“Before the war, you could buy a seven-dollar certificate here to become a prostitute,” Carolyn told me in a cute Southern accent that pulled the Nashville A out more than the founding fathers surely intended. “But we don’t do that now.”
The war in question, a civil war between North and South, ended almost 160 years ago, but it’s never far from the surface when you venture into the center of the United States, as I was about to. Not by car – but cleverly, on a river boat. The ship in question is the “American Countess”, which looks impressive with its two handsome red paddle wheels and two tall funnels. It also offers several advantages over the car method – not just free drinks, comfortable cabs and someone else to drive. To make sightseeing easier, American Queen Voyages (AQV), which owns the Countess, offers free hop-on hop-off buses at every stop along the way.
If you’ve ever seen only the bright lights and clogged roads of New York, Miami, and San Francisco, you’ve missed the real America. It’s a fascinating and sometimes bizarre world where the roads are empty and people enjoy life in the slow lane. On previous voyages, I met a husband and wife who dressed as Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary to greet passengers as riverboats docked, and I visited a city with such manicured lawns and neatly dressed residents that I thought I was in a remake of The Wives from Stepford.
This time I was starting my cruise on the Cumberland River in Clarksville, a town 55 miles from Nashville. Ed, my wine and beer tasting tour guide, swore it had nothing to do with the 1966 Monkees hit (but if tourism bosses can hand out Last Train to Clarksville CDs to attract visitors like they used to do, I may continue to hum).
We sailed to Alton, a route that also took us along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, calling at towns and villages that were passed by those who didn’t know anything about cars. Fool them more because all these places have great stories to tell.
Dover, Paducah, Cape Girardeau, Kimmswick, Alton. Most of my fellow passengers – almost all of them from the US – had never heard of them, but we visited them all on free tours that took us to Civil War battlefields, churches and museums filled with everything from pots and pans used by pioneers to river memorabilia. We also took paid tours to breweries, vineyards, and the Trail of Tears State Park, which commemorates the forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their lands in the 1830s.
I liked that tiny Kimmswick, with a population of 170, has a cop named Steve who makes the rounds on a Segway, and that April is QuiltWeek in Paducah, the quilting capital of the world. Yes, there really is such a place. Of course there is a quilt museum. It is not full of pioneer bedspreads, as I expected, but of fine works that could pass for paintings.
And then there’s poor Cape Girardeau, surely the most unlucky city in the world. It was affected by a great fire in 1916 and a severe frost in 1918 – events remembered in a 1,100-foot long mural painted on a levee built too late to stop the great flood of 1927.
Back in the American Countess, we gathered at the movie theater to enjoy Nashville hot chicken prepared by chef Regina Charbonneau, AQV’s culinary ambassador. It’s a simple recipe – chicken with tons of cayenne pepper. The Hot Chicken Shack opened in Nashville in the 1930s, and now the dish is…well, hot all over town.
Really, this is America at its most authentic, most endearing, most unexpected – and, I’ve found, most unforgettable.
How to do it
Jane Archer traveled as a guest of Light Blue Travel (01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk), which offers a nine-day cruise from Nashville to Memphis with American Queen Voyages from £4,175 per person, departing July 1, 2023. Price includes two entrance tickets – cruises overnight in Nashville with tour, as well as flights, transfers, daily hop-on hop-off sightseeing tours, drinks, Wi-Fi, and tips.
Five great American river cruises for 2023
1. Wildlife in Florida
Sunshine State is the theme park capital of the world, but who needs man-made things when you can explore nature and wildlife on a river cruise? Cruises depart and end in Jacksonville, cruise the St Johns and Tolomato Rivers, and offer everything from manatee watching to birdwatching while canoeing through the backwaters.
American Cruise Lines (0800 021 3172; fredholidays.co.uk) offers a nine-day Florida Great Rivers Cruise from £4,995 per person, including flights, transfers, a night before the cruise in Jacksonville and two excursions.
2. In the footsteps of rock and blues
Learn why Vicksburg avoided Independence Day celebrations until 1945, when Elvis made his first record, and how Baton Rouge got its own White House on a Lower Mississippi cruise. The tours visit BB King’s hometown, and there’s also time to whiz around the Big Easy. American Queen Voyages (01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk) offers a nine-day cruise from Memphis to New Orleans from £4,175 per person, including two nights in Memphis, flights, transfers, daily tours, drinks, Wi-Fi and tips.
3. Escape the summer heat
Summer comes, the Viking Mississippi riverboat leaves the heat of the Deep South and seeks the middle and upper reaches of the river. Expect breweries and bald eagles at Dubuque, La Crosse and Red Wing. In Hannibal, museums, cafes and even a brewery pay homage to his eldest son, Mark Twain.
Viking (0800 319 6660; vikingcruises.co.uk) offer America’s Heartland eight-day cruise between St Louis and St Paul from £4,690 per person, including flights, transfers, one shore excursion to the harbour, drinks with lunch and dinner, tips and Wi -Fi.
4. Rain, desert and wine
You will return from this Columbia and Snake Rivers cruise as an expert on the explorers Lewis and Clark who sailed these waterways to find the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century. Start in offbeat Portland, sail through deep gorges and into the desert along the Snake River, and along the way kayak, swim, raft, bike, and wine-tasting at Washington’s vineyards.
Uncruise (001 888 862 8881; uncruise.com) offers a seven-day Rivers of Adventure and Wine Cruise from £4,405 per person, including transfers, selected tours and drinks. Flights are charged extra.
5. On the trail of freedom
The city of Maysville, visited on a cruise between Pittsburgh and St. Louis, played a key role in building the Underground Railroad that helped slaves to freedom in the North – learn more on the tours there and in Cincinnati. He also visits Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, and St. Louis, where a trip to the top of the 200-foot-tall Gateway Arch is a must.
American Cruise Lines (0800 021 3172; fredholidays.co.uk) offers a 12-day Ohio River Cruise from £6,295 per person, including flights, transfers, a night in St Louis and tours.