If you're an American, you've somehow been touched by the Mississippi River. From the musings of Mark Twain to the birth of the blues and Dixieland jazz, the Mississippi is part of the patchwork of our nation's history.
It's also the longest river in the world, if you measure from the head of its tributary, the Missouri, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. This makes the Mississippi a superhighway for barges, tugs and tows -- and a fascinating route for the world's largest steamboat -- the American Queen.
Twain once said of riverboats: "Do you know what it means to be a boy on the banks of the Mississippi, to see the steamboats go up and down the river, and never to have had a ride on one?" His words came to mind as I boarded the American Queen over Christmas. I grew up near the Mississippi too, and have long dreamt of cruising on the iconic river.
We steamed out of New Orleans just after dusk -- in the shadow of a large ocean liner that was headed out to sea. Her decks were teaming with passengers waving at our elegant white boat with the gingerbread trim, fluted stacks and bright red paddle wheel. They must have been amused as we rolled merrily upstream while the steam calliope played "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye."
The American Queen is a six-story floating palace with polished mahogany, Tiffany glass and a grand staircase leading to her handsomely appointed parlors and cabins. Her showroom is a replica of Ford Theater, and some of the river valley's best musicians play on her gilded stage.
Because of the steamboat's small load (432 guests), I spent much of my time reading and daydreaming -- quietly watching life on the river unfold. But I also heard riverboat stories, watched movies, sang, danced and took shore expeditions -- even swam in the ship's pool.
Food was available 24/7. But this wasn't just any cruise fare — it was exceptional regional cuisine. On our eight-day trip to Memphis, chefs smoked ribs and cooked rotisserie chickens, Cajun shrimp and other Southern delights. We begged them for recipes -- and they graciously complied.
More than 40 percent of the American Queen's guests are repeat visitors. Many have cruised on celebrated steamboats like the Delta and Mississippi Queens -- seeing life on the Mississippi much as it was in Twain's day. "The reception you get when you pull into a small town -- it's just such a nice feeling," says passenger J.C. Whitney.
Quaint river towns like Vicksburg, Miss., and Hannibal, Mo., hold proudly to their traditions, and their picturesque streets are lined with brick buildings and antebellum homes. The Southern towns have rich Civil War history and Northern towns have old brick factories -- reminiscent of the days when the Mississippi was the heart of industrial America.
"The steamship should have disappeared 100 years ago," says the American Queen's riverlorian, Travis Vasconcelos, "but our desire to celebrate history has kept it alive. People want to see the Mark Twain Mississippi."
In my Jan. 17 column, I'll take you to some of the historic river towns between New Orleans and Memphis.
Learn more about steamboating at http://www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com and see a slideshow of photos at www.ginnyprior.com.