A voyage on the mighty Mississippi is a chance to learn about the history and culture of the Deep south.
The fourth-longest river in the world, the Mississippi is inextricably linked to the American sense of cultural identity. Mark Twain rhapsodised about the river in literature. Cities along its banks gave birth to blues and jazz. Fortunes were made in cotton farming, leaving a legacy of grand old antebellum houses as a reminder of an era of opulence. Americans fought their Civil War here. And modern history was made with the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King jr in 1968.
So no wonder that Ol’ Man River evokes a sense of old-fashioned storytelling. And what better way to tell that story than by exploring Memphis and the historic towns along the Mississippi on an historic paddle steamer?
Between New Orleans and Memphis, the Mississippi is wide and slow-flowing, nearing the end of its long journey to the ocean. In the river’s heyday, more than 1,200 magnificent steam-driven paddle wheelers plied these swirling waters, their passengers sharp-suited gentlemen in stovepipe hats and Southern belles in crinolines. Today, in terms of luxury cruising, there are just three (soon to be four) vessels, all state-of-theart in technology but emulating the style of the old steamboats elsewhere, right down to their period décor. A cruise on the Mississippi is a complete immersion in gracious Southern hospitality and culture.
The best-known boat to British travellers is the 436-passenger American Queen, the flagship of the American Queen Steamboat Company, represented in the uK by Cambridge-based light Blue Travel (and also sold by Titan and Shearings) and offering an experience of pure Americana on its Mississippi cruises.
American Cruise lines also operates on the Mississippi, sailing the boutique, 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi and its brand new sister ship, American Eagle, between New Orleans and Memphis.
The big news is that in 2017, Viking Cruises will launch a ship on the river, using the same paddlewheel technology and bringing Viking’s popular, inclusive style of contemporary cruising to the uSA. The new ship will sail from New Orleans to ports in louisiana, through Mississippi to Memphis and beyond.
Music is always in the air in this beautiful southern city. It wafts in off the mighty Mississippi River and all along Beale Street where jazz and blues pioneers first plied their trade as the 20th century turned.
BB King, Muddy Waters, WC Handy, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, justin Timberlake… these are only some of the musical legends who can claim Memphis as a base. The historic Sun Studio where Elvis first recorded is open to the public, so you can get to see where the King of Rock & Roll first made his mark, but also stand where Jerry lee lewis, johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, u2 and the White Stripes have recorded.
A cab ride away for the music aficionado is Soulsville, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Stax is where the giants of soul took the funk out of Memphis and carried it all over the world: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, the Staples Singers… How much more soul do you need?
Music lovers will be drawn to the Gibson Guitar Showcase, where the world’s best known rock guitars are hand-crafted. The WC Handy Home is a museum dedicated to the composer who entered history by writing down the first-ever blues, while the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum is a treasure that tells the story of the musical pioneers who overcame racial and socioeconomic barriers to create the music that shook the world. Take their audio walking tour of Beale Street for a journey back in time.
Carry on that musical odyssey around Memphis and you can’t escape the shadow of Elvis. Visit Lauderdale Courts, where the Presley family first lived when they moved to Memphis; eat at the beautifully preserved 1950s Arcade diner, where Elvis would slip in unnoticed by a side door to enjoy his favourite food. And then there is the most famous address in rock ‘n’ roll, Graceland. This Memphis mansion is where Elvis called home from 1956 until his death. Such is its fame that after the White House, Graceland is the second most visited home in America.
From past to present, Memphis has witnessed some of America’s most pivotal moments in history. It was in Memphis in 1968 that Dr. Martin luther King jr. was assassinated at The lorraine Motel, which now tells story of the African-Americans who came over on the slave ships, battled for survival through the Civil War and struggled through until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s gave them a voice in their own country.
you can never get completely away from the music scene in Memphis, but the city has so much more to offer. The Rendezvous restaurant offers the best ribs in the south. A local saying goes that ‘The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel’. Here, every day, the famous Peabody Ducks descend from their penthouse to parade and swim in the hotel fountain.
nthouse to parade and swim in the hotel fountain. The Cotton Museum tells the story of ‘King Cotton’, the crop on which the history of Memphis is built and Mud Island not only features a scale model of the Mississippi River but a fascinating museum that chronicles the history and impact of Ol’ Man River in Memphis.
ALONG THE RIVER
Vicksburg, Key to the south
Vicksburg is Mississippi’s quintessential river city. The French and Spanish established outposts here long before Newitt Vick arrived in the early 1800s to settle the city that would become his namesake. To this day, the river remains a vital component of the region’s economy. During the Civil War, Vicksburg was the South’s stronghold of control of the Mississippi River, enduring a 47-day siege that ended on july 4, 1863 when the town was forced to surrender to General u.S. Grant.
The Vicksburg National Military Park stands in commemoration of the campaign for Vicksburg and to those who served as well as the thousands who lost their lives – a fascinating, if sobering visit for cruise passengers. Vicksburg’s newest attraction, the lower Mississippi River Museum and Riverfront Interpretive Site offers visitors the opportunity to learn about the history, people, and events that have been a part of the Mighty Mississippi, while the Old Court House Museum contains a taste of early life in the Deep South. Vicksburg has a lively arts scene, too, with several good galleries to visit, not to mention shopping and attractive, 19th century architecture (visitvicksburg.com).
Leafy Natchez has a long and colourful history, from its original settlement by the Noche’ Indians to a spell as a French fort and a Spanish new town, before serving as the capital of the newlyformed State of Mississippi in 1817. The town is perched on a natural bluff over 200 feet above the Mississippi, with 30-mile views of the river to the north and south. This was the heart of the cotton industry and one of the big attractions today is the gracious old antebellum mansions once inhabited by the cotton barons. Because Natchez did not hold a strategic position during the Civil War, it was spared much of the damage other cities suffered and remains home to more than 600 examples of gorgeous antebellum architecture — more than any other city in the South. Visitors wanting to delve further into history can visit The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, where two ceremonial mounds remain intact and there’s a museum containing artifacts unearthed during archaeological digs in the area. The Museum of African Heritage exhibits scenes of enslavement and African efforts to become industrial citizens of the United States following the war.
Natchez also lends its name to the Natchez Trace, the centuries-old, 444-mile path from Natchez to Nashville, long used by American Indians before becoming a u.S. thoroughfare. Today the Natchez Trace Parkway provides beautiful picnic areas, the rare Emerald Mound burial ground, and the historic Mount locust Inn, all just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Natchez (visitnatchez.org)
SELLING THE MISSISSIPPI
Katrina Weston at american Queen steamboat Company has the following tips for agents:
The main area of interest is the ‘Deep South’ lower Mississippi which is Memphis to New Orleans or New Orleans to Memphis. Cruises operate February to july and November to December.
All cruises are seven nights on board plus one night pre-cruise luxury hotel stay. Additional pre- and post-city stays are available in New Orleans and Memphis.
American Queen offers Broadway-style shows, spectacular revues, cabaret, jazz and blues, a six-piece orchestra and more.
All meals, complimentary coffees, bottled water and soft drinks are included Award-winning dining showcases the region’s diverse bounty of fresh ingredients in a choice of venues. The five-course dinner served in the j. W. White Restaurant includes complimentary quality wine and beer.
Hop-on, Hop-off shore excursions are included in every port of call on the company’s dedicated fleet of deluxe coaches. Premium excursions are also available in each port (for an additional cost).