I have been on several cruises and travel adventures around the world, but recently, I’ve felt the need to focus on discovering great destinations closer to home. The U.S. is filled with countless experiences that travelers can unlock, and a river cruise offers the chance to see so many things in an efficient, hassle-free, and fun way.
Our summer cruise on the Ohio River took us from Pittsburgh to Louisville, and the itinerary included stops in Marietta, Ohio; Huntington, West Virginia; Augusta, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Madison, Indiana, before reaching Louisville.
I had been on voyages on the Mighty Mississippi River and even a couple in the Pacific Northwest on the Columbia and Snake rivers that traverse through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. These itineraries are fairly well known, but I was fascinated to see what an Ohio River cruise was all about. I was happy to accept an invite from American Queen Voyages to review this special itinerary.
As it turns out, it’s filled with memorable experiences and a range of fun ways to spend your days. The best part about our trip, though, was how we got there. American Queen owns a special charm and an incredible river cruise program that makes it a favorite way to cruise within the U.S. Here’s why.
1. An Itinerary With Small Towns And Big Cities
American Queen Voyages offers a pre-cruise hotel stay in Pittsburgh, and it was nice to explore the City of Bridges for a day. We had lunch at the famous Primanti Brothers, diving into our hearty sandwiches — complete with fries stuffed onto the pastrami between slices of Italian bread. And we washed it down with a couple of Iron City beers.
The embarkation pier for the riverboat sits at the doorstep of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ football stadium, making for a scenic sail away from the confluence of the three rivers (Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela).
The cruise also features a stop in Cincinnati and wraps up in Louisville, so travelers have opportunities to explore these interesting big cities and all they have to offer. We went for a bike ride on the riverfront, explored the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, and had lunch and craft beers at Moerlein Lager House.
In Louisville, cruisers can explore city highlights like the famed Churchill Downs (Kentucky Derby track) or the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory before catching flights back home.
These big cities are nice, but it’s the small towns that really make this trip shine. Residents gather along the banks of the river to cheer our arrival or give us a friendly sendoff each day. Each riverside destination, no matter how small, loves to show off its slice of American history and regional attractions, such as quirky museums, pretty churches, and, of course, its local shops and eateries.
In Marietta, Ohio, attractions included Mound Cemetery, one of the oldest in the original Northwest Territory, the Ohio River Museum, and the Childen’s Toy & Doll Museum.
Huntington, West Virginia
When I went ashore in Huntington, West Virginia, the hop-on, hop-off bus loop took us to the Touma Medical Museum, a delightful little open-air railroad museum (a yard filled with colorful old rail cars), Ritter Park Rose Garden, and the Marshall University Campus, which features a wonderful grounds filled with statues, sculptures, trees, and flowers.
In Augusta, Kentucky, AQV passengers were able to walk just a few hundred steps from our spot on the river to explore the Rosemary Clooney Museum. This is the former home of actress, singer, and aunt to superstar George Clooney. Highlights of this charming town also include Bates Garden, the 1811 Jail, and Baker-Bird Winery.
There was another railroad museum to see in Madison, Indiana, and the town also lists the Schroeder Saddletree Factory, the Broadway Fountain, and Lanier Mansion as top attractions for visitors to check out.
2. Enriching Entertainment
While each port stop features a variety of things for cruisers to explore, this fancy riverboat offers a daily program with a mix of musical performances, trivia competitions, movies, bingo, and variety shows.
Music, trivia, and enrichment talks are held in American Queen’s majestic Grand Saloon theater space. During our cruise, we saw Phil Westbrook several times, as the singer and piano man performed a tribute to Frank Sinatra as well as entertained passengers at the intimate Captain’s Bar just outside the main J.M. White Dining Room.
We also dropped by the theater for shows by guitarist Logan Reeves and a song and dance variety production on TV theme songs from the American Queen Ensemble and the Steamboat Syncopators house band. The shows draw on plenty of nostalgia but definitely favor an era more familiar to cruisers 70 and older. However, the overall mood is quite fun.
