USA guide: Mississippi cruises
By Sam Ballard
America’s Deep South is a region like no other. Historically one of the poorest areas in the United States, it also boasts one of its richest cultures. This is the birthplace of rock’n’roll, the blues and jazz. When walking the streets of New Orleans, Nashville or Memphis, the music just sounds better. Musicians and singers spill out of the bars onto the streets where they carry on playing, for pleasure and tips, lining the streets and jostling for attention.
We start our Southern adventure in New Orleans, the self-declared capital of the Deep South and one of America’s biggest party towns. After two days in the Big Easy we will begin our Mississippi cruise with the American Queen Steamboat Company on through to Memphis, the final resting place of The King, Elvis Presley.
Music, cocktails and good times: New Orleans has been this way ever since the French and Spanish set up camp here centuries ago, before Napoleon sold it to the US in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. From Bourbon Street, the epicentre of the city’s nightlife, to the beautiful colonial mansions that line Charles Avenue and lead up to Audubon Park, there is a reason why New Orleans attracts both groups of Americans, out to enjoy boozy weekends, and foreigners coming from much further afield.
The French Quarter is relatively small, but is bursting with bars, restaurants, hotels and a number of other less than salubrious joints. We eat beignets at Café du Monde, which has been serving the sugar-stacked pastries since 1862; enjoy a night in August, one of the best fine-dining restaurants in town; and watch jazz in Palm Court, one of those neighbourhood cafés that manages to make both families and couples feel comfortable.
When it’s time to board the American Queen, any sadness we have at leaving New Orleans disappears at the first sight of our ship. The Queen is the biggest paddle steamer on the Mississippi and, as someone used to sailing on European river boats, it’s quite something to behold a river ship capable of holding 436 passengers.
The public areas are incredible – from the Mark Twain gallery to the Ladies Parlour – and appear to be influenced by the antebellum homes and steamboats of the Civil War period. The Grand Saloon theatre has been modelled on Ford’s Theatre (where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated), while the dining room boasts double-height ceilings with huge chandeliers that lead up to vast mirrors. The whole ship has an old world charm that suits our journey through Southern plantations, Civil War sites and on up to Memphis.
That evening we eat in the J.M. White Dining Room and feast upon typical home-cooked Southern fare of grits, fried chicken and biscuits before being introduced to the ship’s musicians, which include a jazz house band called the Steamboat Syncopators, a pianist who can play with his feet, Jerry Lee Lewis-style and a blues duo, all plucked from the huge pool of local talent. The all-American staff offer the very best in that famous Southern hospitality.
Our first stop is Oak Alley Plantation. Built in the 1830s by socialite Jacques Telesphore Roman, it is the epitome of antebellum extravagance. It sits at the bottom of a quarter of a mile of 300-year-old oak trees that links the house up to the Mississippi. The avenue of oaks was designed to tunnel the breeze from the river and help cool its inhabitants.
It’s easy to get caught up in the plantation’s glamorous surroundings, from the big house to the perfectly manicured gardens. The property was used as Brad Pitt’s lair in Interview With A Vampire and it really does suit that eerie feel. However, as our guide rightly reminds us, this wealth has to be put into the context in which it was created. To reinforce this, rickety reproduction slave quarters stand at the back of the gardens, the names of long-dead slaves written on the walls. The main house itself was built using Mississippi mud, taken from the river banks by the slaves themselves.
The tour was included in the price of the cruise. With every stop, there are always excursions available for those who don’t wish to part with any more cash, whether that’s a tour or the company’s hop-on, hop-off bus service. One tip would be to look at the premium excursions which often aren’t that expensive. From trips out to see alligators to visiting Morgan Freeman’s blues club, Ground Zero.
After our call at Oak Alley, the American Queen glides up the Mississippi to towns that all played a part in the Civil War. From Natchez to St. Francisville, Vicksburg and Helena. We are taught more about these former strongholds of the Confederacy that were brought to their knees by the occupying Union armies. Estates were repossessed, businesses stolen and livelihoods lost. Vicksburg did not even celebrate Independence Day for 81 years.
Our final stop on the American Queen is Memphis, a city I’ve been looking forward to visiting for a long time. Home to both Graceland and Sun Studio, which launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, there’s no shortage of attractions here. The city of Memphis offers a free bus between Sun Studio, Graceland and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which is good to know during the scorching summer months.
Beale Street, officially Home of the Blues, has music playing 24 hours a day in bars run by legends like the late BB King. It’s a little touristy, but for those staying just a few days, it’s well worth a visit.
Be prepared to spend at least half a day in the Civil Rights Museum, too. The museum runs through the plight of African Americans, from the slave trade through to the fight for Civil Rights. It features exhibits such as a bus you can board and sit next to a defiant Rosa Parks.
Graceland, the King of Rock’n’Roll Elvis Presley’s royal residence, is brilliantly absurd and just as over the top as you hope it would be. From his TV room, where he would have three sets blaring at once, to his jungle room that was furnished with carpet on the ceiling and a huge indoor water feature. His planes are both outside – the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II – although are arguably the most dated part of the whole tour, while his vast collection of cars, from his famous pink Cadillacs to stately Rolls-Royces, have pride of place in a garage literally fit for a king.
Our Mississippi cruise has been a remarkable experience. The American Queen is a ship that is made to turn heads while conjuring up images of southern belles and antebellum charm. The mighty Mississippi tells the story of America better than anyone else. Go and listen to it for yourself.