Oct. 10–When you tell people you’re going on a weeklong cruise, you expect them to ask, “Where?”
Here’s what they don’t expect you to answer: “Illinois.”
The Illinois River isn’t exactly top of mind when it comes to recreational river cruises, a pursuit that conjures up far-flung locations like the Danube, Nile and Amazon. But the nearly 275-mile-long waterway that threads through the heart of the Prairie State served as the main setting for a groundbreaking — make that waterbreaking? — cruise this past summer. That’s when the 166-passenger American Duchess paddle-wheeler made its way from the Mississippi River town of Alton, up to Ottawa, on the Illinois.
“This large of a passenger boat on the Illinois River hasn’t happened, if ever, for many years,” said Duchess Capt. Randy Kirschbaum, who’s navigated inland waterways for four decades. “There’s a lot of excitement around it. Not only for us on the boat … but for the towns.”
I witnessed that excitement firsthand in August on the ship’s inaugural trip along the Illinois River, a route typically populated by commercial barges and smaller pleasure boats. Tagging along was my 13-year-old niece, Sara, a good half-century younger than most of the passengers.
During our deep dive into the Land of Lincoln, the year-old Duchess made maiden calls at several ports, including Peoria, whose riverfront bustled with a Saturday morning farmers market, and the sleepier town of Havana, where the mayor, a Dixieland jazz band and camera-toting residents turned out to greet the Victorian-style vessel as she cozied up to shore.
In these parts, the Duchess was a bona fide aquatic anomaly. The limited-but-growing inventory of overnight cruise boats plying U.S. rivers tends to cluster on bigger, better-known waterways. And many of these ships simply aren’t a good fit for the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi that basically flows southwest of Joliet, at the confluence of the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers, all the way down to Grafton, not too far north of St. Louis. The vessels are often too tall to navigate the northern reaches of the Illinois; in the game of limbo between the boat and some of the low-slung bridges that straddle the water, the boat loses.
Even the relatively compact Duchess had to collapse its black smokestacks and sun-deck umbrellas to squeeze under spans carrying trains and trucks roaring overhead. If heavy rain had caused water levels to rise too much, that would have been the end of our river road.
Cruise companies are willing to tackle these kinds of logistical headaches if it means giving the growing riverboat market new and off-the-beaten-path itineraries like this one, dubbed “Lincoln’s Illinois.” By venturing deeper into domestic waterways, they’re catering to a clientele that craves the intimacy of riverboat cruising but doesn’t necessarily want to fly to a foreign country to experience it. They’re targeting folks who are eager for longer, overnight journeys on U.S. rivers but have already “done” the Mississippi or the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
Just about everyone I talked to aboard the Duchess — one of three paddle-wheelers owned by American Queen Steamboat Co., which has a fourth on the way — had previously traveled with the New Albany, Ind.-based riverboat cruise line. They’d usually cruised some stretch of the Mississippi — the Memphis-New Orleans leg is especially popular — and they’d usually done it on the company’s largest vessel, the 436-passenger American Queen.
This time, they picked Lincoln’s Illinois on the Duchess because they wanted “something different.”
Here’s something different: seeing Abraham Lincoln in a bright orange life jacket during the ship’s mandatory muster drill.
Looking for Lincoln
The country’s esteemed POTUS, played with haunting perfection by Freeport resident and Lincoln impersonator George Buss, traveled onboard with us for most of the voyage. He and Mary Todd (Buss’ actual wife) would pop up in various spots around the boat, making small talk with passengers and delivering snack-sized doses of history in keeping with the trip’s Lincoln theme. When we ran into Honest Abe one sunny afternoon on the top deck, he pulled out a copy of the Gettysburg Address from his stovepipe hat and gave it to my niece.
It was a little head-trippy to think that nearly two centuries ago, the real Lincoln worked on this very waterway, piloting a flatboat full of supplies headed for New Orleans.
The towns that bookended our cruise hosted the first and last of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, a series of verbal smackdowns that started in Ottawa and ended a few months later in Alton.
Not surprisingly, the cruise’s shore excursions often featured a tie-in to the 16th president, whether it be one of the stops on the ship’s private hop-on, hop-off buses that take passengers on a continuous sightseeing circuit in every port, or something more elaborate, like the “premium excursion” (read: extra cost) that shuttled us from Havana to Springfield for the day. On that one, we logged a lot of Lincoln: a visit to his presidential museum, a tour of the only home he ever owned, a stop at his tomb and a trip to nearby New Salem, a re-creation of the village where Lincoln lived in the 1830s.
