The show boat

By steamer through the heart and soul of the Mis­sis­sippi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - MAGGY OEHLBECK

“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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.