(2:30 p.m. EDT) -- I would have never expected the landing site for Florence, Alabama, to be as pretty as anything on the Danube. Yet when dawn broke aboard American Cruise Lines' newest modern riverboat, American Serenade, the sun shone brightly on the tree-lined shores of this small Alabama town you've probably never heard of.
That's American Cruise Line's specialty: showcasing the rivers of America and the cities, towns and historical sites that line their banks.
Cruise Critic hopped onboard American Serenade for a weeklong voyage from Nashville to Chattanooga, sailing the Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers to find out what makes the largest U.S.-flagged cruise line in the nation tick.
For the longest time, river cruises within the United States were limited to sailings on retro-themed paddlewheelers that sought to imitate the glory days of steamboating immortalized by writers like Mark Twain. At the same time, over in Europe, river cruising steamed ahead: New ships were increasingly sleeker, and more modern. They introduced bigger rooms and better balconies, European service and inclusive amenities.
American Cruise Lines responded in a big way in 2018, introducing the first modernly styled U.S. riverboat in the country: American Song, which would complement its fleet of small coastal ships -- the Independence -and Constellation-class -- and its traditional paddlewheelers.
Beginning with American Melody, American Cruise Lines also dramatically kicked its interior design chops up a notch by partnering with Miami-based Studio DADO, the firm that has had a part in designing the interiors of ships like Norwegian Prima and Oceania's Vista. That influence is solidly felt the second that guests step aboard American Serenade: The vessel feels very premium and upscale, with beautiful furniture, high-quality woodwork, and thoughtfully designed lighting, both in-cabin and throughout the ship.
It's a big plus for the line, which previously relied on decor that could politely be termed, "uncomplicated."
Instead, American Serenade impresses on every turn. The ship's two main public rooms -- the River Lounge and the Sky Lounge -- are bright, airy affairs, superbly decorated and instantly welcoming.
Cabins, too, are comfortable, thanks to some overly plush beds that passengers will find hard to crawl out of each morning, plus floor-to-ceiling windows in nearly every cabin, and step-out balconies for all.
American's modern riverboat fleet also features a secret weapon that allows it to dock in many of the ports of call on our itinerary: A hydraulic bow that can be raised, exposing a ramp that slides out and allows passengers to proceed ashore, even in locations where there is only a boat ramp and no physical dock. It's how we're able to sail this stretch of the United States, where we haven't seen an actual mooring dock since we boarded in Nashville five days ago.
This "Tennessee Rivers" itinerary is new for American Cruise Lines. Running from Nashville to Chattanooga (or reverse), it calls on Paducah, Kentucky; Savannah, Tennessee; Florence, Alabama; and Decatur, Alabama. Each stop is famous in its own right. Paducah is known for its antiques and quilting, while Savannah is famed for its Civil War battle sites and its proliferation of catfish. Florence is the birthplace of famed musician W.C. Handy and is a center for music production to this day.
American Cruise Lines makes exploring these places easy, thanks to its fleet of three branded motorcoaches that travel with the ship on its route. ACL offers a complimentary local bus loop in most ports of call, along with premium shore excursions that can be purchased for a reasonable price -- between $20 and $195 on our particular itinerary, with most coming in well under $100 per person.
I'll be completely honest: This isn't a region of the world I've been to before, and it's not one I'd come to on a standard "land vacation". Most probably don't plan to spend a week in Paducah or Decatur, but this new itinerary is a fascinating look at a region that is every bit as compelling as the more-famous Mississippi next door.
And while the Tennessee might not be the Mississippi, passage along it is every bit as dramatic as Twain's classic tales of riverboating -- something I really only know from reading Twain and watching shows like Disney's Adventures of Huck Finn as a kid. There's something eerie and dramatic about hearing crickets and frogs and gosh-knows-what at night along the Tennessee river, while thunder rolls in the distance and dark storm clouds build up dramatically over the lit, cozy interior of the ship.
It's also a region of sharp contrasts. We sailed through one of the most vicious lightning storms I've ever seen during our evening departure from Savannah, that also occurred during a Tornado Watch, but also enjoyed a soothing -- dare we say romantic -- departure from Nashville that was whisper-quiet and bathed in amber light from the setting sun, while enjoying a glass of wine up on deck.
Those contrasts extend on-shore, too. This is The South. It is bathed in stereotypes, both accurate and inaccurate, oft-overshadowed by its bloody Civil War history and an uncomfortable relationship with slavery that endures to this day. This region is conservative and religious. Shops close on Sundays. Billboards scream, "JESUS is LORD" in tall black letters.
There are troubles, too. A drive through Hardin County, Tennessee on the way to the Shiloh Military Park, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War was fought, makes one think that meth might be a bit of an issue in the community, where the local paper's rental ads state "NO PETS/NO CRACK." Better times, if there ever were any, are clearly behind many communities here.
Yet in the middle of all of this is one of the region's most beloved institutions, Hagy's Catfish Hotel Restaurant. It's been serving up catfish, shrimp and other regional specialties since the 1930s, and had a huge line of folks waiting to be seated during our Sunday afternoon visit, despite its location about 7 miles off the highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Service is friendly and down-home, and the catfish are piled high on plates in front of our group.
Ditto Paducah, Kentucky -- a quiet town that has an unusual proliferation of cool shops, unique bars and lounges, and events. During our visit, posters promoted the "Cars and Cigars" event happening that Saturday evening, and some shops proudly displayed Pride flags.
More proof you can't judge a book by its cover.
I am the only interloper on this river cruise who is not an American citizen. American Cruise Lines proudly attracts passengers predominantly from the United States who are eager to see their own country. I, as the lone Canadian (and foreigner) onboard, am interested to see it with them.
What ACL does really, really well is cater to its passengers. Most are, admittedly, older, and many have mobility issues. Yet every step of the way, I've seen gracious crewmembers help them up the stairs, off the ship's bow ramp, and into the motorcoach. There's even a little golf cart that travels in the ship (in the retractable bow) to help get passengers up the often steep boat ramps and to the motorcoaches, where drivers are willing to help them onboard.
The ship's travel-aboard entertainers and lecturers are also top-notch. American Serenade lacks a traditional show lounge, but instead offers evening performances from the husband-and-wife duo of Bill Wiemuth and Laura Sable in the cozy, forward-facing River Lounge on Deck 3. Both perform musical acts nearly every night, and Bill offers insightful lectures on the history of steamboating in the United States, the Civil War, and everything in between. Both are the talk of the ship, and are some of the best I've encountered on a river cruise. I normally skip entertainment but find myself attending their lectures and shows each day.
American Cruise Lines also brings onboard some real class acts in select ports of call. We've had an Elvis impersonator, a boogie-woogie piano player, and a banjo duo so far, all who were excellent. The rest of the passengers clearly think so, too: the River Lounge is packed to capacity each night; something that's not always the case on river cruises, which tend toward having little in the way of post-dinner entertainment.
It all adds up to an enriching experience on the waterways of America -- one American Cruise Lines is uniquely poised to deliver. The line offers over 50 different itineraries traversing 35 states, (including the longest U.S. river cruise tour itinerary) and later this year, it will introduce the first of its new Coastal Cats -- an entirely new class of catamaran ship that can sail both the rivers and oceans with ease. The first two vessels, American Eagle and American Glory, set sail this fall.