Kevin Pilley freewheels down the Mississippi River on the American Queen.

If nothing else, travelling on a Mississippi paddlewheeler with a group of American senior citizens and ultra-competitive mid-Western "empty nesters" should teach you one thing: never play Scrabble with an American over 60.

They have been everywhere and seen everything and taken every kind of medicine and therefore are likely to come up with words such as "iodochlorhydroxyquinoline".

I wanted to throw the table over board, into Ol' Man River.


I was drinking a Bayou Backwater (Southern Comfort, lemonade and a phenomenal amount of shaved ice) up at the stern bar when I was accosted by a gentleman. Let's call him Chuck, because he was thoroughly American.

"You've come to the right place," Chuck stated confidently. I thinned my lips around my highball.

"You can go on a paddlewheel boat tour on a lake in Japan, you know. On the Michigan. I know because I have. Just like I've done the Constitution in Vancouver, Canada and the Swiss paddlers. Like the 1901 Uri on Lake Lucerne and the one on Lake Thun. I forget its name now. But she's a beaut. I had a great outing on her."

Behind us the wooden buckets, paddle blades and sponsons turned. I realised I had little room to manoeuvre. I knew I had to let Chuck chug on. Kind-heartedly and very informatively, he told me about the Romans and seventh-century Chinese water wheel warships. There was no use in fighting the current.

"Bummlisalp," he suddenly said. "That's the Swiss one!" He looked proud of himself and then suddenly said abstractly, "Screw propulsion."

I seem to attract these people. I began to edge away. Chuck was showboating.

"Kapitein Kok" he said, enjoying my surprise. "That's a Dutch paddleboat. I've been on her."

He looked out at the Mississippi churning muddy water. "It ain't the Whanganui or Wairoa, is it?" he asked rhetorically. "I've done the Otunui and Waimarie. Just like I've done the sea-going 1917 Waverley and the coal-fed Castle in the Dart in the UK and the Murray Princess out of Mannum and the other Murray-Darling system-cruise paddleboats. The Adelaide and all them. But this is it!"

He gestured expansively at the Mississippi. "You get rail and train nuts. Motorcycle and car freaks. But for paddle-mad folk like me this is it. The acme."

Chuck unashamedly confesses to being an obsessive-compulsive paddleboater. He knows his sternwheelers from his sidewheelers. He likes cruising on paddleboats because of the history and because they rarely capsize. I didn't interrupt his flow. As I couldn't.

We were on board the six-deck, full-stack, 400-passenger American Queen, Memphis-bound, out of New Orleans. The calliope tooted.

If the definition of a Scottish gentleman is one who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn't, the same applies to a Southern gentleperson, and the nearest 36-note calliope.

I had spent the previous day on a voodoo tour learning that the secret to a successful marriage is to put a plate of freshly cooked macaroni garnished with finely chopped parsley under a tree. And to ensure a healthy love life? Gut a live hummingbird and sprinkle its desiccated heart over your partner's head.

I had learnt all about "mojo hands", "gris-gris" and bags full of reptile body parts and animal hair used to invoke blessings on loved ones and curses on enemies.

But nothing could rid me of the mad calliope player or staunch Chuck's tide of
inexhaustible paddleboat trivia. Throwing alligator teeth at him seemed impolite.

He pursued me around the deck, river steamerboat name-dropping - the 1774 French Palmipede, Charlotte Dundas and other Scottish barge haulers, the Sprague, Brunel's Great Eastern, the entire Elbe River Saxon Paddle Steamer fleet, the 1912 Wolverine with its 6000-passenger capacity and Louisville Kentucky's 1814 Belle of Louisville, which still offers daily two-hour dinner and brunch cruises. With DJ.

There are several three to 10-day themed upper and lower Mississippi paddle boat cruises available - Antebellum (visiting mansions like the 1859 Nottoway, Magnolia Hall and Rosalie), US Civil War, Gardens, Autumn Colors, and the rather ominous Music on the Mississippi.

Other cruising riverboats (such as The Empress and the first all-suite, bi-level stateroom accommodation boutique paddlesteamer Duchess) have Dixieland bands, big-band orchestras, barber-shop quartets and resident "riverloreists", tugging at imaginary chin tufts and quoting you Twainisms 24/7.

"The Mississippi river is a book, and not one to be read once and then thrown aside. For it has a new story to tell every day."

Like Chuck.

At 7mph, the mossy oaks, white Doric columns, white porches, white side wings and white fluted columns of Louisiana slide sedately by as you pass Baton Rouge, sugarcane estates, old cotton plantations, the homes of former sugar magnates, St Francisville with the cypress and cedar Federalist-Greek Revival Rosedown plantation home, and the old 1810 Butler Greenwood indigo, cotton, corn and molasses estate with its gilded pier mirrors, poster beds, Brussels carpets, 1850s gazebo and formal Victorian parlour. You have a day in Natchez. To absorb more historic homes, more ex-cotton brokers' residences, Corinthian columns, gabled pediments and authentically furnished slave quarters as well as absorb Mississippi's first legally produced artisan white rum at the Charboneau micro-distillery.

Any cruise is just a small stretch of the third-longest river in the world; Huck's long water street.

Along the way you are sustained by service at your beck and call and plenty of gumbo and jambalaya. The New Orleans Steamboat Co's 1975 Natchez - with its bell made from melted silver dollars and signature irritating whistle - offers dinner harbour cruises from the Big Easy's Toulouse Street Wharf. The menu consists of Cajun delights such as blackened fish lafitte topped with crawfish etouffee, red beans, rice and andouille sausage. You finish with white-chocolate bread pudding with vanilla bourbon milk punch sauce.

The next evening, suffering from mild levee sickness, I was recommended mud pie and blue duck. Cruising the Mississippi you learn the meaning of humidity. According to an old downhome recipe, all you need to guarantee perfectly cooked duck is "a slow-gaited waiter to walk the animal slowly through a very hot kitchen," and it's done. Cooked right through.

Chuck found me in the bar on our last night. I couldn't help but look around for a glass that has been rubbed against a black cat with one white foot.

"Southern Comfort's next for me," he said, absently. After a pause, he smiled and said he was saving up to visit the Norfolk Broads where they have a double-decker paddleboat named after the Deep South's most famous liquor. And probably with a man on board asking for your requests, and favourite series of very loud whistles.

On any riverboat cruise these days you experience much compressed air.


Getting there

Air New Zealand

flies Auckland to Houston, with connecting flights to New Orleans with United.

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