Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

We have just disembarked from The American Queen paddle steamboat. What a way to travel - floating gently down the massive Mississippi River, stopping everyday for excursions if we want to - and mostly we did. We left Memphis (probably the only ones who didn't grace Gracelands with a visit!) in the afternoon and soon began exploring all over the boat. Two sittings for formal dinner in the beautiful big dining room - we had second sitting at the same table with the same people beginning at 7.45pm, but for breakfast and lunch you get to sit anywhere. If you were hungry at anytime, the area at the front of the boat called "The Front Porch" served snacks 24 hours - this included self-serve drinks, soft-serve waffle icecreams, hotdogs, cookies and savoury filled croissants. This also had an outdoor area with rocking chairs lined up around the deck, so you could relax, read, eat and drink while watching the scenery glide by. The weather is hot so this place was quite popular and it was a good place, too, to meet and chat with other passengers.

Inside the boat, there was very efficient air-conditioning and the interior decor was quite something - especially in the Ladies Parlour and the Gentlemen's Room. On board was a Riverlorian who gave informal talks to small groups of people about the river itself. The Grand Saloon where all the shows were held is a miniature version - we are told - of the Ford Theatre. We had a one hour talk by 'Mark Twain' which was just wonderful. The evening shows of about an hour duration were superb with 4 very talented singer/dancers and a six piece band. We loved the couple who had a late night session playing piano and singing in the Engine Room Bar. The pianist/singer was Jackie Bankston and her range and styles of singing was fantastic. She was accompanied by Bob ? a great guitarist and banjo player. On our last night Jackie played and sang two of my requests - her versions of 'Cry me a River' and 'Fields of Gold' were better than those of Julie London and Sting.

First excursion stop on the day after we left Memphis was at Helena, Arkansas - a town sadly in decline, although we were assured renewal of the town was well under way. Some lovely old buildings but many in poor repair and deserted. Next day we were at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and while Peter happily went on a special Civil War tour (the Battle of Vicksburg was as important, if not more so, than the Battle of Gettysberg), I went on the 'hop on/hop off' coach tour of the town. Again some wonderful old buildings and some interesting shops, too.   Natchez was the third day stop and it has a very prosperous and beautiful look. In the afternoon, together with a new friend, Ruth (from Queensland), I took a premium (extra tour) to Chef Regina Charboneau's very grand old home to learn 'entertaining southern style' coming home with a CD of tips and recipes.

Another stop was at the smaller town of St Francisville, Louisiana, and our final stop was at Oak Alley plantation. Oak Alley takes its name from an avenue of massive 300 yo oaks leading up from the river to the house - so very impressive. It escaped being damaged in the Civil War and is today protected as a National Historic Landmark. The plantations grew sugar cane rather than cotton (too wet in this area). Five miles away we visited Laura Plantation, a typical grand Creole plantation which still has a few of the slave cabins. It was quite an education on life in the area in the plantation times, given by guides at both plantations.

Finally, after a farewell dinner, a wonderful Showboat Jubilee show, we spent our last night on The American Queen. At 8am we disembarked in New Orleans, sad to say goodbye but looking forward to the next stage of our trip.

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