“Before the war, you could buy a $7 certificate to be a prostitute here,” said Carolyn, with a lovely Southern accent that made the “a” in Nashville far more than the founding fathers had certainly intended. “But we’re not doing that now.”
The war in question, the civil war between North and South, ended almost 160 years ago, but as I am about to do, it is never far from the surface once you enter the heart of the United States. Not by car – but wisely, on a riverboat. The ship in question was the American Countess, which seemed fit for the role with its two handsome red cogs and two tall smokestacks. It also offers many advantages over the car method – at least free drinks, comfortable cabins, and having someone else drive. To make the trip easy, American Queen Voyages (AQV), which owns the Countess, offers free hop-on hop-off buses at every stop along the way.
If you’ve only seen the bright lights and congested roads of New York, Miami, and San Francisco, you’ve missed the real America. It’s a fascinating and sometimes interesting world where the roads are empty and people enjoy life in the slow lane. On my previous cruises, I met a husband and wife dressed as Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, to greet passengers when riverboats arrived, and I visited a town with such manicured lawns and neatly dressed residents that I thought I was in a remake of Stepford Wives. .
This time I was starting my journey on the Cumberland River in Clarksville, a town 85 miles from Nashville. Ed, the guide for my wine and beer tasting tour, swore it had nothing to do with the Monkees hit song from 1966 (but if tourism patrons could give out CDs of Last Train to Clarksville to attract visitors, which is what they used to do, I can keep humming it. ).
We were sailing to Alton, a route that also took us along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to towns and villages unfamiliar to drivers. Fool them more, because all these places have great stories to tell.
Dover, Paducah, Cape Girardeau, Kimmswick, Alton. Many of my fellow travelers – almost all from the US – had never heard of them, but we were all visiting them on free tours that took us to Civil War battlefields, churches, and museums filled with everything from pots and pans used by pioneers. to riverboat memories. We also took paid trips to breweries, vineyards, and Trail of Tears State Park, commemorating the forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their land in the 1830s.
I loved the fact that tiny 170-population Kimmswick has a police officer named Steve cruising around on a Segway and April is QuiltWeek in Paducah, the quilted capital of the world. Yes, there really is such a place. Naturally there is a quilt museum. As I expected, they are not filled with bedspreads sewn by pioneers, but exquisite works that can be called paintings.
There’s also poor Cape Girardeau, definitely the unluckiest town in the world. A massive fire hit in 1916 and a major freeze in 1918 – the events are remembered in a 1100-foot-tall mural painted on a flood wall that was built too late to stop a massive flood in 1927.
Back at American Countess, we gathered at the theater to sample the Nashville hot chicken cooked by chef Regina Charbonneau, AQV’s culinary ambassador. It’s a simple recipe – chicken laced with tons of cayenne pepper. A Hot Chicken shack opened in Nashville in the 1930s, and now the food… well, the hot stuff all over town.
Truly, this is America at its most authentic, most endearing, most unexpected – and, as I discovered, most memorable.
Jane Archer traveled with American Queen Voyages departing July 1, 2023 as a guest of Light Blue Travel (01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk), offering a 9-day cruise from Nashville to Memphis starting at pp 4,175. – Cruise nights with a tour of Nashville, plus flights, transfers, daily hop-on hop-off cruises, refreshments, Wi-Fi, and tips.
Five great American river cruises for 2023
1. Wildlife in Florida
The 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 boat cruise along its rivers? Cruises begin and end in Jacksonville, navigating the St Johns and Tolomato Rivers, and offer everything from manatee-watching to bird watching on a canoe trip through backwaters.
American Cruise Lines (0800 021 3172; fredholidays.co.uk) offers nine-night Great Rivers of Florida cruises from £4,995 per person, including flights, transfers, one night before the cruise and two excursions in Jacksonville.
2. In the footsteps of rock and blues
Find out why Vicksburg avoided its Independence Day celebrations until 1945, when Elvis recorded his first record, and how Baton Rouge got its own White House while touring the Lower Mississippi. Tours visit BB King’s hometown and there’s also time for a buzz on the Big Easy. American Queen Voyages (01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk) offers two nights in Memphis, including flights, transfers, day trips, drinks, Wi-Fi and tips from £4,175 per person for a nine-day Memphis Offers cruises to New Orleans.
3. Get rid of the summer heat
Come summer, Viking’s Mississippi riverboat leaves the heat of the Deep South and searches the middle and upper reaches of the river. Expect breweries and bald eagles on calls to Dubuque, La Crosse, and the Red Wing. In Hannibal, museums, cafes, and even a brewery pay homage to their eldest son, Mark Twain.
Viking (0800 319 6660; vikingcruises.co.uk), eight-day America’s Heartland from £4,690 per person, including flights between St Louis and St Paul, transfers, one shore excursion per port, lunch and dinner and drinks, tips offers cruise and Wi-Fi.
4. Rain, desert and wine
From this cruise on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, you’ll return as an expert on the explorers Lewis and Clark, who sailed these waterways in the 1800s to find the Pacific Ocean. Start in unconventional Portland, sail through the deep valleys along the Snake River, and canoe, swim, raft, cycle and wine-tasting at Washington wineries along the way.
Uncruise (001 888 862 8881; uncruise.com) offers a seven-night Rivers of Adventure and Wine cruise from £4,405 per person, including transfers, select tours and refreshments. Flights are subject to extra charges.
5. On the road to freedom
The town of Maysville visited on this cruise between Pittsburgh and St. Louis played an important role on the Underground Railroad that helped slaves reach freedom in the North – you’ll learn more on tours there and in Cincinnati. He also visits Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, and St Louis, where climbing to the top of the 200-foot-tall Gateway Arch is mandatory.
American Cruise Lines (0800 021 3172; fredholidays.co.uk) offers a 12-night Ohio River Cruise from £6,295 per person, including flights, transfers, a night in St Louis and excursions.