NATCHEZ, Miss. — To many Americans, the rural south of Mississippi and nearby states remains a mystery. Travelers seldom talk with people who live here, whether visiting or not. Even guided tours of towns, monuments and hallowed grounds tend to focus on the Civil War and a plantation life that ended, more or less, 150 years ago.
Through this countryside flows America’s greatest river, the Mississippi, which hasn’t changed much for centuries and remains relatively untamed, as recent floods attest. Hand-picked cotton and Mark Twain floated this way, and so did the old paddle-wheelers no longer in service.
New vessels have modernized the accommodations and experiences of floating on Old Man River, so you may watch the South roll by in comfort. You may still visit the past, checking out antiques and cultural explanations at an occasional antebellum mansion, or walking the battlefield of Vicksburg National Military Park to contemplate the “how-could-we-have done-that.”
Today’s cruises on the Mississippi River also offer new excursions designed for curious travelers who want to rummage about river towns and get closer to the soul of the South. Many of the Mississippi Delta’s stories come with a rhythm. You may venture into country towns to listen to the haunting Delta Blues that simmered in the hearts of old Mississippians and became a huge piece of the music of America.
Recently, my wife Fran and I spent more than a week on and off the Mississippi River, most of our days cruising on the American Duchess between Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans. The 166-passenger Duchess is one of the newer riverboats that are operated by an expanding American Queen Steamboat Co. It’s the same firm that owns Victory Cruise Lines, which has new plans and schedules for passenger ships on the Great Lakes.
If you’ve never floated on the Mississippi you may be surprised at the river stretch of nature that runs for 150 miles north of Vicksburg. On both sides of the water the banks are brush and marsh – not a town or a house in sight — that’s better viewed than trespassed. It is a habitat for owls, ducks, racoons, beavers, otters, turkeys, coyotes, eagles, turtles, snakes, bears, deer, red fox, catfish and an occasional gator, though all were buried in deep brush. The map on our phones often showed an unseen highway less than a mile away, but Google reported that the nearest coffee shop or gas station was at least 20 miles.
Far from a lazy Huck Finn voyage, however, our cruise provided eye-openers that came from conversations ashore, explorations in museums and the music of the Delta. We walked the river towns, hopping on and off our ship’s complimentary tour buses when weather turned drizzly. We rode bikes in the country. And oh, yes, we went to prison. (More about that later.)
For many Mississippi river-goers, music is a major attraction. If you are an Elvis fan, you will want to allow time in Memphis to visit Graceland and other places affiliated with “The King.” It’s worth the time to plan a pre- or post-cruise pilgrimage to Tupelo, where Elvis Presley began his life. Don’t miss the tiny house where he was a baby, the church where he sang in the choir and the hardware store where Elvis and his mother picked out his 12th birthday present. Elvis wanted a rifle; his mother a guitar. The merchant, Forrest L. Bobo, recommended a $7.75 guitar, Elvis’s first, for which millions of Presley fans remain grateful.
You may be awestruck as well by other opportunities to hear recorded and live music on the Mississippi Blues trail, in towns such as Indianola, home of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center; and Clarksdale, known as the “Birthplace of Blues.” Our ship excursion to Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum included a gospel performance at the Greater First Baptist Church ($119).
Our first port stop southward from Memphis was Helena, Arkansas, home of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival and radio station KFFA, where its museum plays decades of music for passersby to sit and enjoy.
Some of our best moments here and along the way were in casual conversations with townspeople.
In Vicksburg, where Coca Cola first was bottled, a clothing salesman at Abraham’s Department Store, established in 1928, took great joy in showing off a row of hats that were used as props in the George Clooney movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The 1928 store also carries overalls of so many sizes that the salesman, Robert Morrison, said he once fit a pair to a man with an 80-inch waist. The salesman pulled out a giant pair of overalls at 72 inches, in stock because that’s the largest size of any man in town. “Waist not, want not,” he said.
Times have been tough in this faded town known best for a Civil Ware battle, he said; only two of the long-time family stores have survived. Both were founded by immigrant families, he said: one Lebanese, the other Jewish. Neither was particularly welcomed when they arrived. But they outlasted all the locals, he said. “Isn’t that something?”
In Natchez, at the Museum of African American History and Culture, we happened upon the direct descendent of a famous slave. Shadilla Adams-Minor is the grand daughter (times seven) of African Prince Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, who was enslaved for 40 years in Mississippi. The prince, born in 1762 in what is now the republic of Guinea, was the son of the king, studied at the university of Timbuktu, married and had a son. He and friends were captured and transported via an eight-month journey to Natchez.
