Picture-book-perfect steamboats have drifted regally up and down the Mississippi River, carrying awestruck travelers for over 200 years. These stern-wheelers have doubly earned their place in American nostalgia: first, because of the beautiful serenity of the waters they traverse, and second, because of the opulence and grandeur of the vessels themselves. As these boats prepare to disembark from various ports along the Mississippi River in the spring and summer of 2014, you should also make plans to experience this classic piece of Americana.
While most towns along the Mississippi have companies that offer some kind of guided motorboat excursion onto the water, only three companies offer a true Mississippi River cruise tour with a cherry on top. American Cruise Lines, the American Queen Steamboat Company and Avalon Waterways each offer 7- to 11-day journeys along either the northern or southern halves of the river. Choosing among the three Mississippi River tour options requires a careful consideration of priorities. (For instance, the definition of “northern” and “southern” cruises changes with each itinerary, and sometimes the companies share boats. So stay sharp!)
If you value a classic antebellum experience on a giant stern-wheeler that looks more like a wedding cake than a boat, then you’ll be thrilled with the American Queen. Its regional food specialties accompanied by delta blues entertainment on the biggest steamboat ever built. At 418 feet (long, tall?), you’ll feel like a genuine 19th-century dignitary visiting the most important river in the country. Land excursions don’t last as long as on other cruises, but with Regina Charboneau’s various menus, a Mark Twain impersonator, the New Orleans All-Stars jazz orchestra and at least one “riverlorian” waiting for you on the boat, you’ll hardly notice.
Ticket prices vary the most on the American Queen, from $2,250 for a 132-square-foot inner cabin, to $6,100 suites with verandas. (Those prices are for the 8-day Memphis to New Orleans “southern Mississippi” cruise.) But those are the extremes — we recommend the Outside Staterooms with verandas, which are on the second, “Observation” deck, but put you closer to the theater and dining rooms without sacrificing expansive water views. (Price for that same trip: $4,000.)
On the other hand, if you intend to get on land as much as possible to see baseball games and breweries in cities like St. Paul and St. Louis, then Avalon Waterways will more likely catch your eye. Each of Avalon’s tours begins with a bus journey from either Chicago or Nashville, so by the time you get on the boat, you’ve already spent nearly two days seeing the sights of what was once the American West.
The shortest of Avalon’s Mississippi River cruises lasts 11 days, and the prices reflect that. Be prepared to shell out at least $5,000, but rest assured that everything on the trip radiates quality. Prior to a cruise on a northern Mississippi River tour, for instance, you will spend a night in the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. Avalon’s tour of the southern Mississippi begins in Nashville and ends in New Orleans, including stops in Graceland and Natchez, where you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to eat at the home of the boat’s head chef.
Meanwhile, American Cruise Lines sets itself apart by offering the most spacious cabins for even the most budget-conscious travelers. By using a faster boat, the Queen of the Mississippi, they allow for both more hours on land as well as more daytime river cruising. Interestingly, they also emphasize what you might consider an eight-day “mid-Mississippi” cruise, half of which traverses the Ohio River, starting or ending in Cincinnati and St. Louis. If you’ve done a Mississippi cruise before, this variation would be an interesting way to rediscover American river boating. Most cruises top out at around $7,000, but the AAL cabins provide the best value for money, providing both easy access and spectacular views.
Combine luxury with history, modern dining with antebellum American river cruise culture, and relaxation with exploration by cruising some of the Mississippi River’s 1,793 miles this summer. The vigor of the Mississippi steamboat industry has resulted in some great experiences that are just waiting for you to come and take advantage of them. Whether you begin in New Orleans, Minneapolis or Chicago, you will come to appreciate the American frontier in a delightful new way.