Rollin' On The River
Cruising back, Southern-style, to the halcyon days of steam-boating on the mighty Mississippi.
It's a misty morning, unexpectedly cool for a summer day here, and I am nursing my first pre-breakfast coffee on the promenade deck of my cruise boat. Not a ship, I am cruising on a boat, on a river - a broad, broad river swollen by unusually heavy rains. This is a river cruise with a difference, closer to home by far than the usual routes on the Rhine, Danube and others in Europe.
www.aqsc.comIt's my first time on the mighty Mississippi River, aboard the American Queen, a glorious throw-back to the 19th century Golden Age of steam-boating through America's heartland. We are sailing between Memphis and St. Louis, north along the glorious green shores of Tennessee and Missouri.
In earlier days it was steamboats like the Queen that provided the travel lifeline along the river, before the railways, before the airlines. Today, commerce still thrives but only a handful of passenger boats maintain this link to an era of elegant living in the South.
American Queen is a magnificent sight as she cruises the Mississippi, a magical page from the past. She is a stern-wheeler built along traditional lines in 1995 - the largest river steamboat ever built. Though the boat was laid up for some years, she was revived and rejuvenated with a $6 million refit in 2012 by the American Queen Steamboat Company.
www.aqsc.comThe vessel, 418 feet long, has 222 staterooms for 436 guests. Still powered by steam, she is six decks tall, has stateroom doors that open onto wrap-around decks, decorative 'gingerbread' wood trim all around and the traditional twin black stacks that reach 97.5 feet above the waterline and fold down to pass under bridges. Her most distinctive feature is the enormous red-painted paddle wheel at the stern that drives the boat.
On the top deck is the ship's steam calliope, played on special occasions such as departure or arrival. Her generous beam, twice the width of a typical European river boat, gives a great sense of space and provides a voyage that is rock-steady at all times.
Our cruise began with a hotel stay and planned activities in Memphis and wound up flamboyantly in St. Louis with Fourth of July fireworks, a parade and air show.
This particular six-day leg of American Queen's route up and down the river offered opportunities to enjoy two interesting cities – Memphis and St. Louis - and some fascinating glimpses of life in small-town America.
www.aqsc.comNew Madrid - a Spanish settlement dating back to 1776 - has a population of fewer than 4,000 and has survived many, many earthquakes including the great 'quake of 1811 that destroyed the town, created waterfalls and made the river briefly appear to flow backwards. During the Civil War, it was a strategic point in the river and still fascinates students of U.S. history.
In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the next port of call, visitors can admire a remarkable series of murals painted on the 20-ft high flood wall that protects the low downtown area from floods. Colorful panels represent major events in the city’s history, and others record famous Missourians, among them Frank and Jesse James, Betty Grable, Walter Cronkite, Harry Truman, Tennessee Williams, and (inevitably, because although not a native he has left his mark all along the Mississippi) Mark Twain.
Last stop before St. Louis - Chester, Illinois. The home of Popeye... what more can I say? Statues are scattered around the town of the sailorman himself, Wimpy, Olive and other members of the Oyl family, Bluto and more characters from local artist Elzie Segar's cartoons.
Back on our river boat, guests stepped into the welcoming public rooms filled with dark, polished, heavy wood furniture, some of it original, other pieces re-created by skilled craftsmen in Indonesia, all redolent of the days when furniture had to be ornamental as well as functional.
I loved the Mark Twain Gallery, a lounge packed with antiques and authentic Tiffany lamps culled from antique stores across America. Two other, smaller, lounges are each gems of Antebellum interior design: the Men's Card Room, where the boat's resident Riverboat Gambler hosted a Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament and across the hallway, the delightful Ladies Tea Parlor. Both are comfortably furnished with well-stuffed wing-back chairs and sofas.
www.aqsc.comA permanent exhibition of prints by Mississippi artist Michael Blaser - more than 60 captivating works - spreads through public rooms and passageways, brilliantly capturing the excitement and bustle of life along the river in the 19th century.
The ship’s entertainment center, the Grand Saloon, a scaled down replica of Ford's Theatre in Washington where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, gives the boat a big ship feel and provides excellent musical entertainment nightly- well-known artists on some cruises - and there is dancing for those with energy enough after a busy day at that most rewarding of activities, relaxing in a sun-blessed deck chair.
www.aqsc.comThe Engine Room Bar, dominated by the sound and fury of the giant churning paddle wheel outside its rear windows, has entertainment and gives access to a viewing platform where guests can overlook the engine room and its rebuilt 1,500 horse-power engine driving the pistons that work the paddle wheel.
At the popular open air River Grill & Bar on Promenade Deck, dinner is served al fresco and snacks are always available. Coffee, tea, ice cream and soft drinks are available at the Front Porch Cafe on Texas Deck.
There are two sittings for dinner at the elegant J.M.White dining room where meals are served sumptuously buffet-style and include fine regional dishes supervised by culinary director Regina Charbonneau, a specialist in southern cooking. Complimentary wine and beer are served at dinner and no formal wear is ever required. Many of the staterooms are small but their sole function is for sleeping, as living is on deck. Some have private balconies, others have chairs at their on-deck doorsteps which encourages social interaction with fellow guests; the atmosphere aboard is totally relaxed and friendly. Suites are larger and have a sitting area. The Victoriana décor is carried through the entire vessel - with concessions such as good comfortable beds and flat-screen TVs in staterooms and wi-fi in the lounge areas, and the boat is air-conditioned.
www.aqsc.comTwo of American Queen's best liked features are the informative and entertaining daily presentations by the ship's 'Riverlorian', Jerry Hay, a true expert on Mississippi lore, and the included shore excursions handled cleverly by a small fleet of motor coaches that follow the boat's route by road to provide a constant hop on-hop off service at ports of call. At each stop the coaches pick up local guides, some of the friendliest and most knowledgeable I've come across.
IF YOU GO
American Queen operates cruises on varying itineraries on the Upper and Lower Mississippi and also on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Departures for the Upper Mississippi River cruises are from Memphis, St. Louis, Cincinnati and St. Paul. Departures on the Lower Mississippi itineraries are from New Orleans and Memphis. American Queen Steamboat Company also operates a second vessel, the renovated American Empress, on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
Written by Tin Thomas and originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles, Spring/Summer 2015 issue.