We spotted the first gator sprawled across a bare log before the pontoon backed away from shore. It was indifferent to passengers shouting “Where is it?” and “Over there!” and ignored the chorus of clicking cameras. Dozens of gators later, we barely paid attention to them. But our boat caption, Bishop, seemed to know each of them and called out their names as he described some of their habits.
The fleet of 12 vessels, including paddle wheelers and modern boats, accommodate from 100 to 190 passengers. All are American-built, flagged and crewed. As of now, the company is reducing capacity to allow more social distancing. COVID-19 protocols are available on the website. All staterooms are graciously furnished and have private balconies. Each boat offers single accommodations. There are more than 35 river itineraries in 25 states that include New England islands, Puget Sound, the historic South, American Revolution, and the Columbia and Snake Rivers (Lewis and Clark). Entertainers, historians and naturalists accompany cruises for enhanced cultural enrichment.
Shore excursions are included in each port, wine and beer are served with lunch and dinner, and cocktail hour includes appetizers. Pre-cruise hotel stays are also included. Dress is comfortable/casual.
Floating lazily on the bayou, we embraced its beauty and serene atmosphere while being aware of potential dangers lurking in lush foliage. Cedars, saw palmetto and ferns were home to many a swamp critter, but gators, raccoons, turtles and egrets were the only ones to show themselves. Bishop regaled us with colorful stories about swamp life, described how he makes crawfish traps, and explained the difference between Cajun and Creole food—the former quite flavorful, the latter spicy.
Our Louisiana swamp tour was just one highlight of a Lower Mississippi River Cruise on American Cruise Line’s Harmony. We selected this voyage to learn more about a portion of the country unfamiliar to us. Bob and I are veteran cruisers, having visited many countries around the world by sea. Now, however, seemed a good time to explore our own “backyard” and avoid those long, dreaded overseas flights.
Our port of departure was New Or- leans, and since ACL offers a complimentary night-before hotel stay, we indulged in an elegant evening at Arnaud’s restaurant. French 75s, escargot and frog legs were the right choices for a prelude to our true Southern adventure. We boarded our boat the next morning and soon set off for a tour of Oak Alley Plantation. As its name implies, a gracious big house sits at the end of a road lined with 150-200-year-old live oak trees with gnarled limbs spread like giant umbrellas. The house exudes elegance and history with period furnishings and exhibits of artifacts from Civil War days. At tour’s end, refreshing mint juleps along with catfish bites, gator bites and pralines cemented the fact that we were most assuredly in the South.
A French explorer spotted a bloodied red pole on the shore, a stick marking the boundaries between hunting grounds of two Native American tribes. He aptly named the place le bâton rouge, or the red stick. Home to the tallest state capitol in the U.S. as well as Louisiana State University, the city is rich in cultural and political history, and we hear about the influence of former Gov. Huey Long. In the afternoon, I indulged in a restful nap while Bob explored the site of the Battle for Baton Rouge, a brief siege during the Anglo-Spanish War in 1779.
Busy days touring contrast with relaxing and rejuvenating evenings onboard. Cocktail hour in the Magnolia Lounge was accompanied by a piano and singer duo as passengers compared the day’s experiences. Sumptuous appetizers were passed and enjoyed, but dinner called. Unlike large cruise ships, the dining room was comfortably arranged with plenty of space between tables for four or six. Open seating allowed passengers to sit where they like, so new friends were made with each meal. Regional influences were reflected in menu selections.
At our next port of call, we did a “nose landing” – the boat pulled up to the riverbank, was tied to a tree, an upper section of the bow raised up, and a gangplank extended. From here we set out to visit Frogmore Plantation and were greeted by owner Lynette Tanner. Cotton continues to be farmed here after 200 years, and she related the history of this remarkable place. “There’s no other cotton plantation in the South that is a museum and is actively being farmed,” she said. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (“gin” is simply short for engine) could gin a few bales of cotton in a day. The technologically-advanced gin here can do more than 1,000 a day.
Onboard historian Bill Wiemuth presented a dynamic talk about the Civil War Anaconda Plan and its importance to the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. Located on a high river bluff, this battle is often referred to as the turning point in the war. A drive through the Military Park reveals just how the topography of the site was so strategic.
Rollin’ on the river
Most cruisers cherish days at sea, and so we delighted in a day on the river. We explored the lounges, library, map room and the Sky Deck, the weather a bit too cool to try the putting green. We were amazed at the variety of options for passengers and the elegance of the décor. Quality and graciousness best describe the ambiance that they call “country club casual.” The staff is eager to please, offering warm cookies twice a day, help with games or puzzles, or fetching that extra glass of wine at dinner. We moved upriver at a slow pace, against the current, and got out of the way of long freight barges heading downstream.
This last stop is chock-full of fascinating history as well as beautiful scenery. We drove past Beale Street, the birthplace of the blues, but made a stop at the Lorraine Motel where several 5-foot-tall interactive video towers offer facts about the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated here in 1968. We drove around the St. Jude Children’s Medical Center, amazed at the scope of this vital place for families dealing with childhood cancer. Following this was a lighthearted visit to the Peabody Hotel, where we watched the very famous march of the Peabody ducks.
No trip on this mighty river would be complete without mentioning Mark Twain, and historian Wiemuth delighted us with his animated talk about that famed author. We feel a kinship now to the countless folks who boated or rafted these waters and look forward to a return visit.
American Cruise Lines
In addition to her freelance writing, Joy Lawrance is an avid cruiser and certified cruise counselor who loves to help people find just the right cruise for them.
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