By Jim Winnerman Special to the Post-Dispatch
St. Louisans have always had a fascination with rivers. How can we not, sitting at the confluence of two of America’s greatest.So it’s no surprise that when it comes to river cruising, we are curious if not downright enthralled with the idea.As an avid fan of riverboat cruising, I was surprised to learn American Queen Voyages offered a cruise from Nashville, Tennessee, to Cincinnati, Ohio, sailing on the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio rivers. I’m used to the voyages running north to south, not east to west.In January 2022 and hoping the pandemic would have substantially diminished by spring, I signed up for the eight-day voyage aboard the American Countess leaving Nashville on April 25 with port calls in five river towns along the way, and one day just on the river.Riverboat cruising, which has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 10 years, offers a chance to stay close to home with cruises that are never far from land, offer a wide variety of itineraries, live nightly entertainment, free tours in each port, fun on-board activities and fine dining. Plus: no seasickness.
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Sunset from the veranda on the American Countess.
For me one of the joys of riverboat cruising is simply sitting on the top deck in the bow of a paddlewheel steamer. Relaxing in a rocking chair as the gigantic red wooden paddles in the stern churn the water and propel the boat, listening to the water splash against the bow and watching the scenery unfold is about as relaxing as it gets.About the only thought that enters my mind is what awaits around the next bend. On this trip at one turn in the river, it was a huge eagle’s nest nestled in a tree along the bank with the white head of an adult eagle clearly visible. Church steeples piercing through a canopy of trees and barely visible beyond the bank hinted of the tiny towns being passed.
2. The paddlewheels of the American Queen Countess churn up the water of the Cumberland River. Barbara Winnerman photo
Geology along the shore changed frequently — and quickly. At times the American Countess passed close to shore with towering gray cliffs rising steeply just beyond the bank. Stone facades gave way to flat flood plains.
An outside stateroom on the American Queen Countess includes a double bed and a sliding glass door to a balcony with two deck chairs. The interior of the boat is finished in a contemporary décor.
Barbara Winnerman phot
The fact that the river is millions of years older than America kept entering my mind. Unlike the land, the rivers we were following remain largely unchanged and untamed. Along 95% of the riverbank there is no sign of mankind, and it is remarkable to suddenly realize this is America as it appeared long before man arrived on the continent.When the boat did float by a town nestled on the riverbank, the sight of the American Countess and her red paddlewheel almost inevitably attracted waving people to the shoreline.“Riverlorian” Ted Mueller helped make this trip particularly informative. In the chart room filled with thick mile-by mile navigation maps of the rivers, he hosted several lectures on the history of the rivers. Mueller also explained the “rules of the river” under which boats operate and how the various locks and dams we passed through function. Additionally, he led tours of the pilot house containing the steering wheel, compass and navigating equipment.
The bar in the Grand Lobby of the American Countess was a popular gathering place before and after lunch and dinner. Drinks were included in the cruise fare.
Michel Verdure, American Queen Voyages
One of Mueller’s talks was about the boat we were on, which was the newest in the American Queen Voyages fleet. We learned it had once been a casino with 800 slot machines. When first put into service floating on a tiny man-made lake in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1995, it had been christened the “Kanesville Queen.”When Iowa law changed allowing casinos on land, the boat was sold and came close to being scrapped before being purchased by American Queen Voyages. After it had been cut in half to add 60 feet and 123 guest rooms and function space, it was christened anew and put into service as a real riverboat in 2021.Diane Ashburner of Kirkwood is the ship’s shore excursions manager.“I feel like I am living a dream. Who wouldn’t want to ‘roll on the river,’” she said. “I especially like the early morning sunrises on the water when there is a mist, and the sunsets are not to be missed.”Ashburner is in charge of the hop-on, hop- off bus excursions included in the fare, and offered at each port.
The Confederate cannons at Fort Donelson in Dover, Tennessee, were capable of firing 132-pound cannon balls a distance of up to three miles.
The first port was the tiny riverside town of Dover, Tennessee (population: 1,417), the site of an important Civil War battle. Fought on a hill overlooking where the Countess docked, we toured the batteries of Fort Donelson built by the Confederate Army to protect Nashville 50 miles farther up the river.For 90 minutes on Feb. 15, 1862, Confederate cannons fired 400 rounds from the fort onto a flotilla of approaching Union ironclad gunboats, successfully repelling the attack.When the general in charge of 17,000 Confederate forces assumed victory was theirs, he ordered his ground troops to return to Fort Donelson.In response, a young Union Brigadier General U.S. Grant took the initiative to lead 15,000 Union troops on a surprise and successful assault of the Confederate lines. The unexpected maneuver almost immediately forced the surrender of all Confederate soldiers and earned Grant instant hero status in the Union.The sudden turnaround in the battle was the first major Union victory of the war, setting the stage for the eventual capture of the Mississippi River Valley and the fall of Nashville into Union control within days.
A visitor to the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, admires two of the quilts on display. The quilt on the left was stitched to represent a stained-glass window.
A day later at our stop in Paducah, Kentucky, the National Quilt Museum was a treasure of quilted art with 200 of the 800 quilts in the museum’s collection on display. We happened to arrive the first day of the National Quilt Show, which brings more than 30,000 quilters to town each year from all over the world, thus doubling the size of the population for a week.Our tour through Paducah’s Lower Town neighborhood was interesting. Once a decaying section of the city, the homes were deeded to artists from across the United States who agreed to move to town, refurbish the home and sell their art in Paducah.
