The American Queen returns to the river
Steam escapes from the calliope pipes as the music rings out. On the American Queen, the piano-like instrument is played on the deck 5, while its pipes are off deck 6. (Kerri Westenberg, Minneapolis Star Tribune, MCT / September 23, 2012)
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The quiet mood altered only when Richard got up to snap a photograph of the evening sky as it shifted to violet, rimmed with the same brilliant orange of the cap he wore to ward off the chill of autumn.
"We were glad when the American Queen started running again," he told me after I stepped outside my stateroom door beside them.
The boat's return to the Mississippi this year, after a four-year dry spell, meant that the couple from Fort Collins, Colo., could finally complete a voyage of the river they began a decade ago. The Jensens had cruised from New Orleans to St. Louis on the Mississippi to celebrate their 50th anniversary in grand style. This long-dreamed-of trip, from St. Paul to St. Louis, marked their 60th.
"It's just so pretty," Marilyn cooed as she took in the view.
A weeklong trip on the American Queen is a journey that gives travelers just what they might expect: a lazy passage on a snail-paced boat decked out in Victorian splendor on America's great river. But during my trip last month - the first departure out of St. Paul since the American Queen made her splashy re-entrance - I was struck by the unexpected: the insistent beauty of the Mississippi.
All along the Upper Mississippi, a stretch before the waterway is joined by the Ohio River, brown waters seep into marshes and meander behind wooded islands. Except for the river towns, whatever development that exists lies well beyond the riverbanks, mostly shrouded behind leaves. Bluffs tumble toward the water. Great blue herons stalk the shallows, undisturbed by the boat's slow pace.
One day, a juvenile bald eagle soared through the sky and perched on a tall treetop just off to starboard, eyeing the boat.
Who wouldn't? The American Queen - the largest steamboat ever built, at 418 feet long and 90 feet wide - is quite a sight to see, with her towering smokestacks, ornate decorations and the big red paddlewheel that turns round and round. Whenever we passed a town, people stopped their ballgames, pulled cars over to the side of the road and stepped out of houses to stare.
Those of us lucky enough to be aboard found there was plenty to behold inside the boat, too.
The main entrance leads up a sweeping set of stairs to a hall that separates the Ladies' Parlor, which is frilled out with lace curtains, and the Gentlemen's Card Room, where a taxidermied boar's head and bear set the tone. (Though the era the rooms evoke may have segregated the sexes after dinner, these are solidly unisex. One afternoon, I spied a gentleman splayed out and snoozing on a floral-patterned sofa in the parlor. Across the hall, a woman read a novel in an armchair that was crowned with a carved wooden eagle, its wings extended so it looked as though her hair was about to be snared by talons.)
Next door is the stately Mark Twain Gallery, a dark wood-paneled room where passengers stop to read newspapers, piece together puzzles and drink cappuccino or hot chocolate (pick your poison, press the button and it comes hissing out of the machine).
There's also the grand staircase, whose overhead painting depicts an egret soaring among angels.
Head down the stairs, and you're in the dining room, awash in white tablecloths and chandeliers. There, the evening extravaganza was impressive not so much for the food preparation (which was fine), but also for the culinary ambition (blackened red snapper with black-eyed-pea vinaigrette) and the size of the portions.
No one goes hungry aboard the American Queen. Cookies, ice cream and snacks are available day and night from the so-called Front Porch of America, at the wide bow of the boat. The informal cafe, with wicker dining sets and rocking chairs on its veranda, also serves three buffet meals a day. That's handy for those who were assigned the 8 p.m. rather than the widely preferred 5 p.m. dinner seating. Anyone can choose to forgo the formal dining room, or get a hearty snack to hold them over, at the Porch, where andouille sausage is a kitchen darling.
Days aboard the American Queen quickly assume an easygoing rhythm. Wake up in a new port, gather energy for the day in the dining room (let me recommend biscuits and sausage gravy), then roll off the boat and onto a bus for a hop-on, hop-off tour of the town. In Dubuque, Iowa, I saw a memorable Grant Wood painting at the art museum and a Methodist Church nearly wrapped in Tiffany glass windows. Passengers can also opt - and pay for - "premium tours." During the only day in which we spent a full eight hours in port, at Davenport, Iowa, I spent $89 to see the Amana Colonies, a peaceful place where German Pietists lived communally from 1855 until the mid-1930s.
All other days, passengers had to be back aboard by 12:30 p.m., in time to dine again and then dash to the River Grill on Deck 5 for the calliope concert. That carnival sound, created by a tiny piano-like instrument and its steam-powered whistles one deck up (to save everyone's eardrums), marks most departures and is enough to get anyone in the mood for a little steamboat history.
Then it's off to the Grand Saloon, a small replica of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., that is the hub of onboard entertainment. Each afternoon, Travis Vasconcelos, an expert on the river's long history (he's known onboard as the "riverlorian"), illuminates the more fascinating aspects of steamboats.