“It’s like a field trip!” Sara said on our motor coach ride to the state capital.
Kids at heart
Sara, about to enter eighth grade, was the only kid on the cruise. Heck, at 49 years old, even I felt like a kid. The average age of American Queen Steamboat Co. passengers is about 72, according to company officials. Shave a decade off that for customers on its American Empress boat based in the Pacific Northwest.
“This is how old people have fun,” an energetic septuagenarian stage-whispered to my niece as her smiling husband grabbed her hand and led her onto the ship’s dance floor. The band jammed out show tunes and other well-known hits while the enthusiastic crowd clapped along.
Sara got into the spirit, even if she was too young to recognize any of the songs performed by the talented cast of onboard entertainers. (Me: “Seriously? You’ve never heard of ‘Footloose?’ Or ‘Dancing Queen?’ Her: blank stare.)
She didn’t have a ship’s kids club to retreat to, or other tweens and teens to play with. But plenty of passengers stepped up to fill the social void, taking on the role of de facto grandparents, showering her with warm smiles and conversation.
A retired Florida couple even invited us to a pre-dinner cocktail party in their swanky loft suite, a 550-square-foot, two-story space with a private balcony — roughly three times the size of our interior stateroom.
The butler doted on Sara, making sure her wine glass was full of Sprite.
“Old people are nice,” Sara later declared.
Rhythm of the river
We both relished the semiformal fun of our nightly ritual: eating a multicourse meal in the Duchess’ elegant, high-ceilinged dining room. The expansive windows were like a movie screen, showing an endless loop of scenery as diners dug into filet mignon, grilled salmon, fettuccine Alfredo, lobster tails, etc.
Unlike on some cruises, Duchess passengers don’t have to eat at the same time, same table. We could show up whenever we wanted between 5:30 and 8 p.m., either opting for a table for two or, if we were feeling more social, joining others who felt the same.
Wine and beer are complimentary at dinner. When we were finished eating, our friendly waiter made a habit of topping off my glass with a healthy pour of red that I could take into the show lounge for the nightly performance of “Songs Sara Doesn’t Know.”
For our post-show dessert, we’d swing by the boat’s self-service Perks cafe to rustle up an ice cream sundae we’d eat on the top deck, under the stars.
The 340-foot-long Duchess isn’t big by cruise-ship standards, but it’s outfitted with a lot of the amenities you’d expect in larger vessels: a show lounge, a fitness center, multiple venues to eat and drink.
One thing it doesn’t have is a casino, which is kind of ironic given the boat’s origin. The hull used to belong to the Isle of Capri riverboat casino, a longtime fixture in the Quad Cities. American Queen Steamboat Co. bought it in 2016, transforming it into a boutique riverboat reminiscent of a white wedding cake. The old-fashioned gingerbread trim on the outside belies a more modern interior with contemporary furniture and art.
A daily newsletter was dropped off in our cabin each night, per cruise ship protocol. The “River Times” detailed the next day’s port and a schedule of onboard activities, so you’d know when to catch a game of bingo or trivia in the Lincoln Library or an educational talk by the so-called Riverlorian, the ship’s resident culture and history expert.
Despite its relatively snug size, the Duchess never felt crowded. While most passengers gravitated to the rocking chairs on the second and third decks or loitered over coffee at the River Club Terrace at the back of the boat, Sara and I preferred camping out on the couches on the top of the ship’s sprawling sun deck — a place we had virtually to ourselves. We used the boat’s binoculars to spot bald eagles and watch startled Asian carp shoot out of the water as motorboats zoomed by.
At least once a day, we’d spend some time being mesmerized by the hypnotic whirring of the candy apple red paddle-wheel that would just keep on turnin’. (Me: “You’ve never heard ‘Proud Mary?’ The rollin’ on the river song?”)
Seeing the sights
At port, getting on and off the ship was quick and easy. We were usually met with some kind of surprise as we disembarked.
In the small town of Grafton, the surprise was a delicious one: crates full of free, perfectly ripe peaches plucked in Calhoun County.
A Grafton alderman joined us on one of the ship’s hop-on, hop-off buses, filling us in on the history of the town, a place hit particularly hard by the devastating floods of 1993.
