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In The Footsteps Of Mark Twain On The Mississippi
American Queen

By Georgina Cruz

In “Life on the Mississippi,” Mark Twain described a steamboat in glowing terms: “And the boat is rather a handsome sight, too. She is long and sharp and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys…”

Earlier this fall, my husband Humberto and I wanted to emulate Twain and sail on his beloved Mississippi on a steamboat, so we booked passage on the American Queen, the largest riverboat ever built with capacity for up to 436 guests, for a journey on the Upper Mississippi, from St. Louis to St. Paul—a region of the country celebrated by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, and of course, Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the name of Mark Twain.

We re-read “Tom Sawyer” and other Twain books in preparation for the journey and thoroughly enjoyed an included, pre-cruise, overnight at the Hilton at the Ballpark in St. Louis (with gorgeous views of the St. Louis Arch, the Mississippi River, city skyline and Busch Stadium). We had time to check out some of St. Louis’ attractions including the world-famous St. Louis Arch, the St. Louis Arch Riverboats, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo.

After our all-too-brief sojourn in St. Louis (we’ve made a vow to return in the near future), we boarded the American Queen for seven days on the fabled river.

It was just wonderful to board this handsome 418-foot-long vessel with its red paddlewheel, via one of two gangways in its front “show” area. Built in 1995 (and formerly operated by the now defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Co. until its parent company, American Classic Voyages went out of business in 2001) she returned to service this spring. A recreation of a Mississippi riverboat, the American-built and American-crewed American Queen has six decks and an elegant décor accented by gleaming woodwork, lacy filigree, fresh flowers and antiques, and she boasts a gracious ambiance that instantly transported us to the American Victorian era. Sipping tea and enjoying pastries and dainty sandwiches during tea in the pretty-as-a-picture Ladies’ Parlor, or playing a game of chess in the Gentlemen’s Card Room, for instance, were just two of the pleasures that heralded another nostalgic era.

“There is something I truly love about tradition,” Christopher Kyte, American Queen Steamboat Co. president commented. “I’m drawn to the timelessness that has survived all the vagaries of taste, style and trends through the decades and yet still has relevance today. The American Queen herself, although a 1995 creation, is timeless.”

Enjoying an old-fashioned calliope concert –and trying our hand at playing it—was just one of many moments onboard when we felt as— if we were back in the 19th century.

Ashore, among the itinerary highlights we experienced during our timeless journey on the American Queen was an included excursion at Hannibal, Mo. where we boarded the Twainland Express to the Mark Twain Boyhood House & Museum Complex. We explored sights made famous by Twain’s tales including the Cave where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher (Tom’s first sweetheart) were lost in and the Becky Thatcher House and enjoyed other sights that our guide pointed out. We also savored a free tasting at the Mark Twain winery.

Then, still as part of our excursion, we took a journey to a time where the golden age of railroading and toy trains were part of most everyone’s life at the Big River Train Town Museum. And stops were made at the Trinity Church and the Huck Finn Shopping Center.

At each of the ports, an excursion such as this was included—an excellent value—and options for other premium tours were available at extra charge. For example, in Hannibal, a “Mississippi Mud Hands-On Adventure” was an available premium option for $69. This tour took participants to the Ayers Pottery shop and working studio where visitors saw pottery pieces created by a professional artist, followed by an introduction to basic wheel throwing from a master potter. Afterwards, participants suited up with a protective apron and headed to the workshop where they could sit at a potter's wheel and create their own work of art. The piece is then fired and shipped to the visitor’s home as a final souvenir of their Hannibal adventure.

Other premium tour options include a program out of Red Wing, Minn. to Wabasha for bird watching and admiring America’s bird, the bald eagle ($59) and an Americana: Baseball, Apple Pie & America’s Heartland tour out of Dubuque, Iowa ($69) that takes in, among other things, the Field of Dreams at the century-old Lansing Family Farm.

But while our adventures ashore at charming river towns and cities were wonderful, some of our favorite moments of the journey to our nation’s heartland included enjoying leisurely river days aboard the steamboat, when we would while away hours on comfy rockers in the outer decks, binoculars in hand, to spot bald eagles and other birds flying about and perched on trees, and to enjoy the panoramas of the mighty river with barges galore and a backdrop of fall colors.

Back in the gracious interior spaces of the boat (the steamboat’s ambiance is laid-back with relaxed guests that don’t rush anywhere and the dress code is casually elegant with no designated formal nights), we had everything we needed and then some. The steamboat offers a swimming pool, the Mark Twain Gallery (library), the Main Deck Lounge that sets the scene for lively sing-along sessions, and the two-deck-high Grand Saloon showplace featuring nightly professional showboat-style entertainment (on our cruise with such specialty acts as two polka groups and a rat-pack tribute band). Other amenities include the AQ Spa by Pevonia Botanica for a bit of pampering, and organized activities including talks by a “Riverlorian” who enriches the sailings with legends and lore about the people and events that shaped the region and our nation’s history.

Multiple dining venues tempting with the fresh Southern fare of Natchez-born celebrity chef Regina Charboneau include the J. M. White Saloon that serves traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner—the latter including such delights as duck breast with orange currant sauce and dessert beignets. The Front Porch of America, open 24 hours is ideal for a quick-out-the-door meal or snack (ice cream and cookies, anyone?), and the Calliope Grill serves up grilled fare and fresh salads—a delectable choice for alfresco meals in the evenings! For late-night cravings the Engine Room Bar offers a Moonlight Supper at midnight. The Grand Saloon offers buffet breakfast and lunch, and there is 24-hour room service available. In addition to the gourmet fare in the main dining room and specialty restaurants (all at no extra charge), complimentary wines and beers are poured at dinner and bottled water and soft drinks are free.

After days filled with touring and activities, guests retire to staterooms that combine both a nostalgic ambiance of bygone times with modern conveniences—ours gave us the impression of being a fine room in a luxurious ante-bellum mansion). Such features as plush bedding and linens, fine toiletries, large mirrors, wall-to-wall carpeting, flat-screen television, Victorian-style décor with lots of lace made us feel right at home.

After our journey on the Upper Mississippi, we left the American Queen softly saying to ourselves, “long live the Queen,” and feeling that Mark Twain himself would have approved!

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