A Voyage of Discovery on the Upper Mississippi

American Serenade cruising the Upper Mississippi
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By Gerry Barker

Photos/Video by Gerry Barker

Mark Twain stirred the imaginations of millions with his 1883 tome, “Life on the Mississippi.” His tales of traveling the great waterway still resonate today as new riverboats ferry passengers from New Orleans to St. Paul.

One of the newest, and most modern of those ships is American Serenade, launched by American Cruise Lines — a leader in U.S. river cruises — last year. Pam and I recently had the opportunity to follow Twain’s legacy on their eight-day, Upper Mississippi, fall foliage cruise that journeys from Alton. Illinois, just outside St. Louis, to St. Paul, Minnesota. On it, we even had a chance to meet the man himself.

American Serenade is one of ACL’s newest ships, launched in 2023, and features spacious staterooms, modern décor, wonderful excursions, all-inclusive food and drink, and plenty of viewing areas to take in the natural beauty of the river. The ship has a 175-passenger capacity — there were 110 on this sailing — and that provides a more personal experience for the guests.

This was our second sailing with ACL. In May, we took their 10-day cruise of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, which you can read about here. This cruise provided many memorable moments, including:

The World’s Tallest Man

American Cruise Lines does a great job with their excursions at each port stop. Employing modern, privately-charted motor coaches, guests can choose from both complimentary and premium excursions that give you a chance to discover the history and charm of the same towns that Twain visited and wrote about.

In Alton, Illinois, where the cruise started, ACL gave us a two-hour city tour. Besides being the location of the last Lincoln-Douglas debate, and playing a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad, this town of some 28,000 also was the home of the tallest man that ever lived — Robert Pershing Wadlow. Listed at 8 feet 11.1 inches tall, we stopped to look at a life-size statue and his chair at a park. His size 37 shoes dwarfed mine. Sadly, he only lived to the age of 22.

Our only regret was not making a stop at Duke Bakery, celebrated for their donuts and pastries. It’s on the list for next time.

Eagle Watching

The stretch of the Mississippi we navigated on our 8-day cruise is regarded as its most scenic, where the river is bordered in places by 600-foot bluffs, created by long-ago glaciers. One of the real highlights is birdwatching, especially bald eagles. Onboard American Serenade we had two experts to help — Steve Marking and JoAnn Funk, a husband-and-wife team who are river specialists as well as entertainers. Part of the ACL family since 2012, they offered helpful narration about the wildlife, the locks, the bridges, barge traffic and the river itself as it winds its way northward.

At Winona, MN. we boarded a tour boat to view the river’s backwaters, where we got up close and personal with several bald eagles and their nests. They truly are magnificent birds, their white heads standing out against the green foliage of the trees. Aboard Serenade, we had great viewing from the deck terraces and atop the Sun Deck, with the added benefit of comfy chairs.

We also saw white pelicans and an abundance of seagulls, the latter of which virtually covered long, south-bound barges. If you’re going to hitchhike, with winter coming they are going the right way.

A Bow That Raises

If a port city doesn’t have a convenient dock, no problem. American Serenade has a patented mechanism that lifts and opens the bow and extends a ramp so we can get to shore. We saw it in action when we stopped at Dubuque, IA., where the community held a special ribbon-cutting ceremony to welcome us.

Raised bow on American Serenade

In fact, tourism officials and locals turned out to greet us at every stop, handing out useful information, answering questions and doing their friendly best to make us feel welcome. It was a scene probably much like Mark Twain experienced when he captained steamboats back in the day.

The Home of Mark Twain

Speaking of Mark Twain, there was no doubt when we docked in Hannibal, MO. we were at the famous author and humorist’s home town. The whole city, or at least the historic district by the river, is devoted to his memory and works.

There’s Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home and Museum, Becky Thatcher’s House, a statue of Twain as a steamboat captain, statues of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and famous Twain quips on lampposts around town. We even had a Mark Twain actor come onboard and regale us with stories and later, led guests on a tour.

But the highlight was a visit to the Mark Twain Cave. Discovered in 1819, Twain featured it in several of his books, including Tom Sawyer. A one-time hideout for Jesse James, it has a colorful history that is explained during a one-hour trek into the caverns, designated a National Natural Landmark.

We particularly liked this Twain quote: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

Traversing the Locks

If you’ve never been through a lock, it’s a fascinating process. We learned locks on the Mississippi perform the important function of keeping the water at a guaranteed depth so ships can navigate its channels safely. Over the eight days of our cruise, we passed through some 20 of them.

While we went through some of the locks in the middle of the night, many were during the day. And as we passed slowly along, local residents would, in many cases, gather along the banks and wave. We were close enough that we could talk to them from our balconies and decks.

This was also our first look at the swing bridges. Unlike the drawbridges we are used to in Florida, a whole section of these bridges swings to let boat traffic pass. By the way, did you know southbound ship traffic always has the right of way?

Making Friends

While we always come away with a few friendships after our cruises, we met and made friends with more people on this cruise than any other. The majority of ACL’s passengers are seniors, and most are seasoned travelers with stories to share. One person we met owns a 700-acre apple farm in Washington, while another couple were on their seventh ACL cruise.

This extends to the crew as well. The managers and officers, including the captain, freely circulate, interacting with guests throughout the day. Two staffers were on our Puget Sound cruise, so it was something of a homecoming. We also got to know The Gigis, an all-girl band from Orlando that performed for two nights.

Touring the Wheelhouse

Guests on American Serenade could sign up for a Bridge Tour to visit the wheelhouse and learn more about the ship’s propulsion system and how Captain Tim Thorsen navigates the sometimes-tricky waters of the Mississippi River. Of course, the first thing we’re told is despite the name, ships haven’t used “wheels” to steer for quite some time. Modern controls resemble joysticks, ringed by computer screens and monitors.

Capt. Thorsen has more than 30 years of maritime experience, and if he doesn’t know the river like the back of his hand, his onboard equipment does for sure. By the way, do you know why it’s called the Bridge? It’s the only place where you can walk straight from one side of the ship to the other.

Fenelon Place Elevator

Our visit to Dubuque, Iowa featured a number of interesting stops, including “the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway” — the Fenelon Place Elevator funicular. Initially created by a resident in the late 1800s for their personal use, it now sends visitors inside eight-person cable cars 296 feet up a 40 percent grade from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place. Our tour group from the ship got to ride it for free, and the you can see three states from the top.

Other stops included the beautiful Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, whose 56 acres are maintained entirely by 300 volunteers, and the impressive Convivium Urban Farmstead, a complex of community gardens and restaurant that helps feed those in need.

World’s Largest Boot and Best Bakery

Our last stop on the cruise was Red Wing, MN., a charming, riverfront town that is the home of Red Wing Shoes. At the Red Wing Museum, we saw the world’s biggest boot — a size 638 1/2 D. Maybe that was made for the legendary Paul Bunyan?

Also in Red Wing is the Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop, billed as the “best bakery in Minnesota.” Since we missed out on going to Duke’s, we were determined to pay it a visit. True enough, there was a wide selection of donuts, pastries and breads. And while it’s the only bakery we tried in Minnesota, we agree it’s pretty darn good.

One more place you should go is the historic St. James Hotel. which opened in 1875. On our way back to the ship, we dropped in to admire its posh lobby and ended up having martinis at their bar. Maybe the perfect ending to our last tour.

Sunset on the Mississippi River

Our thanks to American Cruise Lines for hosting us.

You can find out more and book one of their cruises here.


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