Mansions, music, and a river called the Mississippi — we take a cruise on the luxury heritage-style paddle wheeler, American Queen.
“Life becomes very simple on the river,” says Lee Hendrix, a former riverboat captain who has spent more than two-thirds of his life on the Mississippi River. Hendrix started work as a deckhand, literally swabbing the deck before working his way up to captain. These days Hendrix is content to leave the navigation to Captain Rob De Luca while he shares stories about the river with guests onboard American Queen, many of which he’s documented in his soon-to-be-released book Peep Light.
“I’ve been on the river for 51 years. It’s my home,” he says, gazing over the coffee-coloured water sliding past the bow of our vessel. As the onboard Riverlorian (the word is a derivative of three others: river, lore, and historian) Hendrix’s affection for the river, American Queen, and all the intertwining stories is infectious. The American Queen is a grand old gal which looks like a paddle-wheeler right out of Mark Twain’s book, Life on the Mississippi. It is, in fact, a replica, built in 1995 with Priscilla Presley presiding as Godmother.
American Queen offers luxurious river cruising in heritage style
The American Queen has been my home for the past nine days. The 418ft/127m long steam-driven paddle wheeler has a capacity for 436 guests over six decks. With two wrap-around promenade decks, upper-level staterooms have French doors opening onto external decks, creating a friendly conviviality amongst passengers seated outside their staterooms and others strolling the decks.
The JM White Dining Room offers fine dining (plus a buffet for breakfast and lunch) while more casual buffet dining with indoor and outdoor seating is available at the Front Porch. This becomes my favourite spot to take in all the sights, sounds, and smells of the river while watching the tow boats slip by upstream and down.
Cruising from Memphis to New Orleans on the Mississippi River
American Queen cruises in either direction between Memphis and New Orleans, with the downstream southbound cruise offering an extra stop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s state capital.
After visiting Elvis’s home and final resting place at Graceland, we depart Memphis, the city of blues, bound for New Orleans, the city of jazz. In between is a foot-tapping, lip-smacking honky-tonk mishmash of music, culture, and cuisine that can only be found in America’s south. Steam pipe organ music, known as calliope, has been a part of steam boating since the mid-1860s and was originally used as a method of communication to let riverside dwellers know that a showboat was arriving or departing. These days it’s more of a novelty, and the carousel-like tunes tinkle from organ pipes above the River Grill Bar as we depart port late each afternoon.
On the Mississippi, it’s all about the music
The melodies continue as we stop at Cleveland where the only Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles pays homage to global superstars, many of whom hail from the Mississippi Delta. The region’s roots in R&B, soul, jazz, and country have long-influenced American music. More Grammy award winners hail from Mississippi than any other state, with eight per cent of Hall of Fame songs recorded by Mississippians.
As blues legend B.B. King once said, “You might say it all started right here.”
Onboard the ‘Queen’, the tunes play long into the night from intimate acoustic soloists in the Engine Rome and Captains Bar to tightly choreographed theatrical performances in the Grand Saloon. One night the classics from New York’s Broadways reverberate around the upper balconies of the Grand Saloon. On another, classic tunes of the ’70s have passengers dancing in the aisles. As we near New Orleans, special guest singer Michaelyn Oby, a regular on the Memphis jazz scene, pays tribute to musical icon Diana Ross in a sparkling performance backed by a brass band.
Shore Excursions are plentiful and included in the cruise fare
Stopping at a different port each day, we dive into the history, the culture, and the stories of river towns and cities. Complimentary hop-on, hop-off buses connect the main attractions, while premium-priced Shore Excursions offer a more intimate tour experience. At Vicksburg, well known as the site of the 47-day siege during the American Civil War, I visit the Old Court House Museum, a treasure trove of historical artefacts, along with Anchuca Mansion, a grand home built in 1830 and used as a hospital during the siege.
It’s these elaborate riverside mansions, many of which shelter behind protective levees, which really capture my attention. Swathed in history and of grand proportions, many have been faithfully restored and are open to visitors.
Grand Southern mansions are open for visitors
Greek Revival brick-constructed Magnolia Hall in Natchez is dominated by its vast four-columned portico. Built by a wealthy banker and cotton broker in 1858, the mansion passed into the hands of the Natchez Carden Club about 50 years ago. Rosalie Mansion sits high on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and is notable for its antique gilded furnishings.
The grandest mansion we visit is Nottoway, our last stop before New Orleans. The largest remaining antebellum mansion in the South was once owned by Australian Paul Ramsay, founder of Ramsay Health Care. The grand home with its 22 exterior columns took six years of planning and four years to build, utilising enslaved peoples labour for construction. Now positioned as a low-key resort, the irony is surely not lost on carefree guests wandering the grounds where once the residents had no such liberties.
Mark Twain noted in Life on the Mississippi that he had never felt so uplifted and became a new being once he became a traveller, “a word which had never tasted so good in my mouth before.”
Cruising down the Mississippi is one of those rare travel experiences that will remain with me forever. I can completely understand why Riverlorian Lee Hendrix never left the river.