Jane Archer was the first UK journalist on board American Queen Steamboat Company’s majestic but minimalist new paddleboat, American Duchess
Anyone familiar with the vibrant Victoriana decor on AQSC’s Mississippi paddleboat American Queen will be surprised by the latest addition to the fleet.
American Duchess, launched last year, is modern and majestic but so minimalist in the colour department that even the designer felt it needed a touch of blush here and there, so he hung lots of Murano glass around the public areas.
On my cruise, some loved the contemporary style; a few longed for American Queen’s whimsy – but everyone agreed Duchess was striking. Inside there are capacious rooms and high ceilings; in ports her traditional paddleboat wedding-cake looks always attracted an audience.
American Duchess started life in 1995 as a Mississippi casino boat, was acquired by AQSC a couple of years ago, gutted and rebuilt as a luxury paddlewheel hotel boat with room for just 166 passengers.
“We added an extra deck so there is a crazy amount of space,” said president and chief operating officer Ted Sykes. He said their next vessel, another gaming boat that will be gutted and rebuilt for a 2020 launch as American Countess, will have capacity for 245 passengers.
All river-facing cabins on American Duchess – that’s most accommodation – are designated suites on account of their size, and all have balconies. Four striking two-storey Loft Suites have a living room downstairs and bedroom above, while three Owners’ Suites have separate living and sleeping quarters and huge balconies with sofas. Both Loft and Owners’ Suites come with butler service and perks including welcome wine and fruit, and reserved seating in the show lounge.
The boat is certainly roomy, with plenty of seating inside and out. The downside is that people are so scattered that the only rooms with a real buzz were the restaurant at dinner time and show lounge, where each evening an enthusiastic trio performed songs from musicals and the ’50s and ’60s.
The restaurant is elegant and big enough to seat everyone at once – it is open seating, so you just turn up when you want to eat. Some waiters were great, a few needed more training, but the maître d’ was excellent and always had a table for me, a solo traveller, to join so I didn’t dine alone.
Alternative dining is available in the River Club and Terrace, which serves a buffet breakfast and lunch, and transforms into a reservation-only restaurant in the evening. It was popular by day and the evening menu looked great, but I peeked in a couple of evenings and each time there were just a handful of diners, which didn’t appeal.
The dinner set-up there, and a vast sun deck with nothing but four umbrellas to sit under, felt like works in progress. There were also issues with the air-conditioning, which was set to freezing for the first few days.
I initially thought that explained why the bar was always empty (it was just too cold to sit there), but even after the air-conditioning improved it remained deserted. One barmen said it was unusual and surmised it was due to the older age of passengers on my cruise.
All were American, bar me and a couple of past AQSC passengers from Israel, and most were in their 70s and 80s and had notched up numerous cruises on AQSC’s other two vessels. When American Duchess went on sale, they rushed to be on the first cruise, but there were teething problems so AQSC gave them a great deal on a future voyage as recompense.
It’s a testament to how well the company handled the situation that so many rebooked, many of them choosing my cruise because it was a new itinerary combining the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.
My package, sold in the UK by ASQC general sales agent Light Blue Travel, included a night in the Drake Hotel in Chicago and transfers to the boat in Ottawa, a small town on the Illinois River. Instead of the direct transfer, I joined an optional ‘premium’ tour of the Windy City for all passengers that ended in Ottawa.
All AQSC itineraries have premium excursions alongside a free hop-on, hop-off bus that circles the towns and cities the boats call at, stopping at museums, churches and other places of interest (with free entrance to most attractions) so passengers can explore as they wish. It’s a big selling point, and a brilliant way to see places at your own pace without worrying about the budget.
* A seven-night Mark Twain’s Mississippi cruise from St Louis to St Paul on American Duchess costs from £3,275 per person departing August 4, 2019, including flights, transfers, two pre-cruise nights with breakfast in St Louis, and wine or beer with lunch and dinner (01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk)