HENDERSON, Ky. — 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 recently 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.
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 Co.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.
At those prices, even passengers enjoying the 19th century décor 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.
American Queen’s décor 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 play host to games such as 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.