A Mississippi river cruise recreates the unique charm of a bygone era, discovers Nick Dalton

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I’m standing on the top deck of American Queen and a very low railroad bridge is getting nearer by the moment. The paddle steamer’s giant twin smokestacks start to keel over, until they are horizontal. Even so, the bridge sweeps by close enough so that if I’d been juggling, my act would have come to a premature end.

This is river cruising, but with a difference. Not only is the vessel one of a kind, the river is too. The Mississippi, the fourth longest river in the world, cuts through the United States from New Orleans, on the Gulf of Mexico, almost all the way to Canada.

On a week’s voyage from Memphis, America’s music capital in the southern heartland of Tennessee, up to St Louis in Missouri, I’m mesmerised by the scenery or, in many cases, the lack of it.

The river is a good mile wide in places, lined with low, jungle-like forests, interspersed with sandbanks, little beaches, islands (all immortalised in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) and very little civilisation. The Mississippi just keeps rolling along, big and muddy, but it rolls over towns built on its banks as it changes course relentlessly.

The atrium on American Queen

Travelling on board American Queen is one mesmerising experience after another, modern-day luxury in a world of Victorian wonderment. It’s the biggest and grandest paddlewheel steamer afloat, and perhaps the finest ever built. It looks as though it’s from another century and it is, but only just – it was built in 1995, by aficionados, people who loved the opulent style of travel that was at its height in the 1870s. My room is like something from a boutique Victorian hotel, with richly-patterned wallpapers, freestanding antique writing desk and bathroom with tiled shower. The rest of the boat matches. The J.M. White dining room pays homage to that of a grand steamboat of the same name from almost 150 years ago, with chandeliers and potted palms. It’s overlooked by the Mark Twain Lounge with its gentlemen’s club ambiance, dark and calm, but with free coffee and huge freshly-baked cookies. At the bow is the less formal Front Porch Café, opening on to the deck where I often sit and view the approaching scenery from one of the gleaming white rocking chairs.

I also spend a lot of time at the stern, hypnotised by the huge, red paddle wheel as it churns through the waters. This isn’t for show; it’s what drives American Queen, the wooden blades powered by piston engines salvaged from a 1932 vessel. The Engine Room bar, dark and sophisticated in a Western movie sort of way, sits in front of the wheel, and has illuminated night-time views of the thrashing action. There’s even a small outdoor seating area where I sometimes sit with a glass of bourbon, entranced by the noise and the spray.

Food comes high on American Queen’s list of attractions. Dinners combine American staples – steaks, Caesar salad – with adventurous southern cooking like sautéed red snapper Creole, crispy fried frogs’ legs with okra-tomato chutney, New Orleans-style barbecue escargot and crawfish bisque. There’s decent wine included too, changing daily.

The Grand Saloon on board

Lunches are big buffet affairs in the dining room, although I preferred the slimmed-down options in the Front Porch Café, eaten on deck. There’s no shortage of food 24 hours a day – free ice cream, cookies and cakes in the café, and free room service. Should you feel the need to work it off there’s a neat little top-deck gym, and an open-air pool big enough for a splash.

But an American Queen cruise isn’t just about the boat. There are shore excursions included at every stop, hop-on hop-off tours on gaily-painted coaches that follow the boat.

On the stretch from New Orleans to Memphis there are calls at the city of Baton Rouge, Vicksburg – with its Civil War battlefields – and Natchez, a place of elegant southern style. Other stops are less romantic but have the fascination of small-town America. First is New Madrid in Missouri. There’s a museum detailing the town’s mark in history. Here, in 1812, was what is still the biggest earthquake to hit the US outside the west coast, an eight on the Richter scale that set the river flowing backwards. Next is Cape Girardeau, where we are greeted by a Dixieland jazz band and sightseers – the American Queen makes everyone stop and stare.

The best port of call is Chester, Illinois, where Popeye was created and pays homage to the sailor man with statues, wall paintings and a museum in the Opera House where E.C Segar drew his characters while working as a projectionist in silent movies.

Memphis – where American Queen docks at the specially built £23 million Beale Street Landing – is usually either a start or finish point but is well worth several nights, to visit Elvis Presley’s Graceland home, the Stax soul museum, the frenetic Beale Street nightlife area where you’ll find a host of live music venues, and the hip South Main Arts District. St Louis, too, is a destination – we moor beneath the 630ft Gateway Arch, its stainless steel skin glinting in the sun.

Back on board there’s plenty more to enjoy. There are talks on the river’s history, a banjo player at the deck bar’s sundown session, a bluegrass band, and songs in the grandiose theatre. But I retire to the Engine Room bar with a cocktail and watch the wheel spinning us through the warm Mississippi night.

GETTING THERE: An eight-day cruise on American Queen starts at £2,295pp, including flights and transfers, wine with dinner, excursions and a one night pre-cruise stay. For more info go to Light Blue Travel visit lightbluetravel.co.uk or call 01223 568904.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.