The big wheel keeps on turning as Liz Jarvis joins a paddle steamer cruise along the mighty Mississippi with Titan
Dangling my feet over the rippling caramel waters of the Mississippi River I feel like Huckleberry Finn. Except unlike Mark Twain’s eponymous hero I’m sailing in the opulent splendour of the six-deck steamboat American Queen.
While the Mississippi doesn’t have the markets of the Mekong or the castles of the Rhine, it does have an alluring tranquility. “By the time you leave here you’ll be weak-kneed and rubber-legged,” my room attendant tells me, and she’s not kidding. It’s possible to sit on the decks and hear nothing but birdsong and see only the occasional cargo boats passing by as you watch the river ebbing and flowing. And with plenty of outdoor spaces on American Queen, even rocking chairs, it’s all too easy to kick back with a glass of chilled lemonade and just revel in the quiet as the sunlight dances on the water.
Rooms are named after rivers, lakes and famous people, I presume connected to the Civil War, which does, of course, feature quite a bit on this fascinating Titan Journey On The Mighty Mississippi itinerary.
My veranda stateroom has a comfortable bed, proper bathtub, shower, and is elegantly decorated in eau de nil, taupe and cream. Most importantly, it has two chairs and a table right on the deck, which means I never miss a vermillion-streaked sunrise. Like the rest of the ship, it’s designed to evoke Victorian steamer style, but with a contemporary touch.
There are endless spaces to relax, with complimentary soft drinks, hot drinks, cookies and even popcorn provided. I love the open deck Front Porch where the bartender mixes a mean mojito (I try a mint julep, even though he warns me it will be super strong – I manage one sip). There’s also a buffet with light dishes to eat al fresco.
For a more formal dinner, there’s the sumptuous and elegant JM White Dining Room, offering American fare with a Creole twist and views of the river. This is also open for breakfast, with Bananas Foster French Toast “For the King”, a tribute to Elvis Presley, with peanut butter as the moreish twist. It’s fortunate the itinerary allows guests to walk as much as they like because I can’t resist the Mississippi Mud Pie later in the day.
Socialising is a big part of the American Queen experience and there are a few bars on board, including one right by the paddlewheel, while wine and beer are complimentary at dinner. The rather splendid theatre, two decks tall, offers entertainment including a magician and some excellent singers. There’s also a pianist, a band and an onboard ‘riverlorian’, dressed slightly disconcertingly as Mark Twain, who delivers compelling lectures about the ports of call.
And, of course, since this paddle steamer was actually only built in 1995, there’s also a swimming pool and even a gym. Every time we sail out of port the ship’s calliope or steam-whistle organ begins to play Dixie-style melodies, which creates an authentic ambience, reminding you that you are very much in the Deep South; it’s actually quite soothing and rather charming. And watching the big red paddle wheel turning as we sail proves to be endlessly fascinating – particularly when we sail into a storm, and the sky and river merge into an impressive inky blackness.
One of the biggest advantages of taking this cruise with Titan (apart from its excellent home departure service) is that you travel with its tour leader; you’re free to do what you want but she’s there in case you have any questions, and the group quickly form friendships on the land tour, which begins in Atlanta and continues to Nashville.
I join the cruise in Memphis, Tennessee, where attractions include Elvis Presley’s Graceland. I have half a day to explore this captivating city and visit the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located at the Lorraine Hotel; it is the 50th anniversary weekend of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, and an enormous floral tribute is displayed
on the balcony where he once stood. I find the whole experience impossibly moving. It’s unmissable.
Then it’s time to board one of American Queen’s specially branded coaches. These are also used for its included hop on/hop off tours, and boast informative and amusing guides, although the first few towns we stop at, including Vicksburg, are so small they are easily explored on foot.
The river changes colour from dark green to orange and decidedly muddy, and the destinations become progressively more intriguing as we sail down the Mississippi.
Highlights include the irresistibly pretty city of Natchez, where we spend two nights because Tom Hanks is filming in Baton Rouge; it gives us more time to explore the jasmine and magnolia-scented streets with their palatial antebellum mansions, and there’s also an included visit to the award-winning Charboneau rum distillery. And in St Francisville, I enjoy the visit to the Myrtles Plantation, which has the distinction of being one of the most haunted homes in America. The tour guides – dressed in 19th century costume – take great delight in scaring us all silly.
Back on board American Queen there’s time for a few farewell drinks with new friends. And then suddenly, as we start sailing to New Orleans, the tree-lined banks give way to oil refineries and factories, and we’re on a proper working river.
We wake up at the Big Easy at sunrise, docked right by the magnificent Crescent City Connection bridge. New Orleans is one of the most exhilarating cities in the world, made for exploring on a pre- or -post cruise stay, and there’s time to grab a freshly baked beignet (or six) at Café Du Monde, take a ride on a streetcar, visit Jackson Square, and revel in the jazz which seems to be everywhere you go in the French Quarter but particularly at Preservation Hall. My Mississippi cruise has been an unforgettable adventure; Mark Twain would surely approve.
Titan has a 16-day Journey on the Mighty Mississippi tour including a seven-night cruise on American Queen (in an outside cabin with Bay Window), seven nights in hotels from £5,699pp departing 29 May 2019 two sharing, including return flights and transfers, 11 excursions and visits, some meals, the services of a Titan tour manager and the VIP door-to-door travel service (0800 988 5873; titantravel.co.uk). Click here to read about a Titan Rhine river cruise.
Where to stay
Boasting a brilliant location on Canal Street in New Orleans, within easy walking distance of the French Quarter, the historical Jung Hotel is a luxurious haven in the heart of the city. Rooms are spacious and stylish, decorated in soothing tones, with plush pillow-top beds, marble bathrooms and free wifi. There’s also a beautifully-designed restaurant and a rooftop pool. The hotel offers packages for pre- and post- cruise stays from $105 (£77) per room per night (neworleanshotelcollection.com/cruise). For more information on making the most of New Orleans visit neworleans.com