When Mark Twain wrote the book Life on the Mississippi River, which recounted his four years working as a steamboat pilot before the Civil War, he described the great river valley as “reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it…nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.” On a winding journey from St. Louis to New Orleans, Twain documented a place and time we’ve nearly forgotten, when travelers made their way along the Big Muddy in “floating palaces…as beautiful as a wedding cake but without the complications.”
Such an unhurried passage is hard to find in today’s era of planes and freeways. Mega ocean liners promise modern luxury with novelties like waterslides and robotic bartenders, but to experience the golden age of water travel, you’ll have to return to the paddleboat. And you can do just that by booking a trip on American Queen Voyages.
Founded in 1995, American Queen Voyages operates a fleet of four steamboats, two boutique lake vessels, and an expedition ship—with itineraries exploring the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes, and the Ohio, Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers. The riverboats are each designed with an authentic paddlewheel, and American Queen is the company’s flagship and the world’s largest steamboat. It traverses the mighty Mississippi via picturesque port stops like Baton Rouge and Natchez, Mississippi. Christened in Memphis in 2012 by “Godmother” Priscilla Presley (yes, that Priscilla), American Queen spans 418 feet and features six decks and three levels of guest suites, each offering a front-row view of the comings and goings of river life from picturesque verandas.
But observing the river is merely one element of these unique journeys. Aboard American Queen, guests can also travel back in American history. Every route includes a Riverlorian, an expert storyteller on hand to share insights into each region passengers will explore. Before anchoring in Memphis, for instance, the Riverlorian Frank Rivera will tell the story of the Sultana disaster. “It was the largest maritime accident in the history of the United States, larger than the Titanic,” says Rivera, a retired marine with a degree in history and a rich baritone voice. “No one has ever heard about it because it happened right at the end of the Civil War.” At 2 a.m. on April 28, 1865, a paddlewheel ship overloaded with Union prisoners from Andersonville Prison sank in the Mississippi, claiming 1,800 lives.
But life aboard American Queen isn’t all story time. There’s time for R and R, too. American Queen Voyages prides itself on complementing its cultural enrichment with five-star entertainment. Travel the lower Mississippi River, for example, and you might be treated to a banjo player strumming Southern classics one evening, a New Orleans jazz band the next. And just as the amusements reflect the destinations, so does the cuisine. On the lower Mississippi voyages, the dishes are inspired by America’s heartland and Southern heritage, with notable Cajun and Creole influences in dishes such as daube glacé for dinner and beignets for breakfast. Enjoy a voyage aboard American Empress sailing along the Columbia River, and you can expect flavors of the Pacific Northwest, including marinated Dungeness crab salad and cold smoked salmon on crostini. No matter the journey, a commitment to locally sourced products and regionally inspired cuisine remains the same.
The vessels themselves are built with an old-school craftsman’s attention to detail; American Queen boasts a Grand Saloon designed to look like a nineteenth-century opera house and a dining room with two-story shuttered windows. There’s no better setting in which to experience one of the country’s most significant waterways, or in Twain’s words, the “majestic, magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide.”
Plan your journey with American Queen Voyages at aqvoyages.com