Grafton sits at the mouth of the Illinois River, where it empties into the Mississippi. It was bumpin’ back in the steamboat era. The port once teemed with passengers headed to St. Louis or St. Paul on the Mississippi or making their way to Peoria on the Illinois. The fishing and boat-building industries were booming.
These days, fewer than 700 people call Grafton home. The harbor has reinvented itself as the “Key West to the Midwest,” a summer playground for boaters and bar-hoppers.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people pour in on the weekends,” the alderman said.
On our Tuesday morning visit, Grafton wasn’t in party mode. Sara and I strolled along the quiet main drag, ducking into a few artsy boutiques and antique shops.
We decided to hop back on the hop-on bus for a ride to Illinois’ largest state park: Pere Marquette. Measuring more than 8,000 acres, the park has one of those imposing limestone and timber lodges built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. We only had time for a short but worthwhile hike up to one of Pere Marquette’s many Native American burial mounds before it was anchors aweigh.
We had more time to explore at the only non-Illinois port of the cruise: Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo., a stop that entailed gliding along the Mississippi River before backtracking to the base of the Illinois.
In Hannibal, the surprise waiting for us at the dock was a young boy and girl dressed as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, foreshadowing a day that would be chock-full of Mark Twain.
Sara and I borrowed a couple of the ship’s bikes — a nice amenity — and pedaled to the nearby Mark Twain Boyhood Home Museum.
We hoofed it up a bunch of stairs to the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse.
We ate fried chicken and homemade root beer at the Mark Twain Dinette and poked our heads in the riverfront brewery named — wait for it — Mark Twain Brewing Co.
The hop-on, hop-off bus took us to the Mark Twain Cave, a chilly labyrinth featured in several of the author’s books.
“Aren’t you glad I made you read ‘Huck Finn’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’ before the trip?” I asked in Wise Aunt voice.
Now it was Sara’s turn to be appalled.
“Those books make no sense,” she exasperated. “How could you even understand the language?”
Locks and landscapes
The Mississippi River stretch of the journey is where our boat passed through the most locks. Going through locks, much like squeezing under low bridges, adds a jolt of excitement to river travel.
When we pulled up to these engineering feats, passengers lined the deck’s rails as the Duchess oh-so-gently maneuvered into its cement chute. A gate closed behind us, allowing the water level to rise or fall as needed before another barrier opened, sending us on our way.
We took these “water stairs” nine times over the course of the cruise, a voyage that led us past steep limestone bluffs and forests of leafy trees that made me wish it were autumn, not August. Peaceful. Tranquil. That’s how I can best describe the sensation of sitting on the sun deck, cruising at a leisurely 5 to 6 mph, with a soundtrack supplied by chirping cicadas and the gentle hum of the engine.
I liked watching the wildlife, wondering if that heron hopscotching alongside us was being curious or territorial, trying to run our giant wedding cake out of town.
It felt like a mashup of Ireland and the Everglades as we passed an emerald green island full of migrating American white pelicans.
Around the bend, a couple of fawns ventured to the water’s edge before darting back into the brush.
A rainbow shimmered in the blue sky as we pulled out of Havana.
Near the end of our journey, we cruised by Starved Rock State Park, getting a stellar view of its namesake sandstone butte.
That’s the scenic highlight reel, mind you. During seven days on the water, we meandered through some mundane stretches too. Nature’s splendor was often interrupted by manmade inventions designed to quarry limestone, store grain and transport goods from Point A to Point B. Yet from the water, even these prosaic fixtures exuded a certain heartland charm.
The Illinois River will never be flanked by the grand cathedrals and castles of Europe, the pyramids of Egypt or the rainforests of the Amazon. But a row of towering silos at sunset has a homespun beauty of its own, at least to this Midwestern girl.
If you go
AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT CO.: The riverboat cruise line has a trio of paddle-wheelers offering a range of overnight cruises on U.S. rivers. The American Duchess and American Queen operate year-round, traveling the Mississippi, as well as the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The American Empress sails in the Pacific Northwest, March through November. A fourth ship, the 245-passenger American Countess, is under construction.
ILLINOIS RIVER: The Duchess ran two Illinois River trips this year. A company spokesman said more Illinois River itineraries will likely be offered in 2020, following lock-and-dam repair work on the waterway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
CRUISE COST: Prices for 2019 voyages start at $2,099 a person on the Duchess and $1,899 on the Queen and Empress if booked by Nov. 30 of this year; 888-749-5280, americanqueensteamboatcompany.com.