Queen of the River

The charms of the Lower Mississippi reveal themselves on a new American Queen Voyages river cruise.

WORDS John Roberts

The red paddlewheel churns through the Mississippi River, creating a comforting thrumming sound. From the top deck, we watch the skyline of New Orleans fade away.

It’s the first day of a spring journey on American Countess, the newest vessel for American Queen Voyages, whose river ships are a beloved part of the scenery in the United States. We’re set to experience the history, fine food and rich culture of the Lower Mississippi.

Unlike its three sister ships, which offer the Victorian designs of a bygone era, American Countess evokes a modern elegance, with walnut wood accents, Italian fabrics, and modern artwork and sculptures, plus attractive paintings, carpet and wallpaper.

Historically, American river ships were an integral part of commerce and travel, plying nearly every major river, delivering passengers, equipment, food and other vital supplies. Travellers today, and the communities the river ships visit, embrace this heritage.

The Lower Mississippi is home to the Delta; small communities, charming towns with interesting histories that weave their own stories into the fabric of the country. It’s a serene stretch between the major cities of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Memphis, Tennessee, which mark the starting and ending points for our itinerary.

After settling in and enjoying the sunset dinner and drinks with fellow cruisers, it’s off to bed in our spacious stateroom. Morning comes after a blissful night’s rest, and a quick trip to the balcony reveals our first stop. We are docked alongside the riverbank at the tiny town of White Castle.

The sun is burning off the mist, and birds are singing in the marshy brush just outside our room. Today, we’ll visit Nottoway Resort to tour the property and learn about its past and how it exists today as the nation’s largest antebellum plantation and resort.

Most cruisers hop on the coach to go. A few of us sign off bikes that the boat carries and pedal to the resort. We ride along a path between the river and long stretches of farmland for a few miles, and the only residents we see are cows happily chomping the grass along the banks.

Nottoway owns a dark legacy because the former sugar-cane plantation operated with dozens of slaves. While it is a beautiful and impressive property, and a fascinating part of the American South’s history, I find it difficult to visit without feeling tormented by its past.

Back on Countess, we make the most of the ship’s public spaces. The entertainment and food provide some of the top attractions on board and elevate the entire experience.

Meals take place at two restaurants: the Grand Dining Room and the River Grill (a casual eatery with indoor or alfresco seating on the deck). Regional cuisine highlights the menus, with Southern favourites like beer-fried chicken, crispy Delta-style catfish, Natchez trout amandine, and pan-seared beef tips.

Fares are all-inclusive, and guests sink down in the plush seating beside large windows to enjoy the scenery and live music in the Grand Lobby, the social hub of the vessel. The adjacent theatre hosts nightly performances from the American Countess Ensemble. We are mesmerised by the storytelling and ragtime piano stylings of guest entertainer Steve Spracklen.
The program also features lectures from the resident “riverlorians” who tell the history and tales of the great waterway and surrounding regions, providing fascinating context for the places we visit.

One such is Vicksburg, once a battleground known as the “key to the South” during the Civil War. We take in battlefields, museums, monuments and parks, learning all the time about the heritage of a town famously namechecked in blues player Robert Johnson’s ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’.

Rolling up the river and docking at towns like this along the way helps us build a vivid picture of the American South. We stop off at places recognisable from popular culture and others that are integral to the nation’s history.

When we arrive at Natchez, one of the oldest continuously settled spots on the river, we’re even met by a band, excitedly noting our arrival. Natchez has flourished in modern times, with an array of highly rated restaurants and charming shops in a vibrant downtown. After a sunny afternoon here, our group revels in a freewheeling evening visiting shops and finding a restaurant for dinner. We dig into some delights at The Little Easy, a bistro that serves comfort food. The creative menu has a blend of Southern classics with Caribbean flair. Our selections include jerk chicken and waffles, Greek salad, smoked brisket hash and eggs, and herbed pork and eggs. I spot a craft brewery across the street and sneak off to grab some beers to share with friends back on American Countess.

From the conviviality on board to all we learn and see off it, this river cruise has lightened the heart and taught us so much about a region that is as distinctive as it is captivating and dynamic.

In fact, the twists and turns of the river bring to mind a quote by Mark Twain: “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” After traversing the mighty Mississippi with American Queen Voyages, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The American Countess offers a variety of common areas for gathering with friends and fellow cruisers. The Card Room is the perfect spot to play a favourite board game or friendly hand of poker, while the Grand Lobby Bar invites you to sip a local bourbon or refreshing martini while watching the scenery pass by. aqvoyages.com/american-countess.