“He was sold to Thomas Foster, who I am also a descendent of,” said Adams-Minor. Prince, as he was known, eventually became overseer for Foster and share-cropped his own field. “One day he was at the market selling his crops and a white man, Dr. John Cox from Ireland, who knew him from Africa, saw him.” Eventually, with the help of the Sultan of Morocco and legal maneuvers around a U.S. government treaty that African royalty could not be enslaved, the prince was freed.
According to Adams-Minor he wanted to take his whole family, including nine kids and grandkids, back to Africa but only raised enough money for himself and his wife. “On my birthday, 150 years ago, they set sail, Prince and his wife Isabella, to Africa,” she said. On Feb. 7, 1829, they arrived in Monrovia, Liberia, where he died four months later. His wife died in her 80s, and two sons eventually got back to Africa, too.
“We kind of resemble each other,” said Adams-Minor, holding up a book about the Prince to her cheek.
Later in Natchez, Fran learned the secret to making great biscuits from Chef Regina Charboneau. A ship tour ($129) brings guests to Twin Oaks, Charboneau’s stately Greek Revival mansion, where she has hosted such celebrities as Mick Jagger and Octavia Spencer. (On this day we found no celebrities except her dog, Johnny Cash. )Some rum punch and homemade ice cream tasting were involved, too. The Chef is most known for her Regina’s at The Regis restaurant in San Francisco. A seventh generation Natchezian whose deep Mississippi roots brought her back home, she also consults for American Queen riverboats. She and her husband own a distillery and tavern in town.
A day later, as the American Duchess entered Louisiana on the western side of the river, we signed up ($79 per person) to talk with inmates at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, the name of the former slave plantation on which the prison was built.
Horror stories flow from Angola, a maximum-security farm from which most inmates will never leave. Louisiana, has the nation’s highest rate of prison deaths per capita, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Into the prison we went in a bus, with lots of backup.
Though most of the men here have no hope of returning to freedom, some have chosen to join a program to improve their own incarcerated lives through service to others. The men we met put in years of good behavior to qualify for the positions of trust, away from the hard labor of working in the fields for two cents an hour. Most impressive was a talk with a middle-aged man who said calmly that he has no chance of parole “ever” because of his actions outside, but he has found a life in prison, training service dogs.
The prisoner – we agreed not to name him or use his face in a picture – was among a group who train the dogs to help disabled veterans. The dogs help veterans with such personal tasks as getting up from the floor by positioning themselves to create a canine ladder. The dogs also provide emotional support including friendly nudges; they also can determine a room is a safe zone before a veteran enters, alleviating anxiety.
The prisoner we met said he had been training his assigned dog for about a year. Now that the dog was ready to move on to a veteran in need, the prisoner hoped he would soon get another dog to train.
After our time at Angola, we returned to the Mississippi River and the sparkling American Duchess. We borrowed bikes for a quiet ride in the countryside before the ship headed farther downriver on this sunny December day.
Next was a stop at Nottoway Plantation, a white-columned mansion (think “Gone with the Wind”) with a Christmas market underway. Cajun wreaths and ornaments made of crawfish shells were among the items for sale — perfect keepsakes from our time on the river.
CRUISING THE MISSISSIPPI
Lines offering cruises along the Mississippi and its tributaries (including the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee and Illinois rivers) are the American Queen Steamboat Co. and American Cruise Lines. Both companies operate modern ships with all the conveniences you’d expect. Both also operate on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Northwest.
We sailed on the smaller of two American Queen Steamboat Co. ships, the 166-passenger American Duchess, inaugurated in 2017. The company’s oldest and largest ship is the 432-passenger American Queen, built in 1995 and renovated in 2012. A third ship, the 245-passenger American Countess, is set to debut in 2020. All are paddle-wheelers, which means they have a working paddle wheel at the stern.
American Cruise Lines has three river ships, all built since 2015, with a fourth scheduled for 2020. Two are paddle-wheelers.
American Duchess features roomy cabins and two dining experiences included in the fare; both offering continental cuisine with some southern influences. A riverlorian – the company’s word, derived from river, lore and historian – was aboard and ready to lecture and answer questions. Evening entertainment and music are lively. Dress is casual. Hop-on, hop-off bus tours in each port city, with a local tour guide are included in the cost of the cruise. Rates for a week on the Lower Mississippi start at about $4,000 per person, double occupancy. For information contact a travel agent who specializes in river cruises or go to American Queen Steamboat Co. Information: https://www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com.
David Molyneaux and Fran Golden write about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com. Fran is editor of river cruise and Alaska guide books.