Mississippi’s Queen

On this steam paddlewheeler, clients cruise through history

By: Jana Jones

From the outside, you can tell she’s getting a bit long in the tooth; she’s 29 years old, after all. For a cruise ship, that’s unheard of. But don’t dare call the Mississippi Queen a ship, she’s a boat. A real, living-history, paddlewheel steamboat, and not one of those fake ones that plow the swamps around New Orleans with taped narration, either.

Mississippi Queen is the last of her kind, a boat powered solely by steam which powers the paddles, the massive calliope that delights residents along the riverbanks and generates all of the electricity that’s found within her hull. When she is gone, an era will have passed and no replica will ever be quite the same.

The “middle sister” in New Orleans-based Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s fleet, Mississippi Queen is flanked by the venerable, original Delta Queen and the new, modern American Queen.

From the minute I stepped onto the prow of the Mississippi Queen (headed for a fall foliage cruise from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis), and entered the main salon, I realized that this ship er, boat would provide a unique experience. The decor is a virtual Disneyland of Victorian-era kitsch, with multiple patterns of William Morris-style wallpaper, stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers, Chippendale-reproduction furniture, huge sweeping staircases and multi-colored, multipatterned carpeting. Gold-gilt mirrors and embossed ceilings meld with paisley and fleur-de-lis wallpaper and floral fabrics.

The 210 guest cabins are what a real-estate agent would euphemistically call cozy. Deluxe cabins consist of two twin beds, a teeny closet, a dresser, a little chair and a small but adequate bathroom with shower. Deluxe suites average 200 square feet and feature a bathtub, settee and a king bed. Happily, most of the outside cabins also have spacious, private balconies. When the weather is good, the balcony becomes the “sitting room” of the accommodations.

The cruise itself is leisurely paced so that guests have ample time to enjoy traveling on the river and have a small amount of time in each port. Most of the stops take place in the morning; the afternoon is saved for river-watching as the boat slides along. Our first stop wasn’t until midmorning, but I awoke just as the sun was peeping through the trees, hills and bluffs of western Wisconsin. I went out on my balcony and watched as the river surface changed color and the mists burned off; it was positively glorious.

A Storied Past

When I first heard that there would be a “Riverlorian” aboard, I expected some grizzled old guy with a handlebar mustache and a raspy voice sitting in a rocker spinning yarns. Instead, we had Bill Wiemuth, a young, dynamic, entertaining river historian who regaled us with bits of trivia and loads of history. His 7:30 a.m. breakfast lectures were the most widely attended “entertainment” on board.

I learned, for example, that the city of St. Paul, the capital of Minnesota, started life named Pig’s Eye. And I learned that the first paddlewheel steamboat built with guest quarters had 18 passenger cabins. At that time there were 18 states in the U.S, and to honor this great country, each room was named for one of those states. Thus was born the term “stateroom” to refer to a passenger cabin. And of course, the farther south we went, the more we learned about Samuel Clemens and his Mark Twain persona.

The other entertainment offerings consisted of live musicians and talented singers. At any given time, a band might be playing jazz, Gershwin or classics in one of the public rooms. Clients won’t find acrobats or magicians on the Mississippi Queen, but the entertainment is good occasionally hokey and sometimes inspiring. “CNN Headline News” is piped into rooms via a speaker system, and there are movies shown during the day in a theater on Deck One.

The best entertainment, of course, is watching the river; the Mississippi Queen provides many vantage points for that activity, both inside and out. The two-story windows in the Paddlewheel Lounge not only allow clients to see out over the aft, but over the massive paddlewheel as well. The calliope deck and pool deck have comfy wrought-iron furniture with pads, and most of the outdoor areas have old-time rockers on which to sit and contemplate life. (The pool, by the way, is just big enough for a dip, which is perfect for the sticky Louisiana and Midwest summers).

Time to Dine

I was surprised at the quality of the meals on board. Because the line is based in New Orleans, the menu includes regional specialties from that area no matter which route you sail, and they know how to do them right. The blackened redfish, gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee and po’ boys are fantastic. The only disappointments were the prepackaged breakfast Danish and the institutional desserts, but the nightly bread pudding, freshly made New Orleans style, is near perfection.

Although the cruise itself is pretty casual, dinner tends to the more formal, with two seatings and a bit of dressing up. There were actually two formal nights on my cruise. Breakfast and lunch is open seating in the dining room or a buffet in the Grand Saloon. The only room service offered is a light continental breakfast ordered via a door-hung card the night before.
The guest base on the boat tends to be older, sophisticated and well read. At least half of the guests on the cruise I took were repeat customers: One woman was on the Mississippi Queen for the 51st time. The shore excursions seemed to be geared to the pace of seniors as well. There is one ADA-compliant cabin with a roll-in shower and two (excruciatingly slow) elevators, but this boat is really difficult for completely non-ambulatory passengers.

Everywhere we went, we saw people standing at the docks or along the banks and seawalls of the Mississippi waving at us. Whole families came down to the river to see us pass, often to the blast of the boat’s whistle (which sounds like an enormous steam-driven belch) or the joyous sound of the largest calliope in the world. I wonder if those families just appreciate the colorful and unique profile of this boat, or if they know that they are seeing a slice of history.

Either way, I hope that the Mississippi Queen continues her path along the rivers of America for a good long time, so the kids who watched us pass can one day board her for a journey of their own.

Back for 2006

The Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s fleet, based in New Orleans, was not damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Although its winter sailings were canceled, the line will return to its regular schedule in the spring of 2006, with Delta Queen vessels once again plying the upper Mississippi, Cumberland, Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Bookings are being accepted now for April and beyond. 800-543-1949; www.deltaqueen.com
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