mississippi 1PHOTO: Bride and Groom celebrate in Jackson Square, New Orleans

muriel j smith 120It’s hard to tell what comes in second to the excellence of the programs, entertainment and ports you visit on a river boat cruise on the Mississippi. Perhaps it’s the camaraderie you feel, the attention of a huge staff or the quality of the food that are highlights. Or maybe it’s the friendliness of crew and other passengers, the lore of the River itself, or the sheer relaxation in the Southern sun.

The good news is, you don’t have to list them in any order. If you’re traveling on America Cruise Line’s America, they all rank at the very top.

The boat itself is a paddle wheeler, a 2016 version of those elegant multi-decked Victorian-décor boats with the bright red wheels at the stern that plied their ways up and down the Mississippi in an earlier century. It’s got all the charm of that earlier era, plus all the modern conveniences and technology of the 21st century, up to and including large…and I really mean large for cruise travel….state rooms, all of them with private balconies complete with table and chairs for simply cruising and watching the world go by. Built in Salisbury, MD., the America is 333 feet long and 53 feet wide, but is built….for the Mississippi, of course, with a draft of no more than eight feet! All that space, and its top guest capacity is 185 folks, which means there’s plenty of room for exploring, walking, relaxing in the sun, or simply enjoying a glass of wine with new found friends. And you get to meet everyone on the boat, since the dining room is spacious enough for everyone to eat at the same time. With no assigned tables, you can either sit with the friends you’ve made, or bop around from table to table to meet new ones at every meal.

You feel at home even before you embark. For this seven night, eight day cruise, which leaves the dock about 1:30 in the afternoon to begin an exciting tour of plantations, Civil War sites, and wonderful towns in Louisiana and Mississippi, American Cruise Lines also offers a complimentary night before sailing at one of New Orleans’s top hotels. It’s enough to visit Jackson Square to see all the activity in the heart of the French Quarter and whet your appetite for a return visit a week later. After a refreshing breakfast, ship crew picks you up at the hotel and whisks you the 10 minutes or so to the dock where more crew members have set up on the dock to check you in and take your bags to your stateroom. You just have enough time to acclimate to your room, appreciate the view from the balcony and unpack a few necessities before you’re heading to the dining room for a sumptuous lunch.

Nor are there any cumbersome safety briefings. Staff simply point out the TV, radio and PA systems in your room, strongly advise you to listen to the safety announcements, locate your life preserver under the bed, hand you all the emergency information in writing, and admonish you to take heed and listen to any directions from staff in the unlikely event of any emergency. There are also several packets of information to pore through, an afternoon meeting with the Chef if you’d like, to go over any food specialties, special needs or allergies you might have, and, as the boat whistle announces your departure, the opportunity to meet with staff, ship’s officers and lecturers to get a small idea of the thrills and excitement that are planned for your next week.

Impressive to me among all the reading materials was the information from the galley about all the fresh foods aboard, and where they came from. But more about that in my column on the menu in a later issue. Also impressive is a very detailed sheet of information on the importance of standard ship hygiene, including personal protective measures encouraged for everyone in such routine procedures as hand washing, using utensils, or accepting juices from local vendors ashore.

There’s another sheet on the Captain’s sailing instructions, so you know immediately at the precise times you’ll be arriving at and departing from each of the six ports to be visited before the disembarkation again in New Orleans the final day. Another packet of information gives you the names, home towns and staterooms of each of the guests aboard, making it easy to see where all your soon-to-b e friends have come from.

By 4 in the afternoon as the America is heading upstream towards its first stop later that evening, you’re invited to the top deck to meet the historians for this very unique trip. For those who want to relax in their room but still hear what’s going on, there’s also a narrative broadcast at their fingertips.

mississippi 2PHOTO: Plaque in New Orleans recalls Solomon Northup, whose story was made famous in Award winning movie, 12 Years a Slave

And what lecturers they are! Bill Wiemuth is a river historian and absolutely cannot hide either his vast depth of information or his absolute love for the River. Vibrant, young, enthusiastic, animated, good-natured and eager to share it all, Bill promised days of information on the Mississippi from its size and dimensions to its role in the Civil War, all told, we learned over the next few days, with an excitement that makes you not only happy to be there but wishing, for the sake of your grandchildren, that this could be the way the social sciences are taught in the classroom.

Then there is Bertram Hayes-Davis, the white-haired, soft spoken Southern-style gentleman who is in all actuality, the great great grandson of President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. Over the next few days we would also learn about his grand sire’s relationships with several Presidents of the United States, his years in Congress, as both a representative and a Senator, and his role as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce in addition to his leadership of the South during the Civil War. Both Bertram and his wife Carol are dedicated to providing all information necessary to paint a true picture of the Confederate President’s entire life, not only his years as a strong and capable leader in the South.

Nor does the 2017 Davis miss any opportunity to pique even more interest in his subject. When seeing I was from New Jersey, he quickly posed a question to me that led me to immediately resort to research. “New Jersey?” the good looking gentleman asked quietly with a smile, “and do you know the relationship President Davis had with one of your Governors?” I didn’t then, but I certainly do now. And all of Monmouth County should know it as well.