You know a hotel is big when you get lost on the way to breakfast, there’s a rainforest inside and even a boat riding through it.
The Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, where I spend a pre-cruise night ahead of joining American Queen Voyages’ newest paddlewheel boat, American Countess, is definitely quirky – much like the other things you discover on river cruises through small-town America.
The joy of cruising with American Queen Voyages is discovering life in towns and cities in the US heartlands, but when flying across the pond it makes sense to see and do more by tagging a land stay to the start or end of the sailing.
Light Blue Travel, the UK GSA for American Queen Voyages, packages two-night hotel stays at the start of every US river cruise that can be extended or combined with a host of other options.
On the Nashville to Memphis cruise next July, that could be a few nights in the city of Elvis at the end to visit Graceland, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and experiencing the music scene on Beale Street.
When sailing the flagship Memphis to New Orleans route, clients will get their two nights in the former, but adding two or three nights in the Big Easy at the end is a must to explore the French culture and jazz clubs.
They could also add a hotel stay in Nashville and either tour the Grand Ole Opry or take in a show (it is walking distance from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel or choose the historic Hermitage Hotel in the city) before arriving in Memphis, thereby creating a brilliant musical cruise extravaganza.
Here are five of my favourite takeaways from an American Queen voyage from Clarksville that took in the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
You’ll get to know the Monkees
Clarksville has been hit by tornados and floods, it grows some passable wines, but what’s it really known for? The Monkees’ 1966 pop song ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ (which turns out to be a poignant ditty about a GI off to the Vietnam War). The Clarksville Chamber of Commerce is so proud of the song/town connection – not proved, some guides will tell you – it used to give away ‘Last Train’ CDs to attract more visitors.
The birds are hot stuff
Nashville is full of chicken addicts who can’t go a day without their fix of seriously hot stuff. It’s all due to a womaniser back in the 30s, whose partner decided to punish him for his infidelity by lacing his chicken with tons of cayenne pepper. He loved it so much that he opened a shack selling Nashville Hot Chicken. The shack is still going strong, and there is now hot stuff all over the city. According to one disciple, “It’s like a missile going though you, very cleansing.” Enough said.
It’s hip to be square
Quilting really is a thing. There’s not only a museum in Paducah devoted to quilts – including one dedicated to the Beatles – that are so exquisite they look like photographs, but the town is known as the quilting capital of the world with some 30,000 stitchers descending on the place every April for national QuiltWeek. Who knew?
The mural reveals a turbulent past
Cape Girardeau hasn’t had much luck, having been hit over the years by a ‘great fire’ in 1916 and ‘big freeze’ in 1918. The events are remembered in a Mississippi River Tales Mural – an impressive 1,100-foot long with 24 panels each 15-foot high – painted on a flood wall that was unfortunately built too late to stop the ‘big flood’ in 1927. But the Cape as it is known, did have happy times, such as when the railroad arrived in 1880 and President Taft visited in 1909.
Mussels were saved from extinction
In the early 20th century, thousands of people in cities along the rivers were employed to make millions of pearl buttons from mussel shells. The industry collapsed when plastic and washing machines were invented. On the plus side, as no one wanted pearl buttons anymore, the mussels were saved from becoming extinct.
Light Blue Travel offers an 11-day Clarksville to Memphis cruise-and-stay holiday calling into Dover, Paducah, Cape Girardeau, New Madrid and Ashport Landing. From £4,195pp departing July 1 2023 including a two-night pre-cruise hotel stay in Nashville with a city tour, flights, transfers, daily hop-on, hop-off excursions on the cruise, drinks, wifi and tips. 01223 568904; lightbluetravel.co.uk