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August 26, 2018
Reflections on the Lower Mississippi (Gail)


Our travel letters are normally written by Russell. This one is written by Gail.

Today is a river cruising day. Nothing to go see. No rush. No hurry. Much like the river. So I thought I would give you a bit of life on the American Queen.

First of all, this is indeed a “boat” and not a “ship.” The construction and intended use determine if a vessel is a ship or boat. The AQ has low sides and would not survive in the open ocean. She is a boat. And a lovely boat she is. She is all decked out in 1880s-era furnishings, so it is a bit like stepping back in time.

    

In general, the pace on board is slower and less frantic than on a big ship. Everything is close. There are not six things going on at the same time that you feel you have to try to see. Kick back and watch the shoreline change… can’t do that on the ocean. And though she is the largest paddle wheeler ever built, she is still small at about 460 passengers. That means crew members are all attentive and friendly. Everyone from the cleaning staff to the officers will chat with you. Every crew member is American from all over the country. No request has gone unfulfilled.

As Frank the Watchman said to me, “If you need it, just ask.” This was in response to my mentioning that the loud sanding of the metal disembarkation deck directly below the Front Porch was really destroying the mood of the rare cruising day. Frank went to the captain and the captain told the crew to stop, and they will finish on a port day.


The pursers are all amazing, helpful and friendly. Betty the Purser – who is from New York – has put up with my numerous questions. I swear she never sleeps.


We are lucky enough to be in a cabin with a bay window, and at 190 square feet it is plenty big enough for us. There is good storage, with a three-foot wide closet and two small antique dressers. The bathroom could use an additional shelf or two, but we have a tub shower. Like a large cruise ship, she has storage under the bed for suitcases. We have a flat screen TV, but who can watch TV when the river is rolling by? The bed is very comfortable, and the room steward keeps everything really clean. When we boarded we got everything into place quickly, then went to explore and wait for the calliope to announce us leaving the dock.


Wi-Fi is free but doesn’t work in the cabins. It can also cut out in the common areas, so you need to check often. As a result, I will most likely go over my cell phone data limit. There are also four computers for common use under a portrait of Mark Twain. (I find this positioning funny.)

Today on the Front Porch, a lady we met at dinner last night came up and asked if we could help her with her iPhone. We are Android users, so we could not. But Russell stood up and in his best theater voice asked if anyone there could help this lady. A number of hands went up and we hope the problem was solved.

Dress code for dinner is “Country Club Casual.” Yep, had to look that one up. No shorts or jeans at dinner is about what that amounts to. We have not seen one suit or tie at any meal. The ladies all dress nicely, but not even “after five” attire. Folks on deck are dressed nicely – they are an older crowd – so no loud t shirts, no torn jeans, everyone is tasteful. I am probably the most “out there” person, running around in my socks most days. But no one has said anything to me about it.

(Another note is that the temperature inside the boat is comfortable; I have yet to need a sweater inside. Russell thinks I keep our cabin too cold, but that is another story.)

The other cruisers tend to be older folks. I would guess most are over 75. That said, I have not seen a single walker. Canes, yes. And only one wheelchair – a mom accompanied by her son who is about our age, maybe younger. There are a number of folks from other countries on board, mostly Australia and New Zealand. These folks are always fun.

Wine and soft drinks are free with dinner. YEAH! Every evening you have a choice of red or white – and not just chardonnay or merlot. They offer different types of wines from around the world, and they are liberal with the pours. They will even fill your glass before you leave the dining room, so you have wine to stroll with. If the dining room is not your thing, then the Front Porch Buffet is the place to be. So far, all the food has been excellent (except steaks).


There is free specialty coffee you can get all day with the push of a button. It is right across the doorway from the all-day fresh warm cookies. There is free soda, soft-serve ice cream with toppings (I have to learn to avoid this area), hot dogs and popcorn.

Today, six days in, I have realized that I need to exercise restraint. Do I really need six pieces of crispy bacon and a biscuit for breakfast along with my fruit? But darn, sometimes every appetizer at dinner looks too good to pass up. I did manage to not ask for a second serving of the lamb with orange sauce for dinner the other night.


