Cruising The Mississippi

George J. Ziogas

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More than any other river in the United States, the mighty Mississippi evokes the history and grandeur of a bygone age. It’s the fourth largest river system, and the second longest river in the country, beginning at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, and flowing south through 10 states into the Gulf of Mexico. The river gets its name from two Indian words, roughly translating to “great water”. The Mississippi is also heralded as the most historical cruising region of the United States, but along with the rest of country, it has seen hard times in recent years. It all began in 2005 with the devastation of New Orleans at the hands of Hurricane Katrina, with further woes to come after 2008 thanks to the Global Financial Crisis. You can’t keep a good river down, however; Old Man River has recovered, and cruising is back, thanks in part to the American Queen Steamboat Company, and the glamorous American Queen.

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The American Queen Decor

Boarding the American Queen is akin to taking a step back in time, when river boats were the preferred mode of transport in middle America. Launched originally in 1995 for the now defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company, the ship was purpose built for cruising the Mississippi, and is the largest paddle-wheeler in history. Stretching just over 127 metres long, and nearly 28 metres wide, there is nothing on the world’s waterways to compare to her. The American Queen’s exterior styling is instantly captivating; an elaborate Victorian styled and layered wedding cake of ornate white filigree topped with two fluted smoke stacks, green wrap around decks, and a bright red paddle wheel. Climb aboard, and she continues to stir up an array of senses.

Before her relaunch in April 2012, the vessel underwent a major multi-million-dollar renovation, her Victorian styling continuing throughout her interior decor. From the opulent Ladies’ Parlor, complete with a whimsical “fainting couch”, to the elaborate opera-house themed Grand Saloon, her design embraces the personality of grand antebellum mansions; mahogany-panelled walls, ornate chandeliers, and antiques at every turn. Yet there’s everything you’d expect on board when it comes to modern amenities; air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and elevators connecting her six decks, and a chirpy, all-American crew oozing genuine Southern hospitality. There are many inclusions in the fare, from complimentary bottled water and soft drinks, to wines and beers at dinner, and hop-on-hop-off tours in many ports of call. You can also leave your tuxedo and evening gowns at home; the recommended dress code is simply “elegant attire”.

Accommodation And Cuisine

The American Queen carries 436 guests in 222 staterooms, ranging from cozy interiors to spacious suites. Her accommodations also possess plenty of old world personality, an alluring blend of the historical and the whimsical, with polished wood, Victorian antiques and tiled bathroom floors, and lavish touches such as Tiffany-style lamps. Many staterooms open to common promenade decks through French doors, while some have private balconies; single staterooms were introduced in 2013 for solo travellers. The celebrated Southern chef, Regina Charboneau, was hired to oversee the American Queen’s culinary offerings, and her influence is felt everywhere. The centrepiece venue is the opulent J.M. White Dining Saloon. Dinner is a mouthwatering menu of Charboneau recipes; Corn and Shrimp Fritters, Pan-Seared Catfish with Black-Eyed Pea Vinaigrette and Smoked Tomato Coulis, and for dessert, Blackberry Lemon Betty.

Meanwhile the Front Porch Café has a 24-hour menu of classic American favorites, the River Grill & Bar has views, grilled fare and alfresco dining in the evenings, and should you be up late and peckish, you can indulge in a light Moonlight Supper in the Engine Room Bar. Between ports of call, there is plenty to keep guests busy or not as they choose on this ship. If it’s steamy outside, you can wile away the hours reading in the Mark Twain Gallery, catch a show featuring a Glenn Miller style band, enjoy a classic cocktail in the horseshoe shaped Calliope Bar on the top deck, or enjoy an informative lecture hosted by one of the resident expert “riverlorians”. The American Queen also has a spa, a gym, and an outdoor pool for a refreshing dip.

Cruising The Mississippi

Although travelling on the American Queen is an experience in itself, the destinations she regularly visits are no less captivating. Cruises last from three-to-11-nights, and are divided between the lower Mississippi from New Orleans, and the Upper Mississippi extending as far north as Minneapolis/St. Paul. Along the way there are dozens of historic places to explore. Besides the enigmatic New Orleans, a highlight of the lower Mississippi is Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital. A seamless blend of past and present, sights to enjoy include Louisiana’s “White House” or the Old Governor’s Mansion, St. Joseph’s Cathedral dating back to 1853, and a view of the river from atop the State Capitol building. There’s also Vicksburg, a blend of Southern culture and heritage with modern-day attractions.

Meanwhile in the Upper Mississippi, St. Charles is the third-oldest city west of the Mississippi River, with a formal Historic District of brick-paved roads and sidewalks lined with boutiques, historic buildings and lively restaurants and taverns. There’s also Alton, Illinois, dubbed the most haunted city in America, where three great rivers converge; the Mississippi, the Illinois and the Missouri. And there’s Dubuque in Iowa, a charming river city which breathes river lore.

To cruise on a paddle wheeler such as the American Queen is to enjoy high nostalgia as well as explore the Mississippi on a grand scale. For many travellers it’s a rite of passage capturing the very best of America’s Deep South, and travelling on the “first lady” of the Mississippi is a wonderful way to do it comfortably and stylishly.

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