After surviving back to back nor’easters, I was ready for the beckoning South and a week of cruising aboard the brand new American Duchess steamboat. Little did I know that the snowstorms had dumped enough water to raise the level of the mighty Mississippi, which flows from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. From my balcony onboard, I saw tree logs floating down the river, and the bottoms of cypresses submerged on the banks, but I could barely feel the paddlewheeler moving. It was a dream to be on the latest and widest vessel of the American Queen Steamboat Company. The Southern sunshine was enough to cure my winter blues, but it was the contemporary, luxurious accommodations and top-notch service on the Duchess that made my escape even more wondrous.
The American Duchess—which debuted in August 2017—offers several cruises along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Each is staffed by an all-American crew. I was on a week-long Easter voyage from New Orleans to Memphis that made stops in St. Francisville, Natchez, Vicksburg, and Greenville—a series of charming river towns known for their Antebellum mansions, warm hospitality and musical legends.
The American Duchess: a modern steamboat
In the American Duchess, the award-winning American Queen Steamboat Company continues the magic of the riverboating tradition with a bright red paddlewheel, arched balconies and chimney stacks. The old charm meets contemporary luxury with state-of-the-art, modern accommodations and exceptional service. The American Duchess is the only all-suite riverboat with lofts on the Mississippi, and three of the 83 cabins are ADA-approved.
With a 36-foot-high lobby decked out with chandeliers and modern art, Murano glass floral decorations, and paintings of historic steamboats adorning the hallways, the Duchess is a work of art. Community spaces come with comfortable leather couches and large windows overlooking the scenic river. On the first floor, you’ll find the the Show Lounge, followed by a mezzanine piano bar sitting area leading to the Grand Dining Room. Two staircases take you to the expansive Lincoln Library, offering a selection of books about the second-longest American river. At the stern is the River Terrace Club Restaurant with al fresco dining and a bar. All around, orchids and plant life add elegance and a feel of home.
Even when all passengers were onboard, I barely saw anyone walking the halls or in common areas. This gave me a chance to enjoy cruising without having to bump into anyone—outside of when I wanted to make friends, an activity for which the centrally located bar is ideal. Wi-Fi is available throughout, and there’s a small fitness center and business enclave. On those full days of river cruising, I enjoyed lounging on the Sun Deck to sit on a rocking chair, reading my Kindle or watching barges float by.
Onboard: Suites and staterooms
Did you know that the term “stateroom” comes from a time when cabins were named after states? At its capacity, the Duchess accommodates 166 guests, with rooms purposefully bigger to allow passengers to experience luxury all around. There are five suite categories: Owner’s Suites, Loft Suites, Deluxe Suites, Veranda Suites, and Interior Staterooms, ranging from 180 to 550 square-feet in size (which helps explain why I barely saw anyone wandering around).
I stayed in a 550-square-foot loft suite unique to the American Duchess. Walking into the spacious suite, I found it hard to believe I was on a ship. My floating hotel room came with a lower level equipped with a full bathroom, a small dining area with mini refrigerator and Keurig coffee maker, a contemporary lounge furnished with a sofa-bed and flatscreen TV, and sliding doors to the private balcony where I spent many evenings.
Up the stairs was a semi-private bedroom with a large closet, another TV, a safe, and a full bathroom with enough space for all my toiletries, something that’s hard to find on other cruises. Floor-to-ceiling windows brought in natural light to both floors and came with remote-controlled blackout curtains. Had it not been for the purr of the engine, it would’ve been hard to tell that I wasn’t on land.
The best part was having my own butler. The loft suites, along with the three owner suites, belong to the Commodore class. These include butler services, a bottle of wine and a fruit basket upon arrival, and an invitation to dine with the Senior Officers. Gerard Williams, a spry Southern gentleman, was one of the best butlers I’ve ever had. He seemed to be everywhere, leaving tasty pre-dinner canapes and post-dinner sweets in my suite, taking orders at the restaurants, making reservations, and escorting me to the evening entertainment. Despite having to tend to several other guests’s needs all day, Gerard always greeted me with a smile and anticipated what I needed next, a trait I found common among all the staff onboard.
