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Authentic America

The great rivers of the U.S. flow straight through your heart aboard
an American Queen Steamboat Co. paddle-wheeler cruise

By Annette Fuller

Vacations Magazine: Authentic America
American Queen Steamboat Co.

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Leaning on my American Duchess stateroom balcony railing at dusk, I looked out on the Mississippi River rippling by. I swirled the ice cubes, then took a sip of my old-fashioned cocktail. All was quiet except for the faint sound of water swishing through the paddle wheel. Big wheel keep on turning.

Moments before, the bartender had obliged my request to make the drink a bit on the sweet side. "Just right," I thought to myself, taking another swallow. Then I spoke out loud in a purposeful, reverential tone: "Savor and remember this moment."

I did, and I will, for the rest of my life.

I don't refer to that lifelong terminology lightly. All elements of this trip came together to create a nearly perfect fusion of sightseeing, relaxing and learning U.S. history and geography. This was the winning recipe for my eight-day riverboat cruise on the American Duchess, run by the American Queen Steamboat Co.

Paducah, KY, was one of the small towns along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers that appeared, seemingly magically, in the morning light off the deck. I was charmed by Paducah's downtown, strolling past the murals dramatizing the town's history. I then took my time at the National Quilt Museum, whose displays sent my adrenaline into high-inspiration mode, conjuring up future piecing and applique projects.

Back on board, I ate a gourmet meal ("gourmet" also used literally) in the Grand Dining Room with two women who had fascinating life histories. After dinner, we walked across the lobby into the Show Lounge, where singers and a band eased me into memories of vintage swing songs.

Then, after good-night hugs with my newfound friends, there was that drink on the balcony -- and the vow to remember and be grateful for this day.

Getting started
The trip had started in Tennessee on Sunday, upon our arrival to The Peabody Memphis hotel, where an overnight stay was included in the cruise fare. We went to a hospitality desk set aside for the cruise line's passengers to check in and get our photo made for a badge that would be our identification and room key on the ship.

The highlight at the Peabody is a gaggle of ducks that lives on the roof in spiffy waterfowl accommodations. Twice a day, they ride an elevator down to the lobby and burst forth when the doors slide open. Waddling on a red carpet, they head toward the hotel fountain. After plopping in, they paddle around and gobble treats. Many smiles came courtesy of those quacks.

Monday morning, we left our suitcases near the door of our room to be picked up and transported to the boat. Meanwhile, breakfast in a hotel hall was provided, and we began introducing ourselves to cruise mates over scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes and coffee. We spent the morning experiencing Memphis, taking in the National Civil Rights Museum and downtown Memphis' Beale Street, where eateries and blues musicians abound.

That afternoon, it was time to board! A bus took us to the harbor and our first glimpses of the American Duchess and its bygone-era beauty. We walked down the gangplank and through the lobby door to the band's upbeat music and to proffered flutes of sparkling wine. After a bit of chatting, we cruisers headed to our rooms, which were stylishly modern and sparkling clean. Two comfy chairs on the balcony beckoned us to our first communes with the river.

Launched last year, the 166-passenger American Duchess is the line's most intimate steamboat and sports a more contemporary interior design than its two sister ships, the American Queen and American Empress. Guests excitedly walked around the boat, discovering the dining and snacking rooms, Lincoln Library, Show Lounge, fitness area, sundeck and a maze of hallways. At one point or another, we all spent some time checking out the bright red paddle wheel, slicing the water for propulsion and misting our faces.

Small towns and a theme
The premise of the riverboat trip was to cruise the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, stopping at small towns -- and hometown America -- along the way. The itinerary's larger bookend cities were Memphis and Louisville, KY. Scheduled stops were at Paducah, Owensboro and Brandenburg in Kentucky and Madison, IN.

Two guests, Paul and Anne Johnson of Newcastle, Australia, couldn't wait to immerse themselves in what they called "Middle America."

"Go to a big American city and it all seems the same," Paul Johnson says. "Go to diverse, small towns and see authentic America. People stop and chat. A small town is more personal."

Making the cruise even more personal for some was its quilting theme, which delighted many stitchers on board, including me. Mary Kerr of Woodbridge, VA, a quilting author and teacher, led several sit-and-stitch sessions and two workshops -- one on the history of Southern quilts and another on projects from salvageable pieces of vintage quilts. Several of her quilts were placed on railings and hung throughout the ship.

Marilyn Proctor and Barbara Gahring, both retired nurses, are members of a group called Stitching Sisters in League City, TX. Proctor had been on three previous American Queen cruises but loved her first trip on the Duchess, the newest of the fleet. "This is just like a floating luxury hotel," she says.

While some guests clearly booked the cruise at least in part for its quilting theme, others did not and paid no attention to the sewing goings-on -- and still had a grand time. The theme did not dominate all else; it was just an extra benefit to those who sew. The line offers a variety of other themes, from American history to Mardi Gras to music.

Excellent excursions
The aptly named "hop-on, hop-off" excursions -- all paid for in your cruise fare -- are a successful formula for American Queen Steamboat Co. voyages. Guests, armed with a map delivered to staterooms the night before, left the vessel to ride a bus that circled the tour route. A handful of sandwich boards placed around town designated the hop-on, hop-off spots.

In the Duchess' docking cities, the tour attractions included historic homes, museums, arts districts, visitor centers, botanical gardens, distilleries, vintage factories, fountains and more. All admissions are paid for as part of the cruise.

Passengers also could sign up for premium excursions for an additional fee. These were tours of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion and other rock 'n' roll history sites in Memphis, a historic hotel in Paducah, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park near Brandenburg and a working thoroughbred horse farm as well as a distillery in north-central Kentucky.

During excursion hours, the Duchess remained open with food available. The tours were optional, and some chose instead to sleep, lounge or relax with a good book.

The cruise had one unexpected hiccup that was solely the fault of Mother Nature. Due to heavy rains the previous week, the Ohio River was running high, so we could not dock in Owensboro. No one complained or seemed to care; instead, we happily spent another day of river cruising being pampered on board.

That luxuriating largely came from the Duchess' three eateries. The maitre d' in the Grand Dining Room asked guests if they would like to eat with others or by themselves. Those who said they would enjoy some company were accommodated, allowing them to meet new people. Those preferring a quieter meal sat alone or with their traveling companion. The River Club and Terrace was by reservation only, and snacks, coffee, tea and soft drinks were available all day at Perks. The bar in the lobby served beer, wine and cocktails, with happy hour from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

After all the delectable meals, touring and hours gliding along the rivers, the time arrived to pack up and leave. I felt wistful and thought of that moment on the balcony. Every now and then, we all need to stop and say, "This has been a good day." At the end of that week, my gratitude was expressing itself in the plural.

"These eight days have been simply superb," I thought, giving one last glance back at the Ohio River. "Run, river, run! The pleasure has been mine. I hope to see you again soon."

For information on itineraries and rates -- including all available discounts and specials -- aboard the new American Duchess and other American Queen Steamboat Co. vessels, visit Vacations To Go's river cruise site.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 510-4002 for current rates and details.

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