When the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation improves and consumers begin traveling once again, it’s likely some may choose a “close to home” option, such as a road trip, beach vacation, regional city stay, resort weekend, gaming trip or a cruise on American rivers. So, here's a “Close to Home” cruise itinerary you need to know about.
Sailing the Mississippi River is a bucket list experience, yet many Americans – even some fans of global river cruising – haven’t cruised this mighty river that’s easily reachable on a domestic flight or road trip from home.
In late November 2019, Travel Agent sailed a weeklong “Lower Mississippi” itinerary on American Cruise Lines’ new 190-passenger American Harmony, a “Modern Riverboat class” vessel, between Memphis, TN, and New Orleans, LA; we boarded the second day at Vicksburg, MS for six nights onboard. Other ports of call on this voyage included Natchez, MS and Baton Rouge, St. Francisville and Houmas House/Oak Alley, LA.
The American-flagged, American-crewed American Harmony will also operate this popular itinerary sometime this summer (when sailing is expected to resume) and in 2021, as will new sister American Jazz, setting sail in September, plus two paddlewheel vessels.
In Part One of this story, below, we’ll outline the itinerary, pre-cruise options, ports of call, shore excursions and a bit about the ship. In Part Two, coming next Monday, we’ll focus entirely on the ship and its accommodations, dining, entertainment and onboard service.
The Great River
Meaning “large river” to the Chippewa, a native American Indian tribe, Mississippi was the name placed on a 17th century map by French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, who claimed the vast territory along the river for French King Louis XIV. The British and Spanish also staked claims along the river, but in the early 19th century, the U.S. government completed The Louisiana Purchase from France, greatly expanding the country. The Lower Mississippi’s dark chapter of slavery and the U.S. Civil War followed.
Today, the Lower Mississippi region offers travelers insight into native American, Spanish, French, British, Creole and African culture and heritage—coupled with southern traditions, eclectic cuisine and American pride. River cruise options range from a five-day roundtrip New Orleans cruise to many week-long itineraries, plus a 22-day cruise between New Orleans and St. Paul, MN.
Given the international COVID-19 situation, the line has suspended sailings through June 14 and it's also offering a “Cruise with Comfort” program. Guests with new and existing bookings through August 31 have the ability to cancel for any reason up to 24 hours in advance of the cruise package and receive future cruise vouchers equal to 100 percent of amounts paid.
So, let’s look at this Deep South itinerary, which will be offered once cruising resumes on the Mississippi River.
Memphis & Pre-Cruise Options
Week-long “Lower Mississippi” voyages between Memphis and New Orleans allow clients to indulge their musical passions for rock ‘n roll, jazz and blues during time in both cities; plus, they can enjoy touring other southern towns and cities along the river and delve deeply into southern culture and heritage.
One nice perk is American Cruise Line’s complimentary pre-cruise package in Memphis, which includes one night’s hotel stay, luggage concierge service and transportation to the ship, which the line offers for all its North American river itineraries. Guests arrive at their embarkation destination the day prior to the cruise, have time to visit local attractions, dine out, listen to live musical entertainment or just relax pre-cruise, before boarding the ship the following day.
The river line also recently debuted a new “Premium Graceland Pre-Cruise Package,” offered for an added fee on eight-day “Lower Mississippi” cruises departing from Memphis. The package includes two nights at The Guesthouse Hotel next door to Graceland, VIP Graceland tickets (including lunch), a Memphis City Tour and transportation to the ship. Prices vary for this package, depending on season, but the included VIP Graceland package itself is $190.
During this package, the welcome reception in the Jungle Room at the Graceland Exhibition Center will feature cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and a special presentation by the Graceland Archives Department, which should be loved by Elvis fans who will view items that belonged to the “King” but aren’t routinely on public view.
Vicksburg's Civil War History
During the southbound “Lower Mississippi” itinerary, American Harmony departs Memphis after lunch one day and arrives in Vicksburg, MS around 2 p.m the following day. The overnight stay in Vicksburg gives guests plenty of time for shore exploration on different days.
One new perk for guests sailing in 2021? American Cruise Lines has added new luxury “American Cruise Coaches” to follow the Mississippi river ships and provide ground transportation for guests. This includes any offered shore excursions or “on-off” shuttles to downtown areas.
Civil War buffs will relish the port call in Vicksburg. U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army laid siege to the town—the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi—in 1863. The town’s residents and Confederate defenders held out valiantly for 47 days, before surrendering.
American Cruise Lines offers a complimentary “Vicksburg National Military Park” excursion; it includes a park service ranger’s guided tour through the park to see fortifications and sites of interest. Tour goers will also spend time at the park’s visitor’s center, and on the return to the ship, see city sites and riverside murals.
