By Ellen Uzelac, Chicago Tribune
When it comes to river cruises, most Americans look to Europe for storybook waterways like the Danube, Rhine and Seine. Lots of rivers, lots of ships, lots of itineraries.
But the Mississippi River, right here at home, is getting a fresh look from travelers who want to experience a cruise without having to fly to another continent.
When I cruised on the 436-passenger paddle-wheeler American Queen in July, I had tamped down my expectations. How, after all, could St. Louis compare to Paris? How would rows of high corn and lush green tobacco fields measure up to terraced vineyards that produce some of the world's finest wines? Seriously, grits or gougeres?
All questions to ponder during the seven-night cruise — a span of 680 miles that Mark Twain helped put on the map with ports of call including Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Paducah, Ky.; and Madison, Ind. We sailed south from St. Louis, then took a hard left onto the Ohio, winding up in Cincinnati. By the time American Queen tied up across the street from the Cincinnati Reds stadium, ablaze in neon just before dawn, I got it.
No wonder European giant Viking River Cruises announced plans last year to build six ships that will ply the waters of Big Muddy and its tributaries. It's a big deal from a big brand and would mark Viking's foray in the U.S. river boat market.
Meanwhile, American Cruise Lines added a second ship, the 185-passsenger America, to the river this year. A new company, French America Line, will launch the boutique-style Louisiane on its inaugural cruise in October. And Memphis-based American Queen Steamboat Co. executives say they want to enhance their position on the river with a high-end, suites-dominant ship that will be far different than the steam-powered American Queen, the world's largest paddle-wheeler.
"The Mississippi River is where so much of America's history was written," said Gary Seabrook, the firm's senior vice president of operations. "We don't have castles to take you to. Our boat and our itineraries are a little more homespun. But the Mississippi is our Nile, and it runs right down the middle of the country. There's a sense of rediscovering our own antiquity."
Remember, too, that the Mississippi River Valley was settled by European immigrants, whose influence is still on display today in everything from cultural traditions to cuisine. There's the riverside Oktoberfest every fall in La Crosse, Wis.; the Norwegian Norskedalen settlement just outside of La Crosse; the French Quarter in New Orleans; mansions on the lower Mississippi that easily rival some of Europe's chateaux; and Dutch windmills in Clinton, Iowa. American Queen has even developed Christmas market cruises modeled after those in Europe.
There's nothing wrong with a shipboard menu that features regional favorites like sweet potato poutine; confit of duck with fig and lemon preserves over dirty rice; cornmeal-crusted Mississippi catfish; and fried green tomatoes.
As with river boats in Europe, the six-deck American Queen, because of its nimble size, can dock in the center of town — within easy walking distance of the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis, as an example. The day we pulled into Cape Girardeau, we were greeted by musicians performing "Basin Street Blues" — a nice touch. Other pluses: The ship has bicycles passengers can use onshore and onboard lecturers, and, unlike anything I've experienced in Europe, American Queen features robust evening entertainment in the Engine Room Bar and the Grand Saloon, a venue patterned after Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. The ship has a sense of humor, too; each cabin is named after a real waterway: Mosquito Creek, Raccoon River, Dog Tooth Bend.
The ship also offers something I really like — guided hop-on, hop-off tours. Buses meet passengers at the dock and stop at various points of interest. Passengers hop on and off as they wish. Without "ho ho," as the crew calls it, I would never have appreciated the thriving arts scene in Paducah or enjoyed the expanse of one of the country's largest National Historic Landmark districts, consisting of 2,000 structures across 133 blocks in the Ohio River town of Madison.
Then there's the river system itself. The Mississippi and the Ohio remain hardworking waterways. The scenery during my cruise wasn't all pretty — fertilizer plants, rock quarries, refineries, granaries. But things don't have to be pretty to be interesting. Watching a towboat pushing as many as 40 barges downriver — now that's something you don't see every day.
Half of the passengers onboard had already cruised Europe, and many expressed concern about the threat of terrorism overseas. And I heard this comment, over and over: "We were looking for something different."
There's also a lot to be said for the ease of travel on a cruise like this — a short flight, no currency to exchange and, in my case, the pleasure of waking up in Ohio on disembarkation day in my own time zone.
Donna and Jim Pratt, honeymooners from Maryland, chose the American Queen as their first river cruise. She didn't want to leave the U.S. because of the long-haul flights and global unrest. "Plus there's so much to see here," she said.
He, meanwhile, was reveling in the history of the river valley that Mark Twain called America's heart. "It's easy to reimagine what early America looked like, to see what the pioneers must have seen," Pratt said. "Use your imagination and you can just take yourself back in time."
When I talked to the Pratts again in early August, they were making plans to book a cruise next summer on the upper Mississippi, a St. Louis-to-St. Paul itinerary popular in part because of the region's limestone bluffs, waterfowl and waterways that are a bit wilder than the lower stretches of the river. This time, they plan to take along family and friends.
Ellen Uzelac is a freelance writer.
IF YOU GO
American Queen sails 45 itineraries on the Mississippi River as well as the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Itineraries for 2017 range from four to 22 nights, with fares starting at $899 per person based, double occupancy for the shortest journey and $4,899 for the lengthy Mighty Mississippi Voyage from Minneapolis to New Orleans. Each cruise includes a pre-voyage hotel stay, shore tours in all ports, and complimentary wine and beer with dinner. Airfare and "premium" shore excursions are not included. For more information, call 888-749-5280 or go to www.aqsc.com.