When I was asked to go on a trip to the Deep South and spend a few nights on the paddle steamer – the American Queen and then tell you all about it, who was I to say no! I’ve long yearned to sail on the American Queen partly because we sell a lot of voyages on her and after seeing Priscilla Presley christen her way back in 2012.
On Day 1, I flew direct into New Orleans where I enjoyed an overnight stay in a hotel allowing me the afternoon and following morning time to explore New Orleans before embarking.
Day 2 – Embarking
At 418 feet long the American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built and she certainly took my breath away when we pulled up on the banks of the Mississippi ready to embark. An effortless process saw us quickly into our stateroom – There are eleven grades of stateroom on offer, ranging from inside (from 132 sq. ft), window, promenade deck suites and large/owners suites (360 sq. ft, with 690 sq. ft veranda). A quirky touch, all staterooms are named after rivers or historic figures. I stayed in an outside stateroom with an open veranda, working for Bon Voyage has its rewards, I thought I’d be in one of the single rooms! The open veranda was simply perfect for letting in a breeze and for relaxing with a drink as we sailed away.
After the mandatory safety drill, we were ready to explore and see the ship. Walking around, what struck me the most was that even though the ship was built in 1995 and refurbished in 2012 and 2017 it was like stepping back in time, every detail was faithfully adhered to, you would think this was an original paddle steamer if I had not told you.
There are two dinner sittings 5:15 pm and 8:00 pm and we opted for the latter, if we feel peckish throughout the day there is a buffet-style, self-service restaurant called Front Porch Café where you can grab something to eat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
We headed to the Grand Saloon where we were entertained by the entertainment team who were playing hits from throughout the ages. With drinks included in the fare I did not have to worry about what I ordered or how much, I will say everyone was very well behaved on board and there was no drinking to excess that I saw.
I headed down to the sumptuous J.M. White Dining Room on Deck 1, where all meals are served. There is a dress code, whilst not as formal as a European cruise I do advise looking at it before you travel. It is divided into three parts: two long, sunny atriums with tall windows, chandeliers and 8-foot palms are divided by a less impressive, darker seating area with a low ceiling that is framed by a wine cellar. (The Mark Twain Gallery is on the deck directly above, and it has windows that provide a glimpse of diners noshing in the two high-ceilinged spaces.) Linens are crisp and spotless, while flatware is heavy and ornate. Seating ranges from two-tops by the windows and square tables seating four to round tables that seat six and eight.
The menu changes each night and has a variety of Southern Fare, on the evening I went for the Lobster Macaroni Fritters to start, Roast Rack of Lamb and a delicious chocolate chip bread pudding. There is a whole host of extras available every night so I thought it would be rude not to have a lobster tail too. I washed all this down with some delicious red and white wine, magnificently paired by our waiter.
I was fit to burst after this, so I had a stroll around both the promenade and observation deck even at the time of night it was still hot so was glad of my A/C when I turned in for the night.
Day 3 – Nottoway, Louisiana
Of the stops on this cruise Nottoway and Pointe Coupee were the two I was most looking forward to due to the two excursions that were planned.
We rose early on Day 3 and had a quick breakfast in the Front Porch Café which is a buffet-style restaurant where you help yourself. We were on deck at 8:30 am to watch our arrival in port. We took advantage of the cosy swing seats dotted around the decks to watch the fabulous blue skies as the ship docked.
Today we were off on the complimentary tour of Nottoway Mansion, this stunning historical plantation offers a view of a truly grand plantation. Rooms are trimmed in custom plaster frieze made from Spanish moss, clay, plaster, and mud and are all original to the house. As if this was not enough the mansion was constructed with 365 openings, one for each day of the year. We enjoyed a walking tour of this ‘American Castle’ with our guides in traditional dress and we finished by strolling through the lush grounds and gardens. Was so glad I choose to visit.
I was back on board ready for the Captain’s Welcome Reception where I enjoyed some champagne as Captain Greg Brown made us feel very welcome. Although there is a dress code, it is still very informal so no need to be packing your cocktail dresses and spending hours dressing to the nines, just slip into something comfortable and away you go! Think American casual and you won’t go wrong.
I meandered around the ship prior to dinner taking in the entertainment in the Grand Saloon and Captain’s Bar.
