Return of the Mississippi River Cruise
The romance of river cruises returned to the Mississippi last year with the refurbished American Queen. Slow, luxurious hours aboard balance sightseeing ashore in Kentucky and Missouri.
Even by the sedate standards of steamboat travel, we're crawling-15 feet in 30 minutes. Kibitzing passengers crowd the deck as the imposing American Queen stern-wheeler, her pennants and banners aflutter, travels those 15 feet-straight down.
No need for life jackets though. We're just changing river levels at Lock No. 52 near Paducah, Kentucky. We watch deckhands tend fist-thick ropes, which creak as the 436-passenger ship settles lower.
Ever since Memphis dropped behind us days ago on our weeklong Mississippi River cruise north to St. Louis, time has slowed to a molasses crawl. I can't remember the last time I sat and watched a sunset, but I sit, spellbound, as the sun settles among the treetops of the west bank, the river and sky seamlessly pink, coral and bluish gray.
That slow pace draws travelers to the American Queen. River cruisers revel in seeing shore throughout the journey, enjoying high-class service and dining without big-ship crowds that number in the thousands. Launched last year, the itineraries typically include a few days of cruising spliced with days on shore. Weeklong trips leave from Memphis and New Orleans; shorter autumn jaunts include fall leaf-viewing along the Upper Mississippi. Anecdote-filled lectures from the boat's "riverlorian" pepper the days and nights. Or we can just spend time reading on porch rockers.
"This company gets it," fellow passenger Jim Alexander tells me as we chat in the well-appointed Main Deck Lounge. It being the mystique of 19th-century river travel. My antique- and woodwork-accented stateroom feels straight out of a Victorian romance. So does the steam calliope accompanying every launch, playing favorites like "Dixie" and "Sailin' on the Robert E. Lee" as well-wishers show the spectacle off to their excited children. And there is the Mark Twain Gallery-a mahogany sanctuary with a chessboard, a library, historical knickknacks and Victorian objets d'art-that acts very much as the heart of the American Queen.
Gleaming china and potted palms only partially convey the splendor of the J.M. White Dining Room (the fanciest of the three restaurants aboard), where I join a table of passengers from Florida, Maryland, Iowa, even as far away as New Zealand. I follow their lead and order braised beef short ribs, horseradish mashed potatoes, caramelized onions and glazed baby carrots. One of my tablemates looks askance at my short ribs when they arrive and tsks, not unkindly, at our server. A more generous portion materializes.
Steamboat-painted buses meet us for shore excursions along our route, ferrying us to points of interest in earthquake-focused New Madrid, Missouri; the antiques malls, LowerTown Arts District and The National Quilt Museum of Paducah, Kentucky; and the art and jewelry shops of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In New Madrid, we admire the restored antebellum Hunter-Dawson house, where fellow passenger Regina Walker hesitantly regards an unusual A.H. Reichenbach rectangular grand piano. "May I?" she asks and gets the nod. She favors us with "Amazing Grace," surprisingly tuneful on a piano likely carried upriver from New Orleans before our grandparents were born.
Back aboard, we lounge on the ship's breezy, shaded Front Porch of America, outfitted with rockers, tables and porch swings. We munch on chocolate snacks so ornate that calling them cookies feels a little like calling the American Queen, which has six Carpenter Gothic decks running its 418 filigreed feet, a johnboat. Then our attention turns to the powerful towboats shepherding barges along the river. Their deckhands stare as we churn by, characters that would have warmed Twain's heart.
Time grows short as we steam past bluffs below St. Louis. I haunt the upper Promenade and Sun decks, eyes peeled for wildlife. My patience pays off when I spot a grazing doe, swooping hawks and great blue herons, ungainly except in motion-a bit like a riverboat. Wild turkeys strut, smug as if Ben Franklin had made them the national bird after all. A bald eagle appears, its ebony plumage and snowy white head unmistakable against the green hillsides on the shore.
Tomorrow, the nation celebrates Independence Day, and the American Queen will tie up in the shadow of the Gateway Arch to enjoy an air show and fireworks-all up close, high-speed pop and sizzle. I wonder, though, if the quiet, slow unrolling of these seven days and 400 Old Man River miles of hills, forests and flowing water haven't been the best show of all.
For more information, call (888) 749-5280 or visit americanqueensteamboatcompany.com. The company also offers cruises on the Upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The cruise line arranges special offers on train fares and one-way car rentals for customers returning to the embarkation point to retrieve their vehicles.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2013. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)