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The Native Americans living on its shores called it the Messipi, or "big river," but in American lore the Mississippi River is so much more. Yes, it is long -- at 2,350 miles, it's the third-longest river in the world -- but as it surges north to south down the middle of America, it gives this continent a heartbeat that is essentially, uniquely ours. I vividly remember the thrill of crossing it for the first time, at age 13, on a nighttime train, with a momentous feeling of Heading West. To ride its majestic brown waters, for whatever stretch of the river, is to feel connected to West and East and North and South all at once.
Thanks to Mark Twain's depiction of the river in such books as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi, most Americans envision the Mississippi as a huge, muddy brown river, rolling powerfully between its banks. That's what the river looks like south of St. Louis, in the Missouri area where Twain grew up. But the Mississippi is born much farther north, in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, where it's a much meeker and milder river indeed. After it merges with the Minnesota River at St. Anthony Falls, the Upper Mississippi becomes a more dramatic waterway, cutting its majestic course between steep river bluffs. You can explore this section of the river on an overnight cruise between the Iowa cities of LeClaire and Dubuque on the Riverboat Twilight (tel. 800/331-1467 or 815/845-2333; www.riverboattwilight.com). Though you'll stay overnight in accommodations on shore, you'll spend your days on the decks of this ornate replica sternwheeler, with smokestacks and lacy white fretwork and live traditional folk and country music to set the mood.
In Dubuque, don't miss visiting the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (350 E. 3rd St.; tel. 800/226-3369 or 563/557-9545; www.rivermuseum.com) -- it has lots of interactive exhibits to help kids understand the river's flood patterns, geography, and history. If their attention flags, switch over to the connected aquarium to see giant catfish and bayou alligators and other river denizens.
Of course, you can also drive the Great River Road Scenic Byway, a national historic highway that follows the river's course for some 3,000 miles through its ten states. Along the way, several river towns offer 1- or 2-hour paddle-wheel cruises to give you a taste of what it feels like to be out on that great river -- St. Paul, Minnesota; La Crosse, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; Vicksburg, Mississippi; and New Orleans, Louisiana all have sightseeing paddle-wheelers. Memphis even has a scale model of the river, constructed in Mud Island River Park (125 N. Front St.; tel. 800/507-6507 or 901/576-7241; www.mudisland.com). That'll bring "Ol' Man River" home to the kids for sure.
Nearest Airport: Depends on port of embarkation.
Where to Stay: Included in cruise packages.