A hip vibe can be found nightly at the Engine Room Bar, where the ship’s musicians get the crowd dancing with a great mix of blues and rock tunes.
3. Regionally Inspired Cuisine
The American Queen chefs kept us well-fed. Meals are served in the main dining room and in the casual eatery called the Front Porch, which offers wonderful views as you cruise on the river. When the weather is nice, it’s worth having at least one dinner outside there to enjoy the sunset and sailing.
The menu includes items like chicken fried steak, frog legs, and a variety of steak and fish preparations. The cuisine is more hearty than healthy, but you can find some fresh fruits and salads in the mix at the lunch buffets. We were always tempted by the mouth-watering selection of homemade pies and slices of chocolate cake set out each day at lunch. There always is a delicious soup, gumbo, or chili available, too.
If you need a snack, you can swing by the Front Porch for a bag of fresh popcorn, a couple of cookies, or a soft-serve ice cream cone or dish.
4. Set Your Own Pace
As a person who loves his daily workouts, I’m happy that a river cruise on American Queen makes it easy. Not only is there a well-equipped gym, but the ship carries a fleet of bikes. Colleen and I started several days with a run along the riverside trails through small towns or by grabbing a couple of bikes to go exploring independently.
In general, river cruising allows travelers the chance to explore on their own in a hassle-free way. It’s so easy to stroll onto and off of the ship at your leisure, and the towns and cities are mere steps away. You can go set your own schedule for the day if you’re not interested in rigorously following the ship excursion program.
Pro Tip: Ask crew members for their insight on nice places to eat or go shopping — or for their favorite places to get a coffee or craft brew. We received great insight from lead butler Adam, who is a coffee connoisseur and loves to find and frequent local cafes along all the river towns he visits.
5. Hop-On, Hop-Off Tours
American Queen Voyages provides a wonderful service in its hop-on, hop-off bus routes in each city and on each river itinerary that it operates. Passengers walk off the ship and straight onto waiting buses with clear signage at each stop along the route at the attractions in town.
Cruisers love being able to have peace of mind that they will see a nice mix of highlights in each port without worrying about transportation. You can get off at each spot or pick and choose what you are interested in on the loop.
6. Plenty Of Space Onboard
American Queen itself is an attraction. Built in 2012 and carrying up to 417 passengers, this is the largest steamship ever built. The décor takes you back in time to a golden era of steamship travel. The Grand Saloon resembles a 19th-century opera house with private boxes wrapped around the theater and hanging over the main level and the stage adorned with a large red curtain.
Chandeliers fill the main restaurant, rocking chairs line the railings on the front porch, and gingerbread ornamentation accents the staircases and stateroom patios of the bright white ship. The signature big red paddlewheel churns at the stern of the ship helping to power the voyage along the river.
American Queen features a large Mark Twain Gallery that serves as a reading room (with a small computer area). It’s outfitted with vintage lamps and antique chairs and all kinds of mementos of a bygone time, including river ship models, paintings, books, vases, and other collectibles.
There are two parlors at the very front of the ship ahead of the Main Twain Gallery, and these spots also are carefully decorated and ideal for working on puzzles, reading, or enjoying the river views while relaxing with friends.
7. Scenic Sailing
I found the periods of sailing from town to town one of the most relaxing and satisfying parts of this river cruise. It was fabulous to watch the world floating by, with the pretty evening sunsets, flowing waters, and subtle bends in the river. We would pass under a variety of bridge styles and see trains on adjacent tracks and tugboats pushing coal barges.
Cruisers also enjoyed the process of watching our big riverboat pass through the locks along the way.
Pro Tip: Make sure to head up to the top deck for sail aways each day. Crowds gather along the banks of the river to wave you off and wish you well on the journey. And one of the musicians will come out to play some tunes on the boat’s steam calliope. It’s a fun spectacle!