Mississippi: A genteel river adventure

By Ian McKinnon

The 44 pipes of the calliope launch into a medley of old-time American favourites, and with that American Queen's big red paddle-wheel clicks into motion for a journey that will take us north up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and way back in time.

We're standing at the railing of the Calliope Bar - where else - as American Queen, at 70 tonnes the largest steamboat ever built, glides up America's mightiest river for an adventure in the path of the legendary American author Mark Twain.

The southern portion of the Mississippi is unspectacular for the most part. The wide, muddy, meandering stream is strewn with industry, barges and tanker ships, and the land either side is flat for miles.

But the Mighty Mississippi it is because most of its treasures - the palatial white plantation mansions right out of Gone With The Wind and delightful towns with brilliant gardens and massive oaks - are usually not visible beyond the tree-lined river banks.

And if the scenery along the river is mostly uninspiring, the cruise experience on American Queen is anything but with its fine dining, cabaret shows and friendly service.

The ship was built in 1993 but its chandeliers, polished timber, deep sofas, period wallpaper and stained glass windows owe their style to the 1800s when paddle steamers accommodated gamblers in luxury from New Orleans all the way to St Louis, 1100 kilometres away.

There's even a gentleman's card room and ladies' parlour, although they owe their inclusion to tradition and are open to both genders.

The first of five stops in the seven-night return cruise from New Orleans is at the quaint little town of St Francisville, Louisiana, just south of the border with the state of Mississippi.

The population is barely 1700, making you wonder why more people wouldn't want to live here in serenity among the stately homes, tree-lined streets, picket fences and gardens that burst with colour year-round.

Twain could well have been talking about St Francisville when he wrote that one lawyer would never survive in a small town but two would do very nicely.

And he would know, having travelled the Mississippi's 3734 kilometres from Minnesota near the Canada border to its delta south of New Orleans for four years as an apprentice river-boat pilot before the American Civil War erupted, an experience that inspired his book Life On The Mississippi.

This day we are to visit two plantations near St Francisville. Myrtles Plantation is imposing with its large steel gates, long drive adorned by massive oaks and impressive white mansion. It bills itself as one of America's most haunted homes, and that's the theme of the tour. But it's run-down inside and the claims of ghosts are far-fetched and unsubstantiated.

That disappointment is forgotten upon arrival at Rosedown Plantation, a former cotton farm set in plush gardens on 150 hectares. An imposing mansion sits at the end of a long driveway lined with massive oaks. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara would not be out of place here.

Built in 1834, it is kept in pristine condition by Louisiana's Office Of State Parks. Highlights are the round staircase, wide balconies and lavish dining and guest rooms. Typical of mansions of that time, there is no kitchen. Because of the risk of fire, food was prepared in an adjoining building and brought to the dining room.

You wonder if a finer southern home was ever built, but it certainly was, and on the return leg to New Orleans we arrive at Oak Alley, a palatial three-storey pre-Civil War home right on the river.

The mansion's six massive white Doric columns stand out from the front gates 250 metres away and the path is flanked by 48 massive oak trees.

Wide hallways run from front to back on the first two floors. The dining room parlour and bedrooms are huge by today's standard and decorated elegantly with carved wood and floral patterns in the style of the 1800s.

Perhaps the highlight of the cruise is Vicksburg, Mississippi, sight of one of the biggest battles of the American Civil War.

The rolling hills and tall trees of Vicksburg National Military Park would have made an ideal setting for a golf course. But instead of elevated tees and greens, the high ground is lined with canons; 170 of the 340 used in the battle remain.

Every tree was cut down or destroyed by shells in the eight-month battle that began in 1862. The forest has grown back, save for one valley kept clear to give visitors an idea of the impossible task the troops had of reaching the enemy peaks.

It was slaughter. The dreams of 13,000 men are buried here under small white tombstones that peep up in neat lines on the slopes of the cemetery; all but 4000 are unnamed.

And these are just the graves of the victors, the North.

The battle was for control of the Mississippi River supply route. Most historians agree it was the war's telling battle because from that point the South could not win.

Nevertheless, the war would go on a further two years because too many angry young men were not done fighting.

During the battle, the USS Cairo, a gunship of the North, became the first ship in the world to be sunk by mines. It was raised from the Mississippi in 1964 and now sits, canons and all, outside the park's visitor centre.

Further south at Natchez, Mississippi, we take a bus back into Louisiana to Frogmore Plantation. No mansion here, just a large cotton farm with rows of small huts that were once the cramped quarters of slaves.

In a tiny church that has stood for 170 years, an old black man appears and breaks into gospel song. He is Willie Minor and he was born here, delivered by his great-grandmother, a midwife and former slave.

His voice is rich and pure, but Willie always sang for pleasure as he made a fine living as the local Cadillac dealer, a notion that would have been beyond the comprehension of his ancestors.

There's sophistication about the south today, and an appreciation of the contributions of African-Americans to every fabric of US culture. The images from films such as Mississippi Burning of white knuckle-draggers who persecuted blacks, is long gone.

At Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital, we wander up to the State Legislature building. Admission is free and the balcony from the 34th floor offers 360-degree views of the city and beyond.

On the ground floor, a memorial marks the spot outside the chamber where former Louisiana governor and US senator Huey Long was shot dead in 1935.

Long was notorious for taking bribes and using muscle to threaten opponents, but the locals love him anyway because he introduced free education and generally got things done.

The city is home to the Louisiana State University Tigers, who recently won the national college football championship. Tiger Stadium holds 92,000 and not only is every game a sell-out - amazing for a city of 350,000 - but a further 60,000 fans come from afar to party outside and watch games on television.

Long even had a hand in this. In 1924 the State Legislature wanted to build dormitories for the university but Long wanted a football stadium.

The budget would not allow both but Long used his political clout and muscle to extort enough money from business leaders to build the stadium big enough to house the dormitories below the grandstands.

The destinations are close enough to allow plenty of daylight. River-view cabins have double doors that open on to the deck with ample tables and chairs, encouraging socialising. New friendships blossom.

Soon our group expands to include passengers from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and across the US, and we look forward to a daily two-hour gathering before dinner.

The cabins are classy with their polished furniture and period carpet and wallpaper.

The satellite television picks up several channels.

The one fault is not enough hanging space, so a couple has to get inventive. However, there's ample drawer space and the queen beds are high enough to stow bags under. Speaking of the beds, they are wonderful to sleep on, as good as you'll find in your travels.

The dining room features plantation shutters, high ceiling and chandeliers. The broad menu includes local produce such as catfish and crawfish, but they also bring in lobster and salmon.

Most of the 400 passengers are experienced ocean cruisers looking for a new experience or those who don't fancy taking on the rolling of the sea because, while the river level fluctuates considerably with the tides, the ride is always smooth.

FURTHER INFORMATION

A seven-night return cruise out of New Orleans costs from $US1899 ($$2250) per person twin for an inside suite and from $US2499 for an outside suite.

The Majestic America fleet has a range of longer cruises between New Orleans and destinations such as Memphis and St Louis.

- NZ Herald

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