo performing covers of classic rock tunes.  The setting back there had a cool vibe—an ornate tin ceiling, a lot of dark wood, and port hole windows; just as you would expect on a vintage-style ship or riverboat.

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Through those port holes, I was mesmerized by the turning of the huge red paddle wheel, as I listened to the music.  During the break, I stepped out on deck to enjoy the view up close.

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It was during those early days of the cruise that I tried to convince Bruce to ask if he could sit in with the guys and play his harmonicas.  He had brought a few harps with him and played a little bit on deck when nobody was around; however, I knew Bruce would enjoy playing with the guys.  He had played drums and harmonica in bands back in high school and college, and I’ve seen him get enthusiastic applause and glowing compliments each time he’s played since getting back into music.  He only plays occasionally now, and sits in from time-to-time with a really good rock and blues band, when they perform fundraisers for local charities.  They love to have him join them, and he fits right in.  Not to brag about my husband, but the guy is good.

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Not wanting Bruce to regret being too humble to ask to sit in with the guys on board, I stepped in with a little nudge.  I told Jim and Norman that Bruce had a few harmonicas with him, and he would love to sit in.  Oh yeah… and, Bruce is good.  I’m sure they thought to themselves, “Yeah, that’s what they all say; we’ll let him join us—for just one song.  Period.”  To me and Bruce, Jim actually said, “Sure, bring your harmonicas with you next time, and I’ll bring you up to sit in on a tune.”

The next night, that one tune was all it took.  They invited him back onstage for another, and another, and… Every time we saw Jim and Norman around the ship, they wanted to know if Bruce was going to come sit in at the Engine Room bar that night.  One time, Bruce went to an afternoon Dixieland Jazz performance that included the show band and Engine Room performers, and Norman sent him back to the cabin to get his harmonicas!  When Bruce protested that he played blues, and Dixieland wasn’t his genre, Norman shot back, “That’s ok; you’ll figure it out!”

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That’s Norman, the American Queen Steamboat Company’s musical director on piano and Jim, on guitar.

Now, Norman was not only the musical director for the American Queen, but he was also the musical director for the other two American Queen Steamboat Company riverboats, the American Empress and the brand new American Duchess.  He knew his stuff!

At the end of the cruise, when I told Jim how much Bruce enjoyed sitting in with him and Norman, he told me how skeptical he was when I first asked him to let Bruce sit in.  Having had nearly all give-it-a-miss experiences with passengers sitting in, he was prepared for Bruce to be a one-and-done.  Let him sit in once, so he could have that memory to tell all his friends, and then never invite him back on stage.  Instead, Jim told me I should have asked earlier in the cruise, instead of waiting until the last week!  Norman echoed the same sentiments, and they both kept thanking him.

Bruce learned his lesson, and I’ve learned mine.  Harmonicas have been added to the packing list for our upcoming American Duchess and American Empress river cruises, and if Bruce leaves them behind the first night, I’ll bring them myself!  After all, I can just tell the band, “Norman and Jim told me to ask you if Bruce can sit in.  They said you wouldn’t be sorry.”

 

Coming up next, I back up one week to August 21, 2017, the day after visiting Hanibal, Missouri.  Our next port was Alton, Illinois, our home-base for the day while visiting St. Louis in the morning, and Alton in the afternoon for the solar eclipse.

ROLLIN’ ON THE RIVER ON THE AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT

Following our ten-day road trip around Wisconsin, we met up with the other American Queen Steamboat passengers for a night at the Radisson Blu hotel at Mall of America, near Minneapolis.  After getting registered and settled in, I took advantage of the hotel’s pool for a swim workout (such as it is in a small hotel pool), as Bruce relaxed poolside.  Not being shoppers, we opted to spend the evening at the mall getting a good walk in and a casual dinner at an Asian noodle restaurant, before returning to our room.

The next morning, we got to know some of our fellow passengers during the buffet breakfast.  They were from California, as were approximately ten percent of the sold-out ship’s 400 passengers.  Another ten percent were from either Australia or New Zealand where the seasons are reversed, and they were escaping their cold winter.  Since this was the only longer vacation (23 days) offered by the cruise line during the year, it attracted travelers from afar who wouldn’t be inclined to fly such a long distance for a 7-day cruise.  This made for an interesting mix of passengers, several of whom we had fun getting to know during our weeks aboard the paddle wheel boat.

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Boat?  It’s not a ship?  No.  Ships sail the oceans, and boats, like the American Queen Steamboat, sail the rivers—just one of the things we learned from Bobby, the “Riverlorian” who presented lecturers throughout the journey.

Our home away from home for the following 21 nights, was a paddle wheel steamboat built in 1995, recently renovated, and beautifully maintained.  Step aboard, and you feel like you have been transported in time back to the 1890’s.  Other than the Front Porch Café and the outside decks, the ship has been decorated to bring you back to that era when steamboats were a common site on the rivers.

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We were transported from our hotel to the American Queen by a bus wrapped to look like the American Queen on wheels.  The company has a fleet of these matching buses that mostly serve as hop-on/hop-off buses at each port.  In the early evening, the buses caravan to the next port where the drivers stay the night at a hotel.  One evening, while enjoying the view from the top deck, we saw all five buses in a line crossing the bridge over the river—cool!

In the morning, the buses are lined up dockside, ready to transport the boat’s passengers around town, arriving at each stop every 15 minutes or so.  Local docents hop aboard each bus during the busy morning hours to provide running commentary, and then disembark at Noon.  As the afternoon winds down, the buses make their rounds at each stop every 30 minutes while each driver takes their break for lunch at the Front Porch Café or their local favorite haunt.

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The Front Porch Cafe offered buffets at each meal for a casual alternative to the dining room, as well as 24 hr. access to non-alcoholic drinks, soft serve ice cream (with toppings), fresh-baked cookies, and popcorn.

