Delving into the culture, heritage and cuisine of the U.S. South is a reason many consumers book a Lower Mississippi River cruise. Travel Agent sailed on American Cruise Lines' 190-passenger American Harmony in late 2019.
We covered the shoreside product in last week's story; this week, we examine our "Top 10 Highlights" for onboard activities, entertainment and diversions. Next week, we'll cover accommodations and dining.
In general, Travel Agent felt the onboard activities and entertainment were appropriate for a ship of this size and fit the itinerary well. Guests could attend "edu-taining" enrichment programs, as well as participate in everything from line dancing classes, such as how to do a Mississippi Mud dance to touring the pilot house.
They could learn some banjo-playing moves, enjoy trivia games, play bridge or gin with fellow guests, or participate in a white elephant gift exchange, which guests learned about before boarding.
With comfortable seating and lots of space, the Magnolia Lounge is the hub of the entertainment onboard. It offers a large dance floor (also used for performances and presentations), as well as a large screen for movies and presentations, space for tables to be set up for demonstrations or hors d'oeuvres, plus a fully stocked bar. It's the site of happy hour drinks and socializing, enrichment lectures, onboard activities and nightly entertainment, including a “Showtime” program after dinner.
Multiple other lounges, public spaces and the Sun Deck also hosted some of the activities listed below.
Here are our Top 10 Highlights (in no particular order):
Musician and historian Bill Wiemuth, also an audio books author, presented multiple "edu-taining" talks on such topics as “The Louisiana Purchase” or “Mark Twain and the River,” using slides to illustrate his points. Guests seemed to really enjoy these enrichment talks as the Magnolia Lounge was packed during his presentations.
In particular, we enjoyed his lecture about the “Journey of the New Orleans,” a look at the first steamboat voyage from Pittsburgh, PA, along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans in 1811-1812; that vessel was owned by Robert Fulton and Robert R. Livingston. Wiemuth added little twists and tidbits to the story that built the intrigue to hold everyone's attention.
The Victory Belles
Our favorite onboard diversion? Hands-down it was the evening performance in the Magnolia Lounge by the Victory Belles.
This trio of patriotically attired ladies with excellent voices sang a repertoire of World War II-era hits by The Andrews Sisters and other singers of the day.
They adeptly covered such songs as "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." The trio also sang songs paying tribute to the U.S. military and America. It was nice that they also gave a shoutout "kudos" to those who have served in the military for the United Kingdom, Canada or Australia, for example.
The Victory Belles (these ladies and other similarly named trios) regularly perform at the New Orleans' National World War II Museum and across the globe. Their moves were perfectly choreographed and the voices softly blended for the perfect effect.
For those of all ages who enjoy 1940s musical hits and a patriotic program, this is an incredibly good act to catch. It was also a robust presentation in length—not just simply a couple of songs.
Technology Tips and "How To" Sessions
Techie tips instructional sessions by Wiemuth (who wore many "hats" on this cruise) were helpful to non-techie passengers who wished to learn how to create a digital photo album or make one's self a “hot spot hotshot.” While some travelers were already experts, others clearly weren't and appreciated any help learning how to do this or that with their smart phone.
Later in the cruise, guests then attended an Airdrop Party, where they used one of their newly learned tech tips during cocktail hour and shared their photos.
Culinary Demonstration: Making Beignets
As this Lower Mississippi itinerary either begins or ends in New Orleans, many guests will head off the ship and explore the city's French Quarter. They also often will visit the iconic Cafe du Monde just off Jackson Square; it's known for its savory beignets.
Beignets are French-style doughnuts made from deep-fried choux pastry. American Harmony's guests on our cruise learned how to make these tasty treats at home, thanks to a culinary demonstration and lesson set up by Philemon Nelson, the line's regional executive chef.
Fitness and Recreation
American Harmony has a spacious fitness center with some state-of-the-art exercise machines, as well as free weights. Those machines also "face the view" through windows of glass, so guests hopping on a machine can watch the river scenery while working out.
