Story and Photos by G.I. and Jo Wilson
Our brief ride from the New Orleans motel to the docks on the Mississippi River is filled with anticipation. We are fulfilling a lifelong dream to be on the Mississippi.
Stepping out of the van, we are in awe at the size and beauty of the new sternwheeler, Queen of the Mississippi.
My love affair with the Mississippi began many years ago as I poured over the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
After cumulative years of fantasizing, sharing my dreams with my wife Jo, we are boarding for a seven-day cruise upriver to Memphis.
When American Cruise Lines offers a special on the June trip, we go for it, realizing it would be hot and humid at this time of year.
It is always exciting to board a ship/boat for a new adventure. What a pleasure to simply walk on with about a dozen people, not lines of hundreds or even thousands. We will join a total number of 110 passengers.
Our home for the next seven days is impressive. Spiraling staircases, beautiful lighting, and highly polished brass.
Our cabin is a total surprise. More of a suite than a cabin. King size bed, two stuffed armchairs, more storage drawers than we could possibly fill, Keurig coffee maker, and a bathroom we couldn’t believe possible on a ship. We have been on multiple ocean cruises and two European riverboat cruises, but never a room like this.
A call for lunch, with a menu of 3-4 entrees to choose from. Food is beautifully prepared and delicious.
A new twist. We are given a dinner menu to select from. The concept is to help them prepare only amounts needed and cut down on waste. You are able to change your selection at dinner, but they will have a general idea on what to have prepared.
The ship’s whistle sounds, powerful motors wind, and the hypnotical churn of the paddle blades begins. We are on the move.
About the Lower River
First off, you are aware of how wide the River actually is. You have to feel something special, some of this water comes from over 2,000 miles at the Canadian border.
No blue or green water here. Silt from hundreds of tributaries keeps the River at various stages of brown.
The lower Mississippi, by necessity, is held within its banks by a system of dikes. You seldom see the dikes, since over the years trees and other growth have taken over and covered the banks between the River and dike. You may not get glimpses of some cities you motor past.
However, the dikes will play a roll in your shore visits as they have been built high enough to control the River in flood situations.
Sometimes, when our ship docks, the dike may tower above.
Cities and the cruise line have met the challenge head-on. On arrival, golf carts are waiting to transport folks over the dike.
Of course, some of our younger passengers are eager to walk and hit the path. For others, hot sunshine, 80-90 degrees, and high humidity mean the carts are a blessing.
Charming, Historic, Beautiful Cities
You take this lower River cruise to experience the elegance and lore of the south.
It would be impossible, and unfair, to attempt to capture the charm and history of our visits to these cities in this limited space. Volumes have been written by eloquent wordsmiths.
We will attempt to touch on, giving a thumbnail sketch, of the highlights as we experienced them.
Oak Alley, Louisiana
Our first off-boat excursion is the Oak Alley plantation, often referred to as “The Grand Dame of the Great River Road.”
We get our first up-close look here at the enormous dikes built by the Corps of Engineers to contain the Mississippi flood waters. River levels are low. It is at least 25-30 yards to the top of the dike, then another steep descent of 100 yards to the gate. The path to the top must be a 5-6% grade.
Our crew is ready. Golf carts transport those who are concerned about the climb over the dike to the entrance of the plantation. We have a number of folks cleverly disguised as senior citizens. Two are over 90 years young.
Anytime we leave or return to the boat, bottles of ice water are handed out. We are regularly cautioned about the need to stay hydrated in this heat and humidity.
Step Back in Time
Entrance to the plantation is right out of movies and travel brochures, displaying the charm and beauty of majestic plantations.
Twenty-eight Virginia Live Oak trees line the path to the house. We are in awe of these massive trees over 300 years old.
We learn there is function in having this “alley of trees.” When the evening breeze comes off the River, it is funneled directly into the front of the house.
Crepe Myrtle trees in white, pink, dark pink and lavender seem to wrap the old mansion in sweet fragrance.
Then there are the songbirds of the south. They seem to have prepared a welcome chorus for us. Brilliant red cardinals stand out against the colorful flowers.