The dinner time schedule could be so much better. Early seating is 5:15 pm and main (or late) seating is 7:45. Seating is also assigned. This can either be a boon or a bust. At our table it was mixed. After two meals I realized that I was not a good match for one table partner, and three weeks together would result in stress. We requested a change, and we have been table-hopping and time-switching ever since. Not every table has been ideal, but we are meeting lots of folks.

Oscar the Maitre d’ has been wonderful. Last night as he seated us, Oscar leaned over and very quietly said to me, “You have very lovely dresses.” I was so flattered. I’m glad he likes them, because he will see them a few more times over the next three weeks.


The wait staff is very pleasant, especially to two strangers (us) who suddenly show up late to their table. Ever since we heard Hannah (who is a server) sing an anniversary song to a couple at dinner, we hope for more – she has real talent.


There are numerous gathering places on board, and Russell seems to have found them all. He can be found updating the website in the Ladies Parlor, Men’s Card Room or Mark Twain Gallery. Today he was doing a jigsaw puzzle in the piano bar area outside the dining room. He got a little help from a lady who did not realize it was Russell’s puzzle he had brought, until he said he needed to take it back to our cabin.


I can usually be found on the Front Porch at the bow enjoying conversation and taking pictures.

There are bars on every deck, near every venue. This is not a drinking kind of group, so the bartenders aren’t real busy. The Engine Room Bar is down the hall from us, and the music duo plays into the night. From the bar you can go through doors directly down to the engine room and talk with the crew. It is hotter than h*** down there, the thermometer reads 112, but there they are – the Merchant Marines who keep the boat moving forward. I was lucky enough to say the magic words “I have a friend who is an old Snipe,” and that got me down to the Wheel Deck. (Thanks, Len Bates!)



The weather is hot. It is humid. Thankfully, do-it-yourself laundry is free and includes the detergent. There are two washers and two dryers, and so far, no complaints. If you don't want to do it yourself, the staff will do your laundry for you once a week for free.

There are premium (for a fee) excursions, and there is the free hop-on hop-off bus that will take you to town and interesting sites. Any entrance fees are waived (included in your boat ticket), and shops will open early if the Queen is in town. Sometimes you have to stretch your guidelines on what is “interesting” – or make your own fun. We aren’t interested in shopping, and “Grandma’s Buttons” type places just don’t interest us. You get the idea.

Russell has already written about our bike rides. There are only nine bikes available. To be sure you get one, you have to time your request to just before the boat grounds. (We don’t “dock” – we “ground” in the mud.) Most folks did not know these bikes existed until they saw us ride off, so now the competition is getting fierce. Helmets are provided, but once I took a close look, I chose to forgo the bitty spiders that had taken up residence. Luckily, 100 passengers are disembarking in Memphis and 100 new folks will board who know nothing of the bikes. Shhhh.

The four core entertainers do more as a small group than any large-ship group I have ever seen. Alex the cruise director is part of this powerhouse foursome. Additional entertainers include Phil the piano bar guy, the duo in the Engine Room Bar, and specialty entertainers. Tonight’s entertainer (brought on from Memphis) is soul and blues singer Queen Ann Hines. Our cabin is directly across the hall from the box seats, and she is belting out the blues. She sounds wonderful. The live band that backs up all the talent is great. With a brass section, real piano, guitar, etc., they are incredibly professional and make up for their small size with great talent.

And then there is the river. The ever-changing river. What started as wide and flat with a flat landscape is changing into a river that shows its current and then settles down again to a lazy roll. There are islands with beaches, small bluffs and numerous channels. The merchant traffic has slowed to a few a day instead of a few an hour. We are currently in a section that is pristine, close to how it looked to the explorers hundreds of years ago. He is a grand river. (Why a “he”? I don’t know – but “Old Man River,” ya know?)

    

You can sit and watch the birds on the shore, the boats going up and down river, enjoy the trees and the water as it eddies in pools and at hidden sand bars. Just sit with your cup of coffee (or other favorite beverage) in hand, and listen to the passenger who brought his own banjo play a quiet tune. Your rocking chair or bench swing waits for you on the Front Porch of the American Queen.


 

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