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I don’t even know where to start.
This was an amazing trip.
On our last night, as Russell and I were reflecting on our time on the American Queen, I tried really hard to express how I felt. The beginning seems so long ago and so far away. We have had longer cruises. We have traveled farther distances and spent more time away from home. We have seen more exotic locations. But something about this trip, this boat, got into my heart. These people got into my heart.
Maybe it was the river.
The Lower and Upper Mississippi are like two very different rivers. The land along the Lower River is flat and it is very much a working river. Barges move goods up and down the river in large flotillas, pushed by tow boats. (Yes, pushed.) The towns below St Louis are guarded by high levees and flood walls. Every town has a tale of the flood of 1920 or 1950 or 2000 depicted in wall murals. All along the shoreline there are industrial areas, cranes, conveyors, docks, large holding tanks and huge piles of gravel, sand or coal. You don’t see much wildlife. We saw no one swimming or recreational boating.
The Upper River (we got as far as Hannibal, so not too far up) is more pristine. You start to see homes along the shoreline, people boating or fishing. The fish jump straight up out of the water (Asian carp). The land rises up to bluffs overlooking the river. There is more wildlife. You see far fewer barges and those you do see are smaller. There are more bridges. The towns we stopped in were still small but were less depressed, less run down.
But both Upper and Lower meander along, curving around and back on itself, so that towns you can drive to in an hour and a half take all day to steamboat between.
Maybe it was the boat.
She is beautiful. We really only saw her tied off on the riverside, never in motion going upstream, but she is stately. You want to get on board to see if the exterior and interior match. And they truly do.
The Queen glides down the river. Even going against the current, she moves smoothly. There were a few times when she had been underway for 20 minutes before I realized we had left. For this cruise, the boat was as much a part of the experience as the stops were – maybe even more so. You are immersed in an experience of days gone by. You slow down to the flow of the current and the rocking of the chairs on the front porch. The common areas are never crowded, you never feel rushed, and you never feel like you have to do anything. Just enjoy your time, take photos and chat. The steamboating times are the best for just relaxing. Each venue on board is well thought-out in design and decoration. The food is amazing and the choices are varied – including just about any dietary needs that might come up. Our room was comfortable with plenty of storage, so we never felt cramped. And you get a real metal key to your door, a nice old-fashioned touch.
Maybe it was the people.
Frank the watchman, who logged us on and off the boat with the constant “beep beep” of his scanner. Who filled us in on the cool tradition of dropping cookies to the lock workers. Who watched us take off each day on the bikes and who thought we were much younger than we are. Who welcomed us back every day with a hearty “Mr. and Mrs. Lee, did you enjoy your ride?” Who saved every port sign for us. Who patiently listened to me ramble on about how wonderful every little small town was. Frank who is a genuinely nice guy.
Calvin, who drives one of the two golf carts to help the older folks up over the levee or up the hill on to flat ground. Calvin, who with incredible care and concern offers his arm to assist and walks at the pace of whomever he is helping, gets them safely seated and never ever shows any impatience. Ever. We got off to a good start when I expressed my dismay at the plantation tours early in the crowd.
Him: “How did you like Nottaway?”
Me “Can I be honest? I hated it.”
He was a bit taken aback, but our conversation was real and genuine. From then on, he was always ready to let me ride but knew I would usually walk. Sometimes I rode just to chat with him. We were on a hug basis early on.
We were blessed to get to know Betty, one of the pursers, for the first two weeks. Her happy “Good morning, Ms. Gail” was always returned with a “Good morning, Ms. Betty.” She was always patient and helpful with every weird request I made. She left the boat at the end of week two for her regular time off and went to see her grand babies. I thought no one could come close to her smile and amazing attitude…
… And then Liz came on board, and somehow we just clicked. Like Betty, she was good at her job, patient with every passenger, cool under pressure. But we were able to connect on a whole different level when we discovered we were both “Outlander” fans. A couple of late-night after-work chats showed us that we just might be kindred spirits. For a short while, both Betty and Liz were working together, making a team that was a joy to interact with.
And when it comes to professionalism and patience, Oscar the maître d’ is second to none – working miracles at dinner every evening. When we realized after the second night at dinner that we were not a good match for one of our table mates, he allowed us to freely move – from early to late seating and back again – and always found a spot for us. In week three, when we ended up at a table with a man who was difficult to converse with, Oscar made sure we never sat with him again. (And honestly, we ended up being just two of a group of about 12 who refused to sit with him.) Oscar juggled us all and made us all happy.
And Larry the EMT, who calmly took Russell in hand and cared for his injuries. This included three calls to our room to address bleeding. The last visit, late in the evening, he showed up in his Superman tee shirt and slippers.
Alex and Brance, Lainie and Deanna… the whole dining room crew… well, you get the idea. This is a great team of people. And like the speeches for the Academy Awards, I am sure I have forgotten someone important.
Maybe it was the small towns and the people.
In Natchez, we spent extra individual time with Chef Regina Charboneau and her husband, including a flat tire change. In Vicksburg, we met the three-times great grandson of Jefferson Davis. In Greenville, we met a whole neighborhood of folks just playing dominoes and listening to music, and two-time judge Jesse Evans who was cutting down weeds on an empty lot he owns. In Paducah, we met several wonderful people. Todd and his wife Adrian, who went from Facebook friends to “friend” friends when they joined us for lunch and a tour of the boat. Milinda, who saw us taking photos of a street sign in front of her house and invited us to sit awhile on her porch and have a chat. She later went above and beyond when she read about Russell’s fall off the bike, and arranged for more moonshine to be shipped to us.