Sugar cane was grown here by Valcour Aime, in 1830. He was known as King of Sugar, and one of the wealthiest men in the south.
After a tour of the antebellum plantation house, we are treated to the “drink of the Kentucky Derby,” the Mint Julep. This was the drink of sultry movie stars in early movies of the south.
We have time for a self-guided tour of the grounds, which featured the reconstructed slave quarters. The contrast between the elegance of the plantation house and the stark poverty of the slave quarters could not have been more telling.
Time to head back down the “tunnel” of oaks to our air-conditioned boat and destinations upriver.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Today we have a choice of two tours; St. Francisville or a Swamp Tour. We choose the Swamp Tour and headed to the Atchafalaya (means long river) swamp.
Atchafalaya is billed as, “Explore the diverse natural beauty and rich ecological systems of America’s largest and most complex river and swamp systems.”
Our guide could have stepped right off the set of Duck Dynasty. He had grown up in the swamp area. He is a fountain of information. If it lives, has lived, or passed through the swamp, he has a story.
We load into a bare-bones aluminum party boat with a cover for shade.
Cypress trees in the swamp are fascinating. They are standing in several feet of water, in many cases, possibly hundreds of yards or more from the shoreline.
Our guide keeps us abreast of the flora and fauna of the swamp, and how people of the swamp live.
We head for one of his special coves eager to see “‘gators.”
As we ease into a small cove surrounded by heavy tangles of growth., no more breeze. We are engulfed in heavy humid air with a deep, pungent odor.
Our guide points out a small gator floating deep in the shadows. He bangs on the side of the boat, and immediately, a large ‘gator appears and cautiously cruises toward us with only those big, black eyes showing.
Our guide tosses in a couple of orange slices. A powerful tail explodes through the water and the ‘gator is gone.
“Look at that,” our captain hisses. “This big guy chased off the smaller one. This guy coming is over 15 feet.” This one is huge. He cruises in close. Seems those big, black eyes are carefully scoping us out.
Some of us on board can remember back when Kodak would have made a profit on these exciting minutes.
The big ‘gator casually returns to the darkness of his lair. We head back to open water.
The gentle breeze from the movement is relished on our way back to the dock.
Next up, a tour of the city of Baton Rouge.
Historic Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge and Louisiana State University (LSU), are well known in the sports world.
It has been said Huey Long brought Louisiana to the national stage. He was one of the most colorful, and power hungry governors in history. He will forever be an integral part of the state’s history with a Capitol and other public entities in his name. Huey Long was assassinated in the Capitol on September 8, 1935.
We visit the elegant old Capitol, drive past the stately new Capitol and beautiful grounds.
We hop the Natchez, Mississippi (rhymes with “matches”) shuttle to the First Presbyterian Church to ride in the quaint elevator and view historic photographs.
In the afternoon we go on a tour of Longwood Plantation, notable in that only one level of the house, the basement, was ever finished and served as living quarters for the Nutt family. Construction began in 1860 but was abandoned by the Union workers at the outbreak of the civil war in 1861. Looking at the octagonal, six-story shell of the upper floors, one can only imagine how grand the home would have been if it had ever been finished. All was followed by a tour of historic Natchez.
Our primary focus today is the Vicksburg National Military Park, scene of the siege and defense of Vicksburg from May 18 to July 4, 1863.
We relax in the comfort of our air-conditioned bus as while winding through beautifully manicured hills and meadows. Hills have been reforested in stark contrast to the almost barren hills laced with bunkers and batteries designed for combat in 1863.
A major attraction along the way are the more than 1,400 monuments, tablets, and markers that dot the landscape honoring soldiers involved in the battle.
Our guide eloquently paints a picture of Union troops charging up bare hillsides against withering fire from rebel sharpshooters.
Your soul would have to be calloused over not to feel a knot, the size of a grapefruit in your gut, trying to hold back tears, to think; right here, in front of your eyes, brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, Americans slaughtering Americans.
Yet, to realize, we survived. We are a strong, one people. Today, people from north, south, east, and west are here together sharing this glimpse into a troubled past.
Like Gettysburg and most battle fields the park is a beautiful serene place.
