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Cruising the waterways of America’s heartland aboard the American Queen

American Queen river steamboat Bedecked with fanciful details, the American Queen looks like it cruised out of the Victorian era. Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

If you’re traveling on a Mississippi River cruise, you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear “Proud Mary” at least half a dozen times throughout the trip. In this context, it’s practically an anthem. By the end of our week aboard the American Queen, my son and I found ourselves humming the melody as it popped unbidden into our heads at random moments, anchoring a personal soundtrack for the whole adventure.

The nostalgic allure of the big wheel that keeps on turnin’ was what drew us to the experience. However, steamboat travel has evolved since the 19th century. The American Queen, a luxury leisure vessel built in 1995, augments its iconic steam-powered red paddle wheel with diesel-electric propellers.

And while modern amenities abound, the boat’s period-authentic details and exemplary service create a sense of stepping back in time to a gentler era when bespoke boats plied the waterways, transporting passengers in high style.

American Queen Grand Staircase

With its ornate chandelier and railings, the Grand Staircase is true to its name. Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

“We first boarded the American Queen in 1997, going from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and back, and I fell in love with it immediately,” said frequent passenger Peggy Anderson from New Hampshire. “We have gorgeous rivers in this country, and steamboating is a great way to learn more about them and the once-thriving towns nearby.”

Peggy and her husband, Gene, are now closing in on more than 30 steamboat journeys—all but one aboard the American Queen. Newbies at the other end of the spectrum, my son and I embarked on our inaugural adventure in Memphis last year following a night at the storied Peabody Memphis hotel and a bus tour of the city’s musical landmarks.

We were in for a treat. It was a week’s worth of luxurious appointments, appealing towns, and captivating history lessons on our route along portions of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Cumberland rivers to our final destination in Nashville.

You may also like: 10 reasons to take a river cruise

Uncommon ambience

American Queen steamboat at the Memphis dock

The American Queen docked at Memphis. Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

Looking downright majestic at port, the American Queen made a striking first impression with soaring smokestacks and fanciful architecture that resembles a wedding cake. Refurbished in 2017, she’s a true Southern belle, or as Captain Greg Brown fondly called her, “a floating mansion.”

“The history of the American Queen is rich and goes back decades, making it a special boat to work on,” he said. “As you walk through the vessel, there are remnants of history in the artifacts and decor alone. [Spanning 418 feet, it’s] also the largest steamboat in the world.”

Mark Twain Gallery aboard the American Queen

The sumptuous Mark Twain Gallery offers a comfortable place to relax or read a book. Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

The chart room, the Ladies’ Parlor, the decks, the Mark Twain Gallery—I couldn’t help but mentally compare our character-rich environs to the opulence of the Titanic as we took an introductory lap around the boat. (No icebergs on the Mississippi—what a relief!) We easily settled into our Southern estate–style stateroom, nicely appointed with twin beds, French doors, and a full modern bathroom. The boat’s smooth motion lulled us to sleep each night.

J.M. White Dining Room

Savor a menu highlighted by Southern flavors in the elegant J.M. White Dining Room. Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

Food is traditionally a main attraction on any cruise, and the American Queen is no exception. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner offered delicious buffet choices and sit-down meal service in the gorgeous J.M. White Dining Room.

Southern flavors highlighted the chef-driven menus—think jambalaya, bourbon-glazed pork loin, shrimp and grits, beef tips over rice, and bread pudding. My budding young gourmet loaded up mostly on the meat-and-potato dishes, while I branched into seafood and pasta offerings. Between meals, we could help ourselves to fresh popcorn, coffee, and soft serve anytime.

Although we were told that kids do cruise, my 14-year-old was easily the youngest passenger aboard, and I was initially slightly nervous about keeping him entertained. (Be forewarned—the Wi-Fi is spotty at best.)

Thankfully, between the pool, scheduled activities, and live music, we discovered numerous diversions to occupy our time. We learned interesting details about our route’s waterways through daily Riverlorian chats and were fascinated by a morning passage through a Kentucky lock.

Steam coming from the calliope on the American Queen

Passengers have the opportunity to play the steam calliope aboard the American Queen. Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

Shipboard entertainment ranged from flashy cabaret-style productions in the Grand Saloon and lounge piano performances to Nite Owl jam sessions in the Engine Room bar. Song selections were mostly geared toward audiences of a certain age, heavy on familiar classics and old standards—not exactly my long-haired, hard-rocking son’s taste. But he was a good sport and enjoyed being able to play the pianos stationed around the boat.

We both tested out the steam calliope on the top deck, each earning an official Vox Calliopus certificate for our efforts. We also played a nightly checkers game amid the hunting-lodge decor of the Gentlemen’s Card Room, and we managed to contribute a few pieces to jigsaw puzzles in progress in the Ladies’ Parlor across the hall.

