River cruising is the hottest trend in the cruise world right now, and not just in Europe. It’s also thriving right here in the United States — and the aptly named American Cruise Lines (ACL) is leading the
ACL has ships cruising the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, the Hudson River in upstate New York, the Intracoastal Waterway in the Southeastern U.S., and many more.
But my wife, Catharine, and I were most intrigued by ACL’s cruise down the lower Mississippi — from Memphis to New Orleans — partly because it was an area of the country we hadn’t explored as much as some others, and partly because the ship, the Queen of the Mississippi, was built in the style of an old-fashioned paddle wheeler, allowing us to return to Mark Twain days for a week.
The Queen is actually a new ship — launched in 2012 — and the paddle wheel is for show rather than thrust, although it does put on a very good show, churning the water behind it and turning the Big Muddy even muddier.
The ship holds a maximum of 150 passengers, and it was filled pretty much to capacity for our voyage. The average age aboard was actually pre-baby boomer, I’d guess, with lots of passengers in their 70s. (The ship’s elevator was a popular feature.) But there were plenty of boomers aboard and some younger folks as well.
And, as we discovered, lots of the pre-boomers aboard were sharper than people half their age. We met and befriended retired college professors, CPAs, business executives — even a 79-year-old race car driver (not a typo) who is…still racing.
Almost everyone participated in the shore excursions — some hitched rides on golf carts for longer walks — and the nightly entertainment venue was usually packed to watch bluegrass and Dixieland jazz musicians and other performers. A “rivertorian” — river historian — was also aboard to give lectures on the Mississippi and its role in U.S. history, commerce and lore.
Food, served at one sitting in the dining room, was consistently first rate. The breakfast menu included items like eggs Benedict and Belgian waffles while lunches and dinners were always three courses, with choices of appetizers, main courses and desserts.
Seafood appeared frequently on the menus, as did southern dishes. And while I seldom eat desserts at home, I found myself downing one for every lunch and dinner on the cruise.
Because most tables seat six or eight people, you get to meet a lot of your fellow passengers during the course of the week. Inevitably, though, a sorting process occurs, and in the last few days we found ourselves dining primarily with couples from Utah, California, Australia and Maryland, several of whom we first met at the hour-long pre-dinner cocktail gathering that started at 5:30 each afternoon.
With drinks included in the price of the cruise, these gatherings turned out to be merry affairs — and even more so as the hour went along. The ship’s staff wasn’t shy with their pouring — and that includes the multiple wine bottles that appeared at dinner.
Speaking of the staff, the servers at meals were almost all incredibly friendly and helpful. Most were students either in college, headed there, or newly graduated. They also cleaned the rooms — which were remarkably spacious, by the way — served appetizers at the cocktail hours, and drove golf carts. I hope everyone tipped generously at the end of the cruise.
I’ll have more in the coming days about what we saw and did on shore. But many of our favorite moments on the cruise were spent on board — sitting on our balcony or up on deck, watching the states of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana go by, with views of trees, barges, and the occasional bridge, cups of coffee in hand, everything mostly peaceful and still.
Here’s one amazing statistic: in pre-Civil war days, when cotton was king, two-thirds of all American millionaires lived between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. That all ended abruptly with the war and the abolition of slavery, the scourge that had enabled the wealthy plantations to thrive, and later by the boll weevil, the pest that finally dethroned king cotton.
We learned about all this and much more during our voyage down the lower Mississippi, a fascinating region that is coming to terms with its past and looking to the future. We were impressed by current-day Memphis, Natchez, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and some sleepy small towns along the way as well.
Next up: Memphis.