On a brighter note, it is an adventure to explore remnants of the USS Cairo, one of the ironclad Union “battleships” that patrolled area waters and was was sunk by a mine. We marvel at the ingenuity of that time, that such a cumbersome, wood burning monster could float and fight a war.
A tour of the city follows. It has the charm and beauty we have learned to appreciate in the south. We agree, we would like to spend days here.
Day of Cruising
This is a day for cruising on the Mississippi; however, that didn’t mean the day was uneventful. Kite flying is available on the top deck and draws some enthusiastic participants.
There is a “Tastes of the Mississippi” session in midmorning, which features a comedy routine from the first mate, followed by Bananas Foster from our pastry chef and some local mixed drinks prepared by our assistant hotel manager.
There is another session at 11:30 a.m. called “The Pearl Button Boom.” In 1905 half of the world’s buttons came from Mississippi River Higgins Eye mussels (this was called clamming). Freshwater pearls were also found in the mussels.
After lunch, Jo participates in a “Name that Tune with Sing-a-Long” led by Steven and JoAnn, and won a crawfish paperweight clip for “Bicycle Built for Two.”
The First Steamboat
Later, is the “1811 Roosevelt: A Steamboat and An Earthquake,” again led by Steve and JoAnn, which tells the story of the first steamboat to ply the Mississippi River and the impact on the region of the New Madrid earthquake of 1811-1812.
After dinner, Steve presents “Our Mighty Mississippi,” a celebration of the River with songs, stories, and a slide show.
The boat docks in Memphis early this morning. We take the group tour of the Graceland Mansion, Elvis Presley’s home. Graceland is the second most visited house in the U.S., after the White House.
I have never been a fan of “tourista” visits. But, Graceland has been at the top of Jo’s bucket list for many years.
So, here we are at Graceland, a must see, if you are in Memphis. We purchase our tickets and join the “march of the penguins” through his mansion to see the lavish lifestyle he lived.
Things slowly begin to change for me as we learn what a giving, caring person he was. You have to be impressed when you walk down that hallway, lined with gold and platinum hits.
We highly recommend a visit.
Heartache and History
The afternoon is a tour of Memphis. We get off the bus for a picture stop at the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the renovated Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
The heat is fierce, though, and we are all glad to get back on the air-conditioned bus. We then drive by Beale Street, home of the blues, Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley and many other artists recorded their hits.
A Well-trained Crew
By the time we are checked into our cabin, we know we are witnessing a well-trained and caring staff.
We don’t drink coffee, we only have coffee for the Keurig. When we ask the young lady, she immediately comes up with a teapot and tea bags. “This will be taken care of at the next stop,” she adds sweetly. Next morning we have packets of tea for the Keurig.
Another example; at happy hour, Jo is looking over the choices behind the bar, trying to make a decision. She noticed a bottle of amaretto. She and a friend occasionally like to have a 50/50 mix of amaretto and Southern Comfort over ice. “I don’t see any Southern Comfort,” she mused, mostly to herself.
“You like that?” the bartender quickly responds. “We’ll take care of that tonight in town.”
Next evening, there sits a new bottle of Southern Comfort.
This was the attitude we experience the entire cruise. Stop somewhere, look both ways, and a staff person is probably going to ask, “Can I help you?”
This staff set the bar.
Key members of our staff are the Riverlorians, Steve Marking, and his wife JoAnn Funk. If any notable personality, or flora or fauna, ever made significant contact with the Mississippi, they had it covered.
Steve is not only a historian, who gave us daily talks on the River, but a professional singer and photographer.
JoAnn is a jazz singer and pianist with a sultry voice. She has a degree in biology with special interests in river plants and animals. If it lives in the river, she can tell you about it.
Together, they educate us, keep us informed on sites of interest we pass, and will experience, and entertain us.
It was a great trip. We met some interesting people, visited some interesting places, and learned a lot about the Mississippi’s role in our history and economy. We were also thoroughly spoiled by the cruise line’s service and food. Next trip: Upper Mississippi.
Plan your trip.
American Cruise Lines: US River Cruises
Vicksburg National Military Park (U.S. National Park Service)