THE newest thing in cruise holidaying in America is in fact the oldest, with the re-launch this month of the 436-passenger American Queen, a sternwheeler that had been laid-up on the banks of the Mississippi River since her previous owners shut down the engines and walked away broke in 2008.
But going back to the future did not come cheaply for the Great American Steamboat Company. It spent US$30-million on buying and renovating "the grandest of all of the wedding-cake boats" that will be based in Memphis (whose city council also contributed some funding to help boost local tourism and employment,) and which will ply the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers on 4- to 10-night itineraries.
And while guests will find themselves indulged within a virtual Victorian-era of antiques, furnishings and spectacularly ornate chandeliers and sweeping staircases, they'll be pampered with the latest in 21st century comforts as well, with flat-screen TVs, luxury ensuites, the latest in bedding designs – and dining that will range from Mom's favourites to the trendiest "today" creations.
Prices for a week currently start from around US$2000pp twin-share plus obligatory tips, but including a hotel night pre-cruise, and the prospects of visiting such iconic "Heartland" destinations as New Orleans, Natchez, Mark Twain's Hannibal, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, Oak Alley, Baton Rouge and St Francisville.
And interestingly the new owners have opted for an all-American crew of 174 to indulge their 436 guests. "We believe that to be absolutely essential, reflecting who we are," said CEO Jeff Krida, adding that two-thirds of crew hail from Tennessee or Louisiana where, because of the recession, there was no shortage of applicants… and with only around 40% having had any previous cruise or hospitality industry experience, the company was able to choose from those showing the most upbeat and positive attitudes.
"The average age of our guests will be around 60," Mr Krida said. "But the average age of our staff is around 30: we've instilled in them the need to anticipate the needs of our older, upscale guests, to make eye contact with them, to say 'Please' and 'Thank You,' that sort of thing.
By doing so, he says the company is bringing to the region a unique time- machine designed to take guests back to a romantic era when steamboats plied the length of the Mississippi.
In fact the first was built in 1811 by Nicholas Roosevelt who sailed it from his hometown Pennsylvania down the Ohio River to join the Mississippi – and ended-up 28-days later in New Orleans. And it wasn't long before anything up to two hundred steam-driven paddle- and sternwheelers were gathering up passengers and freight on any one day at each of scores of waterfronts from Minnesota in the far north, to New Orleans 3700km away in the far south, and on myriad tributaries reaching like tentacles into 31 States.
By the 1970s, however, trains, planes and automobiles had made their mark on the river trade, and passenger traffic in particular became almost a thing of the past, while freight operators moved to more efficient diesel-powered river freighters and tug-drawn barges.
The final death knell for the paddlewheelers was sounded in November 2008 when the biggest of them all, the American Queen was mothballed with mountainous debts.
Two companies that vied to bail her out eventually joined together as the Great American Steamboat Company to put this spectacular vessel back into the Mississippi tourist business.
Her itineraries on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers are diverse, covering everything from Southern Culture, to Springtime on the River, Music of the 1950s, Music of the 1960s, Big Bands, the Civil War, Fall (Autumn) Colours, Old Fashioned Holidays, and even the Kentucky Derby.
So picture yourself sitting on deck in a rocker looking out at grand Southern mansions or Elvis Presley's Graceland at a gracious ten-to-twelve knots, or tucking into traditional riverboat dishes of jambalaya, southern fried chicken, shrimps with olives and green onions, pot roasts, skillet-cooked turkey and potatoes, or decadent chocolate brownies, pecan pie, soft molasses cookies…
And while taking-in the views by day, toe-tapping to Dixieland, jazz, gospel and blues, or at night Southern-style cabaret and vaudeville....
For itineraries, more details and prices phone Cruise Specialist Holidays toll-free 1300 79 49 59.
 BACK on the river, US$130m renovations for abandoned American Queen
 SWEEPING Victoriana staircase symbol of a time before
 GRAND Salon for nightly Southern-style cabaret and vaudeville
 INDULGENCE with Deluxe Outside Staterooms with verandahs
 LADIES only – the Ladies Parlour on American Queen
 FINE dining in the J.M. White Dining Room
 LOCAL specialty Shrimp and Corn Fritters
 RIVERBOATIN' favourite, Fried Catfish with Jalepono Tartar Sauce
(Photos: Great American Steamboat Company)