The show boat
By steamer through the heart and soul of the Mississippi
“Follow the music, and you can’t miss the boat,” the porter says. Despite ears still ringing from several nights at Bourbon Street jazz joints in New Orleans, we follow the jubilant sounds of Dixie, which lead us straight to the boat.
There on the mighty Mississippi, its ancestral home, awaits American Queen, the world’s largest steamboat, and the only true example of the genre in the US. Crisp white balustrades are festooned with tri-colour bunting, twin stacks stand tall, like Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, and an enormous red bustle of a paddlewheel is at the stern. This is a set-designer’s dream, ready for actors to make their entrance. “Will it be cowboy boots or crinolines?” my companion quips. Hollywood’s Mississippi riverboat gambler movies have coloured her perception.
Accepting a glass of fizz and some tasty morsels from the welcoming all-American crew, we enter an impressive lobby with a grand staircase and enormous arrangement of fresh flowers. Following the music, we aim for the upper decks to eye our fellow travellers; they present as a cultured, cross-generational, multinational group who manage the country-club-casual dress code with ease. All have gathered to farewell New Orleans and watch the ebb and flow of river traffic, from giant container ships and cruise liners to cargo and pleasure boats. All make way for American Queen while flares from oil rigs and power plants illuminate our progress until we head upriver into less muddy and more serene waters, hemmed with wooded banks. We overhear mutterings that boar and coyote are in “them thar woods”.
Our six-day cruise of the Lower Mississippi will take us through the US’s musical heartland, from New Orleans’s Bourbon Street to Memphis’s Beale Street and ending at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former home in Memphis, all embracing styles from jazz, through gospel and blues, ragtime and country to rock. It is a journey into the culture and turmoil of the Deep South that fuelled the literary legacy of Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Harper Lee.
The dinner gong for second sitting summons us to the JM White dining room; it’s a light-filled space, with handsome high-backed chairs, perfectly dressed tables with fine crystal, flatware, fresh flowers and menus featuring cajun and creole specialties created by renowned southern chef Regina Charboneau. Breakfast and lunch are also served here, or at the Front Porch Cafe.
Along from the dining room is the two-storey Grand Saloon reproduced in the style of a small-town 19th-century “opry-house”. It provides a spectacular setting for nightly shows or daily talks on river lore, the telling of steamboat stories and performances by an impressive Mark Twain tribute actor. There is seldom a spare seat. The Grand Saloon is based on Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, but the Grand Saloon replica of the former president’s private balcony, where he was gunned down, is never occupied.
American Queen’s resident company of entertainers comprise high-calibre singers, dancers and an orchestra with members who are outstanding jazz musicians in their own right. And every night, into the wee small hours, you can hear authentic Delta blues in the Engine Room Bar. After his watch, the captain (who plays a mean guitar) sometimes joins in, to listeners’ delight as they watch the big red paddle churning through the waters of this industrial corridor and environmental treasure.
I get a brief lesson in riverboat terminology from said captain. American Queen is not a ship, but a boat. It has a flat bottom and low freeboard. It doesn’t dock, but lands. It doesn’t have gangways, but two long arms known as stages, which can be lowered for landing almost anywhere. Speed is measured in statute miles, not knots.
By day, the Front Porch is a popular spot as guests sway to the rhythm of the river in rocking chairs or deck swings. But if a bridge looms, most go aloft to watch the stacks being lowered horizontally so the vessel can pass beneath low bridges, often to the wheezy accompaniment of its calliope. Although a riverboat tradition, calliope music is a novelty to some, anathema to others.
Unlike cruising Europe’s waterways, there are comparatively fewer towns and cities on the Lower Mississippi. This is the rural south. But some historic port towns still survive and American Queen’s fleet of free hop-on, hop-off buses allow you to choose to go ashore or not. The buses make a 15-minute circuit between stops
The steamboat American Queen on the Mississippi, top; the boat’s Grand Saloon, above; and stateroom accommodation, left