An atmospheric Mississippi paddlewheeler is a wonderful way to sail along ‘Ol Man River
“I’m a storyteller not a historian,” explains Jim Williams as we settle down to listen to the first of his talks. It’s an appropriate introduction for many of us who grew up enthralled by Mark Twain’s classic tale The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and formed our first impressions of America’s most famous waterway.
Fact or fiction, the mighty Mississippi conjures up evocative images of paddlewheel ships, southern belles in hooped skirts and magnificent plantation homes. Indeed, these are all part of the story, but as America casts off and Jim – known as a riverlorian due to his specialist subject – begins chatting, we quickly realise why the river holds such an awe-inspiring fascination for those who live on it and around it.
“You don’t see many pleasure boats here as there are no marinas,” continues Jim. And over the ensuing week we see just three other hotel boats. The rest of the time we share the river with the workhorses of the Mississippi; towboats delivering vast consignments of goods along the length of the 2,340-mile river which flows through 10 American states and is the country’s largest river by volume.
One passes during the talk and it’s an incredible sight. The pilot cuts a tiny figure in the wheelhouse and in front of him are 60 barges lashed together to form a floating colossus. We realise why other river users treat the towboat captains and their cargo with such respect when Jim tells us that each barge can carry up to 50 tonnes when fully loaded and the ‘tow’ requires a stopping distance of well over a mile. We learn that 60% of all grain exported from the United States is transported along the Mississippi.
A cruise is the most authentic way to experience the Mississippi, and we’re doing it in style on board America, part of the fleet of traditional and modern vessels operated by American Cruise Lines. We’re sailing from Memphis to New Orleans, a journey of 640 miles which can also be done in reverse. Unlike European river boats which are restricted in size by locks and bridges, there are no such limitations on the Mississippi. As a result, America is an imposing six-deck ship that carries just 185 passengers in a variety of spacious cabins, including five supersize 445 square foot Owner’s Suites in prime spots overlooking the bow.
Our first stop is at Vicksburg, where the 1863 namesake battle played a central role in the American Civil War when a 47-day siege resulted in the Union Army taking control of the Mississippi from the Confederacy. An excursion takes us through 1,800-acre Vicksburg National Military Park where 1,400 memorials are dotted throughout the hilly terrain that was once the scene of brutal combat that often saw members of the same family fighting against each other. We leave the coach to walk around the remains of USS Cairo, the only surviving wartime ironclad gunboat that was salvaged from the depths of the Mississippi after 100 years. Many of the sailors’ belongings survived virtually intact and are on display in the adjoining museum.
Back at the mooring spot there’s the chance to look around Vicksburg. It was here that Joseph Biedenharn first bottled the sweet soda for the first time; little knowing it would become the world’s most famous fizzy drink. The Coca-Cola Museum, one of many quaint buildings along Washington Street, includes reproductions of the manufacturing equipment.
The town is also home to the Lower Mississippi River Museum, which is free to enter. It shows how different communities, farming families and the US Army Corps of Engineers have utilised and tried to control the river over the years. The Army Corps is responsible for managing most of the river’s infrastructure and today nearly 30 locks and dams are used to control the often unpredictable water that has caused havoc in the past; most devastatingly in 1927 when the Mississippi breached the man-made embankments to create the largest flood disaster in America history which left one million homeless.
The most fascinating exhibit at the museum is the MV Mississippi IV, a towboat and inspection vessel used by the Army Corps between 1961 and 1993. The corps’ first diesel-powered boat was a flagship vessel when it was launched and proudly used to host public meetings. Unfortunately, no amount of remedial work could cure the vibration issues that plagued Mississippi IV and it became better known by its nickname “Big Shaky”.
Each day brings a new destination, such as Natchez and the chance to visit Longwood, the largest octagonal house in America that was never completed due to the misfortunes of its owners, cute St Francisville lined with art galleries, thought-provoking Oak Alley Plantation with its discomforting slave trade links, and Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana. Here we step on another vessel, USS Kidd, and find it hard to believe the cramped quarters once housed a 330-strong crew. Afterwards we try our luck, with little success, at the floating casino moored alongside.
There’s more nostalgia back on board when the nightly entertainment includes a rousing performance by the Victory Belles, with a repertoire of 1940s songs.
At another talk, Jim tells us that the name Mississippi comes from Messipi, a French translation of the Native American word Misi-ibi, which means Great River. It is a fitting title for this incredible waterway that stirs the imagination with both lyrical stories and sweeping history.
American Cruise Lines
Tel: 0800 028 4272
Email: Use the online form on the American Cruise Lines’ website
On Board Facilities: One restaurant, four lounges, bar, complimentary 24/7 tea, coffee, soft drinks and snacks, sun deck, gym and free Wi-Fi.
Number of Cabins: 540
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: There’s a small sheltered outdoor area at the front of the ship on Deck 4 with some rocking chairs, providing a quiet relaxing spot to watch the passing riverscape. Although there is no bar outside the daily cocktail hour, you can take wine out of the dining room after lunch and dinner and staff will also give you a bottle to enjoy at leisure in your cabin, in one of the lounges or out on deck.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: Rivers of the World offers a range of packages with American Cruise Lines. A 10-night Lower Mississippi New Orleans to Memphis cruise on America, including a one-night hotel stay in New Orleans and two nights in Memphis, starts from £4,299. The price includes excursions, all on board meals, wine, beer and soft drinks, entertainment and flights.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by American Cruise Lines and Jeannine Williamson