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Friday, April 29, 2016

American Queen Civil War Paddlewheel Cruise!

Boarding the American Queen in Memphis, TN...
 This spring my husband & I took a long-dreamed-of Civil War Road Trip, and an American Queen Steamboat Company Civil War Paddlewheel Cruise down the Mississippi, from Memphis, Tennessee to New Orleans- and it was wonderful! If you are interested in the USA on Any level, or ANY kind of history or literary "buff"- or just want to see America in a way that you cannot if you fly in to a place or drive the Interstate, THIS IS THE CRUISE FOR YOU! I still have Tina Turner singing Proud Mary going through my head! (And yes, one of the AQ's great singers DID sing Proud Mary- and she was GREAT!)

Big Wheel Keep On Turnin'!
Dan, the Big Wheel, Memphis in the background, & our whiskies!

My US Army Ret. husband, who is 69 (born 1946), is literally a SAR- a Son of the American Revolution- his family can actually trace their lineage farther back than even that! He has at least two ancestors who died in the Civil War, as well, and one died at the war-changing Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, and is buried in the National Cemetery there. The last time Dan was there he was about 10 years old, and based on his sister Martha's college paper that she wrote in the 1950s, I did some research and was actually able to locate his grave on the Shiloh National Cemetery website! We went to his grave, and took a Civil War History tour in Nashville as well; I will blog about our amazing Civil War Road Trip through Tennessee in my next post!

Dan's father did a "Huck Finn thing" in his youth- shoveling coal on a steamboat on the Mississippi. And so taking a paddlewheel steamboat cruise down the Mississippi has loomed large in Dan's dreams for many decades... and so we saved up and finally did it!

I found a WONDERFUL travel agent who was able to get us some "perks" that no one else could, and I HIGHLY recommend him: Rob Weiser at Smart Cruiser:

Although there are several companies that now offer cruises on the Mississippi, we chose American Queen for one Extremely important reason: THE BOAT! The Totally Gorgeous American Queen was actually built around an original 1926 steam engine- and it is decorated in authentic and magnificent period style, fitted out with an amazing collection of antiques, including actual Tiffany Glass! Both the food (hubs is a chef, so I'm not kidding here) and the service, were excellent, the crew truly care about their unique and amazing ship, and as expensive as it is (for the same price we could have had a 3 week Caribbean Cruise on Celebrity with a balcony and money left over...) it is a totally unique experience and well worth it! 
As I said above, if you are at all interested in seeing the USA in a way you won't see it on the Interstate, or by flying; if you are "into" US history, or a history or literary "buff" with a love of Mark Twain, this is the cruise for you! Yes, it is, an "older person's" kind of cruise- there's no water slide or kid's activities, and the vast majority of passengers were over 60, including a number of WWII Veterans in their 90s. But a spry and intrepid group of Older People we were! We took a number of the tours American Queen offered, both included ones and extras, and we all did a LOT of walking- much of it in the rain!! We went to the BB King Museum & Club Ebony in Indianola, Mississippi (and danced!), toured the only working cotton plantation, Frogmore; went to the Vicksburg National Military Park & the USS Cairo in Mississippi, and had a great demonstration of Civil War gun and cannon firing at Port Hudson in Jackson, Louisiana, visited distilleries and beautiful historic homes, and made a "pilgrimage" to Po' Boy Lloyd's, my all-time fave Baton Rouge place for soft-shell crab Po' Boys! And we enjoyed American Queen's included "hop-on hop-off" tours, as well, especially in Natchez.   
Calliope Concert as we leave port!
I LOVED- and mean LOVED- the AQ's Calliope Concerts! Yes, the pianist plays a real, steam calliope, as the boat pulls out of port in the late afternoon, and it is absolutely magical! Being out on the deck in the late afternoon sun, watching and listening to him play the calliope, with the little puffs of steam rising at every note, transported me into the pages of a Mark Twain book, and it was totally wonderful!!!
I am currently reading Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi"- and I actually understand some of it now! LOL I did some serious reading in preparation for this Civil War Road Trip, playing "catch up", as it were, with my US Army Ret. History Buff hubs! One of the first books I read was William Safire's "Freedom", about the people and events leading up to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. I also read Shiloh - A Novel by Shelby Foote, which was an excellent way to begin to understand how real soldiers on both sides, both enlisted and officers, saw the Civil War as they fought it. Next on my agenda is to read Shiloh - the Battle That Changed the War by Larry Daniels, which I bought at the bookstore at the Shiloh National Cemetery, as the only Shiloh books any of our WV libraries had was "the one about the dog". LOL

The AQ had several fine lecturers on Civil War history and river lore aboard, including an excellent "Riverlorian": Jerry Hay! They also provided some wonderful evening entertainment- not only period entertainment (we LOVED the great banjo player- we bought his CD!), but musicals, with a great band and some truly fine talent- Dan and I did more dancing on this trip than we have in years! Because it's a small and intimate boat, as opposed to a huge cruise ship, you are "up close and personal" with the entertainers, and it was delightful to swing dance right in front of the band, enjoy drinks brought to our table, and "shmooze" with the captain, crew, and entertainers; on several occasions the Captain even played his fabulous paddle-wheel guitar in the bar with the band!
And the AQ crew REALLY impressed us! I am an Official Artist for the US Coast Guard, and I have had the pleasure and privilege of spending a lot of time aboard a number of USCG cutters, and the AQ crew reminded me SO much of the best Coasties! We went below decks and the crew showed us the 1926 steam engine, and they were not only extremely knowledgeable about her, they were so delightfully- and rightfully- proud of her! Other crew members were seen painting and sprucing up the ship throughout our cruise, as well, and everyone we encountered seemed to feel pleased to be a part of the AQ team. So AQ is obviously doing something Very Right...

