A trip from the Quad Cities to Burlington seldom is an all-night affair.
But navigating the world’s largest overnight steamboat under bridges —some with mere inches of clearance — and through a series of locks on water crowded with pleasure craft and barges is no rush job, meaning what might take a couple of hours by car is a 12-hour voyage on the Mississippi River.
Not that any of the more than 400 passengers aboard the American Queen seemed to be complaining as it paddled gently south earlier this month. Amid its comfortable appointments, gourmet meals, top-notch entertainment, active nightlife, cozy sleeping accommodations and smooth ride, the transit between ports was fast enough, indeed.
“It’s like a mansion on the river,” veteran river cruiser Nancy Wee of Broomfield, Colorado, said of the Queen.
Compelling though the boat may be, however, the 20-year-old paddle wheeler is not the big draw here, The Hawk Eye (http://bit.ly/1KAyzk4 ) reported.
That claim is staked by the river itself, and shared by the communities that lie at its banks and welcome passengers to town throughout cruise season, which runs July to October on the Upper Mississippi.
“It’s just being out on the water,” said Carolyn Hezlep of suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was traveling earlier this month with her husband, Morgan, on a seven¡day cruise between St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Louis, Missouri.
“The banks of the river are constantly changing,” Morgan Hezlep said. “There are stretches of nothing but nature.”
Of those remote spots between cities and towns, he said, “You kind of get the feeling this is how the pioneers saw it.”
For them and other passengers, who on this cruise hailed from 11 countries and almost every state, it was an experience not to be missed. The same, they said, ought to go for people who live in places like Burlington, where the river, its views, history and commerce are a constant presence — whether any of those things get much day-to-day notice or don’t.
Ohio residents Robert and Linda Schwenke, of Dayton, were on their third American Queen cruise, but their first on the Upper Mississippi.
“There’s always something to see,” Robert Schwenke said, Linda Schwenke explaining that on an ocean cruise, there frequently is nothing but water all around.
“It’s neat on the top decks at night looking at the cities and the locks,” she said.
First-time cruiser Kirby Brown of Manteca, California, said someone who lives near the Mississippi River but doesn’t take the opportunity to experience it truly is missing out.
“One part of the river is not like another,” Brown said. “Each town is different. The scenery is different.”
“When you live someplace, you ignore what’s nearby,” he added, citing the four years he lived in Connecticut but never visited New York City. “To your regret.”
Capt. Brent Willits, who grew up in Clinton and advanced from towboat deckhand to helming or leading construction of gambling boats up and down the Mississippi, has piloted the American Queen for the past two years.
A native of these waters who has seen them from St. Paul to New Orleans, Willits likewise recommends a Mississippi cruise to people who live near it.
“There is so much history close to home,” he said from his seat in the pilothouse as he guided the Queen downriver approaching the Interstate 280 bridge.
The boat and its crew, Willits said, are “ambassadors, and show a lot of folks the importance of the inland waterways.”
For passengers from the American East or West, or overseas, meanwhile, he added: “We get a chance to show them what the heartland of America is all about.”
Only cruise vessel on the Mississippi
The American Queen is operated by Memphis, Tennessee-based American Queen Steamboat Co. and was built in 1995. It replaced the Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen, and is the company’s only cruise vessel on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. A sister vessel, the American Empress, carries cruise passengers on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in Washington and Oregon.
On the Upper Mississippi, passengers start and end their cruises in St. Paul or St. Louis.
There is no mid-stream boarding, Chief Purser Chris Caussade said.
“You have to go one way or the other,” he said, noting most passengers will fly into one city and out of the other.
From southeast Iowa, connections through Lambert Airport at St. Louis would be easy enough. Non-stop flights are available to and from Minneapolis. Some passengers, though, avoid the need for airplanes by making it a two-way trip.
“I just find it relaxing,” said 91-year-old retired hardware store owner Cyril Hegerle of Bloomington, Minnesota, whose 76 th river cruise was last week as he headed home from the previous week’s voyage south.
Buses that trail the boat up and down the river carry passengers on their excursions at daily ports-of-call like LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Dubuque or Hannibal, Missouri, and at each stop, local guides come aboard to share stories about local history and color, Brown said.
The boat offers plenty aboard to keep passengers occupied, too.
There are nightly shows in the 250-seat Grand Saloon, movies in the theater, after-dinner entertainment including piano music in the Captain’s Bar and dancing in the Engine Room Bar, a never-ending supply of cookies and ice cream in the Front Porch Cafe, daily games and more.
Beer, wine and spirits are never far away for those who want them. And nobody ever goes hungry on the Queen.
“I think the food is fabulous, and the variety is wonderful,” Robert Schwenke said.
A cordoned off area of the engine room is open to visitors, and they can see large hydraulic arms powered by a 78-year-old steam engine pumping back and forth, turning the paddle wheel. A pair of gas-powered thrusters provide assistance while maneuvering and when paddling against the current on northbound cruises.
Also powered by the steam engine is a 37-whistle calliope, which is played daily as the Queen leaves port.
Topside on the sun deck, passengers who are so inclined can take a dip in a small heated pool, or get a workout in the gym.
Indoor and outdoor seating is plentiful, too, for those who wish to relax with a book or watch the river slide by.
