Ol’ Man River, among the longest in the USA, is the country’s lifeblood and inextricably linked to its history. It’s also perfect for river cruise, says Emily Eastman.
Iconic, meandering, and flowing through or along ten American states, from northern Minnesota to Louisiana, the mighty Mississippi has long been the lifeblood of the United States’ Midwest and South. Its history touches on trade and development, sustenance and transportation and, of course, slavery and hardship. Today, tourism makes a crucial contribution to its economy.
River cruise itineraries along the Mississippi offer cultural and historical intrigue, plus a taste of the true South: picture vast sugar-cane plantations, antebellum architecture and Civil War battlefields.
Most itineraries call at New Orleans, Louisiana and Memphis, Tennessee. In the former, guests can immerse themselves in the heady sounds of live jazz, learn how Creole culture came about, discover the true history of voodoo, explore the pretty French Quarter and dine on powdery sugar-stacked beignets. In the latter, they can savour the flavours of smoky pulled pork and Memphis-style dry-rub ribs, tour Elvis Presley’s Graceland and lose track of time in the lively historic district – the site of some of the city’s most infamous events and home to the excellent National Civil Rights Museum.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s eclectic capital, more than 300 years of history can be soaked up through the cuisine, architecture and Plantation Country. Upriver is St Francisville, where guests can enjoy some of Louisiana’s most remarkable vistas, featuring waterfalls, ravines and woodland; Natchez, promising southern home cooking, vibrant nightlife and historic walking trails; and Vicksburg, western Mississippi, dubbed ‘The Key to the South’ and home to the Lower Mississippi River Museum, which shares the history of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and houses the MV Mississippi IV, a dry-docked research vessel.
Further north and appearing on Upper Mississippi itineraries (available between June and October) is St Louis, Missouri, a hub of art, sports, live music, gastronomy and theatre. From here, guests can take a cruise to Ottawa, Illinois, the riverside gateway to Chicago.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, also features on some itineraries. Set in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and situated on the Tennessee River – which joins the Ohio river approximately 30 miles east of where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet – Chattanooga boasts sweeping views, sandstone formations and picturesque gardens. Point Park atop Lookout Mountain marks the site of a Civil War battle.
With so much to see along the Mississippi, it is little wonder that the river is rapidly growing as a cruise destination, and increasing numbers of operators are taking to its expansive waters. American Queen Steamboat Company is one of the most popular among guests wanting an authentic experience aboard a paddlewheeler. To meet rising demand, the operator boosted its fleet in spring 2017, launching the 166-passenger American Duchess to join American Queen on the Mississippi waterways. In 2018, it signed a deal to build its fourth paddlewheeler.
American Cruise Lines offers itineraries on both the Upper and Lower Mississippi aboard its contemporary-style riverboats – including the October 2018-launched American Song and its recently introduced sister ship, American Harmony – and paddlewheeler, America, which joined the fleet in spring 2016.
Viking Cruises has also thrown its hat into the ring. In January, Viking reached an agreement with the city of Hannibal, Missouri to guarantee a docking port following long-running on-again, off-again attempts to enter the Mississippi cruise market. The news comes at a time when the existing Mississippi operators are ramping up their fleets and itineraries to meet high demand – which is, of course, good news for operators, agents and cruise-goers alike.