When the reborn American Queen cruised up the Mississippi earlier this week to its new homeport and corporate headquarters in Memphis, it marked the return of the largest steam-powered paddle wheeler ever built for America’s great rivers. The riverboat, now owned by the Great American Steamboat Company, has been one of the most eagerly anticipated vessels entering the market today.
I watched the boat’s arrival from the top of a nearby hotel and then went down to street level to get a closer view. As I did I began to hear calliope music coming from the vessel, not something you get to hear in today’s cruise world, let alone from about a quarter-mile away.
Among the first dignitaries to board the boat (and it is a boat, not a ship) were the famous ducks from Memphis’ Peabody Hotel. These winged ambassadors were pretty polite on board with only one of them trying to make a getaway from their red carpet area.
The next day was the official ceremony welcoming the boat and officially starting the partnership between the city of Memphis and the Great American Steamboat Company. Rarely if ever has there been a relationship like this. The city lent the company money to help get the project under way. For its part, the company hired Memphis residents as a pre-established percent of their all-American crew, and the city rushed to complete its new Beale Street Landing (which is not quite done yet but it’s going to be great).
Then, when Great American Steamboat Company selected Priscilla Presley to be the boat’s godmother, it could not have made a better choice. Graceland, Elvis’ home, which is about to receive its 18,000,000 visitor, is an American treasure honoring an American icon and Ms. Presley made a great godmother.
Her comments about the boat, the city of Memphis and the relationship between the two were warm and spot-on. This was not your usual corporate type christening. The mayor of Memphis gave a great “from the heart” speech and you just knew he meant it when he said the city may have lost a king (Elvis) but now had a new queen (the American Queen).
Two of the owners of this new venture, John Waggoner and Jeff Krida, spoke of what this meant to them. For them, their new venture is not a stock play but a passionate investment of time, energy and money. And everyone spoke of what it meant to have American Queen back on the Mississippi.
My favorite moment, bar none, was when Priscilla Presley gave the usual godmother’s christening words. She then hauled off and swung the champagne bottle like a baseball bat/sledge hammer and blasted the bottle into pieces. She got wet from the spray, but didn’t seem to mind one bit.
Not long after the ceremony, the American Queen drifted out into the Mississippi and started her first official voyage. It didn’t take long for the boat to get up to its normal cruising speed of about eight miles per hour. But it took me a bit longer to get into the rhythm of American river cruising.
Once I did, I found it to be a sublimely calm experience as I kicked back and enjoyed the ride. Scenery to the left, scenery to the right and twists in the river made the journey a scenic delight. That first night we had an interesting moment when the boat slowed down, pulled up to the Tennessee shoreline at a park and retrieved two pieces of luggage from a courier who brought the left-behind pieces from Beale Street Landing. This very slight detour is not something that could be done on an ocean crossing.
The first two days of the seven-night cruise were at sea (oops, on the river). They were relaxing and filled with interesting lectures and various kinds of entertainment. I had a hard time in daylight hours deciding whether to stay outside and watch the rivers -- first the Mississippi and then the Ohio -- or go inside and listen. I did the wise thing and did some of both.
As I write this, we’re making our way up the river from Memphis to cities like Louisville and Cincinnati. Today was our first port, Henderson, Kentucky, a river town of 26,000 whose main claim is having a store with the largest selection of shoes in the Midwest. Better sightseeing options were the John James Audubon State Park and Museum or the Henderson County Library with its beautiful rotunda and a collection of local artwork.
Back on board, it’s time for another day of rollin’ on that old man river. And yes, it truly does keep rollin’ along when you’re aboard the American Queen!
Art Sbarsky, a regular contributor to TravelPulse.com’s sister publications Agent@Home and Vacation Agent magazines, is a former top cruise executive and veteran cruise writer.