The 222 guest cabins range in size from 500-square-foot luxury suites where guests are catered to by their own butler, to windowless interior cabins ranging between 140- and 80-square-feet. Each room is named for a person or place connected to the steamboat era.
“It’s a little more interesting than saying ‘I’m in 212,’ “ Caussade said. Cabin 212 bears the name of President Zachary Taylor.
For those who can’t quite disconnect completely from the world, there is satellite TV in every cabin and stateroom and Internet access throughout the boat.
“It’s kind of like stepping back in time. Welcome to the 1860s, with WiFi,” Willits said.
Like many on board, the Hezleps were traveling with a contingent from the organization Road Scholars, which coordinates educational travel opportunities for seniors. While the cruise’s theme was musical in nature, their tour was focused on the steamboat industry’s impact on the development of America.
“We don’t just look at things,” Morgan Hezlep said. “We learn what they represent.”
By visiting communities where the cruise made port calls, the Hezleps said, they had an opportunity get a glimpse at what Morgan Hezlep described as “the culture of Middle America.”
Cruise passengers, even those not part of an educational tour, also have the chance each day aboard to deepen their knowledge of the history of America on the Mississippi in the Chart Room, a forward space on the Queen’s observation deck where maps and charts and history are at their fingertips, and where the boat’s historian and storyteller — known aboard as the “riverlorian” — shares river lore several times a day.
That history is further illustrated in a collection of paintings by Iowa artist Michael Blaser, whose works hang in corridors throughout the boat.
‘It’s the story of America’
Though the Hezleps had visited the Mississippi previously, wading across at the headwaters in Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, their mid-September cruise was a first for being out on the water.
“I always wanted to be on the Mississippi,” Morgan Hezlep said. “It’s the story of America, practically.”
That was a common refrain among passengers.
“This is America,” said Wee, who was on her 30th river cruise leading a group through her travel agency, Wee Travel. “You get to see America. You get to learn about America in a way you can’t do anyplace else.”
She keeps coming back for more, Wee said, because “it’s always something different,” with a new view around every bend in the river, or changes in scenery as spring blooms or fall colors burst.
Brown and his wife, Iran, chose a river voyage over an ocean cruise “because this was closer, and part of the country we’d never seen before,” he said.
Both said they were enjoying the on-board entertainment, and learned the calliope is a musical instrument best appreciated from a distance, where it isn’t quite as loud. Watching the riverside come and go, and experiencing passage of the locks were favorite activities, too.
Being aboard the Queen is different from other cruises, Kirby Brown said.
“It’s much more leisurely,” he said.
Taking their shore excursions in the morning, Brown said, gave them freedom to “lay around in the afternoon.”
A cruise is as programmed or relaxed as the individual passenger wants to make it. After all, the only place anybody has to be is on board when the Queen leaves the dock.
Willits said the American Queen, which weighs 3,700 tons, measures 420 feet long and 89 feet at the beam and has a 432-passenger capacity, “is a big boat but a small cruise ship.”
A 6,000-passenger ocean-going cruise ship, by comparison, can be “overwhelming for some.
“This is still big enough to be impressive,” he said, noting in a review of 101 luxury cruise vessels by Cruise News and Reviews magazine, the Queen was No. 9, just ahead of the Queen Mary at No. 10.
Luxury comes at a price
A cruise aboard the American Queen — or on the Queen of the Mississippi, a smaller boat operated by American Boat Lines that cruises past the Burlington area without stopping (Viking River Cruises will begin Mississippi River operations in 2017 with a possible stop in Fort Madison) — is an experience that, if not exclusively for the well-heeled, is certainly the domain of the comfortable.
Most who come aboard, Willits explained, can be described as “affluent, intelligent and intellectually curious.”
“Seventy is the new 50, I guess,” he said.
The longer the cruise, the better the accommodations and the closer to peak season, the higher the cost.
Fares aboard the American Queen in 2016 for a St. Paul-to-St. Louis cruise will range from $2,224 per person double occupancy for a 132-square-foot inside cabin in July and August to $7,999 per person for a luxury suite with veranda in September and October.
A cruise of the whole river between St. Paul and New Orleans runs, per person, between $5,949 for a northbound voyage to $20,000 for a southbound one, depending on accommodations.
“It’s may be a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Morgan Hezlep said, “but you will not regret it.”
At 91, Hegerle’s perspective is a little different, calling cruise travel “cheaper, really, than a nursing home.” Meals, entertainment and shore excursions are included in the cost of every cruise. Special on-shore activities are extra. Those include alcoholic beverages at the Queen’s four bars; a cabaret show in the Bart Howard Room at the Des Moines County Heritage Center in Burlington; bus trips from Bettendorf to experience the Herbert Hoover Museum at West Branch; a John Deere plant tour or the riverside charm of Le Claire and Flexibility to book passage at the last-minute and a willingness to accept whatever berth is available, Hegerle said, is a good strategy for obtaining discounts.
With only a couple of cruises left on the 2015 season, now may be a good time to test that theory.
The Schwenkes were late in booking and wound up with an inside cabin for their cruise. They didn’t say whether they were enjoying a reduced rate, but they weren’t disappointed in their small accommodations.
“We’re never in the room, anyway,” Linda Schwenke said, her husband Robert adding, “There’s always something to do.
This is an AP Member Exchange story shared by The Hawk Eye.