A tour of the museum at John James Audubon State Park was included in the tour. The museum displays the largest collection of art and artifacts of naturalist and artist ornithologist who lived in town in the early 1800s for almost a decade.
The main attraction in our next port of Henderson, Kentucky, was the museum at John James Audubon State Park displaying the largest collection of art and artifacts of the naturalist and artist ornithologist. He lived there in the early 1800s for almost a decade, and his grandson bequeathed 2,000 items to the museum of Audubon’s personal memorabilia.The museum curator told us Audubon’s journals in which he documented the characteristics of each bird he painstakingly painted, also gave details about how the bird tasted when cooked. “It is not something you think about, but he was often camping in the wilderness,” she said.
The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Louisville, Kentucky is easily identified by the 120-foot-tall bat leaning against the entrance to the building. Barbara Winnerman photo
In Louisville the tour highlight was the legendary Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, easily located by the 120-foot-tall bat outside leaning against the entrance to the building. In the free museum we found the bat that Babe Ruth used to hit his first 21 homers on the way to the record-breaking 60th four-bagger.The tour begins where the bats are produced inside a glass-enclosed lathe. The bats enter the machine as 3-inch diameter by 37-inch long ash or maple billets and emerge as a bat shaped from one of 2,000 different patterns. Interestingly, the machine was signed by Ozzie Smith and many other well-known ballplayers who had come to watch their bats being made.
The Greek Revival Lanier Mansion in Madison, Indiana, is considered to be the crown jewel of Madison’s historic district and was recently renovated with over $2 million dollars spent on the project.
Barbara Winnerman photo
The final port was the picturesque town of Madison, Indiana. Incorporated in 1809 the village is the largest contiguous National Historic Landmark District in the U.S. One stop along the tour included the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum. For 94 years until 1974, the tiny firm used the same equipment to make carved wooden frames for leather riding saddles. When the factory closed it was left as though the workers would return the next day, creating a piece of industrial history frozen in time.The 1844 era Lanier Mansion State Historic Site in town is considered one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the nation. Paint in the home was original, and one of the guides told us during a recent $2.1 million restoration the walls had been cleaned using Q-Tips.Madison was the last port of call, and back on the boat, it was time for last evening of food and live entertainment before docking in Cincinnati early the next morning.Inspired by America’s heartland and America’s southern heritage, our menus showcased the varied cultural and culinary influences of our nation. Every day each of the three meals featured a selection from five entrees (you could select more than one). Every evening at the bottom of the menu in small type a notation mentioned lobster tail was always available. (One night I had two.)Sometimes the menu offered surprising choices. One morning I enjoyed “The King of French Toast-Elvis style.” That translated into peanut butter and chocolate stuffed French toast topped with fried bananas. On another occasion our table companion ordered the vegetarian “carrot hot dog” on a bun for lunch. “It was different, but good,” she reported.In keeping with the tradition of legendary showboats from the 1800s, the husband-and-wife team of Clark and Melissa Roberts, (who had spent the last 15 years performing in Branson) along with Doronte Evans, entertained us three nights with Broadway-caliber musical programs. On two occasions an entertainer boarded in a port along the way for solo performances.Each evening after dinner the boat’s four-piece show band played late into the night in the boat’s lounge, “accompanied” by an open bar. (Drinks were included in the fare.) On two occasions impromptu entertainment included songs by one of the waitstaff, and a tap dance routine by Clark.The cruise was a journey back to a simpler time when paddlewheel riverboats were plying our rivers, stopping in small towns where people were friendly, and happy to welcome you. Main streets were thriving and were only a block up the riverbank from where our boat was latched to shore.After an enjoyable week on the water adjusting to a slower pace of life, transferring to the airport in our final port of Cincinnati and the commotion of air travel for the return flight to St. Louis was an unpleasant jolt back into reality.If you goThree cruise lines sail American rivers and coasts. Sample prices below start with the least expensive itinerary and cabin. Consult websites for a comprehensive list of all cruises and prices. Prices vary by days on board, season, cabin and vessel. Special offers are often available. American Queen Voyages This company sails four boats on the Mississippi, Cumberland, Ohio and Tennessee rivers in mid-America, and the Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington state. Two additional passenger ships sail on the Great Lakes, New England and the Eastern Seaboard as well as international routes to Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula. New to the fleet is the Ocean Victory offering 12- and 13-day journeys through the less-traveled regions of Alaska’s Inside Passage. More info: From $1,399 for a seven-day six-night cruise departing Portland, Oregon returning to Portland. americanqueensteamboatcompany.com American Cruise Lines The line operates 13 cruise ships along the Eastern Seaboard and Western Seaboard as well as the Mississippi, Ohio and Columbia and Snake rivers. More info: From $2,455 for a five-day, four-night cruise from Baton Rouge to New Orleans; americancruiselines.com Viking Cruise Lines Known for cruising European Rivers, in June this company introduced the newly commissioned Viking Mississippi on the Mississippi River. Sailing itineraries from Minneapolis to New Orleans, the ship was specifically built for the Mississippi and features a Scandinavian design. Additional ships are scheduled to be added in the next few years. More info: From $3,599 for an eight-day trip departing New Orleans and returning to New Orleans; vikingrivercruises.com
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