After an interesting three days in New Orleans, it was time to join the American Queen – the largest steamboat ever built. Check in at the Hyatt Regency Hotel was a little cumbersome and whilst in theory a very good idea, in reality did ... Read More
After an interesting three days in New Orleans, it was time to join the American Queen – the largest steamboat ever built. Check in at the Hyatt Regency Hotel was a little cumbersome and whilst in theory a very good idea, in reality did not really work as planned. However, once on board the boat, my luggage was already in my cabin. My cabin was cosy and very comfortable. My private veranda was particularly atmospheric.
The American Queen caters very well for older guests and surprisingly well for disabled guests, with wide walkways and two elevators. Although there are no children’s facilities, there are family suites and the children on my cruise seemed perfectly content.
In terms of atmosphere, the multi national guests are served by an all-American staff who were utterly faultless – perhaps due to a generous off-and-on working pattern. This is perhaps best felt in the dining experience. There’s the outdoor River Grill, the delightfully relaxed buffets of the Front Porch Café or, for a more considered experience, the J.W. White Dining Room. This being America, expect only the most generous of portions. Meals are all washed down with complimentary wine and beer while teas, coffees, juices, soft drinks and bottled water are included throughout the cruise.
In between stops, there’s a whole host of activities to keep you busy. A true standout is the palatial Grand Saloon; standing at two decks tall it mirrors the small-town opera houses of the 19th century with detail modelled after Washington DC’s famous Ford’s Theatre – the site of Lincoln’s assassination. Here, the entertainment is uniformly excellent with the six-piece band – ‘The Steamboat Syncopators’ – matched only by a superbly talented four-piece song and dance ensemble. In fact, you’ll be treated to performances throughout the ship’s bars and lounges with the live music of the Engine Room playing until the last person went to bed.
There was plenty more during the day, including an on-board ‘riverlorian’ – Bobby Durham. A published author on the subject, his expert lectures, quizzes and tales bring to life Victorian river life on the Mississippi. When he’s not giving lectures, he can regularly be found in the Chart Room, poring over old maps and discussing stories with guests. For something more active, there’s a well-equipped gym, an outdoor heated pool and complimentary bicycles and helmets are available to borrow at each port of call. But the voyage is all about the easy life; the dress code is country club casual, the library loans out Mark Twain and the American Queen travels at a nap-inducing 14 miles per hour.
Our first port of call was Oak Alley, Louisiana and one of the Deep South’s most impressive sugar plantations. Named for its quarter-mile walkway of 300-year-old oak trees that all but form a tunnel of pure green, Oak Alley is a truly evocative destination. It’s a chance to gain a full appreciation of the Deep South’s chequered past from the perspective of the slaves as well as the landed gentry, with visits to both the ‘Big House’ mansion and tours of the grounds.
From here, we continued to St. Francisville – the oldest town in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes. Just two miles long by two miles wide, it’s an immersive collection of 19th-century antebellum architecture and felt for all the world like being part of a bygone era. While excursions at each port are included – and aided by hop-on and hop-off coaches – I chose to take the premium option here with a visit to Angola Prison. This turned into the most memorable and humbling part of my whole trip. Once America’s most dangerous penitentiary, today it’s known as a model facility that takes great pride on the faith-based rehabilitation of its inmates – most of whom are serving life sentences. We were taken behind the barbed wire for an up-close look at the prison and the chance to meet and hear stories from its ‘lifers’. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was an utterly inspirational experience.
Our next stop – on Thanksgiving no less – was Natchez. Once one of the richest towns in America, its historic wealth – predicated on cotton farming – can still be seen in yet more grand, antebellum homes. It’s the ideal spot for a horse-and-carriage ride. It also presented some of the best landscapes of the trip, with bluff-top views stretching for 30 miles along the Mississippi. Further heritage can be found at next-door Vicksburg, its high bluffs forming typical Natchez Indian territory that overlook the river. Unsurprisingly, it was the battlefield for many an American Civil War skirmish – something brought to life by our guides.
Our last stop before final disembarkation was Tunica. While Natchez counted its riches Tunica was once the state’s poorest county. Today, however, casinos have turned the city’s fortunes around and our stop afforded us the chance to witness American glam at its glitziest. It’s worth noting that this was an amended route, with low water levels turning us away from Helena, Arkansas.
All in all, a wonderful and very unique cruise experience, which I cannot rate too highly. A perfect choice to allow non driving visitors to the Deep South to experience an interesting taste of 'small' town America. Read Less