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 Oak Alley plantation is a famous historical location along the Mississippi River. Photo: Courtesy of USA River Cruises
Oak Alley plantation is a famous historical location along the Mississippi River. Photo: Courtesy of USA River Cruises

By Bill Thomas

In all, the entire seven-day cruise was a delightful learning experience. Two of us, Don Bailes, a lifelong friend, and I planned the trip for months. The very muddy Mississippi is a vast and wandering waterway, and a new boat, (careful, not a “ship”) with only a few months on the water under its wide hull was a pleasure. Passengers totaling 150 with a crew of 50 stewards, cleaning crews, and boat operators was also ideal, and the service was excellent during the entire week.

In Memphis, Tennessee, we spent Friday night at the comfortable Sheraton hotel and toured the city by trolley, which cost only $1. The next day, we had a memorable experience in being guided through the Vicksburg National Military Park, commemorating the 1863 siege between the Union and Confederate Armies, principally the battle and state monuments honoring fallen soldiers. We toured the downtown and took in the unique riverboat murals, the Old Courthouse, Old Train Depot, and Coca-Cola Museums.

Next were Natchez, Mississippi, and visits to Frogmore and Longwood Plantations, featuring antebellum lifestyles from 1790 to the present, comparing and contrasting a working cotton plantation, slave culture, sharecropping, and modern technology. We explored the buildings, including a rare antique steam gin as well as the only completely computerized gin in the nation. Longwood was an elegant historic octagonal house which was never completely built. It had original first floor furnishings, complete with a large cloth fly swatter moved by a rope which served as a hand held fan over the dining table. The upper five stores are “still a work in progress.”

The USA River Cruise ship sits on the Mississippi River. Photo: Courtesy of USA River Cruises
The USA River Cruise ship sits on the Mississippi River. Photo: Courtesy of USA River Cruises

In St. Francisville, Louisiana, we toured the Rosedown Plantation, with stories of the families who lived and worked in this Southern culture. We also enjoyed the unique shopping opportunity at Grandmother’s Buttons, a fascinating array of gifts and rarities.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we were able to visit a naval destroyer which was a memorial to the Second World War forces, take a swamp tour to visit the alligators, and tour the old state capital. We learned a great deal about the infamous or famous (depending on who you’re talking to) Huey Long and his many political, organizational, and construction achievements.

Before entering the waters of New Orleans, Louisiana, we stopped at Oak Alley and walked the gorgeous, oak-filled grounds of Oak Alley plantation, the slave’s quarters, and working areas.

The last day, before boarding our transportation home, many of us took an encompassing city bus tour of New Orleans, passing by highlights including the French Quarter, stately mansions of the exclusive Garden District, and learning about the city’s significant art and music, history, culture, museums, architecture, and, of course, the annual Mardi Gras.

Food and drink—outstanding—meals were, on the whole, splendid, tasty, varied. Lusty drinks were served for lunch, dinner, and cocktail hours; breakfasts included quiche, pancakes, waffles, and 8 varieties of egg dishes, as well as ample sides. Luncheons boasted turkey and BLT club sandwiches, flounder meuniere, and braised chicken. Dinners provided steak, shrimps, and lobster, among other creative dishes.

Onboard lectures and discussions— interesting— Dale Blanshan, Introduced “…as a gentleman with a guitar and a penchant for stories and music from days gone by” was the primary speaker on board the America. At various times during the trip, he shared his knowledge of “old rural churches and gospel singing,” the history of the American flag, history of the United States through song, Norman Rockwell and patriotism, Tin Pan Alley and jazz fireworks. The boat’s captain and crew made a special effort to hold over our departure on July 4 to enable passengers to watch Vicksburg’s spectacular fireworks show. Patriot-themed drinks were also available on the upper deck.

Our Daily Newspaper, a copy of the USA Times, a publication of American Cruise Lines, was made available to us so we could keep up with what was going on with featured news of the world, finance, and sports.

The USA River Cruise ship sits on the Mississippi River. Photo: Courtesy of USA River Cruises

Ship to Shore Guides—helpful—Each day, we received an hourly list of happenings for the day, included meals, tours, events, activities, and presentations.

The Captain—Cordial and Competent – Captain Max Taber headed our river boat. He started his career at 12 as a lobster fisherman. Boats became his love, and he qualified as a commander before he was 20. Now 29, he has cruised on the majority of America’s rivers, and most of the American Cruise Line tours. He conducted a most interesting discussion on the inner workings and the pilot house space where the sailing happens.

We met fellow travelers from all over the country. We especially enjoyed meeting, sharing meals, and tours with Ken and Jenny from California’s southern desert and Nancy and Trish from the Washington, D.C. area. We highly recommend this trip.

Bill Thomas is a former college president, UCLA Dean of Experimental Education and English professor. Bill has lieved in San Clemente for 17 years and was the 2012 Citizen of the Year.

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