Monday, 12 November 2012

Mississippi Journey, Part 4

Continuing our journey on the Mississippi aboard the new Queen of the Mississippi of American Cruise Lines from St Louis to Memphis…

After our morning tour of Alton, Illinois, we are heading back down the river this afternoon, with the sun slowly giving way to a creeping overcast. By early evening we are passing St Louis again and get another look at the city’s smart riverfront, highlighted by the Arch that affords a high-level overview of the area.

As night falls, we are quickly picking up the rhythm of the river, a slow, steady, muddy-brown flow in the ultimate direction of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, part of the world’s second-largest drainage basin (after the Amazon) and the kind of unchanged scene that would have greeted Mark Twain ( or Samuel Clemens, as he was then known) during his riverboat pilot days of the 19th century.

The majority of rivercraft (basically, everything apart from ourselves) would have looked very different to Twain, but the riverbanks are largely untouched for miles in each direction, with only the occasional industrial plant – providing the loading and unloading stations for the many barges that ply the river, pushed by the flat-fronted towboats that chug along at around 4mph – to break up the uber-rural scene.

We are not destined to reach our next port of call, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, until the early hours, so we take (another!) leisurely set dinner in the 150-seat dining room and then enjoy an evening’s talk from our Riverlorian, Jim Williams (the onboard river expert and naturalist).

It is typical of the kind of relaxed, educational style we can expect each evening and serves to underline the ‘Mississippi vibe’ that has been quickly established aboard. There is no formality aboard, with a casual dress code and ambience – jackets and ties are not required.

Each meal with our fellow passengers is an exercise in gentle, convivial conversation. With the vast majority in the 60-plus age group (and many 70 or older), this is an extremely well-travelled group, and much of the enjoyment is derived from swapping travel stories and other highly social discourse. The daily Cocktail Hour at 5.30pm is an inspired choice (all drinks are free, too), and leads seamlessly to an amiable meal, in the company of dinner companions you may just have met.

This is certainly not the all-action, multi-activity, high-tech cruise of the big ships, and it is all the better for it.

Next morning, Cape Girardeau is revealed as typical small-town America, lurking behind a solid levee wall that serves to keep the river’s more excessive moments at bay. The wall is decorated with a series of impressive paintings and it makes for an impressive arrival tableau.

The town itself features a striking 19th century Catholic church – one of only a handful of English Gothic Revival style churches left in the US – and a modern college campus that sports the Crisp Museum, where the history of this stretch of the river was evocatively laid out. A short film presentation provided the essential story of east Missouri and the effects of the Civil War hereabouts, with the importance of the river offering a narrative thread that would run through the whole cruise.

After the two-hour bus tour, with its two stops, we were free to wander the downtown for an hour. After yesterday’s “Closed” signs in Alton, we were hoping for something more inviting, shopping-wise, today. But, apart from one antique store and a restaurant, everything here proudly proclaimed it was open ‘Tuesday-Saturday.’ Not a lot of good on a Monday, then.

By early afternoon, we were back on the river, heading for Paducah, Kentucky. This required a left turn into the Ohio River, one of the Mississippi’s two main tributaries (along with the Missouri) but the river scenery stayed the same, slow, steady rural passage of the previous day.

The afternoon offered the opportunity to tune in to the resident TV channel showing the second part National Geographic’s excellent “Mississippi River Quest” programme or indulge in Afternoon Tea in the Sky Lounge.

Dinner is followed by our first live musical entertainment of the trip, with award-winning banjo player Dan Knowles and his band, a wonderfully lively five-piece, who turned their hand to country, bluegrass and other folksy toe-tappers. It’s a great slice of musical Americana and sets us up nicely for what is promised to be one of the port highlights of the week.

Up next – Paducah, Kentucky.