Dinner was as lavish as the previous evening where I enjoyed shrimp, New York strip steak and of course a dressed lobster on the side. I was too stuffed for pudding. I went to the Engine Room Bar, for the Night Owls Club where I enjoyed a few digestifs before going to bed as I had a full day tomorrow.
Day 4 – Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana
I woke up far too early in my excitement about our trip but used the time to have a sit-down breakfast in the J.M. White Dining Room where I had the fluffiest pancakes, I think I’ve ever had. I worked them off by strolling around the sun deck and despite it being only 7:30am, it was hot!
I was off the ship as soon as the gangplank was lowered and straight on the coach to Anglo prison, formerly America’s most dangerous penitentiary! To say I was excited was an understatement.
No messing around on this tour, the first stop was ‘The Red Hat’ a compound featuring the electric chair. Quite chilling to think this is where those sentenced to death would wait out their final hours on earth. The hall of cells had several plaques that talk about nasty punishments that happened during the time men awaited the chair.
Driving around the prison grounds you pass one camp after another. One we were told was closed having been used for the bad of the bad. Seems they have been mixed into other camps in some cases. In another, they were sent to max security, and you could see how it had a much higher level of fence lighting. Funny, we did not see guards in the towers, yet we got word we were under video observation miles before we had gotten close to that camp.
I do not recall why they had a camel, yet this guy was kept with so many horses and other critters it was very surreal to see!
We did get to talk with three inmates that worked with dogs in a training program to get the dogs ready for veterans that need service animals. It was great to see them involved in something that was so worthwhile.
We learned about the annual rodeo that the inmates put on for the local people and it attracts tens of thousands of visitors, the prison is so different now with a focus on giving prisoners, many of whom will never be released a purpose rather than a brutal regime.
Day 5 – Natchez, Mississippi
I was tired after yesterday’s excursion to Anglo so treated myself to a lie-in and an early lunch in the Front Porch Café on board. I disembarked the ship and jumped on the complimentary hop-on, hop-off buses the American Queen provides at each stop.
There are plenty of things to do and see but I just picked three things and had a lovely afternoon pottering around them. You need not do any tours, you could easily just walk around Natchez which its 500 pre-Civil War buildings, reflecting the huge fortunes built by the cotton and slave traders.
Rosalie Mansion – A Union Headquarters for Natchez during the Civil War built-in 1823. This 1716 mansion was built by the French as a fort on the bluffs of Natchez. The Mississippi State Society Daughters of the American Revolution have since gained ownership and have been maintaining the house and grounds since 1938. On this guided tour, I heard the history of the house and viewed the artefacts in the hands of an expert tour guide dressed in period clothing.
William Johnson House – An incredible, historic 3-story brick house constructed after the 1840 Natchez tornado. William Johnson was known as the “Barber of Natchez;” he began as a slave and gained his freedom at age eleven. After his freedom, he began to work his way up in society, eventually becoming fully accepted by society. As the town barber, William Johnson was able to hear the stories and gossip of many of the residents, which he documented in his diary. It is a fascinating tour.
Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture Museum – This is a must do, packed with photographs, artefacts and exhibits all dedicated to the African American heritage in Natchez and Adams County. Here, I learned the history and culture of the African Americans in Natchez over time.
After that I jumped back on the bus and headed back to the ship, ready for the 4:30 pm departure.
Feeling spritely I was determined to indulge today given it was the Captains Dinner in tribute to Mark Twain. I started with some oysters and then Twain’s favourite Mock Turtle Soup (well the American Queen’s version of it) followed by pan-seared Duck Breast and cheese and crackers to finish. Again, all washed down with superbly paired wines.
Feeling in the party mood I headed to the Grand Saloon to sip some cocktails whilst listening to a Frank Sinatra tribute, with my dancing shoes on I ended the evening in the Engine Room Bar bopping to some blues.
Superb evening all around.
Day 6 – Vicksburg, Mississippi
After such a leisurely day yesterday and feeling the effects of one or two (or three!) Mississippi Bourbon Punches (each day the ship has a signature cocktail) I rose with a sore head ready to explore Vicksburg. An important city in the Civil War, with Lincoln himself saying “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”
The city is the final resting place for 17,000 Union soldiers, 13,000 of whom are unknown so with those facts swirling in my head I boarded the bus to go to Vicksburg Military Park which was created in 1899 to commemorate and preserve the infamous siege line and historic heritage.
