Our cabin on the American Symphony (top) rivaled those we have enjoyed in many an upscale hotel. The food and table settings were both five-star. The lengthy list of available activities in our temporary home away from home covered a wide diversity of interests. Oh yes, and there also were ample opportunities to explore inviting towns that provided deep dives into Civil War and other history, visit magnificent antibellum plantations and mansions with their lovely gardens.
Adding to the allure of our lower Mississippi River cruise was the chance to explore museums which bring to life prehistoric times, Native American and African American stories, and a wide variety of numerous aspects of life in that fascinating corner of the United States.
American Cruise Lines
My wife Fyllis and I were enjoying one of more than 50 small-ship itineraries available from American Cruise Lines which ply rivers and other waters through 35 states in vessels which carry between 90 and 180 passengers. The result combines a long list of facilities, amenities and activities comparable to those available on the largest ocean-going mega-cruisers with the intimacy of a much smaller setting and far fewer people. The company lives up to its invitation to “cruise close to home,” offering trips along the Mississippi, Columbia, Ohio, Hudson and other rivers; as well as through Maryland´s Chesapeake Bay, along Maine’s coast, and a long list of other waterways. Features of these cruises include spacious outside staterooms with private balconies; a lengthy list of both onboard and shore activities; and a welcome all-inclusive policy.
Plus even had we never left the ship, Fyllis and I could have found diversions enough to fill many an hour. Resident historians and other speakers lead enlightening discussions. The complimentary evening cocktail hour, nightly entertainment, and various other offerings compete with the appeal of enjoying the comforts of the expansive stateroom.
We enjoyed relaxing on our balcony, reading and watching the mighty Mississippi River. Between Memphis, Tennessee, our embarkation point, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, we saw a lot of nothing except both shorelines blanketed with woodlands. Meanwhile, the only river traffic was an occasional tow boat pushing a long line of multiple barges. These small but powerful vessels, also called pusher tugs and pusher boats, trace their ancestry back to steamboat days, when those vessels began to tow wooden barges to earn additional revenue. After the post-Civil-War expansion of railroads ended the steamboat heyday, tow boats took over the task of moving barges loaded with cargo including cars and coal, food, fuel, and other goods.
Fyllis and I were equally enthralled by opportunities to set our feet on land and explore the historic and other gems at towns along our route.The brick streets of Vicksburg, Mississippi lead to its Civil War Museum, the Vicksburg National Military Park a National Park Service member also focused on the Civil War; the early 19th-century Church of the Holy Trinity with beautiful Tiffany windows; and a house which served as hospital during the Civil War, with Union and Confederate soldiers separated on different floors; another house whose an iron gate is still bent where it was struck by a cannonball; and a series of large wall murals along the waterfront (above) depicts various stories from the town’s past, including the role that this great river played in development of the community and contributions made by African-Americans.
J. Stephen Conn
The next stop in Mississippi was Natchez, which was established by French colonists in 1716 and became part of the United States in 1783. Planters used slave labor to grow cotton and sugarcane, and built expansive mansions and estates (such as Dunleith Plantation, above, now a 22-room inn) to demonstrate their wealth. Many of these stately homes survive to relate part of this story, while the Natchez Museum of African-American Culture and History tells another side, and one tour of this town includes a stop at a historically Black church to hear a Gospel musical performance.
Cruising our way southward into Louisiana, our first stop was tiny St. Francisville (population about 1,600), which more than makes up in appeal and historical sites what it lacks in size. Rosedown Plantation (above) is surrounded by one of the largest remaining 19th-century private formal gardens. Another extensive garden, which includes a pool, deer park, peacocks, and more, is a feature of Catalpa; while its original plantation house was destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War, the charming Victorian cottage that was built to replace it is furnished with the treasures of five generations. Meanwhile, in addition to a blacksmith shop, kitchen and other buildings at Oakley House (now a state park), an added plus is the Audubon State Historic Site, which includes the home where famed artist and naturist John James Audubon lived in 1821 and worked on 32 of his famous bird paintings.
Next up, state capital Baton Rouge has a number of interesting stories to relate, beginning with the derivation of its name. In 1698, French explorers sailing up the Mississippi spotted a red pole along the shoreline, learned that it marked the boundary between hunting grounds of two Native American tribes, called it le baton rouge (the red stick), and the name stuck. Over time, the town was ruled by seven governments before eventually becoming Louisiana´s second largest city and in 1846 being designated the capital to replace “sinful” New Orleans. Today with a population of around 227,000, it´s a culturally diverse community which includes Cajun and Creole people, African-Americans, and a melting pot of other ethnic and religious backgrounds. Adding to the mix is its status as a college town, home to Louisiana State University, historically Black Southern University, and other institutions of higher learning. Another claim to fame for Baton Rouge is its role as the farthest inland port on the Mississippi River that can accommodate oceangoing tankers and cargo carriers; freight headed further north is transferred to barges.
Not surprisingly, "Big Raggedy" also boasts its share of history-oriented sites, in addition to visiting the Louisiana State Capitol with its 27th-floor observation deck, the Capitol Park Museum traces contributions of Native Americans, early European colonists, enslaved people and others to the area’s development and accomplishments. Exhibits at the LSU Rural Life Museum, a largely outdoor complex of 32 historic buildings, focus on the way of life of 18th- and 19th-century Louisianans, and the Port Hudson State Historic Site preserves the scene of the longest military siege in U.S. history, from late May to early July 1863. Other local attractions of note include the rather White-Housy Old Governor´s Mansion (from 1930 to 1962), tthe Old State Capitol (above), he LSU Museum of Art, and the World War II destoyer USS Kidd.
Next up, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the town of Houma is my personal favorite among the Mississipi River plantations, which lives up to the romanticized image and then some - which is why Houmas House (above, pronounced "Hummus) has appeared in a variety of motion pictures and TV series. It was established in the late 1700s on land inhabited by the Houma Native Americans. The main French-colonial-style house, built about 1775, served as the focal point of what became a very successful sugar cane operation. An oak-tree alley leads the eye to the front of the graceful house and resident geese and ducks act as noisy sentries. The tour of the lovingly restored antebellum mansion recalls those heady days, and rare period furnishings, art and artifacts reflect the home’s former opulence. Then there are the gardens, 38 acres of colorful native and exotic plantings which serve as backdrop to a museum-quality collection of sculptures.
Our voyage ended in New Orleans, and even as the journey drew to a close, participants had an opportunity for one last guided excursion. This tour leads to a number of highlights in the self-proclaimed “City That Care Forgot.” They include the famous French Quarter (above) and the genteel Garden District, with its own completement of imposing mansions - some equalling the most beautiful plantations visited during our cruise, but many are relatively modest and far from the idealized portrayals in movies and southern lore.
And as I noted above, this is just one of many marvelous itineraries, ships, and experiences offered by this cruise line, and it will be a challenge choosing among them. All-inclusive fares begin at $2,405. Learn more at AmericanCruiseLines.com.