Saturday, February 18, 2023

Mall of America Tour and American Queen Embarkation

My friend, Lynn, and I had a good night’s sleep at the Radison Blu Mall of America, but we knew we had a very full day ahead.

It started with breakfast in the hotel’s conference room with the other passengers to be on our American Queen voyage. Everyone was friendly and we were all excited to be embarking on this journey in the afternoon.

River cruises work differently than ocean liners when it comes to check-in. Since there is no cruise port for everyone to gather in and check-in, it’s done in the hotel. This was pretty much the only thing in our weeklong trip that was disorganized. They used temporary workers in the port and we would later learn that most of the information we were given was wrong.

Everyone tried to keep their cool and figured they’d straighten things (like dinner seatings and excursions) on the ship.

When I found out I would have a free day in the Minneapolis area I wanted to finally visit Paisley Park, Prince’s former home. I thought it would work out, but it just got to hectic to try to make it back in time to get on the bus to the ship.

We decided instead to take an in-depth tour of the Mall of America and have a little time left to relax.

Dan Jasper, Vice President of Communications for MOA, was our guide. He had recently begun doing these behind-the-scenes tours. Even though I had previously visited the mall, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know.

The spot the Mall of America is on was originally the Metropolitan sports stadium. There are still metal plates in within Nickelodeon Universe still acknowledging the original baseball and football teams.

Since I was last here, the mall housed the Patriots and the Eagles for the 2018 Super Bowl, with one team staying at the Radisson Blu and the other at the JW Marriott.

A couple of new spots had opened up, including the M&Ms store and the Crayola Experience. There had also been a three month shut down for covid of the stores, and five months for the attractions.  This led to the opening of the Community Commons, a spot where local shops would get three months free rent to try to get their business back. It has been successful as eight of these stores are now up full time.

We learned that the mall has been home to more than 10,000 weddings, has the Guiness World Record for the World’s Largest Cupcake, has given away 5,205 bicycles, and made the World’s Largest Gingerbread for a nursing home benefit.

Before we finished the tour, we were able to go into the warehouse and see the upcoming Christmas displays. Lynn and I even sat in Santa’s chair.

Dan mentioned Fly Over America to us and I remembered how much I enjoyed it. We decided to go and enjoyed the feeling of flying through the wide-open spaces of the United States, including the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.

We had time for more Minnesota Wild Rice Soup and Popovers at the FireLake Grill before getting on the bus to Red Wing. The bus, which we’d be using for excursions at ports, was equipped to take my mobility scooter.

It was an absolute pleasure getting on a small ship. With only about 300 passengers on the American Queen, getting on the ship there were no lines and our room was waiting.

We had a Junior Suite and it was a combination of old antique and a brand new, very large, bathroom with a tub. It was one of many accessible cabins on the boat.

The Coast Guard Muster Drill was short since there were so few passengers. Before we knew it, we were at the Front Porch Café sipping champagne.

A cocktail hour with music was held in front of the dining room every evening. Cocktails, wine, and beer were complimentary throughout the cruise.

This would be the only night there was confusion at the dining room entrance as it seemed that no one (including us) liked their dinner assignments. It would have been so much simpler to just ask people when they booked their cruise.


We decided to eat at the buffet at the Front Porch, which had Prime Rib every night. The Maitre’d did a great job of getting the dinner seatings straightened by the next night.

Every night after dinner there was an orientation telling us about the port we would be going to the next day.  

American Queen Voyages includes a hop on, hop off bus at every port. They also pay for admissions at every stop on the bus. Additional tours are available at a reasonable cost if you want to see or do something more specific.We would be staying put in Red Wing the next day.

The orientation was held in the same place as the Grand Salon, a spectacular theater that reminds you of the days of Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln. Since we were in a suite, we had balcony seats reserved each night.

The show on the first night was a welcome by Cruise Director Alex Bernhardt and a performance by his team. They were quite impressive.

It had been a very long day and we were ready to retire for the night right after the show. There would be plenty more time to explore the American Queen.

I was hosted by American Queen on this voyage, but opinions are my own. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Heading to the American Queen on the Mississippi

Like most of the world, I haven’t taken any big trips the last few years. Getting on an airplane or a cruise ship has not seemed like a good idea for someone who is immunocompromised. An opportunity came up that made me rethink this.

American Queen Voyages is not your usual cruise line. The majority of their cruises are wholly within the United States (a few stop in Canada). Their ships are all small and they have four riverboats with wide open areas so you are not ever waiting on lines for food or disembarking with thousands of people.

I was offered a cruise that was entirely in the Midwest, so if there were any health issues, I could be home within a few hours drive. I have to confess that it was also nice to not have to worry about tropical storms and rough waters as we would only be on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

The ship I was heading to is the America Queen, christened by godmother Priscilla Presley in 1995, and refurbished 12 years later. It’s the largest of the AQV ships. Despite having only 213 staterooms, it’s considered the biggest steamboat built.

My cruise would take me from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Alton, Illinois, stopping in five different states. I asked my friend, Lynn, to accompany me. She is one of my favorite travel companions, whom I’ve known over 30 years. We have traveled together to four countries and throughout the U.S.

Lynn came to Champaign two days before the trip so we could get ready for our first adventure since before the pandemic. We were driving to St. Louis, leaving my van at the airport, and flying to Minneapolis the next day. We’d then head one way down the Mississippi on the boat.

American Queen Voyages includes an overnight hotel stay the night before the cruise to make sure everyone is there and not feeling rushed.

We were early arriving in St. Louis and decided to stop at a favorite barbecue spot for lunch. Pappy’s Smokehouse. This popular spot has been named “Best BBQ in Missouri” by Southern Living and “Best Ribs in America” by the Food Network. We didn’t have the ribs, but the brisket was as good as I remembered.

T he flight to Minneapolis was short and uneventful. It took us much longer to find the bus to the Radisson Blu Mall of America in nearby Bloomington. I had actually stayed here the last time I was in the area and looking forward to returning.

The hotel was as modern and comfortable as I remembered. Our room had everything we needed, including welcome snacks, but it had been many hours since that brisket sandwich and we were hungry.

Unfortunately, the hotel restaurant, Firelake Grill House,  having some staffing issues and we had a wait. The manager warned us the service that night was overwhelmed, but we found them to be polite and we didn’t wait long.

I knew right away what I wanted to start: Minnesota Wild Rice Soup. I had discovered it on one of my first trips to the state and made it a habit every time since. 

I ordered a large bowl and Firelake’s version was excellent, and it went perfectly with their warm out of the oven popovers — another treat I rarely get. I finished off my meal with tomatoes & burrata, while Lynn had the Mushroom Gnudi.

I also tried the hotel’s own tequila, which was smooth and semi-sweet. It was also all I needed to be ready for bed after a long day. We had another one coming, with a private behind the scenes tour of the Mall of America in the morning, and the beginning of our journey on the America Queen Steamboat in the afternoon.