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Grand Lady: Impressions of American QueenMay 8, 2012 By: Susan Young
|Ship embarks passengers at Cincinnati on May 4, 2012. // All photos by Susan J. Young|
Sailing on American Queen feels like coming home, at least for those of us who have been onboard the steamboat in the past. I first sailed on the grand lady back in 2003 on a seven-night New Orleans roundtrip. I also just completed a four-night Kentucky Derby cruise roundtrip from Cincinnati.
The Nostalgia Factor: It’s nice to see that the new owners, Great American Steamboat Company (www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com), have preserved the look and feel of the former Delta Queen Steamboat Company and Majestic America vessel.
Simply put, American Queen looks great and nicely fulfills the nostalgic factor many clients are seeking. This paddlewheeler – the largest on the Mississippi and other heartland rivers – is a one-of-a-kind vessel.
For cruisers, it evokes an American feel. It represents a culture of days gone by and a river aura made famous by Mark Twain. Linda Androlia, a small ship specialist for Sunstone Tours and Cruises, and the top seller in the U.S. for Lindblad Expeditions, thinks the ship "looks spectacular."
In such onboard venues as the Gentlemen’s Card Room, Ladies Parlor and the Mark Twain Gallery, it’s clear that the original appointments and furnishings have been preserved beautifully.
I recognized the rooms almost as I remembered them back in 2003. Tell clients to peer in the cases in the Mark Twain Gallery; they'll discover old books, stuffed birds and other quirky artifacts.
Also, this room is the spot to admire a large model of the original Delta Queen, as well as Tiffany lamps and Victorian furniture.
I encountered several entertainers here in period clothing while walking through one day. They looked the part and delighted guests who encountered them.
Overall, the many guests I spoke with about American Queen give it an A-plus grade for "The Nostalgia Factor."
The Accommodations: I was in the Natchez Suite, #503. It was a bit separated, as are several other suite accommodations, from a nearby interior corridor. The guest exits that corridor to the outside - but still under cover - and then walks a few steps to the suite entrance.
The suite itself is Victorian with red wallpaper with an antique design, as well as a red and cream settee that doubles as a pull-out bed.
There is also a side chair, and an antique chest with mirror in the bedroom/living area. The large bed can be split into twins. French doors open to the deck, with two chairs and a small table just outside.
The bedding was exceptionally comfortable. That's important because I’m a tough sell on bedding when doing critiques; I have a Weston Heavenly Bed at home.
I liked this bedding and the soft sheets and duvet were a dreamy combination at night. I slept very well. I heard similar comments from others.
The bathroom in this suite is nearly all white, brightly lighted and appointed with large amenity bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion and so on. A hairdryer is provided.
Outside in an alcove hallway is a second sink, and then a small closet area with hanging space, a small safe, and additional drawers (beyond those in the bedroom armoire).
I visited and talked with my neighbors and they too were quite happy with their accommodations, and enjoyed sitting outside.
|The J.M. White Dining Room|
The Dining: The line has touted its relationship with Regina Charboneau, a revered southern chef from Natchez, MS. It appears her touch to the menus has paid off.
Guests I interviewed thought the cuisine is really quite good. From my perspective, it was definitely a cut above what I remember on American Queen nearly a decade ago.
The food is bountiful, creative and it reflects southern-style cooking with some contemporary touches. The meals I ate within the J.M. White Dining Room were very tasty and satisfying.
Last night I savored a frog leg appetizer and a beef brisket, a decidedly southern experience.
My late aunt from Louisiana used to cook savory brisket. Memories are powerful when evaluating food. You want it to be what you remember. I can only say in this case, it was.
On a previous dinner, I dined on a blue crab appetizer and a lovely poached fish dish.
One thing Great American Steamboat added that was not on the former river product? It serves complimentary red and white wines with dinner.
On the breakfast side, the breakfast buffet had just about everything any customer would want; the fruit was more than the usual, including raspberries, for example.
For the Sunday Jazz Brunch, even more substantive items were added, including some Cajun dishes and eggs benedict.
The Bananas Foster French Toast looked appropriately sweet and"gooey," but the line needs to put up small paper signs to explain what the dishes are.
That would save the poor crew member working the waffle iron from having to tell everyone, every five minutes, what the dish was. He did so with a smile.
Mimosas and Bloody Marys were available for a $5.95 charge with the brunch, and a jazz band entertained guests in the Main Deck Lounge, with their music wafting into the dining room.
A lighter continental style breakfast is served in the Front Porch of America, an indoor-and-outdoor venue where guests just kick back, read and enjoy the river views.
On one visit, I noticed a presentation of coffee, tea, pastries, cereal and fresh fruit. Snacks and coffee are served at the Front Porch all day.
The River Grill is another dining venue, if the weather cooperates. However, I haven’t yet had the chance to try it out on this short cruise. Tea Time is served in the Ladies Parlor.
Onboard Activities: The Grand Saloon is an impressive showroom that conjurs up imagery of the showboats of the 19th century. It has seating both downstairs and in boxes up top. There is plenty of room for guests to spread out.
Since this is a Kentucky Derby-themed cruise, yesterday guests heard a lecture by Dr. Elmo Shropshlire, a racetrack veterinarian at Aqueduct and other big racetracks; early in his career, he told the crowd he was a jockey and exercise rider for the 1952 Kentucky Derby winner, Needles.
Other onboard activities included lectures and discussions by the onboard Riverlorian, bingo, movies, late night dancing and plenty of musical performances. In addition, several shows are presented each cruise, including “Hooray for Hollywood.”
