Stepping back in time on a sweet southern adventure – A Mississippi cruise aboard American Queen

 

Stepping onboard the grand American Queen was like stepping into the bygone age of Victorian splendour. I’m Michelle Daniels (Commercial Director UK & Europe for Light Blue Travel) and I joined American Queen on a week-long cruise from New Orleans to Memphis, to experience a cruise on the mighty Mississippi and explore the quaint provincial towns of Louisiana and Tennessee.

As you board American Queen you are instantly greeted with a sparkling smile and a typical southern style charm, ’Hey y’all welcome to American Queen, good to have you onboard ma’am’. The southern hospitality gleams from all the staff and crew onboard, who are all employed from the southern states, and cannot do enough for you throughout your voyage.

The American Queen itself is a real gem. The largest authentic paddlewheel boat ever to be built, she stands tall and proud with her ornate black stacks towering high above the ‘levees’ on the river side – she is certainly at home on the river. Her interior has been decorated in the 19th century Victorian-era style when paddle steamers were a popular way to travel on the Mississippi. You can relax with a good book or enjoy some quiet contemplation in the Ladies Parlour, play cards or challenge yourself to a puzzle in the Gentlemen’s Card Room or simply catch up with friends in the Mark Twain Gallery which looks out over the J.M White Dining Room, all uniquely decorated with dark woods and Victorian period décor and furnishings. My favourite place to relax was sitting on the forward deck on Deck 4 (Observation Deck) in front of the Chart Room, lazing on the large rocking chairs and taking in the ever changing views of the Mississippi and the riverbanks as the boat glided along the river in peaceful solitude.

Dining options onboard range from the informal Front Porch which offers self-service style and alfresco dining, to the formal a la carte dining in the J.M White Dining Room. Both options are available for breakfast, lunch and dinner depending on your mood and tastes. If you get a little peckish in between meals, the Front Porch offers self-service popcorn, ice cream in Vanilla and Chocolate (with lots of variety of sprinkles and sauces) or homemade cookies which can be enjoyed with a huge selection of coffees, teas, and hot chocolate, as well as a variety of juices on tap 24/7.

 

One aspect of the cruise that took me by surprise was the amazingly talented musicians and entertainers. There is nothing quite like a live band and the Steamboat Syncopators and the entertainment team showcased their talents every evening. Whether it was an evening around the piano in the Captains Lounge, a variety of full production musical performances in the Grand Saloon, or the late-night toe tapping dancing tunes of the lively Engine Room bar, all the musical entertainment was performed live.

 

Our first stop was the Nottoway Plantation, an exclusive stop for American Queen, with private access to the house and grounds. Nottoway Plantation is the largest remaining antebellum mansion in the South, completed in 1859. Our tour was guided by a passionate and knowledgeable historian called John, dressed in typical Victorian attire, who was fascinated by the original owners, the Randolph family. As we were guided from room to room, we enjoyed many stories of the family and children as they grew up and how they managed to save the mansion from ruin during the Civil War.

 

In Point Coupee I chose to join the premium excursion called Redemption & Rehabilitation, a visit to the Angola Prison. Renowned as being one of America’s most dangerous penitentiaries. Today, Angola is still a maximum-security prison housing over 6,300 inmates, but it’s known as a model facility taking pride in its faith-based rehabilitation projects. We toured the huge estate, equivalent to the size of Manhattan, visited the old ‘Red Hat’ cells and execution room and met life-term inmates as they proudly talked to us about the amazing projects they are involved with. The stand-out for me was a presentation by the PAWS Programme (Prisoners Assisting Warrior Services). Inmates who train dogs to become lifelong support for US veterans living with anxiety, depression, disability, and other medical issues.

