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After nearly 14 hours aboard the American Queen, I awoke at 7:30 this morning in the distant land of ... Red Wing, Minnesota. You could call it the slow boat to St. Louis. The Riverlorian told me that we average 8 to 10 miles an hour. To which I say, maybe speed is overrated.
The leisurely pace is just right. In Lake Pepin, sailboats slid across our path. A speedboat zoomed in and then kept pace for a close-up look of the 6-story, iron-clad American Queen. I had my own sightings: pelicans skid across the sky, an eagle soared overhead. Then came the bluffs of Winona, looking like loaves of bread from the boat.
The sun came out, and passengers lined up in rocking chairs at the so-called Front Porch of America and on chairs outside their staterooms to soak up the sun as the trees and hills inched past.
Another perk of the slow pace: Because the boat’s first stop was a mere 1 hour’s drive from my home, my husband and daughter came to spend the morning with me in Red Wing before the American Queen departed at 1:00. I’d packed hastily on the day of departure (which I don’t recommend). They were able to bring me a few items I missed, which was a small thing compared to enjoying their happy, entertaining company.
Next stop: La Crosse.
I was fretting about a lack of hangers in my stateroom when the paddlewheeler, the American Queen, blasted her horn and got underway from the Port of St. Paul. I dashed out of my room, and the worry about how to hang my dresses (which I’d packed for dinners in the fancy J.M. White Dining Room) subsided.
At the River Grill, with its open-air patio, the mood was festive. A musician played a tiny piano-like instrument and from a deck above, steam burst from pipes, producing a joyous, carnival-like sound: It was 20-minutes calliope concert. Passengers were grinning, sipping beer, watching the paddlewheel turn and plop into the water, propelling us down America’s greatest river, on a 7 day voyage to St. Louis.
In St. Paul, curious people snapped photographs and waved from onshore, the city skyline behind them. In fact, all along the slow route south, I’ve witnessed people stop their cars at the side of the road to watch, kids on an athletic field wave wildly, and cameras flash from the shoreline as this beauty of a boat, with its intricate railings and big red paddlewheel, goes by.
I feel lucky to be aboard, excited to explore the many public spaces -- like the “ladies parlour” and the “gentlemen’s card room.” But that can happen tomorrow. For now, I’m content to watch the sun set behind the trees on the bank of the Mississippi.
As for my dresses, I’ll hang them when the last bit of light leaves the sky. Because housekeeping, after all, delivered the hangers I needed.
The largest passenger steamboat in the world, the American Queen, is returning Friday to St. Paul, where it will board passengers who will mosey down the river to St. Louis. And I, the travel editor, will be among the lucky passengers.
Sure, the paddle-wheeler has been plying Mississippi waters for months now (It took its inaugural sail out of New Orleans in mid-April; Priscilla Presley smashed it with a champagne bottle in Memphis for its christening on April 28). But I had my reasons for waiting: I wanted to launch from a home port and, after all, time cures all glitches. I like sailing on a boat and with a crew that has a few miles under its belt.
The American Queen, built in 1995, sailed the Mississippi for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. Bankruptcy grounded the boat, until the newly formed Great American Steamboat Co. came to her rescue. Since it purchased the paddle-wheeler last fall, the company has put $6.5 million into refurbishing her. The Victorian ambiance hasn't changed, albeit with new carpet and mattress.
I'm all in. I suspect you'll find me gazing at the egrets from what's called The Front Porch of America, sipping tea on the Main Deck Lounge, fueling my imagination in the Engine Room Bar and working off last night's dinner in the small fitness room. I am under the impression that a Mark Twain impersonator will aboard, and that I can follow our progress in the Chart Room. Whatever I encounter, I'll let you know. I'll be blogging about my experience every day. I hope you'll follow along.
Every day around noon on our Celebrity Solstice cruise through the Caribbean, Captain Gary would come booming over the loudspeaker and give the thousands of passengers longitudinal information we didn't understand, distance information equally confusing (sea miles vs. regular miles?) and the he'd sign off with a little joke. Three examples and I quote: "Man who walks in front of car will get tired; man who walks behind car with get exhausted and man who stands on toilet will get high on pot."
On New Year's Eve, hour after he deftly U-turned to drop off a passenger in St. Maarten for undisclosed reasons, we saw Capt. Gary sipping champagne with the revelers around the pool deck. He cemented his amiable personality on the last night in the big theater after the standup comic suggested next time, the over-70 crowd avoid napping in public spaces because, well, it's hard to be sure they're napping.
But now, after the shipwreck off Italy, I'm lefting wondering a could things:
How rigorous is Captain Gary's training and certification?
Will the cruise industry survive with its floating Old Country Buffet, very 20th century (two formal nights in a week, really?) ways?
But mostly, I'm left with a sense of gratitude for Captain Gary and his mates, for steering us clear without us ever thinking twice about safety or life and death drama that unfolded in the Mediterrean. So, thanks Gary, for the jokes, songs and getting us into port.
Here's some news that should float the boat of steamboat aficionados: The paddlewheeler American Queen will again offer overnight trips on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, with some itineraries originating in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Since 2008, the Delta Queen's last season, no steamboat has plied the great waterways of the heartland on overnight excursions. The Delta Queen, which was built in the late 1920s, is docked in Chattanooga, related to a floating hotel. The American Queen, which was built in 1995 and went out of service in 2008, is now owned by the Great American Steamboat Company. The 418-foot-long boat and its 222 staterooms is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation in New Orleans. The company, based in Memphis, plans to begin offering 3- to 11-night trips on April 13, 2012.
"Steamboats have run through the heartland of this country for 200 years, " said Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of marketing for the company. "Aside from being a commercial endeavor, this was a piece of America’s history."
Though Itineraries are set, they won't be released to the public until the company gets its final approval from the Federal Maritime Commission. Rubacky says that could happen as early as next week. He expects sales to begin the last week in September. For more information, go to www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com.
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