Ride the river: 2 ways to experience the Mississippi in Memphis this spring
You’re visiting Memphis. Naturally, you want to experience the Mississippi – that Delta flow of history, characters and dreams moving at a steamboat’s pace down the river. Two Memphis-based river excursions are heading into the cruising season – consider the following to determine which one’s for you.
Time/money: If you’ve banked both, and want to make the river your vacation, consider a holiday aboard the American Queen (these are typically three- to 11-day excursions). If you’re working on limited time and/or budget, keep reading…so you’ll know what to save up for. Plus, I promise to give you an option on the flipside.
You’ll especially like the American Queen if: You relish history in every sense. Mechanically, most modern riverboats aren’t true paddle-steamers – they’re more likely diesel-powered vessels with paddles for show. Not the American Queen. Her twin steam engines date to 1927, though they’re augmented by contemporary thrusters.
Decoratively, she’s utterly 19th-century, with filigree woodwork adorning her decks; Tiffany lamps and velvety chaises dotting public spaces; a Grand Saloon modeled after Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Thematically, you’re cruising in and out of Memphis, and the ports you’ll cruise to are similarly rich with Civil War ties, antebellum architecture, cultural heritage and more (view itineraries here). Land excursions illuminate these themes. And, an onboard riverlorian relates stories of the river on every cruise.
…and if: You like traveling comfortably. Though the American Queen was built in 1995, she sailed her first season for the American Queen Steamboat Company in 2012. She’s gleaming-new and out to prove the company’s commitment to providing authentic, luxury paddle-steaming vacations: The executive chef incorporates regional specialties into five-course dinners; an onboard spa indulges; state rooms and suites, some with private verandas, invite with fine linens; the Grand Saloon hosts live entertainment nightly. A capacity around 430 emphasizes the exclusivity.
My favorite thing: I mentioned that the American Queen themes its excursions. The themes are reflected in land excursions and on-board entertainment. Obviously, you’ll visit Graceland on an Elvis-themed cruise. But I appreciate how the cruise incorporates Memphis talent into its on-board offerings, too. If you’re shopping itineraries and see that Joyce Cobb, Memphis Jones or Jimmy Ogle will be on board, take a closer look: Cobb’s vocal stylings, Jones’ lessons on Memphis music (set to music, of course) and Jimmy Ogle’s step-on history talks will deepen the authenticity of your experience.
On the flipside: Sightseeing tours with Memphis Riverboats
You’ll especially like this if: 90 minutes and $20 works for you ($17 for ages 13-17; $10 ages 4-12; $5 ages 2-3; free for ages under 2). Memphis Riverboats’ sightseeing tours depart daily at 2:30 p.m. in March and April and at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. May through August. The vessels aren’t authentically steam-driven, but they look the part (and anyway, you’re going to be trained on the views of the Memphis skyline, river barges, historic bridges and landmarks). The roundtrips run four miles down the Tennessee side of the river and back up the Arkansas side.
My favorite thing: Daytime sightseeing tours are narrated by your captain, so you’ll hear dramatic stories – heroic Tom Lee; the yellow fever epidemic that nearly wiped Memphis off the map – and learn something about the towboats that surround you on the river. Captain James Gilmer says the thing that surprises passengers the most is the expanse of the Arkansas floodlands, so come take a ride with him (that’s his catchphrase) to see for yourself.
Different vibe; still affordable: For a different vantage, book one of Memphis Riverboats’ dinner cruises – departing Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. through Apr. 30 and at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings May 1-Aug. 31. The two-hour cruises are open to all ages. Expect a live band playing soul, blues and rock; a dance floor; cash bar and buffet-style dinner of pulled pork, grilled chicken, sides and dessert.
All Memphis Riverboats cruises depart from Beale Street Landing (251 Riverside Dr., Memphis). Call 901-527-2628 or visit Memphis Riverboats’ website to reserve.
Have you cruised any of Tennessee’s rivers? What’s your preferred mode of transport? Tell us in the comments section below.