During the “Antebellum Vicksburg Experience,” an excursion priced at $45 per person, cruisers will walk brick streets to view two centuries of architecture in Vicksburg’s oldest neighborhood. Inside the 1839-era Christ Episcopal Church, the rector will tell tales of town residents who worshipped here amid the Civil War’s cannonball fire. Then, the owner of an antebellum mansion will welcome guests inside for a tour and southern refreshments.
The line also provides a “Historic Vicksburg Comes to Life” walking tour ($15 per person); guests board a shuttle to the center of town and then begin the tour. We took the complimentary shuttle, which is a good option for independent travelers, avoiding the steep walk up the hill to town.
The shuttle stops at three Vicksburg museums. If they choose, cruisers can get off at the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, 1107 Washington Street, where Coca-Cola was first bottled. This street is the main street downtown, so it’s a good spot to get off, stroll to shops or other points of interest, or walk a few blocks away to the iconic Old Courthouse Museum, 1008 Cherry St. The museum is within the towering, 1858-era Old Warren County Court House.
What’s to see inside? This courthouse still has its original “chambers” and fascinating exhibits including fine portraits, china, silver, historic flags, antique furniture, antebellum clothing, toys and native American and pioneer implements.
Not to be missed? Check out the trophy antlers won by the steamboat Robert E. Lee in an 1870 steamboat race, and an original Teddy Bear given to a local child by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Through the years, the building has hosted such guests and speakers as Roosevelt and Grant, along with Jefferson Davis, Booker T. Washington and U.S. President William McKinley.
Then, after walking back to the shuttle pick-up/drop-off spot in front of the Coca-Cola Museum, cruisers can hop onboard and get off at two other points—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lower Mississippi River Museum and the Old Depot Museum.
We visited both on our cruise. The Old Depot Museum offers railroad memorabilia; a collection of model Civil War gunboats carrying Mississippi names; 40 original war-themed paintings by Herb Mott; video footage of trails used by soldiers and residents during the Siege of Vicksburg; a detailed diorama of the siege; model railroad layouts and more.
Vicksburg has lovely murals along its riverfront area, so Bill Wiemuth, historian and audio books author, who was a lecturer on our cruise, offered a mural walk for guests.
Returning to American Harmony, cruisers re-board via its bow gangway, which has a unique, patent-pending design. It allows the captain to “pull in" just about anywhere along the river, and once the gangway is extended guests can walk from the riverbank directly into the ship.
About 12:30 p.m., our cruise departed Vicksburg for points farther south on the Mississippi, with guests watching the scenery, reading, participating in onboard activities or taking in an enrichment lecture. The ship arrived at Natchez about 7:30 p.m.
Exploring Natchez, MS
American Harmony arrives at Natchez Under the Hill, a small area below the bluffs that once had about 20 buildings—pretty much all that existed of Natchez in Revolutionary War times; it’s also the starting point of the Natchez Trace. Today, a few historic buildings remain with a shop or two, bar and several eateries.
Assuming that these establishments reopen again—once the current pandemic is under control—we’d suggest an advance reservation at the Magnolia Grill, a charming, rustic restaurant and patio overlooking the Mississippi. The grill serves up fresh seafood, daily specials and succulent steaks.
Another nearby restaurant on Silver Street is The Camp, which offers burgers and a large selection of craft beers. One popular watering hole is the Under the Hill Saloon, frequented by both locals and visitors; it often has live music.
Today, on the high bluff above is Natchez’s city park encompassing the second French Fort Rosalie site (built 1730–1734). Gradually, as homes and buildings were built on the bluffs, this new “Upper Town” became what is today the City of Natchez.
Shore excursions and the line’s shuttle will both head up the hill to the bluffs. Among the tours is the complimentary “Historic Longwood Exploration,” a fascinating look at a humongous octagonal antebellum mansion never finished on the inside due to the owner’s death during the Civil War. Tour-goers view the finished first floor with original furnishings and then then see the upper five floors—peering from the inside upward—that were never finished.
For those who really want to delve into how cotton was king during the pre-Civil War period and how a cotton plantation founded in 1790 operated then and how it does now, we’d recommend the line’s “Frogmore Plantation” excursion ($45 per person) to this working cotton plantation in Louisiana.
Two other tours that American Cruise Lines offers in Natchez are a “Tombs and Tales” shore trip ($45 per person) to the Historic Natchez Cemetery for a walking excursion there to learn about famous residents of the past, and “J.N. Stone House Tour & Concert” ($35 per person), which takes cruisers to an antebellum house to enjoy a house tour and classical music concert performed by the owner in the parlor.
If cruisers are exploring independently, the line’s complimentary Natchez shuttle runs on a continuous loop. During an independent stroll through downtown, we’d suggest popping into the Natchez Coffee Company, 509 Franklin street, our favorite spot for breakfast, salads, sandwiches or other light bites and a cup of freshly brewed coffee.