Our stateroom- tiny, but lovely!
TOO cute! :-)
 We took an "Outside Stateroom with Open Veranada", meaning that our (tiny) stateroom opened onto one of the main outdoor verandas. While not a private balcony (as we have grown accustomed to on other cruises), we had chairs and a little table outside our stateroom, and it was lovely to sit outside and enjoy coffee or a glass of wine and watch the river go by... Our stateroom was very lovely but Extremely tiny- smaller, even, than the stateroom you have on a Celebrity Cruise, for example- so I encourage anyone taking an AQ cruise to leave those extra shoes at home! LOL We were on a road trip for several weeks, one that took us from a snowy, icy winter in WV to summer in NOLA, and so we had Way too much luggage for that tiny stateroom!

The beautifully appointed American Queen public rooms...

American Queen does offer one BIG- and pleasing- perk: "free wine with dinner". It's the "little things" like that that make a cruise truly enjoyable, and not being "nickle-and-dimed-to-death" for wine is definitely one of them!
Charboneau's Cookbook & Pralines...

and chocolate strawberries-VERY nice things to find in our stateroom!

Below deck, learning about the boat from the crew!

The original 1926 steam engine!

The Captain (on the left)- playing with the band!

Civil War historic presentations...

Great period music!

And excellent musical entertainment!

One of THE coolest things is when they put the smokestacks down in order to allow the boat to pass under the bridges...

Fear not- Elisse is at the wheel! LOL
 This was EXTREMELY cool- one of the most interesting and "funnest" things about a river cruise down the Mississippi!
The North & The South have made peace! At the Vicksburg Museum

Magnificent Tiffany stained glass at Vicksburg's Church of the Holy Trinity

USS Cairo Iron-Clad Civil War Boat- Vicksburg, Mississippi

Dan- about to set off war at Vicksburg!

Docked in Natchez- right by the pub! :-)

At Frogmore Cotton Plantation
Elisse, learning to pick cotton! At Frogmore Cotton Plantation

At Frogmore Cotton Plantation

Leaving Natchez on the river... You do NOT get to see this if you fly in!

At the Charboneau Distillery in Natchez, with Mr. Charboneau himself!

The wonderful Kings Tavern bartender making me a unique smoked cocktail!

Leaving Natchez- & the fun historic pub Natchez Under-The-Hill Saloon!
Our cruise went from Memphis, Tennessee down to New Orleans, Louisiana, with a number of stops along the way, and some of the cool things we got to do included a visit to the Charboneau Distillery in Natchez to taste their rum, and then having a yummy bite of the famed Brisket Flatbread at its sister restaurant next door, the historic King's Tavern, where the wonderful bartender made me a fabulous smoked craft cocktail! Yes, we bought the local spirits there, and later that evening, before we left Natchez, found the fab & historic Natchez Under the Hill Saloon, which dates from the late 1700s, and has been a brothel, a bar, a warehouse, and a general store! We took AQ's included Civil War tour of Vicksburg National Military Park and the USS Cairo Iron Clad River Boat, (which is amazing to actually see, up close and personal!), and also had time to see the incredible Civil War collection at the Old Courthouse Museumand the truly magnificent Tiffany stained glass windows at the Church of the Holy Trinity, as well as the fun Biendemham Coca Cola Museum AND the great little Depot Museum!
We  enjoyed a delish lunch at the Magnolia Cafe in  St. Francisville, LA, and had time to wander and explore the town and its museums and shops. And we took a really cool "Swamp Tour" in Lousiana, as well, and got to see an incredible swamp cemetery dating from 1915 AND cuddle and pet a gator! :-)

The historic Natchez Under the Hill Saloon

At Po' Boy Lloyd's for soft-shell crab & rabbit sausage Po' Boys...

Baton Rouge, LA
Baton Rouge, LA
Dan & Gator, in a LA swamp! :-)
Gator in the LA swamp!
The AQ in port

At Club Ebony in Indanola, Mississippi:- yummy tamales! :-)

Music (& dancing!) at Club Ebony, Indianola, Mississippi

At the BB King Museum, Indianola, Mississippi

The AQ in port...

Civil War gun & cannon-firing demo at Port Hudson, LA
Magnolia Cafe, St. Francisville, LA

We met so many really nice people and truly had a lot of fun on this cruise! We would LOVE to be able to take the 23-day American Queen cruise from Minneapolis to NOLA- THAT is THE American River Cruise to beat all!!!