Image: The American Queen
Majestic America Line
With 222 staterooms and suites and six decks, Majestic America Line's 418-foot paddle-wheel vessel, the American Queen is the world’s largest river cruise ship.
By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 10/1/2007 6:44:59 PM ET 2007-10-01T22:44:59

The prospect of cruising up the Ohio River from Cincinnati to my hometown of Pittsburgh didn't exactly thrill me. I am a cruise columnist, and I have grown accustomed to the azure waters of the Mediterranean and the glitzy glamour of ocean-going vessels. What I saw in the brochure in front of me was a river I've lived next to for a decade and a steam-driven paddle-wheeler, the 418-foot-long American Queen.

OK, so it's the world's largest steamboat. But still, I was pretty sure it would be a dull voyage, and there was no way I was going to fit in with a crowd that averaged the age of my parents and grandparents.

Boy, was I wrong.

The Queen
I had more affection for the American Queen when I learned her checkered past. Built in 1995 for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the ship ran aground on her first sailing. Later, after Hurricane Katrina put a halt to steamboat operations on the lower Mississippi River, the Queen's then-operators, the Delaware North Company, laid her up for more than a year. Fortunately, a financial white knight came to the Queen's rescue. Seattle-based Majestic America Line bought all five of Delaware North's paddle-wheel vessels (American Queen, Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen, Empress of the North and Queen of the West), and the American Queen was returned to service in March 2007.

As I boarded the American Queen in Cincinnati, I was greeted by the strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" played on an old-fashioned calliope. Clearly, I was headed up the gangway for a trip into America's past. I decided not to fight it. I recalled the escapades of young Tom Sawyer, the lore of America's mighty rivers, the luxurious, wild and sometimes racy era of steamboat travel. Maybe this would be a nostalgic, somewhat quirky voyage.

Indeed, there are some quirky items aboard this ship, including a pair of chirping parakeets in the Ladies' Parlor and, in the Gentlemen's Card Room, a veritable shrine to taxidermy that includes a stuffed boar's head and a fierce black bear positioned by an old typewriter. I looked at the bear and thought, "This must be what I look like when I have a tight deadline," so I got out my notebook and went to work.

As I walked around I couldn't help but admire the ship's gleaming woodwork and the beautiful design of the Grand Staircase. Details count on this ship, and so do the views. There are open and shaded promenades on four decks; two of them, the Promenade Deck and the Observation Deck, fully encircle the ship. Attractive sitting areas abound, and Mark Twain's presence can be felt throughout the ship. A bust of him graces the Mark Twain Gallery, a library area with cozy nooks, comfy couches and enough old books to please an antiquarian.

The ship has seven lounges, a shop, a buffet restaurant and terrace, the amazing two-story J. M. White dining room, and the two-story Grand Saloon, one of the most elegant entertainment venues I've seen on any vessel. While the ship pays homage to the past, it also has some modern features, including a small wading pool, a fitness center and a movie theater.

There are 222 staterooms, all decorated in a Victorian style; they range in size from 77 square feet (for the smallest single inside stateroom) all the way up to the opulent Owner's Verandah Suite (which measures 353 square feet). Most staterooms and suites provide outside views, and many have private verandahs. At 190 square feet, my Superior Verandah Stateroom was a homey haven. The modern amenities include the plush pillow-top bed with a fluffy duvet and soft sheets, a flat-screen television, a DVD player, an iron and ironing board, a full-size tub in the bathroom, a hand-held shower massager, plush towels, a bathrobe and plentiful H20+-brand toiletries.

The ship itself is a technological marvel. The pilot house is retractable, lowering into the top deck to allow the ship to pass under low bridges. The old-fashioned fluted smokestacks can also be lowered. The steam engine was salvaged from a 1930s vessel and then restored; a modern electric z-drive engine serves as its auxiliary. Passengers are welcome to visit the engine room at any time of day to chat with engineers and watch the engines turn the giant paddle wheel.

Entertainment and enrichment
I hadn't thought I would fit in with the crowd — older Americans from all over the country, average age in the 70s. Never mind that most of the passengers had previously cruised on the American Queen, or one of her sister vessels, and had nothing but praise for the experience. But around day two of the cruise I realized I was having more fun than I thought I would.

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I met some terrific people. Over dinner my tablemates surprised me with their humor and geriatric jokes. We all agreed the food, which had its roots in tasty southern and Cajun cuisine, was superb. Each night Chef Barry Bennett prepared memorable fare, including a to-die-for Pecan Crusted Cornish Game Hen, Sweet Potato Ravioli with Sage Butter, Five Onion Cream Soup, and Fried Green Tomato Oscar, and every night I could indulge in the line's famous Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce — yum!

After dinner we could enjoy jazz bands, variety acts and musical revues in the Grand Saloon. But the most rollicking fun tended to be in the Engine Room Bar, whose huge window offered a dramatic view of the big red paddle wheel. Each night was organized around a theme; the most fun was "Irish Night" with Phil Westbrook on the piano.

Historians, naturalists and other expert lecturers enriched the experience with discussions ranging from the history of the Ohio River to the life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, presented by renowned Twain impersonator Lewis Hankins.

The Chart Room, which is filled with navigational charts and river-related books and pamphlets, was a great place to talk with the onboard Discovery Guide, Mike Gillespie. During Gillespie's talks and lectures I learned more about the river in my backyard than I had in all the years of living near it. During the 450-mile journey upriver to Pittsburgh, we went through a series of 12 locks and dams run by the Army Corps of Engineers. These were definitely a highlight of the cruise. It takes about a half-hour for the American Queen to pass through a lock's chamber. When the water rose to the right level, the boat would float out and continue the trip up the Ohio. We were essentially climbing our way, as the elevation in Cincinnati is 450 feet above sea level, whereas Pittsburgh lies at 700 feet.

There is a lot of barge traffic on the Ohio, mainly towboats pushing loads of coal. Gillespie pointed out that this form of transportation is both economical and environmentally friendly since one line of 15 barges carries the same cargo as 870 tractor trailers.

Come to look for America
From this Front Porch of America there are swings and rocking chairs to enjoy the changing views. Every afternoon, I sat in a rocking chair talking with my fellow travelers over lemonade and mint juleps.

Steaming upstream, we delighted in watching the river change each day — from the thickly forested shores of Kentucky to the hilly green landscapes of the Ohio River Valley, where sleepy towns peeked out from the trees. At night, the river was entirely different: silent beneath clear, starry skies with only an occasional red or green light on shore marking the channel. When the American Queen turned on its huge spotlights to navigate a tricky portion of the river, it unveiled bats and bugs and other hidden creatures of the night.

Most port calls reflect a simpler way of life, as most of the river towns have only a few thousand residents, a single Main Street and few bona fide attractions. Maysville, Kentucky, hometown of the late Rosemary Clooney (I'd rather see her nephew George Clooney), is a lovely southern town. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, once a strategic area during the Civil War, is more famous now for its Mothman Museum. And quaint Marietta, Ohio, is an antiques collector's paradise.

As the American Queen steams out of each town, residents along the Ohio heed the calliope's call and start clapping and waving. Crew members say that playing the calliope is the boat's way of paying tribute to a town. As the calliopist plays a lively rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," people along the banks the Ohio start singing and dancing. It's really touching.

The American Queen's entire ambiance is calming. In fact, it doesn't feel like a cruise; it feels like the house of your wealthy, welcoming aunt. The real draw of this cruise is the aura of a quieter, 1800s-era America, along with the friendly service by an all-American crew, and the legacy of historic steamboat voyages.

I can't wait to do this trip again.

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