On our recent cruise down the Mississippi River aboard American Cruise Lines’ paddlewheeler Queen of the Mississippi, my wife, Catharine, and I started in Memphis and ended in New Orleans.
In between came stops in ports as large as Baton Rouge, as small as St. Francisville (Louisiana) and as medium-sized as Natchez, Mississippi. We also stopped at several lovely antebellum plantations that illustrated the wealth of the region before the Civil War, built on cotton, sugar and the slaves who worked the fields or served the plantation owners and their families in their homes.
The most striking of the plantations, to me, is called Oak Alley, which we visited the last full day of the cruise before reaching New Orleans. It’s on the west (Louisiana) bank of the Mississippi, where a number of estates line the river, but this is the crown jewel of the lot.
It was pouring rain when we arrived at Oak Alley, so the walk up the quarter-mile path past a double row of enormous 300-year-old Virginia Live Oaks was somewhat dimmed, but the grandeur of the trees and the grounds was still clear. The 28 oaks, spaced 80 feet apart (but whose thick limbs — some so heavy that they rest on the ground — draw them much closer together) actually predate the plantation house itself.
The largest tree, named Josephine, has a girth of 30 feet and a limb-spread of 127 feet. Since the trees (all of which have names) have a life expectancy of some 600 years, they’re only middle-aged. More live oaks line the back alley leading to the slaves quarters; these were planted in the 1830s and 1930s so are only slightly less impressive.
The Big House, as the main mansion is called, was built by slaves for a wealthy sugar planter named Jacques Roman, as a gift for his bride, Celina, as a bribe to lure her away from her active social life in New Orleans. The Greek Revival home, a National Historic Landmark, has been restored to its original opulence and earned the moniker “The Grande Dame of the Great River Road.”
After a succession of other owners, it’s now the property of the non-profit Oak Alley Foundation, which runs a restaurant and gift shop on the site, and dispenses mint juleps to complement the Old South atmosphere.
A guide in period costume led us around the Big House, where terraces provided fine overviews of the live oaks and lush green grounds, but we were most struck by the reconstructed slave quarters at the rear, a row of sparsely furnished shacks. Producing sugar required arduous manual labor — even more so than the cotton raised farther up the river — in the hot sun. But field workers were considered lower beings than the slaves who worked in the house, so they lived in even worse circumstances, often having to sleep on the hard floor of their tiny shacks with only blankets to lie on.
Hundreds of slaves worked the plantation from 1835 until the Civil war, and many of their names are inscribed on one wall of one of the cottages. A ledger records what each slave was “worth” on the open market — some more than a thousand dollars.
As beautiful as it is, Oak Alley also serves as a stark reminder of a dark period in our nation’s past.
We docked in New Orleans later that day, but few deserted the ship in favor of our farewell dinner, which included shrimp cocktail, oysters Rockefeller, stuffed lobster tail, roasted beef tenderloin, and a rich chocolate raspberry terrine or strawberry panna cotta for dessert. The previous night, I should add, the staff surprised me with a birthday cake, a few days before my actual birthday, which was shared among my seven tablemates, including couples from Utah, California and Australia whom we had become friendly with.
And I would be remiss not to note that the dining room servers, mostly of college age, were uniformly excellent, somehow managing to smile through a hectic day’s schedule while making it all a very relaxing experience for the passengers. Hats off to them, and to all the staff on board.
After an early but quite sizable breakfast — I went with the biscuits and sausage gravy, with eggs and potatoes on the side — we disembarked in the Big Easy, where we had arranged to stay an extra day before returning home.
After catching a taxi to our downtown hotel, we spent the day wandering and eating our way through the French Quarter, making the mandatory stop for beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde, downing wonderful grilled oysters at Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar and later at the Royal House restaurant, another seafood place where we met some of our newly made friends from the ship for dinner.
Apparently our stomachs had expanded during the cruise, because after dinner we ambled over to a downtown dive for bread pudding, and downed enormous portions of it.
We were still full when we caught a taxi to the airport at 4 a.m. the next day, regretting that our days of being waited on, catered to, discovering new sights and lounging on our cabin balcony, watching the river and the world go by, had come to an end, as all cruises must.
Naturally, on our flight home, I found myself flipping through the American Cruise Lines brochure, contemplating our next river cruise. The Columbia River sounds good, but then so do the cruises along the Inland Passage of the East Coast.
And then there are the special Chesapeake Bay Crabfest Cruises and the New England Lobster Cruises…