The drivers were terrific, especially Al, my favorite back in 2013 when my mom and I rode his bus frequently.  It was great to see he was still with the company!

Our cruise began in Red Wing, Minnesota where we were dropped off to embark the American Queen.  We stayed there overnight, so we had plenty of time to settle in our cabin, tour the boat, and still enjoy the town the following day.  (More about that in my next post.)

I was so pleased to see that Bruce was just as impressed with the boat as I had been when I boarded the American Queen the first time.  Although I had emphasized the small cabin size ahead of time, he even commented on how much space we had for storage!  (We had space left over after unpacking our suitcase filled with clothes for our 5-week trip AND our business supplies for our Etsy business at www.CookedGlassCreations.Etsy.com !).

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We had the cabin next door to this one; however, we had already started unpacking before I remembered to get a picture!  (The storage and door were located along the wall behind me.)

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Our stateroom attendant, Cassie, was such a sweetheart!

The food, entertainment, and friendliness of the staff was just as impressive to Bruce, and I was happy it was just as good as I had remembered it to be from my first cruise on the American Queen.

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The menus changed daily.

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Here are the crab cakes I ordered from the menu above.  YUM!

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These scallops were AMAZING!

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So was this lobster!

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During lunch in the dining room, we had a choice of ordering off the menu or enjoying the lunch buffet.

Stories about our experience on board (and more photos!) will be included in future posts, so for now, I will leave you with some photos taken aboard the American Queen.

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The Engine Room Bar was situated directly above the engine room (pictured below).  See those round windows?  We would watch the paddle wheel turning while listening to the music.  On each end of the night club, there were doors leading out to outdoor seating with a view of the paddle wheel.  More stories to follow about the band– and Bruce!

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Next up:  A RELAXING DAY IN RED WING

The American Queen Experience: “A” for Excellent!

How would I rate our overall experience aboard the American Queen? In one word: Excellent!

One of my favorite things about this cruise was the friendly and efficient hop-on/hop-off bus service at each port. American Queen Steamboat Company owns four tour buses that look like our ship on wheels; very cute! And, they are driven by four of the friendliest and helpful bus drivers I have ever met. The buses followed us the entire way, driving on to the next port while we cruised during the night. The drivers would stay at hotels and meet us the next morning.

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Abe and Mark, pictured below, were my favorite staff members of all the AQ staff I encountered.
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The bus system was very efficient. The night before our port, we could pick up color-coded boarding passes that were in 15 minute increments. And, the wheels on our designated bus would roll at exactly that time. This arrangement meant not having to wait in any lines- nice!

We were also given maps with the stops labeled, including attractions that we could visit that were pre-paid by the ship. Other points of interest were also labeled, as well as banks, pharmacies, and our bus stops. It was so easy and efficient, making it very relaxing and stress-free at each port. The buses would even do final sweeps around the circuit if people were missing at the designated all-aboard time. Nobody was ever left behind.

At sail away from each port, the captain would blow the steam whistle, followed by the pianist playing a calliope concert on the aft deck.

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During one of the concerts, I noticed one of the steam pipes wasn’t working too well, so an otherwise perfectly sounding song medley was punctuated with weak/sour notes every once in a while. It was good for a lot of laughs from everybody on deck! And, there was something quite charming about that experience that I will always remember.

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Another advantage of being on a riverboat rather than a huge cruise ship is the opportunity to learn about how the boat works. The engine room was open for viewing and there was always somebody available to answer questions. They even had an information sheet explaining how it all worked.

The Riverlorian also conducted tours of the pilot house each day, so we learned about the navigational system, as well.

The entertainment on board was also terrific. The staff orchestra and singers produced cruise ship quality shows and the guest entertainers were wonderful. We heard a jug band from Louisville, Kentucky, as well as a Blues Brothers tribute band and a New Orleans jazz band. It was a great variety of good ol’ Southern music. And, we especially enjoyed one of those shows by bringing our complimentary bottle of Champagne with us.

So, what about that good ol’ Southern cooking? Fabulous! Our waiter was quite good about explaining the dishes in detail and making recommendations; all which were spot-on. But, I really couldn’t imagine anything being bad, because it all looked and tasted so good! Even the assortment of rolls at dinner was too good to pass up; especially the pretzel rolls. And, don’t even get me started on dessert…

I will include a picture of one of our dinner menus, but you will need to click on it to see it enlarged. It’s worth a read; it will make your mouth water…

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The service was friendly and efficient; especially the complimentary wine service. Those gals came around with wine constantly, so our glasses were never allowed to run dry. In my opinion, the dining room experience was a cut above most of the cruise ships I had previously sailed on.

Overall, the staff on board the American Queen was very friendly and accommodating. It was a nice surprise, given the fact it is an all-American staff that works 14-15 hour days; something most Americans are not used to doing.

Would I recommend the American Queen to my family and friends? Most definitely!

Strolling the Decks of the American Queen

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Every time I walk the decks of this beautiful ship, I am in awe. The American Queen is the largest steamboat in the world, as well as the most maneuverable one, according to Jerry, our Riverlorian who conducted a tour of the pilot house for me and a small group of passengers.

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“Riverlorian”? Yes! On board, Jerry is our river historian lecturer who is an expert at everything Mississippi River. Our “lecture” yesterday was not a lecture at all, though. Instead, Jerry told stories about the river and his experiences aboard steamboats over the years. What a hoot!

I had never traveled aboard a steamboat before, but it was love at first sight when we set sail on the Mississippi. I thoroughly enjoy strolling back and forth on the decks, exploring every detail; especially when I have my camera in hand. It is so picturesque and fun to explore photographically!

So, take a stroll along with me and explore the American Queen.

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