This was a full day of all things American Civil War so perfect for all you history buffs out there. We began the 16-mile tour at the visitor centre, where exhibits and our tour guide explained all about the siege of Vicksburg, why the town was so important and the battles so bloody.
Then we were off on a tour of 15 historic sites from battery positions to the Vicksburg National Cemetery. This was a very enjoyable but sombre morning and with the Confederate and Union lines so clearly marked out, you marvelled at how close they were to one another at times.
After a short lunch, we went on to see the USS Cario Gunboat and its associated museum. One of seven shallow-draft City Class river ironclads, The U.S.S. Cairo was commissioned in January of 1862. Named after towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the seven formidable City Class gunboats prowled the Mississippi River and connecting shallow waterways, menacing Confederate supply lines and shore batteries.
Cairo’s career was short, seeing limited action in battles at Plum Point, Tennessee (also known as the Battle of Fort Pillow) in May,1862, and Memphis, Tennessee in June 1862. Recovered in the 60’s and fully restored seeing the Cario was worth the trip alone.
I am not going to bore you with what I had for dinner, but it was superb, feeling tired I took a couple of Aperol Spritz to my favourite place on deck 4 and whiled away the time in the rocking chairs whilst watching the ship sail down the Mississippi. What struck me the most about the Mississippi was how lush and green the shore could be one minute and then you will be sailing past sand dunes the next. The sky was so clear each evening meaning you could star gaze for hours (I did!).
Day 7 – Greenville, Mississippi
A short stop today in the town of Greenville Mississippi where we had upgraded our excursion to do the Small Towns, Big Legends, The Story of B.B. King tour which took our entire time in Greensville and was so worth the additional $99pp.
We travelled to Indianola, Mississippi the hometown of B.B. King. Indianola really captures the essence of the blues with every brick being saturated to the core with the gritty, unrefined soul of the blues.
We arrived at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Centre, where gospel music fills the air as a live performance by local musicians is held exclusively for American Queen guests. We went on a guided tour of the museum that documents B.B. King’s life from as a child working on a farm to international icon. It was fascinating and a must-do for everyone, you do not have to love the blues to enjoy it.
It is all very well learning about the blues, but you really need to experience it for yourself and where better than the iconic nightclub – Club Ebony which was built in 1948 and has seen performers such as Ray Charles, Count Basie, Bobby Bland and of course B.B. King all play. Purchased by B.B. King in 2008, the club keeps the blues tradition alive. We enjoyed listening to local performers whilst munching on Southern snacks and sipping ice-cold cold beer. My first visit to an authentic juke joint and I loved every minute of it!
Day 8 – Cruising the Mississippi River
On day 8 we had a day on board travelling the river which let me have a day to explore on board.
After a quick omelette in the Front Porch Café, I was ready for my spa treatments. I prebooked my treatments at the purser’s desk and went for an hour-long massage and a restorative body scrub. It was a blissful couple of hours.
I then headed to the Mark Twain Gallery where you can find an abundance of puzzles and board games (there is no casino on board), I saw the night before a signup sheet for bridge so there I was ready to do battle!
After I was defeated, I headed for lunch and choose to have it in the J M White dining room where I started with some tomato soup followed by a grilled turkey burger with all the trimmings.
I went to the chart room for a lecture by the boat’s riverlorians which was interesting, and we got to view maps of river throughout the years, was strange to see how much the river has been changed over the years. Here we saw us approach a bridge and I thought we would crash but the massive funnels lower – have a look here.
Dinner was delightful, I went with a dressed crab, pan-seared scallops, and some Matcha white chocolate mousse. I washed this down with some excellent white wine.
I then headed straight to the Engine Room Bar and danced the night away.
Day 9 – Disembark, Memphis Tennessee
It feels like my journey is over all too quickly. The 640 miles I travelled up the Mississippi have flown by. Did I enjoy it, yes! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, I would do the opposite route from Memphis to New Orleans letting me take in some new places, experiences and ports.
For me, I am heading to my hotel and then trying to see as much of Elvis as I can in Memphis!
If you want to find out more about The American Queen please look at https://www.bon-voyage.co.uk/destinations/american_queen_steamboat_company or give one of our experts a call on 02380 248248.