24 January 2017 by Bert Hyett
In the Deep South, the slide guitar rhythms are infectious, the barbecues impossibly moreish and the antebellum plantations truly evocative. It’s all tied together by the Mississippi River where steamboats still ply its mighty waters, complete with paddle wheels and opera houses. In fact, given America’s reliance on the car, it simply wouldn’t be possible for non-drivers like me to experience such a diverse collection of destinations. My trip took me between the French vibrancy of New Orleans and the movement-defining history of Memphis’s music, calling at Civil War battlegrounds and Victorian riverside towns along the way. This is my in-depth review of it all, with plenty of recommendations to get the best out of your trip.
Having travelled back in November, British Airways’ non-stop route from London to New Orleans – a world first – had not yet opened. Instead, I flew with Virgin Atlantic to Detroit, and was enormously impressed with both the Virgin Clubhouse’s cooked breakfasts and the arrivals process; 35 minutes from landing to my next gate, via immigration, is surely a TSA record.
A short hop on Delta then brought me to New Orleans and my hotel – the Hyatt Regency. I’m happy to report that my almost-namesake didn’t disappoint, with everything from a 32nd floor spa to no less than six dining and bar options. It’s all just a 20-minute stroll from a delightful riverside walk along the Mississippi and that famous shrine to excess – Bourbon Street. If you’re looking for accommodation right in the middle of the French Quarter, then consider the Hotel Monteleone instead; it even features a rooftop pool and a fairground carousel bar that revolves.
Bedroom of Hotel Monteleone
And, to spin me in the right direction, I took a half-day city tour. Standout attractions included the above-ground graves of the city’s cemeteries and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden where giant spiders stand frozen on green lawns and lifelike figures dot waterside benches. Of course, the colourful French Quarter’s fading European architecture and infectious rhythms were a real highlight.
For a taste of things to come, I also stepped back in time aboard the Natchez –paddleboat where the golden age of steam locomotion lives on. It’s a particularly evocative way to travel, with skyline views of New Orleans paired with indulgent buffets. In fact, the city’s food alone merits the trip out, with everything from steaming shrimp ‘Po Boy’ sandwiches to delicately spiced creole curries to whet your appetite.
The American Queen
After three days in New Orleans, it was time to join the American Queen – the largest steamboat ever built. I boarded to my luggage already in my cabin and all of Americana proudly on display, with antiques, fresh flowers and lacy filigree throughout the ship. As such, the accommodation was appropriately dressed in glistening woodwork, most featuring bathtub en suites that come complete with luxury Clarins amenities. The cabins with private verandahs were particularly atmospheric.
My bedroom aboard the American Queen
Interestingly, despite all the heritage detailing, I was pleased to note that the ship caters extremely well for disabled guests, with wide walkways and two elevators. Although there are no explicit children’s facilities, there are family suites and those families on board, when I asked, were perfectly content.
In terms of atmosphere, an international collection of guests are served by an all-American staff who were utterly faultless – perhaps due to a generous off-and-on working pattern. This is perhaps best felt in the dining experience. There’s the outdoor River Grill, the delightfully relaxed buffets of the Front Porch Café or, for a more considered experience, the J.W. White Dining Room. This being America, expect only the most generous of portions. Meals are all washed down with complimentary wine and beer while teas, coffees, juices, soft drinks and bottled water are included throughout the cruise.
J.W. White Dining Room aboard the American Queen
In between stops, there’s a whole host of activities to keep you busy. A true standout is the palatial Grand Saloon; standing at two decks tall it mirrors the small-town opera houses of the 19th century with detail modelled after Washington DC’s famous Ford’s Theatre – the site of Lincoln’s assassination. Here, the entertainment is uniformly excellent with the six-piece band – ‘The Steamboat Syncopators’ – matched only by a superbly talented four-piece song and dance ensemble. In fact, you’ll be treated to performances throughout the ship’s bars and lounges with the live music of the Engine Room playing until the last person went to bed.
There was plenty more during the day, including an on-board ‘riverlorian’ – Bobby Durham. His expert lectures, quizzes and tales bring you back to Victorian river life on the Mississippi. When he’s not giving lectures, he can regularly be found in the Chart Room, poring over old maps and discussing stories with guests. For something more active, there’s a well-equipped gym, an outdoor heated pool and complimentary bicycles and helmets are available to borrow at each port of call. But the voyage is all about the easy life; the dress code is country club casual, the library loans out Mark Twain and the American Queen travels at a nap-inducing 14 miles per hour.
