A Southern state of mind
by December 27, 2013on
Having grown up in the South, I chuckle when I hear someone describe a Southern location as looking like a “Hollywood movie set.” But that’s becoming more commonplace as more Southerners shoot movies — Mud and Walk the Line are two of the most recent — in the land of cotton, blues, pork barbecue, sweet potato pie, steel magnolias and antebellum mansions. Seeing the South in the movies is fun, but it’s a world that’s more fully appreciated during a leisurely visit that allows you to bask in the languid lifestyle and rich heritage. A river boat or small ship cruise gives you just such an opportunity.
My husband, John, and I have taken several river cruises in Europe, but a five-night cruise on the Mississippi River really stands out. The cruise began and ended in New Orleans. Each day, we docked in a different port and had time to take tours and visit plantation museums and Civil War sites. We also shopped to our heart’s content as well as sampled local culture, food and music. We loved listening to the cruise ship’s “riverlorian,” a historian who filled us in on the histories of the towns we visited, plus shared his boyhood experiences boating on the Big Muddy. John still considers the riverlorian’s tales to be the highlight of the trip.
American Queen Steamboat Company, American Cruise Lines and Avalon Waterways Cruises offer cruises of varying lengths and routes on the Mississippi River, which flows 2,350 miles from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Some cruises are fully Southern experiences, such as those with routes from Memphis to New Orleans or vice versa. Others also take you north to St. Louis and Chicago.
If you’ve seen the musical Showboat, you understand the grandeur of a paddlewheel steamboat. Stepping onto the deck of the American Queen Steamboat feels like stepping back into the heyday of river travel. The largest paddlewheel steamboat ever built, the American Queen is a luxurious ship that combines modern comforts with the grandeur of the Victorian era. Many of the elegant suites have verandas where you can sip a beverage — apple pie bourbon, anyone? — while enjoying the view of the shore. The views are one of the wonderful advantages of river cruising. At every point of your journey, you have a sweeping view of the shoreline on both sides of the river.
In 2012, American Cruise Line launched its Queen of the Mississippi, which was patterned after the big sternwheelers of the 1880s. The Queen of the Mississippi is known for fine dining that focuses on Creole (how about that jambalaya?) and Southern cuisine.
While rollin’ on the river, there’s plenty to do and see on board, such as nightly dancing and showboat-style entertainment plus daily talks by each ship’s river historian. The daily shore excursions, included in the price of cruise, aren’t to be missed. In Natchez, Mississippi, you’ll tour beautiful antebellum mansions such as Stanton Hall, built in 1857. During a stop in Helena, Arkansas, you’ll visit Cherry Street Historic District, where some scenes from the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line were filmed, plus see a replica of the Union Army’s Fort Curtis.
Of course, no trip on the Mississippi would be complete without stopping at Memphis, where you can visit Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, hear the raw energy of Beale Street blues, and check out the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.
There’s so much to see and do along the Mississippi River that you’ll want to return. Mark Twain said in best in his book Life on the Mississippi: “The face of the water became a wonderful book. ... It was not a book that was to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
(This article by Castaic Travel owner Sherri Rost appears in the January issue of Grapevine, the magazine for retired FBI agents.)