america steamshipWhat could be better than taking a cruise through two states on the nation’s most magnificent river, on a paddlewheel cruise ship, with experts who can thrill you with the intricacies and strategy of the Civil War as well as the lore, love and excitement of the Mississippi? Really, not much.

muriel j smith 120Yet there truly was all this and still so much more. Gourmet meals both exotic and specific to the area and culture. Tours of antebellum plantations where you can almost hear, “Well, I’ll just think about that that tomorrow...”  as elegantly gowned docents point out the antique mirrors, sconces, or fly catchers covered with dainty lace handkerchiefs. Or stroll past fantastic nearly  life size murals along the side of the levee depicting the history of the city it protected. Take a tour through  the US Kidd, a World War II destroyer, get up close to the Cairo, one of seven early ironclad gunboats at the Vicksburg War Museum of the National Park Service. And at the very end, get an exciting tour of New Orleans’s cemeteries with their ghosts and fables. 

And that’s not all. How about taking an afternoon stroll through a charming riverfront city, stopping in a private home for tea, visiting with the priest  in the Episcopal  Church that was a haven for many during the Civil War, and how about this? ..Doing it all with no one less than a grandson, twice removed, of the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis?

It was an exciting, thrilling, and incredibly unforgettable eight days.

bridge from the boatAmerica Cruise Lines offers nearly 40 different cruises along the Mississippi, Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Northwest, the Chesapeake, Inland Coast and rivers of Florida, as well as New England, all in small ships that accommodate, all wonderfully comfortably, fewer than 200 guests and more than enough crew to spoil each one royally. The America, one of the company’s many paddle wheelers, features a brilliant red stern wheel, private balconies with sliding glass doors for each room,  even a mini fitness center and a putting crew on the top deck! Each cruise offers a different theme from food and wine to music and history.  I opted for the Civil War theme cruise on the America to learn more about that terrible period of our American history, and to visit plantations, battlefields and warships in Louisiana and Mississippi. Learning that Bill Wiemuth,  an expert on the history and lore of the River, and his wife, Laura Sable, a trained and multi-talented singer who ranks right up there with Patsy Cline and Broadway stars with her versatility and voice range, would provide most of the entertainment was an added bonus. And meeting Jefferson Davis’ descendant overflowing with knowledge, pride and charisma, to say nothing of great looks and an even better personality and Carol, his equally charming and brilliant wife,  made this trip a piece de resistance.  

So how does one get from Monmouth County, NJ, to New Orleans, Louisiana, to board the American Cruise Lines America?  This traveler wanted to add another dimension to the fun, so I opted out of the flight and airport hassle syndrome, and instead,  added another 30 hours in each direction of relaxation, great scenery, and excellent food. I traveled the distance by Amtrak.

All of which means, by taking the train to the boat, you get to see the beauty and wonder of America through 11 states and Washington, D.C. There simply isn’t anything that can compare!

train windowBoarding in New York…Amtrak’s Crescent is one of the few long distance East Coast trains that doesn’t stop at Metro Park…you whizz through New Jersey, Philadelphia, Delaware and Maryland before stopping for a few minutes in Washington, D.C where dozens more board for the trip South through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and final stop,  New Orleans. Rather than the straight line south leaving the nation’s Capitol, the  Crescent travels west through Virginia, giving riders the opportunity to ride through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains,  smack through the middle of towns like Manassas and Culpeper, Jefferson’s Charlottesville,  before moving on through High Point and Charlotte in North Carolina,  touching on Spartanburg and Clemson in South Carolina, and on to the beautiful city of Atlanta, Georgia. Alabama’s small towns along the route include Anniston, where Anniston Army Depot, a huge Army installation with dozens of tanks lining a perimeter near the railroad,  Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, then on to Meridian, Picayune and more in Mississippi before pulling into the Festival City of the World,  New Orleans.

The Crescent is the only Amtrak train that makes this route, and timing of the trains going north and south makes it possible to see different towns by night and day. Heading south, you’re just about entering Virginia at dusk, and sleeping your way through the Carolinas, with the sun rising over Georgia and an evening arrival New Orleans. On the return trip, it’s daylight from New Orleans through Georgia, then sleeping once again through the Carolinas, and daylight through the beautiful western side of Virginia and the upper Southern states for a noon-time or so arrival in New York.

Accommodations aboard Amtrak are delightful, whether you opt for coach, sleeping cars, or, in between,  business class accommodations which mean more space, quiet and comfort than the more poplar coaches, and lower cost and privacy than the private miniature cabins for two. All classes of travel on the Crescent enjoy the same dining room and lounge cars, and seats in both coach and business allow plenty of room for stretching out and lying flat.

It’s in Georgia when you first see spring has arrived in the South, with magnolia in bloom, violet and white wisteria blowing gently in the breeze along tree limbs, and dogwood and bulb flowers adding brilliant colors to an already beautiful scenery.   

Once in New Orleans you get your first glimpse into how much the American Cruise Lines folks are going to spoil and pamper you for the next week. It’s a ten minute cab ride ($12)from the station  to the Omni Convention Center Hotel in the heart of town, where the ship folks have arranged for comfortable and luxurious accommodations for guests arriving the night before the America leaves port and heads up river. It’s all offered at no extra charge and gives you time and opportunity to see and hear some of the sounds and glamour of the Crescent City before resting up for what will be a week filled with fun, adventure, wonderful people, great food, exciting history and even an opportunity to enjoy a few glasses of wine with President Davis’ very proud descendant!