More than 150 years after Mark Twain piloted paddlewheels on the Mississippi, steamboatin’ is back on the Big Muddy and little has changed in the intervening 1,800 months.
Well OK, Twain’s paddlewheels didn’t have internet, yummy four-course meals, free wine with dinner, sightseeing buses and coach tours. And there probably weren’t as many Australians and British mingling with his American cruise passengers as there are on todays Mississippi river cruises.
But I’m sure Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens but got his pen name from the cry ‘mark twain’, a river term that means two fathoms (12 feet), would feel right at home with the ornate Victorian décor and giant paddlewheel on the 436-passenger American Queen, owned by the American Queen Steamboat Company. And he’d love sitting in the Engine Room bar watching that big wheel keep on turning and listening to the riverlorian’s stories. Like the one about the 10,000 rubber ducks that escaped into the Mississippi.
Where to cruise?
American Queen’s core river cruise route is seven nights steamin' between Memphis and New Orleans but in summer it heads north to the Upper Mississippi and east to the Ohio River.
What else can you do with a day in Memphis but rock ‘n’ roll? Pay homage to the King at Graceland, tour Sun Studios and brush up on music trivia at the Rock and Soul Museum. So we all know about the Elvis and Memphis connection and that the city is also where Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. But there is probably plenty you didn’t know about Memphis, like the city was the birthplace of the Holiday Inn Hotel and that real live ducks live in the historic Peabody Hotel and have been marching through the lobby daily since the 1930s.
Brush up on Civil War history with a sad but fascinating tour of the eight-mile front-line during the 1863 battle for Vicksburg, identified by Lincoln as the key to winning the conflict because of its location on a hill overlooking the Mississippi. When two Union assaults failed with great loss of life, Grant decided to starve the town into submission; the Confederates were forced to surrender after a terrible 47-day siege.
Native Americans, French, British and Spanish all left their mark on Natchez, but its cotton and slavery that grabs the attention here– and that of the residents back in the day. By the early 1800s, there were more millionaires – and more antebellum houses – in Natchez than anywhere else in the U.S. thanks to the fluffy, white stuff.
St Francisville, Louisiana
The film The Stepford Wives could have been filmed in the pristine streets of this tiny town. Neatly attired townswomen greet river cruisers at the local museum surrounded by stunning antebellum homes. St. Francisville is so picturesque that it’s hard to believe that the port town of Bayou Sara – known as the bad boy of the Mississippi and rife with prostitutes and gamblers eager to relieve the cotton traders of their riches–once stood here before being swept away by war, fire and floods.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
If you only learn one thing in Baton Rouge, it’s the name Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, a controversial character who on the one hand called for a Share the Wealth scheme to help the poor and on the other, ordered convicts to knock down the old governor’s residence then spent a fortune building a new one that looks so like the White House, it is used as a stand-in for film and TV shoots. Not really a man you’d want to do business with, which kind-of brings us to the mean-looking ’gators on the swamp tour that afternoon. Put it this way, you’ll be more than happy to obey the instruction, ‘don’t put your hands in the water’.
New Orleans, Louisiana
The lesson to learn in New Orleans is cruise back and stay longer. It’s a fabulous city, especially the French Quarter with its beautifully distressed-looking houses, lively nightclubs, antique and bric-a-brac shops, restaurants and jazz bars (try Bistreaux for comfort food and Maison Bourbon for jazz). There are so many ways to fill your day in New Orleans and with more cruises than ever – both ocean and river – making a port stop in New Orleans, coming back is easier than ever.