One “not-to-be missed” attraction in town, is the chapel at First Presbyterian Church, home to "Natchez in Historic Photographs," an amazing collection of photographs of early Natchez.
Natchez has plenty of antebellum mansions and plantation homes to explore, too, including the downtown Stanton Hall.
We also recommend a stop at the downtown William Johnson House. Johnson was a free man of color in antebellum Natchez, owned several buildings and 2,000 acres just outside town, and had several slaves. He kept a diary from 1835 to 1851, a fascinating personal narrative. Cruisers can learn more about Natchez’s African American history at the downtown Museum of African American History and Culture.
Quaint St. Francisville, LA
In Louisiana, the “Lower Mississippi” itinerary calls at St. Francisville, a quaint, sleepy town. We took the line’s complimentary St. Francisville shuttle around town just to make the loop and see the sites.
Among the shuttle stops were the Historical Museum on Ferdinand Street and the Grandmother’s Buttons shop on Royal Street (shown in the photo at right). We picked up a flyer on the table by the purser’s office, which gave a snapshot look at some of the top spots in town, such as craft, antique and boutique shops.
Tip? We’d check both that table and the bulletin board near the purser's office daily for helpful resources about the day's excursions, arrival times and what to see ashore. We picked up brochures, flyers and American Cruise Lines' "Port Information Sheets."
At St. Francisville, the line also offers a complimentary shore excursion to the lovely Rosedown Plantation for a tour, followed by a bit of time in St. Francisville’s historic district for shopping and strolling.
Exploring A Capital City
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city, the line offers a complimentary “Historic Baton Rouge City Exploration” with two different afternoon departure times. It’s essentially a city tour by comfortable motorcoach with a guide pointing out the sites and providing factual tidbits.
Towering above the Baton Rouge skyline is the Louisiana State Capitol building, an unusually tall, slender, skyscraper-like building. (Author's note: I felt a personal connection passing this structure as my late uncle, Charles McHenry of Pineville, LA, served as a state legislator here back in the early 1960s.)
The city tour also took tour-goers on a route that showed them many historic sites, Governor’s Hall, the Old State Capitol, Louisiana State University (LSU) and Magnolia Mound, a plantation house built in 1791. I loved some of the pretty eco-areas of the Baton Rouge’s city center,
In addition, guests who picked up a flyer about the Capitol Park Trolley Service (on that table just outside the purser’s office) could hop onboard for a shuttle service all around the downtown area with 20 different stops including the Main Street Market, Louisiana State Museum and other points of interest.
Not offered on our cruise in late 2019 but new for 2020 is the complimentary “Battle of Baton Rouge” shore excursion, which provides insight into Baton Rouge’s role in the Civil War and the battle of August 5, 1862, which enabled Union forces to fortify Port Hudson, setting the stage for the Siege of Vicksburg.
Next on this southbound itinerary, our ship arrived at lovely Houmas House. Guests can choose one of two complimentary line tours: One to Houmas itself, famed for lovely antebellum styling, 16 rooms brimming with period furnishings and 38 acres of lush gardens; or, alternatively, one to the iconic Oak Alley Plantation with its 300-year-old avenue of oak trees leading to the plantation house.
During the port call at Houmas House, guests could also take a fitness walk to Houmas House with Laura Sable, who served as entertainment director on our cruise. First, cruisers walked along the levy before heading to the stately home.
Disembarkation at New Orleans, LA
Arriving into New Orleans, American Cruise Line’s Signature Experience was an extensive city tour ($45 per person) that included motorcoach transit through the French Quarter to see Jackson Square and the French market, then on to a historic residential area (see photo at right), before guests visited a historic cemetery.
The tour then continued through the Garden District. At the tour’s conclusion, the motorcoach headed for the airport to drop off passengers, or alternatively to a downtown New Orleans downtown drop off point, so guests staying post-cruise could grab a taxi or walk to their hotel.
The line also provided a complimentary airport transfer for those seeking to head directly from the ship to the airport.
Many ships that ply American waters are paddlewheelers, often with Victorian-style interiors reflecting the bygone Mark Twain era. In contrast, American Harmony is an all-balcony ship and has a five-story glass atrium with skylight. (One level of that atrium is shown in the photo below.)
This American-flagged vessel also has multiple lounges, a fitness center, library, main dining salon and a more casual Back Porch eatery, plus a laundry and Sun Deck with loungers and a putting green.
Design-wise, it’s modern, but it also has a comfortable, cozy feel and an American styling and furnishings. It’s 345 feet long and 60 feet across the beam. Cruising at up to 15 mph, it was built by Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, MD, a sister company to American Cruise Lines.
Stay tuned next week for the second story on American Harmony as we dive deeply into the onboard experience—dining, onboard entertainment, service and accommodations.
While Travel Agent continues to cover the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, we will also be posting the latest travel developments and reports, so that way you can stay up to date and ready to roll once we're give the "all clear" to travel again.