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.


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