Posted on Monday, May 7, 2012 by Peter Knego
Join Peter Knego for part two of his latest trek aboard Great American Steamboat Company’s freshly-revived, lavish AMERICAN QUEEN on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and a visit to Henderson, Kentucky, once home to John Audubon.
All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Our first day on the Mississippi began with light breakfast on the Front Porch of America. When I was last on AMERICAN QUEEN, a few short weeks before her then operators (Majestic America Line) shut down, it was a rather grim affair with broken down coffee and soft drink machines. Now there was a selection of cereals, juices, teas, fresh fruit and Starbucks coffee in addition to always-available espresso and cappuccino. The aroma of French Roast wafting onto the shelter deck immediately forward was, indeed, a joyous thing. Great American is still working out some kinks in the catering and service but the Front Porch holds great promise.
It begins with a gentle hum, then crescendos into a harmonic howl. The AMERICAN QUEEN’s elusive (to photograph) but frequent steam whistle was back in action throughout the day, greeting passing craft and saluting well-wishers on shore.
The on-going process of lowering those filigreed funnels to clear bridges and power lines never ceased to amaze.
It was so nice to stand under that massive brass bell on forward Observation Deck, once again.
Although this was my third cruise aboard AMERICAN QUEEN, I was still discovering and reveling in her details.
Inspired by Ford’s Theater (yes, that one) in Washington D.C., the Grand Saloon remains one of my favorite rooms afloat. It somehow manages to feel both soaring and intimate. And the details, ersatz and kitsch as they may be, make a wonderful backdrop for its myriad activities and shows.
Today, the Grand Saloon was the setting for a shore excursion presentation and two Riverlorian talks, hosted by Toots Malloy and Travis Vasconcelos, AMERICAN QUEEN’s encyclopedic and entertaining alumni. Topics included “Reading the River” and “From Flatboat to Steamboat and their influence on Southern Development”.
In the early afternoon, we were led on a top-to-bottom tour hosted by Great American CEO Jeff Krida and President Christopher Kyte. Both candidly discussed the challenges in bringing the AMERICAN QUEEN back into service and acknowledged that some work still had to be done. In the process, I learned the story of “Killer”, a wild boar that was scooped up by the MISSISSIPPI QUEEN’s paddlewheel and then cooked by the boat’s crew. His head is part the taxidermic lore in the Gentlemen’s Card Room on Cabin Deck.
Our tour ended in the Engine Room where guests can visit anytime to see the control station and the giant paddle mechanism in motion.
Back up on top of the boat, the freshly renovated wading pool had just opened for use.
I was overdue for a romp on the elliptical machine in the adjacent gym. The broken down Majestic equipment has been replaced with two new treadmills, a new elliptical and a pulley-type weight machine that with some practice, worked very nicely. On the treadmills and elliptical, however, the view would be much better if they faced the window. Padded mats, a small free weight or two, sanitizers and maybe even a flatscreen TV would complete the picture.
On aft Promenade Deck, overlooking that hypnotic paddlewheel, Great American has installed a casual eatery called the River Grill. In the daytime, it is the go-to place for hot dogs and hamburgers (chicken and veggie options will soon be available) and at night, it becomes a reservations-required (but no extra charge) al fresco dining venue. We gave it a try that night.
After the prior evening’s blockbuster Harry James performance, expectations were high and mighty in the Grand Saloon. Lewis Hankins more than delivered with his mesmerizing, uncanny portrayal of Mark Twain, whose bourbon-and-tobacco-infused musings are as hard-hitting and topical today as they ever were.
And in the lively “end up” spot, the Engine Room Bar, Jackie was accompanied by Bob on the banjo.
Along with that paddlewheel, my unflappable Aunt Mary churned well into the wee hours. Shortly after midnight, the AMERICAN QUEEN transitioned from the Mississippi to the Ohio River.
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Great American’s Executive Chef Regina Charboneau is a warm, worldly lady with a Southern flair. The award-winning cook and author was the first person hired by GASC and in addition to overseeing the AMERICAN QUEEN’s menus, she hosts tours to her beautifully restored Victorian home when the boat visits Natchez, Mississippi. Despite the lack of visual accompaniment, she gave a wonderful presentation in the Grand Saloon entitled, “12 Tips for Effortless Entertaining.”
On our second full riverboating day, there was a Jazz Brunch in the J.M. White Dining Room and adjoining Main Deck Lounge. The AMERICAN QUEEN’s “house band”, the Steamboat Syncopators, are skilled musicians and held their own in the company of the visiting Harry James players.
I tend to be a bit more Mediterranean/California in my culinary leanings but there were some impressive Southern specialties on the Jazz Brunch buffet counter, including Regina’s Butter Biscuits, Assorted Melon Balls with Mint and Peach Syrup, Molasses-glazed Suckling Pig and much, much more…
And if Jazz Brunch did not complete the task, one could come back and “top off the tank” at Afternoon Tea, which featured homemade cheesecake cupcakes.
The night lived on with dinner and wine in the J.M. White, another rousing show from the Harry James Orchestra, drinks in the Engine Room Bar and a walk out on deck.
Monday, April 30, 2012
At 10:00 AM, AMERICAN QUEEN berthed at Henderson, Kentucky. Formerly known as Red Banks, this town of 28,000 was at one time a pirate-infested den of murderers and thieves and later a major exporter of tobacco. It is now best remembered as the early 1800′s home of renowned naturalist John James Audubon.
From the grassy knoll of the levy, AMERICAN QUEEN was a marvel in her restored black and red-trimmed white livery.
Great American Steamboat’s ingenious, included-in-the-fare “Hop On, Hop Off” Steamcoaches were a perfect way to see the town. Several buses follow the AMERICAN QUEEN on her journeys, rendezvousing with the boat to shuttle guests around each port, stopping at five or six key spots were they can disembark, explore on their own, and re-board to continue their adventure throughout the day.
My aunt and I hopped off on the second stop in downtown Henderson to explore its quaint Main Street.
We then hopped on the next Steamcoach to the John James Audubon State Park.
At the museum, free admission was provided for AMERICAN QUEEN guests.
It was fascinating to learn of the triumph and tragedy that accompanied Audubon on his roller coaster ride from rags to riches and eventual fame to misfortune. Guide Tom Jake was a wealth of information on the man’s art and personal travails.
We made it back to the AMERICAN QUEEN well before her 4:00 PM departure time.
The mugginess that portended rain finally let loose but not until AMERICAN QUEEN was on her way up river. On either side of the Ohio, lightning flashed in the sky.
Dinner and more of that dulcet Harry James sound filled the night. Later on, AMERICAN QUEEN tied up on the Kentucky riverbank, searchlights illuminating the shrubbery.
End of Part Two. Much More to Come…
Very special thanks: Greg Brown, Martin Cox, Nora Farrell, Mary Ferlin, Mike Hicks, Christopher Kyte, Tim Rubacky,