Required reading for people of my generation often included two famous Mississippi River novels by Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For a young person with a sense of romance and a curiosity about other places, the thought of floating down that great river on a raft, with no special destination and with no parental restraints, was fodder for the imagination.
Some of us, at least those who were fascinated by steamships, also learned about the Mississippi riverboats. I'll admit that what I discovered came mostly from movies where the great sternwheelers were populated by gamblers, shady characters, beautiful women, and New Orleans jazz bands. (Legendary jazzmen Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke both played on Mississippi River steamers.) It's an era long gone, although riverboats continued to attract tourists until a few years ago when regulations regarding safety (especially fire, as much of the superstructure was made of wood) put an end to the business. Until now.
The Great American Steamboat Company is offering week-long cruises on its new, 418 foot long sternwheeler, the American Queen, largest steamboat ever built. As lavishly finished as an ocean liner, the American Queen is bringing back the pleasures of river travel. Along the way, small towns are visited, historic mansions are toured, backwoods tours are arranged. And the food is the equal of ocean cruise ships.
I was made aware of this by a fascinating article in the New York Times travel section. The writer sailed on the American Queen's inaugural cruise and obviously enjoyed every minute. The review has few criticisms although there is one with which I disagree; his complaint that the entertainment was directed at an older crowd. I think he missed the point. A Mississippi river cruise is a journey into the past; contemporary music and shows would spoil the experience. My sole complaint, however, is purely personal: For folks like me tickets are too expensive, offering none of the low-price deals available on cruise ships. Which means that I'll probably never get to be Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, nor discover how it feels to travel on a Mississippi sternwheeler.
That aside, I heartily recommend clicking here to read the New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger, even if you never dreamt of escaping downriver on a raft. So well written it's almost like being there.