Off the water

Working on puzzles was relaxing, but a range of port excursions proved to be a little livelier. At our first stop, in southwest Tennessee, a bus took us from Ashport Landing on the Chickasaw Bluffs to Fort Pillow State Historic Park. We gazed upon the reconstructed inner portion of a fort that Confederate troops originally built in 1861. Well-preserved breastworks and a museum relate more Civil War history.

At any of the stops, guests are free to borrow bicycles—a tempting proposition had summer temperatures not been upwards of 100 degrees with sweltering humidity during our trip.

New Madrid Historic Museum

At the New Madrid Historic Museum, learn about massive earthquakes that shook southeast Missouri and beyond in the early 1800s. Photo by Ed Thomason

At some docks, hop-on, hop-off vehicles run on a loop, convenient for exploring towns like southeast Missouri’s New Madrid, which sits atop a seismic zone responsible for 3 massive earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks in late 1811 and early 1812. The New Madrid Historical Museum chronicles the natural disaster.

And you can catch the trolley in enchanting Paducah, Kentucky, to marvel at its creative fiber-arts culture. Don’t miss the National Quilt Museum and its eye-opening array of vibrant handmade works.

Paducah, Kentucky horse-drawn trolley

A horse-drawn trolley offers a tour in the port stop of Paducah, Kentucky, home to the impressive National Quilt Museum. Photo by domonabikeUSA/Alamy Stock Photo

Discover more Civil War history in Dover, Tennessee, at Fort Donelson National Battlefield, which features original earthworks and artillery batteries overlooking the Cumberland River. Sample craft beer, wine, and spirits in Clarksville, Tennessee.

“The wonderful people living in these small towns are so happy that the boat stops there,” fellow cruiser Anderson said. “[On different cruises,] I’ve met a female jewelry maker with a small stand on a corner; a priest in a Catholic church where we’d gone for Mass and a member of his congregation who offered to take my husband and me sightseeing; and a notary who took care of some last-minute paperwork for us and refused payment.”

Opportunities to visit friendly towns and admire beautiful riverscapes are among the many perks that keep Captain Brown happily manning his post.

“Each turn has amazing scenery you can’t find anywhere else,” he said. “Between [that] and the charming towns that we dock in, the rivers have much to offer and are truly unique. I’ve worked on all kinds of vessels around the globe, but the river is home to me.”

Tack on 24 hours in Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee

Also known as Music City, Nashville is home to memorable musical venues and museums that could fill a weekend or more. Photo courtesy Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp

Not ready to go home at the end of your cruise? Music City sings a siren song all its own that’s worth an extra day or 2 of exploration. American Queen Voyages offers a post-trip option that includes a stay at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort, but it’s also easy to tailor an itinerary to your own tastes and interests.

Nashville was built on the back of country music, and no trip is complete without a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a star-studded collection of displays and memorabilia. Also plan to tour the iconic Ryman Auditorium, one of the world’s top performance halls with a rich history dating back 130 years.

Across the street, the National Museum of African American Music takes visitors on an immersive journey through the influence of Black artists across various musical genres. If time permits, catch a show at the legendary Grand Ole Opry and take a backstage tour.

The Listening Room Cafe

Enjoy performances by up-and-coming singer-signwriters at the Listening Room Café. Photo courtesy Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp

Another must is to wander down Lower Broadway, where you can grab a drink at themed bars owned by big-name celebrities, shop for souvenirs, and hear live tunes wafting out of nearly every open door. For a more genteel experience, head to the Listening Room Café on Mondays to catch the Song Suffragettes, an ever-changing lineup of female singer-songwriters, all eager to perform before appreciative crowds.

Foodies definitely don’t go hungry here. Nashville serves up something to satisfy any craving, from old-school “meat and 3” lunches at Arnold’s Country Kitchen to Italian fare at the AAA Four Diamond Yolan inside the artful Joseph, a Luxury Collection Hotel. Brimming with a diverse selection of more than 30 vendors, Assembly Food Hall is perfect if you can’t make up your mind. (Tip: The quintessential Nashville hot chicken sandwich is always a solid choice, and Prince’s Hot Chicken at the food hall won’t disappoint.)

Wrap up your quick Nashville tour by visiting Belle Meade Historic Site & Winery, where guides share stories about the mansion, Southern culinary traditions, and the slaves who helped build the property and labored there afterward. And before you head home, breathe in plenty of fresh air at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, a 55-acre botanical garden and art museum.

You may also like: Explore America’s musical heritage on a road trip through the South

If you go

Cruise rates for a 7-night Memphis-to-Nashville itinerary start at $2,599 per person, double occupancy. Your AAA travel advisor can provide trip-planning information. Also, note that historic low-water conditions on the Mississippi River forced cruise lines to modify some late-2022 itineraries.

Amy Lynch is a freelance writer from Indianapolis.

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