Onboard: Dining and service
The Grand Dining Room and the River Club & Terrace are elegant, with custom Italian fabrics and sweeping windows revealing gorgeous river views. Open dining is available for all meals in the Grand Dining Room, with an a la carte menu and a country-club dress code. The River Club provides a more intimate alternative, with an open-view kitchen and a double-sided bar, offering a lunch buffet. A covered al fresco dining area overlooking the paddlewheel is also available. The River Club transforms into a specialty restaurant for dinner and requires reservations. Service was always top-notch; waiters took orders on iPhones and paid close attention to dietary restrictions.
For dinner, a nightly gourmet menu offering four-course meals is curated by Executive Chef Jeff Warner, with his delectable favorites and wine pairings. The kitchen whipped up classic American and Southern/seafood dishes, including ribeye, citrus grilled salmon, lobster cannelloni, and steamed Maine lobster tail. Vegetarian and gluten-free options and sugar-free desserts were also available. Pecans—Southern staple—made appearances in most desserts, although my vice was the creamy, layered goodness of the New Orleans chocolate doberge cake.
In between meals, having the Perks Cafe nearby was perfect for grabbing coffee, frozen yogurt or popcorn. It was especially nice to see the usage of eco-friendly cups and utensils. While beer and table wine are included, the cruise also has an All-Inclusive Beverage Package that includes top-shelf liquor and daily specials.
Until this cruise, I didn’t know one person could sing opera, country and showtunes so beautifully. Courtney, the lead female singer, brought down the house multiple nights in a row with her exceptional performances. On the first night, I learned that she was married to the Cruise Director, Dustin Cunningham, who was also exceptional singer. Together, the Cunninghams are worthy of Broadway and put on delightful shows nightly at 8:30pm at The Show Lounge.
One night it’s “Popera,” a collection classic romantic songs made famous by Pavarotti, Elvis and more. The next it’s showtunes and ABBA’s biggest hits. The sock hop, a toe-tapping comedic hour full of energy, was a fan favorite, especially when entertainer Jeff Hutson, dressed as the King himself, danced on rollerblades with two lucky passengers.
Dustin and Courtney also organized afternoon bingo, trivia, fun games, and a veterans meet-and-greet. When docked, they invited local bands to entertain guests. The Show Lounge turned educational in the afternoons with presentations about the Mississippi River and steamboats by Riverlorian (river historian) Steve Spracklen.
Ports and excursions
At each port, the cruise offers a premium excursion (for an additional fee) on which an American Steamboat Company hop-on/hop-off tour bus takes guests around town and a local guide shares knowledge along the way. The opportunity to experience the deep South is what really attracted me to this riverboat cruise. Because of flooding, we skipped St. Francisville, but the rest of the stops more than made up for the loss with their charm, hospitality and fascinating tours.
1. Natchez, Mississippi
Our first port, Natchez, Mississippi, was in full bloom with colorful azaleas and locals dressed in ornate 1850s attire welcoming visitors into their antebellum homes during spring pilgrimage. My premium excursion included a guided tour of the Towers mansion, where homeowner Ginger showed us her rare and unusual antique collections. These eccentricities from the 19th century included everything from beaded ostrich eggs and glass inkwells to precious beaded purses and lace sheers.
2. Vicksburg, Mississippi
In Vicksburg, I took the included tour to the historic home of Anchuca, a B&B once home to Joseph Davis, the brother of Jefferson Davis, as well as the Old Court House Museum full of Civil War artifacts. I walked over to the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum on Washington Street, which showcased original bottles and ads used to promote bottled Coke by Joseph Biedenharn for the first time, putting Vicksburg on the map.
3. Greenville, Mississippi
On our stop in Greenville, I opted to ride a bike, which I was delighted to find the American Duchess provided. The morning I spent riding the nearly empty streets was so relaxing and fun. The cruise also offered a premium excursion to Indianola to visit the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.
The next day we spent on the river before our departure in Memphis. As the Duchess chugged along over the muddy Mississippi, I enjoyed a lovely champagne toast and one last amazing meal in the Grand Dining Room and dreamt about my next journey on the river.
American Duchess cruises begin at $1,999 per person, including a pre- or post-cruise luxury hotel stay. Gratuities are not included. For more information, visit americanqueensteamboatcompany.com or call 1-888-749-5280.
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