In Havana, we overnighted and met Kim and her sisters in the park where we were tied off to trees. They happened to return the next day to watch the boat leave, and they took photos of us leaving so we could get a sense of what that looks like. In Grafton, we met up with Vickie and her watercolor artist husband Robert and had them onboard for a tour. Like Todd and Adrian days before, they were blown away. We think they will be taking their own cruise. There were many others who we met in passing, moments of connection that I am happy we wrote about as this type of meeting can fade much too soon.
Maybe it was our fellow steamboaters.
We met so many nice, fun people. The demographics on the boat skewed older. But there were also folks not too much older than us. Russell had retirement envy. There were folks from around the U.S. and some from around the world. Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England and Canada were the main countries. There were many passengers who had been on this boat before. Many had done two one-week trips over a couple of years and were completing the Mississippi. (Well, that was the plan anyway). Some had been on other rivers on the sister boats Empress and Duchess. All of them raved about their other trips. We will need to verify the truth of it with a cruise of our own.
What I do know is that this cruise was special.
We made it onto four rivers: the Mississippi, the Yazoo, the Ohio and the Illinois. The first three were part of the schedule. The Illinois was not. We were rerouted due to high water, and truly we were so lucky. The Illinois is a beautiful river. It is narrower than the part of the Upper Mississippi we traveled on, with an abundance of pelicans, gulls, terns, herons and eagles. Trees crowd the banks, creating snags where the fish hang out until the boat wake hits and they all start leaping out of the water. The water is swift.
This was the first time the American Queen had been up the Illinois River, so she caused a stir. People came out on their back decks or back yards to watch the biggest steamboat in the world pass by The Queen is 416 feet long with six decks and carries about 460 passengers. Contrast that with the other two boats from this line that have been up this river – the Empress is 380 ft. with four decks and 223 passengers; the Duchess three decks and 166 passengers. With her size and her steam whistle and the calliope playing, the Queen really stands out.
The boat offers free excursions into the port towns via a hop-on hop-off bus. Prior to leaving, I researched each town and found off-beat things to do and bike trails to ride. Because of this, our trip was very different than everyone else’s. We went places that the boat did not offer, even on the paid excursions. Places like the Whitney Plantation, Longwood Plantation, Cahokia Mounds and Arkansas. People thought we were much younger than we are, just based on the bike riding. We would be peddling along to some spot we wanted to see and be passed by one of the hop-on hop-off buses. Later, people would comment that they saw us. I never thought I would be able to ride three miles, let alone 20, in one day. But I am so happy we chose to have that type of adventure.
When not touring around the small towns, Russell could be found either in the Ladies’ Parlor, the Men’s Card Room or the Mark Twain Gallery, writing away on the blog. Folks assumed he was working and teased him a bit. But once it was discovered that we were writing a blog, folks wanted our info so they could read it. We even had some come up to us later to say they had started reading it on the boat. One couple forgot their camera, so we gave them our card and told them to contact us for photos.
Most of the time steamboating, I could be found wandering about on the various decks with my two cameras, taking scenery shots or candid photos of people and offering to email to them. There were so many people for whom this was the only photo of the two of them together, so they were very grateful.
People have asked how this compares to a large-ship ocean cruise. There are so many ways. The scenery changes every moment you are moving. There are no crowds, no long waits in line, no pushing past people to get somewhere. People were content to sit inside, reading curled on a sofa with their feet up, or playing bridge, or just doing a jigsaw puzzle together with total strangers. Just hanging out on the front porch was perfect, sitting on the swing bench or enjoying a meal or snack.
The free specialty coffee machine and soft-serve ice cream with toppings were favorites. The pace is slow and easy. Wine came with dinner. Free soft drinks, ice cream, popcorn, hot dogs, lemonade, cookies and fresh fruit were available all day. The entire crew would take time to chat. The standard excursions on the hop-on hop-off bus were free. There were free bikes to check out, helmets included. Laundry was included. All the standard excursions were included, and the premium excursions were not outrageously priced.
As for the “country club casual” dress code… well, let’s just say Russell did not need that suit jacket and tie that I made him pack. Most men said they had one but never wore it. We only saw one man wearing one and he boarded the last week, wore it to dinner the first night and never again. I spent a lot of time around the boat in my socks. I danced barefoot… for a few I was the scandal of the boat… but I had fun – and not one crew member said a word to me, other than to comment that I looked comfortable. (I have a foot condition that makes wearing shoes all the time painful). I never went into dinner or any eating area like that – just out on deck. Oh, and there were some folks who in the early morning hours wandered around on deck in the provided bath robes.
Leaving was hard. Oh, so hard. I wanted to find a place to hide out. I wanted to buy another week or two. And it wasn’t because real life was waiting. This trip got into my heart. And when we got off the bus at the Chicago airport, it really hit me just how special this experience was. The crowds were like on a large cruise ship: people moving every which way, stopping in the middle of the flow. Noise everywhere. And lines. I missed the calm, the quiet, the considerate mood of the American Queen, her crew and her guests. We know we made the right choice for this trip. We will go back again. The boat is the destination...wherever she is.
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