Queen of the steamers: Wallowing in elegant nostalgia on a boat down the Mississippi
By Max Davidson
Moored to the quay, with the Stars and Stripes fluttering from her mast-poles, is my accommodation for the next three nights: the beautiful American Queen, paddle-steamer de luxe, biggest and grandest of the riverboats plying the great waterways of the central U.S.
Everything about this lady oozes class, from the bright red paddle-wheel, glistening in the sun, to the wrought iron verandas, over which the passengers loll, savouring the scene below.
It is like a throwback to the great days of paddle-steaming in the 19th century, when whole towns would turn out to greet these most stylish of passenger boats, as they chugged along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
But a few years ago, it looked as if the double-whammy of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina had put paid to luxury paddle-steaming for good.
The American Queen, built in 1995, had to be laid up in port for four years. But now she is back, ritzier than ever and the queen of steamers relaunched amid much hoopla by Priscilla Presley.
With six decks and accommodation for more than 400 passengers, this is the largest vessel of her kind ever built.
As you walk up the gangplank and pass through the wood-panelled Mark Twain Gallery, it is like entering a retro boutique hotel; a cosy world of mahogany tables, leather armchairs and art deco lampshades.
There is an old black-and-white photograph of Twain on the wall and quotations from the great man dotted around the ship. The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — books that I devoured as a boy — once worked as a pilot on a Mississippi steamboat.
It was his passion for the river that did more than anything to popularise paddle-steaming as a leisure activity.
Like canal boats in this country, steamboats were briefly vital to the economic infrastructure of America, before being supplanted by the railways.
In their 19th-century heyday, there were thousands of them and, if history is your bag, there is no better way to while away your time on the American Queen than to chat to the ship’s quaintly named ‘riverlorian’, the resident steamboat expert.
Get him spinning yarns about the good old days and you will be transported back into a vanished world, part of American folklore. Other on-board attractions include live performances in an auditorium modelled on the theatre in Washington where Abraham Lincoln was shot.
to be continued