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
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
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
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
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
|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