Roads aren't the way to see real America – rivers are

Nashville, which straddles the Cumberland River - Getty
Nashville, which straddles the Cumberland River - Getty

“Before the war, you could buy a $7 certificate to be a prostitute here,” Carolyn told me in a delightful Southern drawl that drew out the “a” in Nashville further than the founding fathers surely ever intended. “But we don’t do that now.”

The war in question, the civil war between the North and South, ended almost 160 years ago but is never far from the surface when you venture into the US heartlands, as I was about to do. Not by car – but the smart way, on a river boat. The vessel in question was the American Countess, which looks the part with its two handsome red paddle wheels and two tall smoke stacks. It also offers several advantages over the car method – not least free drinks, comfortable cabins and someone else to do the driving. To make sightseeing easy, American Queen Voyages (AQV), which owns the Countess, offers free hop-on, hop-off buses at each stop along the way.

If you have only ever seen the bright lights and clogged roads of New York, Miami and San Francisco, you have missed out on the real America. It is a fascinating and at times quirky world where roads are empty and people relish life in the slow lane. On previous cruises I have met a husband and wife who dress up as Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary to meet passengers when riverboats call, and visited a town with such manicured lawns and neatly dressed residents I thought I was in a remake of the Stepford Wives.

This time I was starting my cruise on the Cumberland River, in Clarksville, a town 55 miles from Nashville. Ed, the guide on my wine and beer-tasting tour, swore that this had nothing to do with that Monkees hit song in 1966 (but if tourism bosses can give away Last Train to Clarksville CDs to attract visitors, which they used to, I can keep on humming it).

American Countess looks the part - American Queen Voyages
American Countess looks the part - American Queen Voyages

We were sailing to Alton, an itinerary that also took us along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and called into towns and villages which those car folk not in the know would drive past. More fool them, because all these places have great stories to tell.

Dover, Paducah, Cape Girardeau, Kimmswick, Alton. Most of my fellow passengers – almost all from the US – had never heard of them, but we were visiting them all on the free tours that took us to Civil War battlefields, churches and museums full of everything from pots and pans used by the pioneers to riverboat memorabilia. We also took paid-for excursions to breweries, vineyards and the Trail of Tears State Park which remembers the forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their lands in the 1830s.

I loved the fact that tiny Kimmswick, population 170, has a policeman called Steve who does his rounds on a Segway, and that April is QuiltWeek in Paducah, the quilting capital of the world. Yes, there really is such a place. Naturally there is a quilt museum. It isn’t full of bedspreads stitched by pioneers, as I half expected, but exquisite works that could pass as paintings.

Cape Girardeau - Getty
Cape Girardeau - Getty

And then there is poor Cape Girardeau, surely the world’s unluckiest town. It was hit by a great fire in 1916 and a big freeze in 1918 – events remembered in a 1,100ft-long mural painted on a floodwall built too late to stop a big flood in 1927.

Back on American Countess, we gathered in the theatre to taste Nashville hot chicken cooked by chef Regina Charbonneau, AQV’s culinary ambassador. It is a simple recipe – chicken laced with tons of cayenne pepper. A Hot Chicken shack opened in Nashville in the 1930s and now the dish is... well, hot stuff all over the city.

Truly, this is America at its most authentic, its most endearing, its most unexpected – and, as I discovered, its most unforgettable.

How to do it

Jane Archer travelled as a guest of Light Blue Travel (01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk), which offers a nine-day Nashville to Memphis cruise with American Queen Voyages from £4,175pp, departing July 1 2023. The price includes two pre-cruise nights in Nashville with a tour, plus flights, transfers, daily hop-on, hop-off cruise excursions, drinks, Wi-Fi and tips.

Five great American river cruises for 2023

1. Wildlife in Florida

The Sunshine State is the theme park capital of the world, but who needs man-made stuff when you can discover nature and wildlife on a cruise along its rivers? Voyages start and end in Jacksonville, navigate the St Johns and Tolomato Rivers, and offer everything from manatee-spotting to bird-watching on a kayaking trip through the backwaters.

American Cruise Lines (0800 021 3172; fredholidays.co.uk) offers a nine-night Great Rivers of Florida cruise from £4,995 per person including flights, transfers, a pre-cruise night in Jacksonville and two excursions.

A sandpiper on the banks of the Tolomato - Getty
A sandpiper on the banks of the Tolomato - Getty

2. In the footsteps of rock and blues

Find out why Vicksburg shunned Independence Day celebrations until 1945, where Elvis recorded his first record and how Baton Rouge obtained its own White House as you cruise the Lower Mississippi. Tours visit BB King’s hometown, and there is time for a whizz round the Big Easy, too. American Queen Voyages (01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk) offers a nine-day Memphis to New Orleans cruise from £4,175 per person, including two nights in Memphis, flights, transfers, daily excursions, drinks, Wi-Fi and tips.

New Orleans - Nathan Steele / EyeEm
New Orleans - Nathan Steele / EyeEm

3. Escape the summer heat

Come summer, Viking’s Mississippi riverboat leaves the heat of the Deep South and seeks out the middle and upper reaches of the river. Expect breweries and bald eagles on calls into Dubuque, La Crosse and Red Wing. In Hannibal, museums, cafés and even a brewery pay tribute to their most son, Mark Twain.

Viking (0800 319 6660; vikingcruises.co.uk) offers the eight-day America’s Heartland cruise between St Louis and St Paul from £4,690 per person, including flights, transfers, one shore excursion per port, drinks with lunch and dinner, tips and Wi-Fi.

4. Rain, desert and wine

You will come back from this cruise on the Columbia and Snake Rivers an expert on explorers Lewis and Clark, who sailed these waterways to find the Pacific Ocean in the 1800s. Start in offbeat Portland, sail through deep gorges into desert along the Snake River and go kayaking, swimming, rafting, cycling and wine-tasting in the wineries of Washington along the way.

Uncruise (001 888 862 8881; uncruise.com) offers a seven-night Rivers of Adventure and Wine cruise from £4,405 per person, including transfers, selected tours and drinks. Flights cost extra.

The Snake River - Getty
The Snake River - Getty

5. On the freedom trail

The town of Maysville, visited on this cruise between Pittsburgh and St Louis, played a key role in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves reach freedom in the North – you will learn more on tours there, and in Cincinnati. It also visits Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, and St Louis, where a trip to the top of the 630ft-high Gateway Arch is a must.

American Cruise Lines (0800 021 3172; fredholidays.co.uk) offers a 12-night Ohio River Cruise from £6,295 per person, including flights, transfers, a night in St Louis and excursions.