THANKSGIVING WEEK ON THE QUEEN OF THE MISSISSIPPI
The American Cruise Line’s internet ad hailed a brand new ship, 2012, with the largest state rooms on the river, departing from New Orleans, always a pleasure to return to, and a Thanksgiving dinner aboard with lots of company for a solo traveler. So I booked Thanksgiving week on the Queen of the Mississippi with two nights pre-departure in NOLA. As a foodie, I wanted to return to some of the great restaurants I had enjoyed on a previous visit, and two of my favorites, Galalatoire’s and Antoine’s surpassed my expectations.
The French Quarter showed no signs of the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, but the deterioration was evident in the squalor of the once vibrant music scene, now pretty much obscured by tacky bars and strip joints. I should have made the long walk to Frenchmen’s Street, now reputed to have the best music, but I was exhausted from walking all day and I knew I would get music after boarding the river boat November 17. Sure enough, a delightful jazz combo entertained in the main salon while we waited for our cabins to be ready. I was ensconced in my small but comfortable single before noon. The single cabins are a big savings compared to booking a single in a double cabin for 150 to 175 percent surcharge. I looked in on some open rooms and found the doubles to be spacious with king-size beds or two singles, two lounge chairs, and many with balconies outside of large sliding-glass doors.
The good news for me was NO BUFFETS. All meals were sit-down served meals with choices of starter, main course and dessert, beautifully garnished and very tasteful, albeit too small a portion for a large man who works out almost daily. Many guests checked the box for half-portion, though I would have suffered with so small a ration. The first-night’s prime rib was so small and thin I had only four bites. On complaining I received another four bites. Listening to my complaints, veteran passengers with this line told me the secret is to ask for a double portion or even two entrées, a formula that left me quite content the rest of the week, especially on the night when, unable to choose between them, I got both lamb chops and crab cakes. Meanwhile, many of the elderly women seemed quite content with their half portions.
Beverages were included with all meals, liquor, red and white wine, beer, or soft drinks, even sparkling wine if you asked for it. In addition, a happy hour preceded all dinners with waiters serving hot canapés like shrimp, mini-crab cakes, bacon-wrapped scallops, and other delectables, and a self-serve table with various cheeses and dips. I observed many guests asking for Bloody Mary’s during off hours, and there were special morning events for Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas. Surprisingly, the servers gave a generous pour, like four fingers of Scotch! This was a welcome change from the eight-dollar, two-finger pour I have been served on other vessels.
The waitstaff who double as cleaning crew are young diversified Americans, many of whom were saving for college tuition. They worked from early morning until late at night seeing to the needs of 147 passengers. At times they needed more manpower especially at crowded breakfasts where it was often hard to get a coffee refill. They were so cheerful and patient despite the challenges that they inspired patience in the passengers as well. When passengers inquired about their backgrounds they responded with alacrity. Those who don’t like a chatty wait-person might grumble a complaint but I found it refreshing.
The excursions were not the high point of the cruise because, frankly. there is not that much to see on the lower Mississippi. Many of us assumed the boat would pull up to the levee and we could walk into a town. The meandering river has left many towns far from the water, requiring a bus excursion or a shuttle. The exceptions were Oak Alley Plantation (http://oakalleyplantation.com) and Baton Rouge, both within a short walk from the boat.
There was not much to see in downtown Baton Rouge but I found a men’s store there, Bates & Thigpen, dating from 1924 ( http://www.facebook.com/BatesThigpen ). I need more clothes like Ann Coulter needs more insults, but it’s fun to look for what we call in Mexico, caprichos. Lo and behold on the rack stood out a stunning seer-sucker suit (pronounced “seeah suckha” here) at an irresistible price. Within ten minutes the tailor sized the cuffs while I picked out appropriate shirt and tie, great fun to sport at Thanksgiving dinner to the compliments of many well-dressed women but only raised eye brows from the men in jeans and polo shirts.
In Natchez one could take a bus trip around town and visit another plantation, or take a ten-dollar shuttle into downtown. Of course, like downtown areas in most cities, there is little shopping to do since the shops have moved to suburban malls. I needed some higher-quality things for the house in Mexico that I can’t find at Walmart or Costco, so I set out to shop in Natchez, but found almost nothing but antique shops and bars. At the drug store a kindly clerk found the phone number in the yellow pages for the only taxi. She called and said: “I gotta customer’s wantin’ to go t’ a ma-wall.” (Three and four-letter words here all have two syllables). Within ten minutes the appropriately-named “Moose” arrived in a van and took me to the Natchez Mall with a JC Penny and an enormous Belk department store. I found everything I needed and exited just as Moose returned an hour later.
To me the highlight of the cruise was the evening entertainment. The first night the Victory Belles, a trio from the New Orleans World War II museum, sang songs from the 1940s. (http://www.nationalww2museum.org/visit/victory-belles.html) On two nights we were treated to sensational jazz led by Wendell Brunious, (http://rubyartsentertainment.com/artists/wendell-brunious) and on another night a gospel choir thrilled the evangelicals aboard. On two nights my feet were stamping to a delightful guitarist and banjo player, Dan Knowles,(http://danknowles.net) who has appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. The only night I skipped the after-dinner entertainment was bingo night when a Vince Flynn novel and a tall Scotch in the cabin were more enticing.
Most disappointing was the lecturer, a self-anointed expert on the Civil War who managed to make a fascinating topic quite tedious. Certainly the cruise director can find someone more dynamic if not spell-binding. During the second presentation, I left after an hour with no end in sight, and chose to enjoy the free internet rather than attend the remaining three lectures.
We docked in Memphis November 24 and I took the inexpensive shuttle to the airport. I might have taken one of the excursions had it included holding the luggage and an airport transfer but none did. So I missed Graceland, but if Elvis still lives, he doesn’t have as much fun as I do.
For information on this and numerous other destinations with American Cruise Lines, check out http://www.americancruiselines.com/home. Their loyalty incentive program is enticing. If you book your next trip while aboard, the discount is 15 percent plus 400 dollars off per stateroom.
I received no incentive for writing this post nor did the management know I would post it.