The churning red paddlewheel propels the pearl-white steamboat along the wide Mississippi River, like a slow-moving time machine through a slice of Americana that harks back to Mark Twain and the history, culture and commerce of the 19th century.
Inside the six-level steamboat, passengers enjoy tea time in the ladies' parlor, rousing musical shows in the Grand Saloon, lessons on river history, and four-course meals in an antebellum-style dining room.
With the relaunching of a vessel called the American Queen, steamboat travel has returned to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for the first time since 2008. The boat, the largest of its kind in the world, was christened Friday in Memphis as it left for a seven-day cruise. The 418-foot-long boat, which carries 436 passengers, stopped in Henderson, Ky., Monday, then sailed on to Louisville along the Ohio River for a steamboat race marking the Kentucky Derby before a final stop in Cincinnati. Future cruises will go all the way to Pittsburgh and St. Paul, Minn.; some routes include stops in New Orleans and St. Louis.
"I find myself inspired by the quiet, still majesty of a river of this size, and I appreciate the insight that they've given us for the contribution that these rivers have made to America," said Jim Ahrenholz, 69, an experienced cruise traveler from Illinois who took the trip with his wife Cathy.
The American Queen and its sister boats the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen carried passengers up and down the Mississippi for decades, continuing a tradition that began in the early 19th century, when steamboats replaced keelboats as the main source of transportation and commerce on the river.
Towns sprouted along the route as the early boats carried cargo like cotton, tobacco and sugar from Louisiana to Minnesota and back. The ballad "Ol' Man River" from the 1927 musical "Showboat" lamented the backbreaking hardships of black dockworkers. Before the Civil War, the heavy cargo lifting was often done by slaves.
The river was also the site of several Civil War battles, with Confederate and Union ironclad ships battling for control of the strategically vital artery. Author Mark Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens, took his pen name "Mark Twain" from a term used on the river to measure water depth. Twain grew up in a river town, Hannibal, Mo., is best known for his classic novels, "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." But he also wrote a memoir of his years as a steamboat pilot called "Life on the Mississippi."
Riverboats even turned up in late 20th century pop music, with singer Tina Turner famously belting out "Rollin' on the river" as she sang "Proud Mary" in tribute to a "riverboat queen."
But long-distance, city-to-city riverboat travel along the Mississippi stopped four years ago, when the company that owned the American Queen ceased operations. The boat was later bought for $15.5 million by the Great American Steamboat Company and underwent a $6 million refurbishment. The company is banking on the expectation that passengers from around the world will be drawn to these nostalgic trips.
Large port cities such as New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis, along with smaller stops like Natchez and Vicksburg in Mississippi, are also hopeful that the boat will bring tourists to sightsee, shop and spend money during port calls or before they board. But this is not a trip for cruisers on a budget. Depending on the trip length and type of cabin, rates range from $995 a person to more than $8,000 for the most luxurious accommodations, though the price covers meals, snacks, coffee, soda, beer and wine with dinner, some shore excursions in larger ports, and one night at a land hotel.
At those prices, even passengers enjoying the 19th century decor and timeless, scenic views of homes, farms and small towns along the riverbank won't mind suspending their disbelief for modern amenities. The boat has an exercise room, swimming pool, comfortable beds and flat screen TVs in every room, with small touches like shower gel in private bathrooms.
The trip that began in Memphis was the American Queen's third revenue-producing voyage since it went back in service in April, though it was its first cruise following a formal christening by the boat's godmother, Priscilla Presley. The ex-wife of the late rock-and-roll icon Elvis Presley, who lived in Memphis, launched the voyage with the traditional smashing of a champagne bottle. On board were a mix of media, investors and regular travelers, many of them experienced cruisers.
American Queen's decor includes deep burgundy carpets, regal staircases and ornate chandeliers. Some staterooms have loveseats with curved armrests or stained glass windows covered by heavy curtains. In the Grand Saloon, the dark wooden dance floor, theater-style balconies and large stage host games like bingo during the day and nightly shows featuring Big Band music or a Mark Twain look-alike spinning tales of life on the Mississippi.
The main dining room has high ceilings, circular stained glass windows, chandeliers and gold drapes. The Mark Twain Gallery has mahogany-colored cabinets, antique-style couches and chairs and intricately-designed lamps. A Chart Room is manned by a "Riverlorian" who can answer questions about the Mississippi River and Southern history.
Food on the Memphis-to-Henderson leg was good to excellent, with Natchez-born chef Regina Charboneau offering a menu heavy on fresh Southern fare. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style; 24-hour snack service is available in a section of the boat called Front Porch of America, complete with rocking chairs and bench swings. Highlights were a New Orleans-style jazz brunch with shrimp, grits and crab cake eggs benedict, a three-course dinner featuring duck breast with orange-currant sauce and dessert beignets, and excellent beef brisket po' boys served at an outdoor bar-restaurant called the River Grill.
Three bars stay open late into the night. The Engine Room Bar has dark wood chairs, portholes with a view of the paddlewheel and a piano-banjo duo. A piano player also sings in the Captain's Bar.
Cruise officials acknowledge that some kinks remain to be worked out. Problems have included isolated plumbing issues; inexperienced staffers unable to give good directions to sections of the boat; and an hour-long wait for a mediocre burger at the River Grill. In the dining room, staff struggled at times with special orders. But housekeepers efficiently attended to rooms twice a day while staying out of the way, and filled special requests for sundries like ice and toothpaste. Christopher Kyte, president of the company, acknowledged the glitches and said a management team of experienced cruise workers was being brought in to help train the green staff. "We have a massive plan to take care of all that little stuff," company CEO Jeff Krida said.
The company has also pledged to reserve 70 percent of jobs on the boat and in the company's Memphis headquarters for local residents as part of a deal with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who helped secure a $10 million loan from the city and $15.5 million in private investment for the venture, said Krida. The boat is expected have an economic impact worth tens of millions of dollars in Memphis alone.
A marketing blitz to advertise trips to travel agents and the public begins May 7.
Chandler Murphy, a 23-year-old nursing student from Orange County, Calif., took the Memphis-to-Cincinnati trip with her grandmother. An experienced traveler, Murphy said the trip was entertaining and she especially enjoyed learning about the history of the river.
"It was very different from everything I've grown up with, but I just love learning about new cultures," said Murphy. "It takes you back to a different era."
If You Go...
AMERICAN QUEEN: Steamboat cruises on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers depart from Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and St. Paul, Minn., on trips from three to 10 nights; http://www.greatamericansteamboatcompany.com. Per-person rates for double rooms, meals and beverages, including some shore excursions and one night in a land-based hotel before or after departure, range from $995 to more than $8,000, depending on accommodations and trip length.