June 09, 2012
Age of steam... the American Queen. Photo: Getty Images
Nigel Richardson boards the paddle-wheel steamboat American Queen for a journey deep into Dixie.
The boy on the riverbank, who has two tadpoles in his pocket and goes by the name of Tom Sawyer, removes the stem of grass from his mouth and blinks. "By jinks, Huck," he hollers. "You see what I'm seein'? The steamboat is a-comin' back!"
Like Tom deprived of his sidekick Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi has been cruelly diminished by the absence of paddle steamers plying its muddy waters. Real boats, I mean, not floating bars or casinos with plastic paddles stuck on the side. Steamboats you can sleep aboard, dreaming of Dixie.
Now the biggest Mississippi paddle steamer ever built is back where it belongs after a four-year absence.
The American Queen, which claims the distinction of being "the only authentic overnight paddle-wheel steamboat in America", is sailing the river they used to call America's Main Street. And, by jinks, it takes you back, as I find when I join the boat in Henderson, Kentucky, for a three-night cruise west along the Ohio River and south along the Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee.
In the 1880s, in Life on the Mississippi, author Mark Twain pronounced the steamboat era all but dead, a victim of the expansion of railroads. That was a premature diagnosis, as paddle steamers continued to offer river cruising on the Mississippi and its tributaries during the 20th century and the new millennium. The American Queen was built in 1995 in Morgan City, Louisiana, as a sister vessel to the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen, elegant boats that fly the flag and flutter the fan for those halcyon steamboat days.
But the business was running aground 10 years ago and in 2008 the Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap, the Delta Queen pensioned off as a floating hotel in Chattanooga and the American Queen mothballed in Texas, its fixtures and fittings shrink-wrapped. Now we must raise a mint julep to the Great American Steamboat Company, based in Memphis, for refitting and bringing it home.
Last month, after Priscilla Presley launched it, the boat embarked on an ambitious program of voyages from ports along the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, from New Orleans to Cincinnati. With 222 cabins, a capacity of 436 passengers and a steam-driven, stern-mounted paddle wheel, the American Queen is a real southern belle.
Twain had the prescription for the quintessential steamboat: "She is long and sharp and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys ... a fanciful pilot-house, all glass and 'gingerbread'," - yup. And its crew, recruited mostly from the Memphis area and thus with river water running in their veins, can charm a smile even from Tom Sawyer's harridan of a guardian, Aunt Polly. "Y'all have a wonderful day now," they chorus, and it seems churlish not to.
The river itself makes the Mississippi steamboat experience unique. This mighty waterway, into which 41 per cent of the land mass of the contiguous US drains, once marked the western extremity of the mapped American world. On the stretch I sail, the heartland states of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee roll from its banks in carpets of forest and prairie. To pass through such vastness is to feel something of the yearning evoked by classic American movies and popular songs.
The cabins are capsules of Victoriana, with reproduction wallpaper and furniture. But there's nothing retro about the big comfy beds or the airconditioning to combat the sultry southern nights. Through the cabin windows I watch river life glide by - the towboats pushing barges of coal and grain, scrap iron, gravel and petroleum to Memphis and New Orleans; pelicans skimming just above the reflection of the treeline; low girder bridges to navigate, for which the American Queen's twin chimney stacks are hydraulically lowered on to cradles on the foredeck; white water towers in distant towns.
As the heart of the US slips past the rails at a gentle pace, the floating antebellum mansion that is the American Queen slow-releases its personable grace into your bloodstream. I quickly discover that if I tarry in a public space, a vignette of irresistible charm will play itself out.
In the Gentlemen's Card Room, the stuffed head of a wild pig that was caught in the paddle wheel of the Mississippi Queen a few years ago stares down on four ol' boys playing bridge. In the Mark Twain Gallery, a game gal who looks like Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy is reading the New Madrid Weekly Record ("Hydrant flushing in New Madrid to begin") by the light of a Tiffany lamp. And in the Grand Saloon, a replica of Ford's Theatre in Washington where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, a tattooed Elvis impersonator is belting out All Shook Up.
It has to be said that the audience for Elvis does not look all shook up in their plush seats. This is because they are not, shall we say, in the first flush of youth, and it is getting late, past 9pm. The demographic aboard the American Queen is officially "55-plus years of age, with discretionary income", but the average age on this trip seems higher to me.
The age of passengers partly accounts for the timings for dinner sittings: 5.15pm and 7.30pm. It may even explain the modest, un-American size of the portions - all to the good for anyone who finds paddle-wheel-size platters off-putting. Lunch and dinner are excellent, mixing classics such as New York strip steaks and key lime pie with southern staples such as muffuletta sandwiches (salami, cheese, olives) and beef brisket with "debris gravy". Salads have real dressings, not processed gloop.
On the second day of my voyage we stop at the little town of Paducah, Kentucky, a place I had not heard of, and which claims to have provided the recipe for the first Krispy Kreme doughnut. This is my first river cruise and it strikes me, as I walk Paducah's wide streets (which look like a movie set of small-town 1950s US), that conventional cruising could not offer such an experience.
On those floating high-rises of the seas you might drop in on Venice or Capri or Bridgetown, Barbados, for a predictable few hours. The American Queen delivers you to Nowheresville, US, and leaves you to dream a while. Paducah, it turns out, has a little museum in its market building that contains the germs of hundreds of unwritten stories: a piano used to entertain General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War; a crucifix in a bottle made by a prisoner of Eddyville Penitentiary in 1887; a photograph of a Paducah luminary of the early 1900s, one Ethel "Toots" DuBois Smith.
Then, round the corner from the museum on Second and Kentucky streets, I stumble on the Free Spirit Biker Church, in front of which scores of grizzled Hells Angels types are revving their Harley-Davidsons after Sunday morning service. "We have about 150 people here most Sundays," says the pastor, Dennis Lawrence, who cuts a Huckleberry-like dash in jeans, T-shirt and leather waistcoat.
"They're people who don't belong under a steeple," he says. "People who made the wrong decisions in life. I served time in my 20s. Got clean and sober in my 30s. In the biker world, they call me 'Pantyhose'. It's a long story." Just like the river itself.
Qantas has a fare to Memphis from Sydney for about $1990 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dallas (15hr 10min), then to Memphis (1hr 25min). Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly to Sydney to connect; see qantas.com.au. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
The American Queen sails for most months of the year on voyages of varying lengths. Themes include Springtime on the River and Epic Civil War. For example, Ohio-Tennessee river cruise journeys include a 13-day Chattanooga to Vicksburg cruise via Paducah, Kentucky, from August 19, priced from $US2895 ($2997) a person, twin share (for an inside cabin); $4595 a person, twin share (for a stateroom with verandah). The American Queen has departures from Memphis this year and next, also from New Orleans, St Louis, St Paul and Pittsburgh. Cruise price includes all meals, snacks, beer and wine with dinner, and selected excursions. Phone +901 654 2600; see greatamericansteamboatcompany.com.
- Telegraph, London