On a small ship, the crew often do double duty. Kelly Buttler the housekeeping manager, led popular early-morning stretching classes for guests in the Magnolia Lounge. Guests can also head to the Sun Deck for a bit of recreation by playing putt-putt golf; equipment is provided.
Expert Art Instruction
Another highlight from our perspective was the art instruction classes offered to guests by Pam Brekas, the artist-in-residence. She taught how to create unique paintings using aerial photos as inspiration. Other sessions included instruction in how to paint abstract floral works or how to use wine bottles and glass shapes to create a mixed media work of art.
On another day, guests created a modern version of a scrimshaw drawing that evolved into a wearable pendant. During the final day’s cocktail hour, an art show in Magnolia Lounge featured guests’ works of art on display.
"Proud Mary" and a Tina Tribute
Before dinner, guests typically head to the Magnolia Lounge for a cocktail hour with complimentary wine, beer and cocktails, plus hors d'oeuvres. Light musical entertainment is also on tap.
One evening at 5:30 p.m., though, we discovered an added bit of energetic fun. It was a Tina Turner Tribute show with a Tina impersonator who had both the voice and the "moves."
"Tina" also interacted well with the lounge crowd and enticed several ladies up on stage to dance along. One good spirited male guest also sat in a chair on stage as Tina sang to him and draped a fashion boa around his neck.
Let’s just say this performance elicited lots of energy, humor and fun revelry among the passengers.
Books, Games and Videos
Reading—as the ship floated along the Mississippi—was relaxing for many guests on our cruise. We liked that there were plenty of lounges, nooks and crannies, not to mention outdoor spaces to find a quiet spot for reading.
The ship’s second-deck mid-ship lounge offers guests a collection of books, magazines, daily newspapers (if available on that day, based on itinerary and timing) and DVDs for guests to enjoy.
In addition, the fourth-deck mid-ship lounge has several computers, board games and puzzles, while the fifth deck's mid-ship lounge offers itinerary maps. Playing cards are also available from the purser's office.
Movies and Event Videos
Daily movies that guests accessed on Channel 28 of their stateroom or suite TV system included "Steel Magnolias," "Green Book," "Tower Heist," "The Help," "King Creole" and others. These movies all had a connection to the South, the region of sailing.
In addition, the Magnolia Lounge's big screen proved advantageous for watching special events, national celebrations or sporting events. For example, we headed to that lounge to watch the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
More Musical Entertainment
During one evening's entertainment, usually about 8:15 p.m. in Magnolia Lounge, performers Laura Sable and Bill Wiemuth performed "Music of the River." Guests enjoyed toe-tapping tunes ranging from folk music to blues, jazz, the musical “Show Boat” and more.
On another night, Sable (who coincidentally doubled as our voyage's entertainment director) sang “A Tribute to the Great Ladies of Song,” featuring hits of Ella Fitzgerald, Dolly Parton, Karen Carpenter, Aretha Franklin, Judy Garland and others.
Other performers included the Brunious Family—Wendell and Carolyn—who performed New Orleans jazz; Connie G, who put on a Decades Dance Party, and Dan Knowles and Eddie Coffey, singers, pickers, entertainers and songwriters, who performed American roots music.
Also, every night after the main show—which varied from night to night, the lounge became a “Night Owls' Club” where guests could enjoy more drinks, piano music and socializing.
Stay tuned for our last in this series of stories on American Harmony; it will focus on accommodations and dining.
Note: American Cruise Lines has extended its Cruise with Comfort program and will continue to protect 100 percent of travel advisor commissions on all Cruise with Comfort bookings. The program will now include all cruises departing through October 31, 2020 and may be applied to both new and existing bookings. Earlier this year American also rolled out its Travel Advisor Assurance Plan, under which commissions that are affected by Cruise with Comfort or by suspended cruise operations will be protected for Cruise Vouchers issued.