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Good morning, Iowa! I awoke this morning in Dubuque, where I’ll see some Grant Wood art and visit the historic Mathias Ham House, which the American Queen brochure says evokes the glory days of the steamboat travel.
I’d say these are the glory days, except that wi-fi is spotty. I wrote what follows yesterday, as we were departin La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’ll post it now instead, with apologies for not getting it out on the internet yesterday.
If I have a connection, I’l write again this afternoon....
I awoke this morning to a shock: As I poured myself a cup of coffee in the Front Porch of America, aboard the American Queen, I witnessed Mark Twain use a smart phone.
The person I saw--with his curly grey hair and mustache, wire-rim glasses and suspenders--will be tomorrow’s performer during “Showtime in the Grand Saloon,” and I trust he’ll keep the cell phone turned off for the event. That nightly show is one of many ways you can pass time on the boat, beyond eyeing the shoreline for wildlife.
Days on board have a routine, of sorts. In the morning, awake in a new port. There, you can either hop aboard a free bus that brings you to interesting sights in town, take one of the “premium” tours for which you pay (an $89 trip to Norskedalen Heritage Center from La Crosse was on offer today), or strike out on your own. I spent the time in La Crosse on an hour and a half boat tour through the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge with Mississippi Explorer Cruises. Venturing into the shallow backwaters of the Mississippi, we saw a beaver dam, got up close to an eagle’s nest with it’s winged architect perched nearby, and had a surprise visit from a kingfisher.
Once back on board, there’s lunch. And then a collection of activities of your choice. Bingo is on tap for tomorrow afternoon. There’s a spa where you can be pampered with the likes of massage, facials, manicures and pedicures. The “riverlorian” gives a chat every day about the river system and the history of steamboats. There are games, movies and non-stop cookies in the grand communal space known as The Front Porch of America at the front of the boat. Anytime of day or night, you can descend the stairs from the Engine Room Bar into the bowels of the boat to learn how steam is created using Mississippi riverwater and harnassed to turn the paddlewheel.
Mostly, though, I like to take my laps around deck four (seven times around makes a mile), watch the passing scenery and enjoy a leisuely dinner. Tomorrow, though, I’m definitely going to his Showime in the Grand Saloon to see the Mark Twain impersonator. I’ve spied him around. He’s always wearing Twain-esque stuff such as suspenders and longjohn shirts. And I promise not to scold him for using a cell phone aboard the American Queen. After all, I’ve been told that the real Twain embraced technology. His was among the first homes in America to have a telephone--the old fashioned kind.
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.
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