Last November Rosemary received a “Black Friday” offer from the American Queen Steamboat Company that was a “two for one” price on a cruise from New Orleans to Memphis. The American Duchess, the newest boat for the American Queen Steamboat Company, was to be the steamboat for this trip. We were anxious to travel on the new paddle wheeler. The catch was that it was a January cruise and not the warmest of weather. Rosemary’s mother grew up in Mississippi and she has been down there in the winter so she thought the weather would not be too cold and purchased the trip for us.
She considered scheduling the trip the week before the one she purchased that was Memphis to New Orleans, with the idea that it would get warmer as we went south, but they did not have the cabin type she wanted available so she decided upon the trip north on the river. It turned out that it was a good thing. The lower Mississippi had a record cold snap with snow and ice and the government shutdown closed the Vicksburg Battlefield that week.
We flew down a few days early and as a result we did not take advantage of the New Orleans excursion tour offered on the boat for Monday, the 22nd. The weather turned out to be seasonable and the cruise started with me able to sit out and enjoy a cigar as we left port.
Bourbon was created for the New Orleans market and I wanted to see what a returning distiller would face on the trip back to Kentucky. I admit that our accommodations were a lot better than the 1820s traveler would have had, but there were still some similarities in the trip. The 1820s steamboat traveler would also have been travelling about eight miles an hour upstream. They too would stop at the river towns every day. The difference is that they would most likely have been steaming upriver only in the day and stopping in the towns overnight where passengers would most likely get a room at a hotel ashore while the boat crew unloaded and loaded cargo and fuel.
Our first stop was not a town but at Nottaway Plantation. Large plantations such as Nottaway would often be called upon by river boats to pick up goods such as cotton or in Nottaway’s case, sugar. The package that day called for a tour of the plantation and for an extra cost they offered tours to either Oak Alley or Laura plantations. We took the Laura Plantation because it was founded by a Creole family instead of an “American” family like Nottaway. It was an interesting comparison of architecture and social life of the two plantations. Neither tour shied away from the fact that these big houses were built upon the backs of slave labor, but at Nottaway the focus was still mostly upon the house itself and the elegant furniture inside. At Laura the focus was upon the Creole lifestyle and traditions with the architecture taking the background focus.
The next stop was St. Francisville, actually some distance from the river today but that is because the river has changed course over the last couple of centuries. The tour was a bus trip to additional plantations and we opted to stay on the boat. The weather was warm and I enjoyed a good pipe in the morning and a couple of cigars later in the day.
We also started trying the Manhattans at the bar. Like last summer’s Bourbon cruise, Rosemary and I decided to give an award to the best Manhattan on the boat. We were surprised to find that Ginny Thompson was working this trip as she won the award on the American Queen last summer. Come to find out that both bartenders were on loan from other boats as Adam Larsen usually works on the American Empress on the Columbia and Snake Rivers out west. Since this was the first season for the American Duchess, they were still mixing new staff with experienced staff for the cruise. Ginny was excited for a chance to defend her title. We set up the date for the competition between her, Adam and Anthony Weingartz, Bar Manager for the American Duchess. The three of them spent the next few days practicing their Manhattan recipes. They had an excellent selection of whiskeys to work with that included Old Rip Van Winkle 10 years old, Michter’s Bourbon and Sazerac Rye to name a few.
The next day was in Natchez, Mississippi. We decided to spend the day in this historic town, the termination of the Natchez Trace between Kentucky and this city. It was a picturesque river town with many shops and restaurants. The place we started was the town artisan distillery, The Charoneau Distillery. They distill rum from the local sugar cane. It is a good rum and they offer white and slightly aged products. A very nice tour and they have a restaurant and bar next door in a historic old building that was a tavern dating back to the 19th century when river boat traffic was common. After getting some Barbecue at the Pig Out Inn we boarded the boat and we sailed to our next destination, Vicksburg.
The Vicksburg stop was only a half a day and we spent that day on the shore excursion touring the Vicksburg Battlefield. The tour guide was a local and very good. The site is a National Park and is still kept in a condition very close to what it was like during the siege. It gave me a greater appreciation as what General Grant and the United States Army had to face to take the city from the rebels. The tour ended at the site of the Union Gunboat Cairo, which was pulled from the river and brought to the battlefield for display. It includes a museum of artifacts pulled from the boat, including whiskey bottles found in the officer’s quarters.
The last stop before Memphis was Greenville, Mississippi. It was a rainy day but warm. I elected to stay on board and stay dry, but Rosemary went on the excursion to the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi, She enjoyed the trip quite a bit and was very impressed with the museum and a local blues club where B.B. king played when he was young.
That evening we held the Manhattan contest. A couple of other passengers volunteered to help judge the competition. Anthony made his Manhattan with Woodford Reserve and Orange Bitters. Ginny made hers with Michter’s Bourbon and cherry bitters. Adam made his with Sazerac Rye but substituted some Southern Comfort for the Vermouth. In the end we all agreed that Ginny kept her title as the best Manhattan on the boat. Anthony’s was a bit herbal tasting, probably because of the orange bitters and Adam’s was too sweet for our palates. All were good and the three bartenders later had passengers request their Manhattans to try for themselves.
Sunday was a day of river cruising. I volunteered to do a bourbon tasting that afternoon for a group of passengers. We tasted Old Forester and Makers Mark and discussed the difference between a traditional Bourbon made with rye and a Bourbon made with wheat as the flavoring grains. The chef provided a variety of nuts, dried fruits and chocolates to taste with the Bourbons. The passengers enjoyed the experience. Later that day several of the passengers decided to do a Martini competition but I never heard who won that title as they were still trying to decide when we went to dinner.
Monday morning was the departure day. We took the city tour of Memphis but got off at the Peabody Hotel where we were staying. Part of the tour included a tour of the Peabody, led by the Duck Master himself. For those unfamiliar with the Peabody, since a practical joke played on the hotel staff in the1930s, they have ducks swimming in the lobby fountain. Every day at 11:00 the Duck Master parades five Mallard Ducks from their room on the roof of the hotel, down the elevator and into the fountain. At 5:00 he then parades the ducks back to their room on the roof. I was surprised to learn that these ducks are still pretty wild and the hotel changes ducks about every three months. The retired ducks are sent back to the farm that provides them and most often fly back to the wild. The duck’s wings are trimmed while at the hotel so they don’t fly away, but the feathers grow back.
The cruise on the American Duchess was fun. It is a very different boat than the American Queen. It is more modern in the accommodations and holds only about a third of the passenger – 160 compared to 420. Every exterior room has a private veranda which is nice, and there are more elevators between floors. The American Queen has more exterior walkways and a more traditional riverboat atmosphere. Both have excellent food and great bars. The staff of both boats are very professional and friendly. They go out of their way to make the passengers comfortable and to fill their every need. I would recommend a cruise on the river as a great way to experience America’s heartland.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller