Another small-town example of Middle America hove into sight, huddled behind its levee wall, offering its own tantalising glimpse of yesteryear in the slow-revealing panorama that only the mighty Mississippi can provide.
Each community was replete with historic possibilities in this sleepy portion of the United States, where time seems to take more than one backward step. Here, it might be a look back at the Underground Railroad, the 1850s-60s escape route for slaves to the North; there, a memorial to the Civil War, the conflict that almost tore Abraham Lincoln’s country in half.
Indeed, it might even be an encounter in the footsteps of Lincoln himself, who famously practised law in the town of Alton, right on the banks of the river. Or it could just be another window onto Ol’ Man River, the timeless waterway that has provided the interior artery of North America since Europeans arrived in the 16th century, and which proved so evocative to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, author, traveller – and riverboat captain.
We were sailing serenely on the Queen of the Mississippi, the latest riverboat to revive the traditions of Twain along this fabulous stretch of river, which flows stolidly for 2,530 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Our journey was a rather more prosaic 400 miles from St Louis in Missouri to Memphis in Tennessee. The two cities at either end acted as modern signposts of a country’s coming-of-age, but in between was mostly 19th-century heritage, still as slow as the river itself, and just as intriguing.
The 295ft Queen was launched last summer, the first new stern-wheel paddle-steamer on the Mississippi in 17 years (albeit a modern imitation, as her primary propulsion is from two diesel engines). While the exterior styling is authentic, the interior look is more Great Gatsby than Huckleberry Finn, with balcony cabins that are huge by most river-cruise standards, complete with mod cons such as Keurig coffee-makers, exercise machines and even a small putting green.
The owner, American Cruise Lines, has invested heavily in the ship’s public rooms, with four small-scale, almost clubby choices, as befits a vessel carrying a maximum of only 150 passengers. The crystal-lit Dining Room can take all 150 at a pinch, while the Magnolia Lounge is the main gathering room (and bar), alternately a plush cocktail lounge, lecture theatre or entertainment centre, as required.
Those seeking a quiet read or other individual diversion could cosy down in the opulent Paddlewheel Lounge, with a view over the stern and the mesmerising view of the bright red paddle-wheel, while the Sky Lounge offered the conservatory-style retreat, where the day’s newspapers were on offer, along with soft drinks, snacks, fruit and daily fresh-made cookies to go with the help-yourself espresso machine.
The cuisine was also several notches above anything Tom, Huck or Becky would have been used to. Even Twain himself – for all his international travels – would have struggled to better the array of dishes turned out by an immaculate galley.
Service, from a young all-American crew who were as keen as mustard, was a joy to experience both at meal-time and during the proscribed cocktail hour at 5.30pm daily, the forerunner to an excellent dinner each evening. And, if anyone was in danger of going hungry, the crew was quick to follow up the evening’s musical entertainment with popcorn and ice-cream sundaes.
But, for all the fact the new vessel is rightly eye-catching, the real attraction is the leisurely journey itself, taking in places that would barely merit a glance on most tourist maps but which are bursting with authentic charm and good manners. At each of the six stops in our week’s river-dawdling (cruising would be too rapid a word for it), we were feted by the local tourist bureaux, provided with town tours and history lessons and made to feel like visiting royalty whenever we stepped ashore.
The likes of Alton in Illinois, Cape Girardeau and New Madrid in Missouri, and Paducah and Columbus in Kentucky, all combined to lull us into a sense of sleepy but fascinated enchantment, where a brisk walk was often as exciting as it got. However, surprising discoveries were seldom far away, for example the train simulator in the Railroad Museum in Paducah, the Lincoln-Douglas Debate – which paved the way for Abe’s presidential campaign – in Alton, the Trail of Tears State Park in Cape Girardeau – testimony to the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 – and even the quaint 1930s Higgerson Schoolhouse in New Madrid.
Along the way, we learnt about Alton’s role as a key link in the Underground Railroad heading north; Paducah’s status as Quilt City, USA; the position of Columbus as “the Gibraltar of the West,” a dizzying 120ft above river level; and New Madrid’s epic earthquake experience in 1812, when the Mississippi flowed backwards for several days as a result of the thrust fault that created a temporary dam.
More than that, we slowed down to Mississippi pace, which is somewhere between slow and stop. We found ourselves gently beguiled by places that had absolutely no pretension but were still making themselves relevant in the 21st century, either as craft centres such as Paducah, where the National Quilt Museum attracts thousands of quilt-makers and other artists; heritage sites like Columbus, with its failed attempt to stem General Grant’s federal advance in 1861; or Native American repositories like Cape Girardeau, where the Crisp Museum and State Park highlight the first peoples of Missouri.
In truth, a more rapid progress might have unsettled our fellow passengers, who averaged 70-plus and were mainly American but included several Australians, Canadians and fellow Brits. As such, the arrival at modern Memphis was rather shocking in its city scale and tempo. Yet it served as a convenient stopping point, a yardstick of the Mississippi’s diversity and a major musical signpost, including as it does the likes of B B King, Aretha Franklin and a certain Elvis Aaron Presley.
Fittingly, Graceland was our final port of call, a sad if still touching tribute to the King in his hey-day rather than his drug-riddled final years. Presley and Twain both shared poor Southern roots, as well as a love of pool tables and Hawaii, and both grew up on the Mississippi, so there was a pleasing full-circle completeness about the voyage – another surprising success for Ol’ Man River.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Memphis. American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk), Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) and United (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk) all offer connections via their respective hubs
The Queen of the Mississippi is bookable in the UK via American Cruise Lines (0808 101 2713; americancruiselines.com). A typical seven-day St Louis-Memphis cruise (or vice versa) starts at $3,995 (£2,663)pp, full board. Flights extra.