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Sailing the storied waters of the Mississippi, from New Orleans to Natchez

All aboard the American Queen, a grand, six-deck slice of history. The steamboat sails the storied waters of the Mississippi, from rambunctious New Orleans through wildlife-rich backwaters towards the culinary hotspot of Natchez.

American Queen, the world’s largest riverboat, built in 1995.

Photograph by American Queen
By Ellen Himmelfarb
Published 25 Sept 2021, 06:05 BST

“Hop on,” cries the porter, pushing a dolly stacked with cases of Champagne up the gangway. “Go for it,” teases the crew member scanning my boarding pass.

I’ve arrived early at the Port of New Orleans, with a Big Easy hangover and the ubiquitous country club attire, feeling ready to relax. As much as I relish the thought of riding aboard on a tower of bubbly, I demur. The American Queen, the stateliest steamboat on the Mississippi, is surely not that sort of cruise. With its wedding-cake tiers and a crimson paddlewheel the size of my first flat, the largest riverboat ever built is a grand floating museum in mahogany and chintz — a ticket to the Mississippi mythos and a window onto the oeuvres of Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Its slow journey upriver will leave debauched, rum-scented New Orleans in its wake.

Before my steward, Sean, can even show me my snug stateroom, I have a flute of Champagne in my hand and a new posse of shipmates, all of us gathered on our shared verandah. Together we watch as the paddlewheel roars into action, the sun lowers to the horizon and all signs of modern life segue into the lush bayou.

Read more: USA travel guide

No wellness coach can mimic the restorative powers of the inky night sky and the still, silent air of a land barely developed since the Choctaw ruled. I sleep like I’m cocooned in silk. And in the morning, as I peer out, the mist burns off to unveil the classical white columns of Nottoway, a former sugar cane plantation that serves as the day’s activity.

After an abundant breakfast buffet, my fellow passengers and I tour the opulent rooms of the plantation house before strolling the gardens in the shade of old oaks named after the master’s children. No sign, curiously, of the slave cabins we’re told once stood in the background; Nottoway has, quite literally, been whitewashed into a wedding venue for Southern belles and their suitors. Drifting back to the riverbank, the oddities and injustices of the South present in our minds, we’re greeted again by our boat — another slice of history, with its Victorian-style smokestacks flaring upward like fireworks.

Each morning, the mist rolls away to reveal a new pastoral scene. On day three, it’s a sultry cypress forest dripping with Spanish moss — the same forest that inspired naturalist John James Audubon when he visited centuries ago. Uphill from here sits St Francisville, a folksy town of picket fences and clapboard churches, where we browse for antiques before dashing back to the onboard Engine Room Bar.

I find lots to love about a scene where most of the 430 passengers are pensioners. Kitted out with rocking chairs, the sunny Front Porch Café has the freewheeling vibe of a permanent holiday. I’m one of the few on board to use the pool and gym. Most others get their thrills raiding the sundae bar and watching herons on the shore.

Staff don’t force the fun, but they do facilitate jovial introductions when I decide I’d rather not dine alone. One night, I’m joined by a Mark Twain impersonator, who’s been performing in the Grand Saloon. Still in character, he tells me about the time President Theodore Roosevelt, hunting in the Mississippi woods, refused to shoot a cornered bear. “That’s where the teddy bear got its name,” he explains, urging a growing crowd of guests to check out the mural, upriver in Vicksburg, commemorating Roosevelt’s sportsmanship.

The crew share all kinds of tips, including which excursions not to miss (the cooking class in Natchez is a firm favourite). So, when we dock in the Mississippi city, I wander past stately mansions to reach the most palatial of all: the Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast, where owner Regina Charboneau (one of the South’s best-known chefs), demonstrates her recipe for buttermilk biscuits. But mostly, we passengers guzzle rum cocktails from antique crystal and fantasise about living on the river.

“It’s not always this good, hon,” Regina calls softly, elbow-deep in batter.

I’d rather she not ruin the fantasy.

How to do it

American Queen’s eight-night Mississippi River cruises start at £1,795 per person, all inclusive, excluding flights. A smaller sister riverboat, American Countess, launched earlier this year on the Mississippi. Regina Charboneau’s classes in Natchez cover soufflés, sauces and buttermilk biscuits, from $52 (£38).  

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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