Floating along the lower Mississippi River on a riverboat cruise is like a journey back in time. There are visits to grand antebellum homes, glimpses of monuments to a war that changed the course of the nation’s history and, at times, even a disconnect from modern-day technology such as cellphones.
Sailing from New Orleans in late November on an eight-day American Cruise Lines voyage to Memphis, Tenn., I was eager to experience all that our various ports would offer. Our riverboat, the American Harmony, was the cruise line’s newest vessel, launched in August 2019. With a 190-passenger capacity, she carried only 130 guests on this trip, perhaps due to the approaching holiday season.
From the moment we arrived, when we were “piped aboard” by a jazz combo, the attitude of the crew was reflective of gracious Southern hospitality. The young crew members were wonderfully attentive. This was my first break from work in well over a year, and I enjoyed a little pampering!
Lest passengers go an hour or two without eating, a welcome-aboard buffet greeted us immediately. Sandwiches and salads plus ornate miniature bundt cakes were just a small taste of what was to come in the days ahead.
After settling into comfortable cabins with private balconies, it was less than 24 hours until we docked at our first stop — Burnside, La. From there, I visited Oak Alley plantation, one of numerous shore excursions included in the cruise purchase price.
The Greek Revival-style Oak Alley, named for its stately entranceway lined by massive oak trees, is one of the best-known Southern plantations. The home is beautiful with its white, Doric columns and lavish furnishings. Yet it was also poignant to quietly walk across the plantation grounds later in the day, standing by a replica of a former slave cabin and looking across the wooded land to the rising white mansion.
The next day, docked in Baton Rouge, La., I was off to see another “Grande Dame,” the stunning Rosedown mansion, in St. Francisville, about a half hour away. This is perhaps my all-time favorite antebellum residence. The “big house” of this former cotton plantation still has more than 90 percent of its original furnishings. There are lovely dark-wood furniture suites, elegant china settings, murals, nostalgic nursery items, and innovative features such as built-in closets next to fireplaces, designed to help keep clothes dry in Southern humidity.
That afternoon, I wandered ashore in Baton Rouge and saw the castle-like old state capitol building and the “new,” 1932-vintage capitol building where Gov. Huey Long was shot and killed.
Looking around at my fellow passengers on the shore excursions and on the riverboat, it was easy to see that I was one of the youngest guests on board. The average age of American Cruise Lines passengers is 72, said the vessel’s hotel manager, Mike Powell, who also noted a trend toward more passengers in their late 40s and early 50s. Riverboat staff drove golf carts from the dock to awaiting tour buses in several ports, accommodating those with physical disabilities.
Some of the standard cruise ship features such as swimming pools, gift shop, specialty restaurants and kids’ play areas are not included on the American Harmony, as they are apparently not in demand with this clientele. Even “late-night entertainment” began at 9:30 p.m. The décor throughout the ship was fresh and new, if rather simple in design.
No matter the age of the passengers, the crew kept us moving. On the fourth day of the voyage, we arrived in Natchez, Miss. Here, the organized shore excursions didn’t appeal to me, so I chose to just ride the complementary shuttle into town. Passengers waited for the shuttle at Natchez Under the Hill, which, in the 1800s was notorious as the site of taverns, gambling halls and other shady establishments. Today, about all you’ll see here is a long-time saloon and gift shop.
A highlight of this day was visiting another classic home, Stanton Hall. Built in 1849, with its Corinthian columns and 22-inch-thick walls, this was once the largest house in Natchez, boasting 14,000 square feet. This residence housed Union soldiers for a time, served as a day school, and was the set for interior shots of Patrick Swayze’s home in the mini-series, “North and South,” circa 1985.
Our final port before our disembarkation site was Vicksburg, Miss., the scene of a key Civil War battle. Riding on a guided tour bus past cannons, monuments to participating regiments and commanders, plus burial grounds with row upon row of tombstones, this is a moving site. One of the most impressive aspects for me was seeing the barren fields and hills that soldiers would need to cross in the course of battle, leaving themselves vulnerable to enemy fire.
In the afternoon, I toured the 1861 Duff Green House, which is now a bed and breakfast; saw an original Tiffany church window memorializing a young local girl; and met Bertram Hayes-Davis, the great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States.
After a relaxing day on the river, with no ports of call (and sometimes, no cell service), the American Harmony docked in Memphis. Here, we had a full day to explore the city before disembarking the next morning. I visited Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, with its complex of exhibits, food and shopping, somewhat reminiscent of an amusement park; walked down the legendary Beale Street; and saw The Peabody Memphis ducks (see related story).
Before and after these shore excursions, we inevitably found ourselves in the American Harmony’s dining room for another meal. The food was good, with multiple entrée choices ranging from filet mignon to swordfish and barbecued ribs, all served with style. Desserts included pecan pie, chocolate lava cake and assorted cheesecakes. For more casual cuisine, the vessel’s Back Porch Café had a menu of pizza, hamburgers and wraps. Breakfast room service also was available, with cereal, eggs, meats, toast and waffles.
There were numerous shipboard programs to fill the vacant hours, such as lectures on the history of the Mississippi River and Civil War; a female soloist; a magic show; and performances of jazz and Americana roots music by small ensembles.
With fewer passengers than most ocean-going ships, American Cruise Lines is able to “cater to more of a personalized service,” according to Powell.
Each of the passengers I talked to was enthusiastic about the cruise.
“The staff has been attentive and accommodating,” said Julie Ranson Hester of Huntersville, N.C. In the past, she found another cruise company’s vessel “so big, it was overwhelming.” On the American Harmony, “one of the nice things is that there are fewer people. I’ve gotten to know a lot more people.” And there’s no worry of seasickness on the river, she added.
“They have some good people waiting on us,” said Archie Blood of Holland, Mich. “It does make a difference.”
After leaving the riverboat, I began to work my way back to New Orleans for my flight home.
Traveling by rental car, I returned to Natchez for a night at the Monmouth Plantation (lovely, but my cabin, set in the midst of trees, had a slightly eerie vibe about it). Then, it was on to New Orleans to sample the famous beignets (small, rectangular-shaped donuts drenched in powdered sugar), do a bit of souvenir shopping and have a farewell glimpse of the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral at sunset.
Rollin’ on the river. It’s a great escape from the everyday world!