Just the sight of the Delta Queen puts a smile on your face. When we pulled up to the dock in Florence, Ala., a handful of local people stood on shore taking photos with their cell phones and smiling at the sound of the whistle that whined like a throaty ghost.
Braxton Greenhill, of Florence, was out bass fishing on the river on the unseasonably warm February day when he saw the boat and came over for a closer look.
"I want to ride it," the 23-year-old said. "To heck with riding it, I want to drive it."
Unfortunately, Mr. Greenhill may never get that chance. The 83-year-old traditional steamship is on its last journey, from New Orleans to Chattanooga, where it will become a riverfront hotel.
Among the handful of crew members on board are those whose lives have been oriented around the boat, and have traded one last trip for a can of Brasso and a cleaning cloth. Everyone on board this week is working, but it's clear to see it's a labor of love.
One of those helping out this week is Barbara Hameister, a retired music teacher from Blanchester, Ohio and a master on the Calliope. In case riding a steamboat wasn't fun enough, it comes equipped with special toys like the Calliope, a type of steam pipe organ that lends itself to a repertoire reminiscent of old fashioned carousels. With only 32 keys and a slight delay, it's not as easy to play as a keyboard and sometimes comes with an echo.
"The only thing wrong with that is if you make any mistakes you get to hear your mistakes twice," Ms. Hameister said.
Since taking her first cruise in 1982, Ms. Hameister has become part of the Delta Queen family and hopes this – her 49th trip – won't be her last.
"Just being on the boat is what's wonderful," she explained. "Getting up in the morning and seeing the sun on the paddlewheel and the sparkling and sometimes there's a rainbow in the paddlewheel."
After seeing the red paddlewheel churning and hearing the Calliope, I again felt that excitement when I caught my first glimpse of my room, where a famous tenor from the Metropolitan Opera once stayed. The room is not huge, but the mattress is more than a foot thick and topped with down pillows, a down comforter and duvet and a fresh white cotton bathrobe hangs invitingly on the brass clothes rack.
One of the things people have said they love about the boat is that it ushers in a calm we don't often experience in life on shore. And sitting in the lounge outside my room, I'm beginning to see what they mean. Above my head a stained glass lamp sways as I sit writing in the quiet of dusk. There are no dogs barking, no phones ringing, no television; just a cool breeze from the river, the constant tremor of the steam engines and the feeling of being lucky to be on board.