The American Queen in New Orleans./ Delta Queen Steamboat Company photo
American Queen has a fresh approach to life on the river.
By Stephen M. Wheeler
|he rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” once spoke Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain. His was a fascinating life, growing up idolizing steamboatmen, working as a youth upon the Mississippi, then writing tales of adventure as an adult. Of course, there was a lot of life left in Twain when he wrote about that exaggeration, and the same might be said of steamboats today.
The Delta Queen Steamboat Company is back with the tradition and grandeur that the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen are known for. But the American Queen? Well, this is not your father’s Delta Queen. The American Queen has been relaunched with new entertainment and activities specifically geared for younger “River Boomer” (baby boomer) and family passengers. If you thought the American Queen was only for the seniors, then let meas Twain might saytell you a tale about life on the river.
Exploring the big easy
Our New Orleans riverboat adventure begins with a few days in the city. New Orleans has many exciting tour options, and the American Queen set up several excursions for us.
We choose a cemetery tour and Garden District tour our first day; and follow that up with a trip to Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, then free time in the French Quarter the next. There’s so much to love about New Orleans. And the American Queen seems to have noticed.
Adopting the Louisiana custom of lagniappe, the American Queen has been themed to combine riverboating and ‘Nawlins into one floating festival. Lagniappe? It’s the subtle gift of something extra. Think of it as the 13th doughnut in a baker’s dozennot terribly obvious, but often quite sweet.
The American Queen is the largest paddlewheel steamboat ever made, though she is quite small when compared to ocean-going cruise ships. We find the intimacy of the smaller ship a pluswe are never lost nor overrun by crowds of people. Our cabin is comfortable, yet lacking a television. Ah, but that’s the beauty of the river. Simply throw open the cabin doors and view picturesque America as you float by.
The American Queen has many social gathering places. There is the Front Porch of America, where rocking chairs line the bow of the ship in front of an old-fashioned cafe. It’s a great place to enjoy an afternoon ice cream, rocking and watching life on the river. From the Sun Deck, we listen to the steam calliope and fly kites high over the paddlewheel. There is the gentlemen’s card room (if you’re really missing television, look behind the boar’s head), and the ladies’ parlor, where tea is served daily. The Mark Twain Gallery hosts a library full of books, many on Twain and the great rivers of America. While one doesn’t have to be Lewis and Clark to discover these treasures (among others), a strong sense of exploration on the river is encouraged.
So how do you bring New Orleans on board? Start with entertainmentand that means Dixieland jazz. It also means the blues and Cajun zydeco. Comics also grace the stage of the Grand Saloon, and all the performances we attend are energetic and dynamic.
Next is food. You can’t bring New Orleans on deck without a taste of ‘Nawlins on the table. In addition to a variety of selections, each evening presents us with at least one Cajun or creole dish to savor. I choose blackened redfish the first evening, and sirloin of beef drizzled in a crawfish (crayfish) cream sauce the next. And yes, crawfish are crawling everywhere, peeled as ingredients in delectable dishes, or in the shell as garnish to your meal. Add gumbo, jambalaya and etouffZee, and we never lack for a taste of the Cajun South.
Our first port of call is Oak Alley and Laura plantations. Walking off the landing and ascending the levee, we are greeted with perhaps the most picturesque plantation view. Twenty-eight 300-year-old live oaks line the walk from the river levee to the main house, and we truly feel that we have gone back in time as we approach. `Costumed tour guides greet us with the history and layout of the mansion, and then we are free to walk the grounds of the one-time sugar plantation.
While Oak Alley is a plantation of les Americans, Laura decidedly is not. This French Creole sugar plantation was run almost exclusively by the women of the family for nearly 200 years. The architecture of Laura is immediately noticeable; bright colorsinfluenced by slaves of the Caribbeaninstead of the plain whitewash of their American counterparts. Ladies and gentlemen enter a Creole home via the ladies’ and gentlemen’s parlors respectively; there is no front door. (Laura, like many French plantations, installed a front door in an attempt to be more American, but it was never used.) Behind the main house stand many of the original slave quarters. There, the Tales of Br’er Rabbit were born and passed down through generations.
In Baton Rouge, our second port of call, we visit the Rural Life Museum to learn about the history of the Acadians Forced out of Nova Scotia, the Acadians eventually settled in the Louisiana countryside. Amidst preserved houses and mills, we dance to traditional Acadian musicwith the assistance of the cheerful Cajun volunteers who are eager to share their history with us.
Still, the great history and homes of the Mississippi River leave a cultural taste in our mouth that says New Orleans. And on the final night of our riverboat excursion, it’s Mardi Gras. With costumes, decorations, great food and a Mardi Gras parade replete with beads and coins, ‘Nawlins is truly a lagniappe on our riverboat excursion.
Mark Twain might wax poetic about life on the river. Let me simply say, to miss it would be to miss a sweet something extra.
Stephen M. Wheeler is a contributor to “AAA Going Places” magazine.
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