Our next stop was Natchez, a town made wealthy by the US cotton trade in the 1860’s and where many plantation owners had property. It was spared from destruction when the town surrendered during the Civil War. Many of the plantations have been restored and are open for visitors. On my Hop on Hop off tour operated by American Queen Voyages exclusively branded luxury motor-coaches, I was able to visit Rosalie Mansion, now owned by The Mississippi State Society Daughters of the American Revolution who have been maintaining the house and gardens since 1938; Magnolia Hall, a Greek Revival Mansion built in 1858 which houses many antiques and furnishings as well as a costume collection; and Stanton Hall, built by Irish immigrant and cotton merchant, Frederick Stanton in 1857. The house has been fully refurbished and includes the Carriage House Restaurant, known for its southern cuisine. I also managed to fit in a short visit to the Natchez Visitor’s Center which houses displays of the complete history of the town. Unfortunately, I did not get the time to visit the Museum of African American History and Culture, located in the centre of town. This museum explores the 300-year-old history of African American culture in Natchez from Colonial and Cotton Kingdom to the Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movements.

In the afternoon I took the ‘Story of Cotton’ premium excursion to the Frogmore Plantation. A chance to step back in to the 1800s, walk through the restored slave cabins and hear the stories of life living and working on the plantation. We then took a tour of Longwood Mansion, a huge antebellum octagonal mansion built in the 1860’s which reaches over seven floors but was never finished due to the start of the Civil War. Although the ground floor has been preserved with its Victorian era furnishings, the upper floors remain as they had been left when the work men downed their tools.

Vicksburg is the only city in Warren County and its strategic location on the Mississippi meant it became the centre of the conflict during the Civil War. The city was held under siege for 47 years by Union Forces. The main feature in Vicksburg is the National Military Park, where many memorials honour those who gave their lives in the brutal combat. I took the hop on hop off bus on a tour of the town taking in the Church of Holy Trinity featuring 26 magnificent stained-glass windows, six of which were designed by Tiffany & Co, The Old Courthouse Museum and Old Depot Museum. Numerous fascinating artefacts, models and exhibits told the stories of soldiers living through the Civil War and I have to say I managed to gain a little more understanding of the conflict which I am ashamed to say I did not know much about before my visit.

In Greenville we took the premium excursion to the B.B King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. It was a self-guided tour telling the story of the legendary Blues artist, from his humble beginnings working on a small farm, to growing into an international icon. It was rounded off with an amazing performance from local blues artists with some tasty southern fried snacks.

After a day of sailing along the peaceful river we disembarked in Memphis and from here I took the premium excursion to Graceland, home to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll before being dropped at the airport. Not being a huge fan of Elvis I was intrigued at what I might find interesting, but the visit did not disappoint! Arriving at Graceland is like arriving to the entrance of a theme park. As it was the 4th of July, a public holiday in the US, we were warned that it may be very busy. We were instantly granted exclusive access through the barriers before the queues of public, arranged specifically for American Queen Voyages guests, and I think this is what gave us the best experience. We were the first to view the Graceland Mansion, without the massive crowds, which meant we could stroll through the mansion at our own speed and have the best view of all the rooms. The interactive iPad tour, voiced in some parts by Elvis himself and Pricilla Presley, took you on a journey through the ground floor and basement of Graceland, giving you a fully immersive experience of Elvis’ personal life and what living at Graceland was like, preserved in time as it was in 1977. The tour includes the living room, his parents’ bedroom, the kitchen, TV room, pool room, the famous Jungle Room, his father’s office, the newly enhanced Trophy Building, the Racquetball building and Meditation Garden where Elvis, his twin brother, his parents, and Grandmother are all buried. But Graceland doesn’t just stop there! Across the road the theme park style complex houses thousands of exhibits and various eateries plus his customised car and plane collection. Although we only had two and a half hours you really could have spent a whole day there. Even so, as a non-Elvis fan, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend!

Inspired by the great steamboats of the 19th century, our four vintage-style paddlewheelers relive the experiences of a previous generation on a range of cruises to the historic Deep South or Pacific North-West, with all the modern amenities that today’s travellers expect.

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