This year our Music at Sea group tried something different – a cruise from New Orleans to Memphis on the amazing American Queen Paddlewheel Steamboat. What a fabulous trip – and one we plan to repeat!

It’s hard to talk about this boat without using superlatives. The boat itself is elegant, with a warm, welcoming ambiance that takes you back to Mark Twain’s era. Not being fans of antiques ourselves, John and I were not sure what to expect, but the Victorian antiques are absolutely beautiful and everywhere we looked we found something else to admire.

The entire ship is decorated in antiques, right down to the individual cabins, so every room is different. The stunning Mark Twain Gallery has everything from a gorgeous chandelier (found, of all places, in a stable at Anheuser Busch) to Tiffany lamps to an official torch for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The Ladies Parlor evokes women in hoop skirts, and later ruffles and bustles. The Gentleman’s Card Room with it’s huge stuffed trophy fish, large masculine chairs and heavy furniture is a perfect place for a card game.

The food onboard was some of the best we’ve had on any ship, both in the dining room and in the casual Front Porch Café. Being from the South, I was at the buffet every morning for either grits or biscuits with sausage gravy. What really impressed us, though, was the quality of the food. Steaks were fork tender, chicken was always juicy. The only thing I remember tasting and not liking was a serving of either turnip or collard greens that topped one of the vegetables one evening. They probably were very good, for turnip greens, but I’ve never liked that particular vegetable.

The dining room, with its stained glass windows lining the walls near the ceiling, can be looked into from the Mark Twain Gallery. It’s a beautiful room, and having tables set with chargers, full sets of silverware, and multiple wine glasses on white tablecloths made it stand out compared to less fancy setting on most lines’ dining rooms. Then, after a wonderful meal we would head to the spectacular Grand Saloon theater.

Music is everywhere onboard, from the calliope playing as we left the ports, to entertainment before dinner in the lobby outside the dining room. From jazz to opera, we never knew what to expect. Entertainment onboard is surprisingly good, considering that the same people entertain the entire cruise, but their versatility is amazing. The American Queen has an ensemble of four singers/dancers, all of whom have beautiful voices, plus an outstanding band. Each evening in the theater was a different style music. We had jazz, Broadway musicals, individual performances – all excellent. After the show, we could go to the Engine Room Bar for more great music, though I’ll admit that it was a bit loud for us and I would not have wanted to have a cabin close to this bar. Or we could go sit outside our cabin and watch the river roll by.

Of course, our group was there to hear Brooks Aehron as part of his Music at Sea program. Nothing matched our two concerts from Brooks, held in the gorgeous Grand Saloon (modeled after the famous Ford Theater). Brooks makes these so special – even asking in advance if group members would like to request favorites, and then playing all of these. As always, the concerts were incredible, but this time we were treated to a very eclectic mix – from pieces by classical composers like Mozart and Tschaikovsky, to Gershwin’s Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, to Scott Joplin, and even “Hoe-Down” by American composer Aaron Coplan. That last was a real surprise! What an exceptional opportunity, to sit with a small group listening to an outstanding pianist play, hearing stories about the composers, and just absorbing the music. aps

During the day when not in port, we had very interesting talks by the Riverlorian, Bobby Durham, getting a sense of life in Mark Twain’s time and a history of the riverboats. We could also go down to the engine room to talk to the engineers and feel the power of the paddlewheel. John and I also took advantage of an opportunity to visit the Pilot House, learning how the Pilots talk to other craft on the river, keep track of the ever-changing sandbars, and hearing a bit more history. It was fascinating, and another example of how friendly everyone on this boat is.

We had taken advantage of American Queen Steamboat Company’s package that includes the one night prior hotel stay, so had arrive into New Orleans the day before the cruise started. Their choice of hotels, the Hilton Riverside, is excellent and in a great location to walk to much of the tourist quarter. Despite the rain the next day, we and some good friends went to one of New Orleans’ best restaurants, the Court of Two Sisters, for their famous weekend jazz brunch. John and I have visited this on our honeymoon many, many years ago, so it was nice to go back. What a great experience! The jazz trio played the entire time, the buffet brunch is incredible, we were inside out of the rain – and Patricia learned to love grits! Perfect.

Once the rain stopped, we headed back to the hotel before boarding the ship, stopping for a little bit of shopping in French Quarter and watching both a street performer as Transformer character “Bumblebee” scoot around as a car and then stand up, and then a wedding precession complete with small band and children in tuxes and fancy dresses dancing along with the bride and groom.

Our ports of call on this trip were mixed. If we had had time, we would have spent more time in New Orleans, seeing the War Museum, which several of our group really enjoyed. Our first port of call was to Oak Alley, a famous and beautifully restored plantation. The boat docked right at the levee for the plantation and we just walked over through that row of 300-year-old oaks to the house where we took the guided tour. It’s a beautiful house, and the story of the man who built it was interesting, but more educational were the small houses out back for the slaves, including one that was used as the medical building. Reading about the daily lives of these people makes us realize again just how miserable conditions were for many, even with more liberal owners like those on this plantation.

Excursions in all ports except Oak Alley are on privately-owned buses decorated like the American Queen. They follow the ship up the river, and in each town take a route that gives you the chance to get off and on at your leisure, with admission to local sites included in your cruise cost. In addition, you have the option of paying extra for Premium Excursions, and many of our group took advantage of these.

The ports were interesting, with everything from small museums to the Civil War battlefield in Vicksburg to Antebellum homes. In Helena, Arkansas, we were walked across the street from an interesting tour through a beautifully restored home to a small park, where a uniformed soldier gave us a history of the town’s battle during the war, along with a demonstration of a cannon firing. The “cannon” was only a tiny replica, about a foot long, but the noise was still extremely loud. I can’t imagine what the full-sized cannon we examined would have sounded like, and can only be glad I didn’t have to find out. Helena is recovering from the economic downturn of a few years ago, and I’m really glad we stopped there. I have to say, though, that as much as we enjoyed our short stays in the ports, we really liked the slow trip up the river, sitting outside watching the river roll past, enjoying the greenery (after all, we’re from “golden” California), and just relaxing. We did learn, though, that going downstream is better because you have more time in port. We’ll keep that in mind on our future trips, as we will be doing the Columbia River next year on the American Empress, and definitely hope to do more of the Mississippi River in the future on the gorgeous American Queen.

Rosemary Roberts, September 2015