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Keep Those Paddle-Wheels Turnin'


Our pre-inaugural sailing aboard the new American Queen with a group of travel agents and media took place June 6, before the elegant paddle-wheeler was grounded on a muddy embankment June 18 on the Ohio River near Hawesville, Ky. After two days of dredging and nearly four days of being stuck, the boat was freed June 21 and has been on course since June 27.

The largest paddle-wheel steamboat built in recent years, the 418-foot, 436-passenger American Queen is powered by two vintage steam engines salvaged from a derelict barge in Mississippi. It offers a quintessentially American experience, warmer and more genuine than Disneyland's Main Street, with a serendipitous charm, more like visiting grandmother's house or a particularly delightful Victorian bed and breakfast than taking a cruise.

But unique details are not what make this newest vessel for U.S.-flag Delta Queen Steamboat Co. special. With its collection of period furnishings--40% original antiques collected at garage and estate sales all over the United States and 60% antique reproductions--the American Queen feels lived-in rather than new.

Passengers boarding the vessel are greeted by a hoop-skirted hostess in an entry hall with polished hardwood floors. To the left is the Gentleman's Card Room with green velvet sofas, a stuffed bear, a miniature billiard table, a coin-operated stereopticon with innocently naughty French postcards from the 1900s. To the right is the Ladies' Parlor with Victorian furniture, painted screens, a morning glory Victrola with round Edison wax cylinder recordings, and a big table with a Ouija board on it. Each is flanked by a screened porch with comfortable wicker chairs.

The Mark Twain Gallery (sometimes inhabited by a performer impersonating the famous humorist) is opulent, cool and dark, a perfect Victorian parlor with its Tiffany stained-glass lampshades, bookcases and busts, and fringed lampshades. Up one level on the Texas deck is the Front Porch, a glassed-in, air-conditioned porch with wicker rocking chairs, old-fashioned game tables and books, along with help-yourself lemonade and cookies.

The entertainment aboard the Delta Queen vessels has gotten more sophisticated since our last sailing in 1992, with jazz as well as Dixieland and sing-alongs in the boisterous Engine Room Bar and a polished quartet performing Broadway and popular music in the Grand Saloon show lounge. The latter with its upper level boxes and main level banquettes, tapestry chairs and marble cocktail tables is particularly handsome.

But there's still plenty of down-home activity as well, everything from kite-flying off the boat's stern to trying a hand at playing the steam calliope (fully aware any sour notes can be heard five miles away).

The food aboard is uniformly delicious, tasty home cooking that sometimes reflects the area being cruised, and sometimes offers a broader scope of American dishes. We enjoyed a New Orleans-style shrimp poor-boy sandwich one day at lunchtime, but fresh local shrimp also turn up in a shrimp cocktail, a seafood Jambalaya and dark, rich gumbo. Pecan pie, bananas Foster, Mississippi mud pie and caramel bread pudding head the dessert list.

Cabins are slightly larger than on sister boats Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, and sumptuously furnished with period wallpaper, whatnot tables, Victorian settees, Battenberg lace shower curtains, twin or double beds with carved wooden headboards and velvet draperies reminiscent of those Scarlett O'Hara made her dress from in "Gone With the Wind."

Many cabins open directly onto the deck with tables and chairs handy for reading or watching the river. Bathrooms are large, and most have tub with shower except in the lower categories, which offer showers only. Nine cabins are wheelchair-accessible, and seven cabins are for single occupancy. There are 24 suites, some with private verandas. Particularly appealing are AAA suites 351 and 352 aft on Texas deck, which overlook the turning red paddle-wheel.

Sister boat Mississippi Queen is scheduled to go into an extensive dry-docking this winter to be refurbished like the American Queen, according to line president Jeffrey Krida.

Depending on itinerary, departures are available from New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Little Rock, Nashville, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Chattanooga, Galveston and Tulsa. Cruises range from three to 16 nights and cost from $490 to $9,420 per person, double occupancy, plus air from the West Coast. A 10% to 15% Early Booking Bonus is given if you book and pay the deposit six months in advance.

To get a free color brochure, see a travel agent or call Delta Queen Steamboat at (800) 543-1949.

Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears twice monthly.

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