Blaine and Maxine Anderson from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, loved the shows and sang the praises of the entertainers in the Grand Saloon, noting the quality of the performers was "very, very high."
American Queen also has a top-deck swimming pool area with lounge chairs. The adjacent fitness center had several state of the art machines.
For the audience sailing on this river boat, reading seemed to be a prime activity. I also observed several guests putting together a jigsaw puzzle in the Ladies Parlor. The Chart Room on Deck 4 has a large selection of books for clients to borrow.
If your clients sail on American Queen, definitely tell them to check out the glass cases in the Mark Twain Gallery. They’ll find everything from historical documents to stuffed birds. It’s a cornucopia of Americana.
Shoppers may be pleasantly surprised at the AQ Emporium, a relatively large shop for a river vessel. The line sells a nice selection of gift and souvenir items, including cookbooks and spices, resort wear, and books and gifts focused on New Orleans and the South.
The gift shop manager told me that they opted to clean out a lot of the racks, making the shop easier to browse. The quality of the merchandise was a step up from what I recall in past years.
Androlia says the best clients for this river vessel are those 50 and older who appreciate Americana - "clients who are history buffs and appreciate a casual, relaxed atmosphere and don't want a thrill a moment."
Shore Excursions: On this cruise, there was only one normal shore day in Madison, IN.
The Steamcoaches, painted to resemble the American Queen, are classy inside and out. The exterior paint job shows life on a steamboat with figures of cruisers milling around on deck, standing on their balcony and so on.
However, inside, the windows have small dots on them; it's fine to see out, but not great for taking photos from inside the coach. That said, the Steamcoach I boarded earlier in this cruise had soft black leather seats - very classy.
The coaches are used to shuttle guests around a city or area, with a hop-on, hop-off system and designated and well-marked stops along the way.
Several stops are “included” in the cruise fare and guests use their key card to gain free entry to those attractions.
Other stops of interest are also marked, but guests need to pay their own admission if they choose to tour those. The Steamcoaches circulate constantly with commentary onboard all coaches.
So if guests just want to stay onboard, they can do the complete loop, and hear all the commentary without disembarking the coach.
Most guests, however, will likely get off at the designated stops, venture out to tour a particular property or attraction, and then hop back on the next coach after they finish their attraction visit. The coaches just keep circulating.
The line is using a time pass system for boarding the first excursion coaches of the day, as many travelers like to go on the first coach. So at the Shore Excursion Desk, clients can pick up a pass for a particular boarding time early on in the day.
That way everyone isn't clamoring at once to board the ship. It's controlled via boarding time.
Then after an hour or so and the crowd passes, no pass is needed. Guests just go out and grab the next Steamcoach.
Service and Onboard Guest Relations: Overall, many guests told me they enjoyed their cruise. Many also said that the service and processes onboard were "works in progress."
The reality is that all start-up companies typically have a few hiccups on the service side as staff learn the ropes.
Androlia and her husband, who are from California, liked the product. Yes, they felt not everything was perfect, but they saw good potential.
They said they immensely enjoyed their time onboard and at the Kentucky Derby. Androlia sells small ship cruises and is looking forward to including American Queen in her portfolio of small ship products.
Another couple from the Greater Fort Lauderdale area declined to give their names but the man told me he was a travel agent. They did not feel the product was up to its billing.
The agents said the cruise was portrayed as a luxury product, but for the per diem rate it didn't stack up to such lines as Silversea Cruises.
They also had issues with the dining room and felt the ship's condition wasn't up to par. They also cited a lack of crew to help them with luggage upon arrival.
One thing cited by most consumers I spoke to - even those who had a great time onboard - was the definite need for more consistent messaging and communications with guests.
Particularly with the Kentucky Derby experience, guests said they were told one thing, then another and then yet another.
A guest relations manager from the corporate side was onboard Sunday to talk with some guests about concerns that surfaced with premium packages and the promised inclusions for Derby Day. Donna Williams, the line’s senior director of guest services, met with some guests who had issues.
She then spoke with CEO Jeff Krida on a conference call. At mid-day on Monday, a letter from Krida was placed in the staterooms and suites of guests who had purchased the premium Derby packages.
The letter apologized for the Churchill Downs experience not being up to guest expectations.
Krida also said that the line will give guests on those premium Kentucky Derby packages (those which carried a hefty ticket price for clubhouse access) a free seven-night cruise of their choice in 2012 or 2013.
The offer does not apply to those whose arrangements covered general admission to the Derby.
Derby aside, the Andersons corraled me late Monday at an attraction stop ashore and reiterated that they were having a wonderful time, that they felt the service has improved daily and that they loved the inclusiveness of the product.
The last night in the dining room, I spent a lot of time just watching the service unfold. It was impressive. The staff hustled, helped each other and were exceedingly service-focused with guests.
One waiter kept circling his tables with an eagle eye, constantly pouring drinks and removing plates. Two crew members from Louisiana made a real effort to chat with me, as I was a guest dining alone. All those things count.
Was it perfect? No, not yet, but it has good potential..
One guest from West Palm Beach, FL, who I have been talking with consistently during this cruise told me: “Things are improving day by day,” and “We’re now having a really great time.”
American Queen clearly has the ship hardware and an Americana-focused product that appeals to mature clients who want an American river experience.
Now the line just needs to keep focusing on what’s most important – delivering that product in a guest-friendly, consistent way that makes guests want to come back for more.