American Queen docked in port

On a Mississippi and Ohio River cruise from St. Louis to Cincinnati, we did not see towering castles (as we did on the Rhine River). We didn't glide past terraced, mountainous vineyards, as we did on the Danube, or view painterly terrain that would inspire Impressionist artists, as we saw along the Seine.

And yet, as longtime Europe river cruise fans we were surprised to find we didn't miss the majestic sights of Europe. On our bourbon-themed trip aboard American Queen Steamboat Company's American Queen, we called at charming, historic towns like Kentucky's Paducah and Indiana's Madison. We got to taste, sniff and swirl bourbon along the Kentucky spirits trail and made forays into pastoral Kentucky Derby country (which, come to think of it, had a relaxed English vibe with its rolling hills, horse farms and lush landscapes). Louisville was a delight, and our starting and ending cities of St. Louis and Cincinnati offered plenty of cultural and culinary diversions.

Of course, like a European river cruise, our American river cruise had beautiful sunsets and lovely vistas. The ship stocked bicycles, and the route offered plenty of places to ride, both alongside the waterways and into forests, towns and marshes. Guides offered superb insights about each place we stopped. And we almost always pulled right into town rather than docking in more remote locations.

Beyond those few similarities, the American Queen cruise was definitely different from European river trips in distinct ways. It was more laid back (which meant plenty of chances to sit in a rocking chair on the ship's Front Porch, watching this part of America slide by). It felt like there was more time spent actually cruising on the river. Touring ports, which for the most part were smaller towns and cities, was less frenetic. Exploring ashore offered more independence; at each stop a pair of cruise line-owned and operated buses followed a loop from the ship and around the major historic and cultural attractions, dropping off and picking up passengers off at pre-determined spots. In this way, we could tailor our time ashore according to our preferences.

Downtown Madison

The ship itself was different, too. Easily twice the size of the usual European riverboat (where width and length are more limited due to low-slung bridges and locks), the 435-passenger, six-deck American Queen offers lots of space and options, including a performance venue modeled after the Fords Theater in Washington, D.C.; an expansive sun deck with fitness room, pool and bar; a number of lounges; a lofty two-deck-high restaurant; and even a charthouse, dedicated to books and maps about American rivers. Evening entertainment felt richer, was more varied and better reflected the places we visited than what we'd seen on previous European river cruises. 

Plus, you can't beat the romance of a real, working steamship. Watching the red paddlewheel on the aft turn and churn its way through the tributaries was more relaxing than yoga.

For us, one of the biggest differences on this trip had to do with the mostly American crew, which is required of any cruise line that operates solely in U.S. waters. Crew members were friendly and efficient, and we felt a warmer connection with them, perhaps because we share a heritage and culture. Hugs between passengers and crew, from the cruise's beginning to its end, were frequent and heartwarming. By the end of the seven-night trip, even the most virginal of American river travelers felt like part of the American Queen family.

All up and down the rivers last week while onboard and in port, the buzz was that American river cruising is gaining traction and generating interest -- and not just from the Civil War and Mark Twain enthusiasts who were the original fans of Mississippi River cruising. Numerous fellow passengers had also plied the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine and Duoro, and were now excited by the quality of a river cruise close to home. Others were absolutely new-to-cruise, drawn in by this week's bourbon theme, with access to major distilleries and unrivaled enrichment by big names in the field (such as Bill Samuels, Jr. the legendary president of Makers' Mark, now retired).

crew member hoisting the flag

The biggest evidence of the growing popularity of American river cruising is the number of new ships hitting the rivers in 2016 and beyond. American Cruise Line added a new ship, America, to the river this year. French America Line, an all-new cruise line focusing on a contemporary luxe experience, plans to launch later this year. American Queen Steamboat has said quite publicly that it intends to expand its fleet, in the Mississippi and beyond. And Viking River, which never does anything in a small way, has been quite candid about its interest in launching multiple newbuilds here in the near future.

It strikes me as somewhat ironic that even as English-speaking travelers from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand are putting an American river cruise on their own bucket lists, it's been the Americans, particularly the under-50 set, that have been harder to convince. I'm betting there's a big sea change (river change?) on the horizon. As U.S.-based lines continue to tweak their offerings, adding appeal for a younger, more adventurous and recreationally oriented traveler, American river cruising will no longer be the best kept secret in travel.

--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief