In many ways, a cruise on the American Queen is like an ocean cruise. There are port calls and shore excursions, multiple bars, bingo, a main dining room with two dinner seatings, room stewards, evening shows, quiet corners where guests can read, and entirely too many opportunities to eat.
But it is the differences that define it: The ship is small enough -- six public decks, space for 436 guests -- that it takes only a day before you know your way around. There is no ship's photographer constantly taking -- and later hawking -- photos. The passengers are older, so there are no kids clubs and the music is from the '60s or earlier. Much of the travel is in daylight so guests can watch the scenery; most port calls end by early afternoon.
Here's what a day is like.
As on most cruise ships, breakfast starts early -- 6:30 a.m. But it's more crucial here because organized shore excursions start early. At most stops, free hop-on, hop-off buses with a tour guide are available throughout the morning. In addition, there are more specialized excursions that cost $50 and up. On most days, everyone must be back on the boat by 12:30 for departure at 1 p.m.
(Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana was an extra on today's shore excursion. I'm cheating a little here: This is a photo I took when I hit St. Francisville on a road trip in 2008 -- which is why I didn't visit it again today.)
Lunch is a buffet in the main dining room, and it is jammed. x Most popular is the dessert bar, which typically has about half a dozen kinds of baked goods, and people aren't shy about trying several. That may be why a lot of people slip off to their rooms for a nap in the afternoon.
The star of the afternoon is the scenery, the Mississippi sliding by, muddy with silt from the Missouri River. We pass barges and other river traffic, the woods and the processing plants that line the banks, evidence of high water and erosion at some points. There is also low-key entertainment: bingo, educational talks by "riverlorians," games and music. The boat has a pool, but it has been closed so far on this cruise, and there's a tiny fitness room. The staterooms have flat-screen TVs, but I haven't turned mine on yet or heard them playing in adjoining rooms. There's free Wi-Fi, but it's iffy, which seems to be breaking some people's Internet addiction (but not mine).
This is also prime time for people with a sweet tooth -- and that appears to be most of us. After the lunch dessert station closes, there's afternoon tea with sweets, and the Front Porch lounge has soft-serve ice cream and a constantly replenished tray of newly baked cookies.
(Photo: The main dining room. Credit: Great American Steamboat Co.)
In the evening, at least one of the bars has live entertainment, there are shows in the Grand Saloon (a Mark Twain impersonator the first night, four singers performing a medley of river-related songs last night), and late-night dancing. There is no casino. But this is an early-to-bed crowd, and when I've been in the public areas at 1 a.m., I am sometimes the only one. We dock at our next port before sunrise, and then the cycle begins again.