Our first port of call was Oak Alley, Louisiana and one of the Deep South’s most impressive sugar plantations. Named for its quarter-mile walkway of 300-year-old oak trees that all but form a tunnel of pure green, Oak Alley is a truly evocative destination. It’s a chance to gain a full appreciation of the Deep South’s chequered past from the perspective of the slaves as well as the landed gentry, with visits to both the ‘Big House’ mansion and tours of the grounds.
The Big House Oak Alley Estates
From here, we continued to St. Francisville – the oldest town in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes. Just two miles long by two miles wide, it’s an immersive collection of 19th-century antebellum architecture and felt for all the world like being part of a bygone era. While excursions at each port are included – and aided by hop-on and hop-off coaches – I chose to take the premium option here with a visit to Angola Prison. This turned into the most memorable and humbling part of my whole trip. Once America’s most dangerous penitentiary, today it’s known as a model facility that takes great pride on the faith-based rehabilitation of its inmates – most of whom are serving life sentences. We were taken behind the barbed wire for an up-close look at the prison and the chance to meet and hear stories from its ‘lifers’. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was an utterly inspirational experience.
Our next stop – on Thanksgiving no less – was Natchez. Once one of the richest towns in America, its historic wealth – predicated on cotton farming – can still be seen in yet more grand, antebellum homes. It’s the ideal spot for a horse-and-carriage ride. It also presented some of the best landscapes of the trip, with bluff-top views stretching for 30 miles along the Mississippi. Further heritage can be found at next-door Vicksburg, its high bluffs forming typical Natchez Indian territory that overlook the river. Unsurprisingly, it was the battlefield for many an American Civil War skirmish – something brought to life by our guides.
The last stop before final disembarkation was Tunica. While Natchez counted its riches Tunica was once the state’s poorest county. Today, however, casinos have turned the city’s fortunes around and our stop afforded us the chance to witness American glam at its glitziest. It’s worth noting that this was an amended route, with low water levels turning us away from Helena, Arkansas.
Memphis has a history all of its own – from blues guitar twangs and sticky barbecue dinners to Elvis’s Graceland and a whole host of superb museums. I was lucky enough to stay in a slice of heritage itself; the Peabody hotel whose guestbook includes presidential names, lobby dates to the 19th century and restaurant is the Mid South’s only Forbes Four Star and AAA Four-Diamond offering. There’s even the famous Peabody Ducks who, to much pomp and circumstance, are led by the Duck Master into the hotel’s fountain each morning.
For me, the absolute King of the Blues: the late B.B. King
If you’d rather a quieter, waterside location, the River Inn of Memphis is a delightfully boutique property that features just 28 individually designed rooms. It’s truly considered luxury, with sweeping views of the sunset over the Mississippi from its rooftop terrace. I’ll even go as far as to say that I enjoyed some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten at its Paulette’s Restaurant. The filet mignon was particularly good, as were the baked popovers. Served with strawberry butter, they were a sort of sweet Yorkshire pudding. Even if you’re staying downtown, I highly recommend the short journey out for the food alone.
I started my exploration with the storied Sun Studio. Often termed the ‘Birthplace of Rock and Roll’, it’s where the likes of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis got their starts. From here, there’s a complimentary trolley bus – itself a part of Memphis history ¬– to Graceland. The visit was, for me, something of a second pilgrimage, having first visited in 1977 – the year Elvis passed. And, I’m happy to report that it’s lost none of its magic and, in fact, much more of his home has been opened up to visitors. There’s also an excellent iPad-led guided tour; even non-devotees cannot failed to be impressed by the sheer extravagance of it all, from taking in the huge walls of golden discs to admiring his personal car collection and stepping aboard his private plane – The Lisa Marie.
Sun Studio is a wonderful place to visit – I highly recommend it
It was then back downtown to the city’s lauded suite of exhibitions. My highlights were the Smithsonian-developed Rock & Soul Museum, the Music Hall of Fame and the National Civil Rights Museum. Located at the Lorraine Motel – where Martin Luther King was assassinated – it’s an evocative exploration of African-American history with changing lifestyles and education considered alongside civil rights issues. Just remember that it’s closed on Tuesdays. If you fancy an overview of it all – along with the city’s traditions both musical and culinary – I highly recommend a half-day city tour, with the very amusing guides from Best Tours of Memphis.
This being the south, I also couldn’t pass up a chance to indulge with the city’s famous barbecues. My pick? The imaginatively named Central BBQ for its moreish pulled pork. Then, following an afternoon at the Blues Hall of Fame, it was time to catch my flight home.
If all this sounds interesting, browse our Deep South itineraries below or call us on 020 7590 0610 to discuss your trip.