Notes about cruising 4: Delta Queen

Let’s talk about riverboat cruising–more specifically, Delta Queen Steamboat Company, cruising on America’s heartland rivers. (There are quite a few other river cruises–as many as four boats and ships cruise the Columbia River, and dozens of ships and barges cruise European waterways, not to mention the Yangtze. But we’ve never taken any of those, so…)

Delta Queen operates three riverboats. They’re boats, not ships: They’re not built for the open ocean. Very shallow draft (no more than 9 feet, because that’s as deep as the Army Corps of Engineers keeps the upper Mississippi). Dimensions small enough to fit into river locks and under bridges. The largest, the American Queen, is 418 feet long, 89.4 feet wide, and rises 97 feet above the riverline–but the stacks and pilothouse can be lowered to clear bridges. (If I remember properly, the stacks pivot–just like the old riverboats.)

These are authentic steam-driven sternwheelers. When the American Queen was built (we were on one of the inaugural voyages, in mid-1995, and have the working replica boat’s bell to prove it–and, for that matter, our names are engraved on or in the boat’s bell, probably in teeny-tiny type), the most daunting task for the builders was finding a steam engine the right size to drive the boat. After all, nobody builds those any more. (With the help of the Army Corps, they located a sunken dredge and salvaged the engine–actually two of them, from the Kennedy.) And that big red paddlewheel is not only for show. On the Delta Queen, it’s the only propulsion, and on the Mississippi Queen and American Queen, it’s the primary propulsion system. The sternwheelers were never the fastest steamboats, just the most graceful; the Queens typically run at about six to eight mph (not knots, since they’re on rivers).

The Delta Queen itself (herself?) is truly authentic, which is both good and bad. DQ was built in 1926 and originally ran in the Sacramento delta, between Sacramento and San Francisco, along with sister ship Delta King. (My mother-in-law used the Delta Queen as transportation, back in the day…) After WWII, the Delta King became what it is now–a floating hotel and restaurant in Old Sacramento. The Delta Queen was towed all the way to Louisiana, refurbished, and started a new career as a river cruise boat. (Not without hassles: The superstructure is wood, which means it can’t fully meet Safety of Life at Sea, SOLAS, regulations. It required an act of Congress to keep it running, and you sign a waiver before you board this National Historic Landmark.) It’s also small–87 cabins on four decks (no elevators), with cabins ranging from 44 to 68 square feet, except for a few high-end 136-156 sq. ft. cabins. (No typos: A typical midrange DQ cabin is just big enough for two very narrow beds, a milk carton-size table, a three-drawer dresser, the 16″ hanging rod that substitutes for a closet unless you book the highest suite category, one chair and a sink; that 44sqft. doesn’t include the bathroom.) You really don’t spend any more time in your cabin than you need to–but all the decks are promenade decks, with rocking chairs all around. You meet everyone on board the first day, and it’s just small-town Americana from then on.

Yes, the cabins are tiny; no, we don’t recommend the DQ unless you understand that and can live with it. Public spaces include an open entry area/lounge/library, the Texas Lounge for piano bar, singalongs, drinks, and watching the sun set, and the Orleans Dining Room–which serves as the restaurant and showroom (after the second seating, they rearrange tables). Two seatings for dinner, not because there aren’t enough tables but because the galley’s so tiny that it can’t prepare that many meals at once.

As with all three Queens, it’s a little hokey, a lot traditional heartland Americana, and a great way to explore the Mississippi, Atchafalaya, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas rivers. Each Queen has a “Riverlorian” to keep you in touch with the rivers and what they’re all about. Interesting stops. Good food, with a range of choices (more on the larger Queens) including a fair amount of “river food.” Moderately dressy for dinner. Most people on the DQ, in our experience, are in their 70s and 80s and just love the boat.

Differences with the other two:

  • The Mississippi Queen, built in 1976, holds 416 passengers in considerably more comfort, with cabins ranging from 123 square feet up, including a fair number with private verandas. In addition to the dining room, there’s the two-level Paddlewheel Lounge (which overlooks…well, you guessed it) and Grand Saloon (showroom); there’s also an open-air Calliope Bar. (Did I mention that each Queen has an authentic steam-driven calliope? When they go through locks and under bridges, you frequently get calliope concerts.) There are elevators. There’s even a little bathing pool.
  • The American Queen, built in 1995, holds 436 passengers. Typical cabins range from 141 to 190 square feet; some have verandas. The J.M. White Dining Room is a recreation of one of the most splendid steamboat dining saloons; the Grand Saloon is a true showroom, with two levels and all the facilities; and there are a couple of good bars–plus the Front Porch of America, an inauthentic but wonderful view lounge with fresh-baked cookies showing up all day. Elevators, to be sure.

Our reminiscences are from the old DQSC, part of the same holding company that ran American Hawaii–and got too ambitious with a building program. The three boats are now operated under the same company name by new ownership; my understanding is that everything’s pretty much the same.

Our favorite cruise was St. Louis to St. Paul (or vice-versa), seven days on the always-changing Upper Mississippi. But we also loved a civil war cruise, mostly on the Tennessee and Ohio, with a team of historians along.

Downsides: These cruises are expensive–inherently so, since they’re small boats and American registry (which means the crew has to be paid living wages). Most passengers are, shall we say, older than we are. It is indeed a little hokey at times. And, on the DQ, those cabins are small.

Upsides: You get into the American heartland. River cruising is incredibly relaxing. We learned a lot about the rivers and the land around them (and the people, of course). And if you get seasick on a river cruise, it’s really all in your mind.

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