Join Cruise Adviser’s Sam Ballard as he sails the Mississippi with the American Queen Steamboat Company. His journey begins in the ‘capital of the Deep South’, New Orleans
Entering New Orleans is like entering another world. Music fills every corner of every street. Performers, playing for pleasure and tips, line the streets, jostling for the attention of the people that flow through the city.
The Big Easy is a party town. It has been ever since the French and the Spanish made their homes here centuries ago, before Napoleon sold it to the US as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. However, over the years creole society soirees have been swapped for jazz clubs and all other kinds of hedonistic activity. From groups of Americans coming through for boozy weekends to travellers from much further afield, New Orleans has always attracted people. It is the self-declared capital of the Deep South. It is also the place where we will begin our Mississippi cruise with the American Queen Steamboat Company.
For the two nights before we get on board we stay at the luxury Soniat House, the former New Orleans residence of a wealthy sugar plantation owner, which sits on the edge of the world-famous French Quarter. We are just two streets away from the buzz of Bourbon Street, yet the hotel is an oasis of calm. Its beautiful galleries, verandas and courtyards have been exquisitely renovated. The rooms and hallways are full of antique furniture, with artwork loaned from prestigious museums. In the courtyard you can listen to classical music during the evening.
New Orleans’s French Quarter is relatively small. However, it is packed with bars, restaurants, clubs, shops, hotels and a number of other less than holy establishments too. We eat beignets (French doughnuts) and drink chicory coffee at Café du Monde, watch jazz at the neighbourhood-style Palm Court and dine at August, one of the best restaurants in town. We also jump on a streetcar and take it to Audubon Park, past the colonial style mansions that line up along St Charles Avenue. However, regardless of where you go, you can’t escape the music. This is the birthplace of jazz, just down the road from where rock’n’roll started – once you start listening for references to New Orleans in pop culture (and you will hear it from Johnny B Goode to Lady Marmalade) you begin to realise the importance of the place.
When the day comes to board the American Queen, any sadness we have at leaving Soniat House is swept away at the first sight of the vessel. The Queen is the biggest paddle steamer to work the Mississippi. I’ve been used to European river boats, so to take in the majesty of a river ship capable of holding 436 passengers is quite something.
The public areas are beautiful – from the Mark Twain gallery to the Ladies Parlour – and appear to be influenced by the antebellum homes and steamboats of the Civil War period. The Grand Saloon theatre has been modelled on Ford’s Theatre (where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated) while the dining room boasts double height ceilings with huge glass ball chandeliers that lead up to 10ft mirrors, giving a grandiose Versailles effect. The whole ship has an old world charm that perfectly suits the journey we will be making through Southern plantations, Civil War sites and on up to Memphis.
That evening we eat in the JM White Dining Room and feast upon grits, chicken and potatoes: typical home-cooked Southern fare before being introduced to the ship’s musicians: from a jazz house band, to worldly pianists and a blues duo, all plucked from the huge pool of local talent. The musical offering is better than you would find on most ocean ships. It’s clear from the outset that this is going to be a very enjoyable week indeed.
Our next stop is the Oak Alley plantation in Louisiana.