You can fast-forward right past small-town America at 70 miles an hour, or let it appear in your sightlines from a perch in a rocking chair on the Front Porch of the Texas deck, gliding along at a slumberous pace and seeing some of the same scenery Mark Twain captured so eloquently in his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi.
“S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin’!” The cry that was stilled four years ago when overnight passenger riverboats left the inland waterways can be heard once again. The American Queen—the world’s largest steamboat and the very embodiment of Twain’s description of paddlewheel boats as tiered wedding cakes in all their frippery and finery—is once again plying the rivers of America’s heartland and telling its stories.
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book…And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
Indeed it does. With scenery changing at each bend in the river, from New Orleans on the lower Mississippi to St. Paul, Minnesota, on the upper, and on the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Ohio rivers, the meandering waterway shares its narrative: sweeping green vistas seen from the pilothouse; fish flitting a few feet from your veranda; small-town slices of Americana savored steps from shore—an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, a mom-and-pop bookshop, a family-owned winery, a doll museum; the engineering marvel of locks—what Riverlorian Travis Vasconcelos calls a “river elevator.”
Formerly the onboard historian for the Belle of Louisville, Vasconcelos has worked on the river since he was 12 years old. As American Queen’s Riverlorian, Vasconcelos brings an unabashed love of the river and its history along with knowledge he has “absorbed, lived, and educated” himself in, a natural gift for storytelling and a talent for playing the calliope—by ear. (Hearing him pipe out music from Phantom of the Opera is a treat.)
“Each part of the history, lore, and mystique of the river has its own individual charm and interest for me,” says the Louisville native. “I truly love the river in all its stages and seasons. The stories of the river are all part of the unique fabric that makes up our inland superhighway.”
Onboard, life unfolds at the same lazy pace as the 8-mile-an-hour gait of the steamboat, with passengers leafing through books in the Mark Twain Gallery that overlooks the gilded dining room, tracking the boat’s progress in the Chart Room, rocking into a snooze on the Front Porch as fellow guests whip up lattes and root beer floats.
Dining is gracious and inspired, as much an adventure to the palate as the river is to the soul. Under the guidance of Culinary Director Regina Charboneau, an award-winning chef and cookbook author, American Queen menus showcase regional dishes and food traditions. On visits to Henderson, the kitchen plates Charboneau’s burgoo with quail, duck, and sausage. In St. Louis, fried ravioli and gooey butter cake. And for her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi: shrimp and grits with turnip greens.
“Everything I cook has a story,” she says. “Each theme menu will have something that validates it and makes it interesting with recipes that serve it well.”
One of the theme menus is a tribute to Twain. The featured fare is the meal the author selected for his 70th birthday at Delmonico’s in 1905 in New York City and includes mock turtle soup (the AQ is committed to sustainable cooking practices), lobster stuffed with deviled crab, and bread pudding with figs.
Evening entertainment is as diverse as the menus and runs the musical gamut: big band, bluegrass, Broadway hits, Dixieland jazz, ragtime, and rock and roll play in the two-story Grand Saloon, a replica of Ford’s Theatre. Top entertainers, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra, The Platters, and the Juggernaut Jug Band, headline select voyages. Rounding out the lineup are showboat-style cabaret acts and old-fashioned radio shows.
During the day there are tours of the pilothouse and engine room, trivia and classic TV show games, bingo, lectures, movies, and more. A small pool invites sunbathers to the Sun Deck and the spa offers an array of treatments.
You’ll even find Mark Twain ambling about the boat. Lewis Hankins, originally from Boone County, dons the signature white suit for 33 of the American Queen’s 40 voyages this year. Chances are good you’ll hear him quote a Twainism or two.
“Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new,” Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi. “There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods, and villages—everything one could desire…”
Ports of call
The 436-guest American Queen, built in 1995 by the legendary Delta Queen Steamboat Company, was given a multimillion dollar spit shine by her new owners, the Great American Steamboat Company, in 2011. She is the only authentic paddlewheel steamboat offering overnight voyages in America’s heartland.
Ruth Guenther, an inveterate steamboater from Ross, Ohio, has sailed aboard the American Queen and her sisters, Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen, 142 times, having just finished a Pittsburgh-to-Cincinnati itinerary in July. She is thrilled to see the AQ return to the inland waterways.
“There’s a steamboat running on the river again,” she sighs. “The American Queen is beautiful and the inland rivers of America are beautiful. Come check her out.”
Calling Memphis, Tennessee, her home port, the American Queen offers three- to 10-night excursions to New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Chattanooga, with stops at towns along the way, like Vicksburg, Mississippi, Henderson and Paducah, and Madison, Indiana. Theme cruises include Fall Foliage, September 13-21, September 27-October 5, October 11-19, and October 28-November 5; Thanksgiving, November 18-25; and “Walk in Elvis’ Steps,” November 25-December 2.
Staterooms are elegantly appointed and updated with flat-screen TVs; public rooms are laden with antiques and offer Internet. Other contemporary touches include fitness and wellness programs and bicycles onboard for use in port. Twenty-first century influences aside, the American Queen retains a sense of 19th-century riverboat life that so enamored Twain.
Fares start at $995 per person and include a pre- or postcruise luxury hotel stay, all bottled water and soft drinks, wine and beer at dinner, and complimentary shore adventures in each port of call. For more info, call (888) 749-5280 or go online to www.GreatAmericanSteamboatCompany.com.