If your definition of cool is what the fashion mags and entertainment pundits tell you, stop reading now. If world history, literature, engineering marvels and the solo of a master trumpeter have never wowed you, just stop reading. Because when we say there are seven profoundly cool reasons to take Mississippi riverboat cruises, we're not talking cool, as in hip and trendy. We're talking about sights, sounds, tastes and places that will stir your emotions and stick with you for years to come.
Here are our reasons why Mississippi riverboat cruises should be on your must-do list.
It isn't always pretty, it isn't always pleasant, but history is always thought-provoking. From the opulent antebellum plantations that were built on slavery to the Civil War battlefields where freedom triumphed (albeit with a high death toll), history is an ever-present companion on a Mississippi River cruise.
Travel upriver and stand in the St. Louis courtroom where a judge told Dred Scott and his family that they were not free citizens of the United States (only to have the decision reversed at the Supreme Court). Further north in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, marvel at history's quirks of fate at Fort Crawford, where commanding officer Zachary Taylor served with young soldier Jefferson Davis; Taylor would go on to become the twelfth president of the United States, while Davis would become the president of the Confederate States of America. (And, oh, Taylor's daughter married Davis.)
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2. New Orleans
Sultry, mysterious, a feast for the senses -- New Orleans may have been down for a bit after Hurricane Katrina, but the Big Easy was never out. Here you'll find one of the United States' most unique cultures, with a blend of French, Spanish and African traditions creating Creole culture with music and food unlike any other you'll find in the world. The city is also the birthplace of jazz, which you can go hear in the city's clubs and bars every night of the week.
Spend your days wandering the streets that inspired such best-selling authors as Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, John Kennedy Toole and William Faulkner, and then spend your nights exploring the mysteries of ghosts, vampires and voodoo queens. Don't forget Mardi Gras; time your river cruise to begin or end during this high-energy festival, which usually takes place in February.
Of course, New Orleans isn't the only storied city situated along the Mississippi. A little further north is Memphis, Tennessee, home to blues, barbeque and Graceland.
If you're craving more than just a taste of New Orleans' jazz or Memphis' blues, look for one of the music-themed Mississippi riverboat cruises on offer. Spend an entire week with jazz, big band, the blues or even Elvis as your backdrop. Visit the homes of famous musicians by day and enjoy concerts at night. Listen to expert lecturers, laugh at stories told by musicians who played with some of the greats, and swap favorite songs with other cruisers who love the same music you do. Or, if music isn't your thing, look for sailings that focus on food and drink, U.S. history and the Civil War, or the life and times of Mark Twain.
4. Mark Twain
Before he was the beloved, bewhiskered author of such American classics as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"and "The Prince and the Pauper," Mark Twain was little Samuel Clemens from Hannibal, Missouri. There he played in the mud with the boy who would appear in his books as Huck Finn and crushed on the girl across the street who would inspire Becky Thatcher.
More than 130 years after Twain wrote "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," you can visit Hannibal and tour his childhood home (almost exactly as it was when he lived there) -- there's even a white picket fence waiting to be whitewashed. Whether you've read Twain as an adult or haven't picked up one of his books since you were knee-high, a sense of nostalgia for your own childhood is sure to linger.
5. Field of Dreams
Speaking of nostalgia ... raise your hand if thinking about the 1989 Kevin Costner flick "Field of Dreams" makes you smile. Less than 30 miles from Dubuque and the Mississippi River, you'll find the actual baseball field used in the film. Sit on the same bleachers as Costner and James Earl Jones, surrounded on two sides by thick fields of corn. Or walk into the fields and listen to the wind whisper. If you're there on a lucky summer Sunday, you can meet some of the movie's ghost players: A friendly group of locals cast as extras, these guys love to talk about their time on set.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed 29 locks and dams between St. Louis, Missouri and St. Paul to maintain an even nine feet of depth and make commercial traffic on the river a year-long reality. You don't need to be a fan of modern technology to find traveling through the locks on an Upper Mississippi sailing fascinating.
You won't be alone on deck to watch as your boat enters the lock, then rises (or drops) as water is let into (or out of) the channel. Not only will most of your neighbors be outside as your boat goes through the locks, but so will the locals. Have a conversation with a curious onlooker as you wait for the lock doors to close and be ready to pose for a photo, because your boat will be the main attraction.
With fewer industrial plants and smaller commercial ports along the Upper Mississippi, nature takes center stage and it's a beauty. Glide past green forests, spot egrets and herons, keep an eye open for turtles and river otters.
And get your bald eagle counter ready -- on the Upper Mississippi, you'll be treated to daily appearances by these majestic raptors as you reach the northern shores of Wisconsin and Minnesota. If your boat stops in Red Wing, Minnesota, hire a taxi and head some 30 minutes south to Wabasha and the National Eagle Center, where you'll get an amazing nose-to-beak encounter with resident rehabilitated eagles.