We had a recent opportunity for a familiarization cruise with American Cruise Lines’ newest ship, the American Song on a cruise from New Orleans (Cruise) up the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, then returning to New Orleans.
Ports of Call
- New Orleans, LA
- Houmas House, LA (Oak Alley)
- Baton Rouge, LA
- St. Francisville, LA
- Natchez, MS
- Vicksburg, MS
- Houmas House, LA
- New Orleans, LA
So you know, we have another group forming to cruise on the same ship, this time on the Columbia River and Snake River in the Pacific Northwest in May, 2020!
Another group we are hosting a 13-day Alaska Specular Cruise tour on May 17, 2019. Let me know if you are interested in one or both cruises, or if there is some other special occasion you would like to celebrate at sea and in ports of call.
Day 0 – 30NOV2018 (Friday)
Flights from RDU were short for us today from Raleigh-Durham (RDU) through Nashville to New Orleans (MSY). Both flights were just over an hour and the Nashville and New Orleans airports are easy to get where you need to go. In New Orleans, we were greeted by a Jazz band in the baggage claim area – and as it turns out, there are three live venues for musicians in the airport!
Upon arriving, we took a taxi to the pre-night hotel the Intercontinental New Orleans. The ride was $36.00, which was lower than taking a shuttle at $48.00. Every cab driver in New Orleans has a different perspective on food and entertainment. It only took about 20 minutes to arrive at our hotel. The Intercontinental is only 1 block from the west side of the French Quarter and only 4 blocks from the World War II (WWII) Museum. Walking to the WWII Museum passes Lafayette Park with a Monument to both Lafayette and to the US Ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin.
World War II Museum
The National WWII Museum is the second most highly rated museum in the world so we knew this was a must see. It was totally worth seeing and it takes about 4 hours or longer to see everything. The Museum is expanding quite a bit, so this time estimate will increase. Seeing the movie, Beyond all Boundaries, with Tom Hanks prior to seeing the museum is recommended. This has an additional cost but enhances the whole experience in the rest of the museum! Note that this movie is quite intense with sudden and startling noises and images and is in 4D (you will have to experience it to know what the 4th dimension is, so be prepared for it). There is an informative presentation on the Merchant Marine just over the bridge from the main entry building to the theater building, “Solomon Islands”, where the movie is presented. After the movie, we went over to the American Sector restaurant located next to the movie theater, which has a very nice atmosphere and the food was very good and reasonable. Then we moved through the Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo Experiences in the next building. Nothing in this Museum feels static, like a typical artifact warehouse, this is a dynamic and moving experience with some tools, gear, and maps displayed and active presentations running. New friends we met on the cruise returned to the museum and were thoroughly impressed with the presentations and material.
After the museum, we returned to the hotel to complete check-in. Rooms are well decorated and the walk-in shower was welcome. There are two restaurants in the hotel and a buffet area for larger crowds in the morning. However, we were set on having dinner in the French Quarter, and the concierge recommended having dinner at Irene’s, a fine Italian restaurant. It was tucked away along Bienville Street very close to the Intercontinental and did not stand out at night. It was very nicely designed and the food was delicious. Liked that we had a piano player near us while we ate. Walking back to our hotel we could hear Jazz music playing at the Marriott Hotel. This is a very festive city and since we are traveling in December all the stores are decorated for Christmas – New Orleans really knows how to celebrate with lights and sounds!
Day 1 – 01DEC2018 (Saturday)
Before we left the Intercontinental Hotel, we struck up a conversation with a pair of couples based on a mutual interest and found we had a lot in common. Before long, we were talking like old friends and shared each other’s company through the cruise and on tours. That is one huge benefit to small ship cruising, you get an opportunity to meet some amazing people, if you are so inclined. This really made a difference in our experience on the cruise – to the point where we booked another one on the same ship, and so did they!
Then we boarded the bus and headed out to the ship docked, well… on the Mississippi River (good place for it to be). We headed for the Welcome Reception, had a mandatory safety briefing, and headed to the Dining Salon on Deck 1 aft. As we ate, we departed New Orleans headed upriver. You do sign up for shore excursions on the first day and most are included, with a few having an additional cost. Suggest taking a picture of this sign-up sheet as it helps with the day’s events and serves as a reminder of where you have been and are going. Same is true for the itinerary – it can be much more convenient looking at your phone than trying to find a piece of paper.
On the River
Each day we had an opportunity to learn from the “River Historian” Bill Weimuth and later he and Laura Sable, his wife, would usually perform a show focused on some aspect of music of the region. Before Dinner, Bill provided an introduction to the role of the Mississippi River and its economic and cultural significance to America. Tonight’s show was “Music of the Rivers”. Pulled in that night off the banks of the Mississippi across from Houmas House, a Plantation we would return to visit on the way back down to New Orleans.
Day 2 – 02DEC2018 (Sunday)
Oak Alley Plantation
Started the day with a tour of Oak Alley Plantation. This plantation is known for a quarter mile arched covering of Virginia Live Oaks at the entry and for the owner’s political and economic power in the State. Beautiful example of a Sugar Cane Plantation House and slave cottages and life. The tour started with a short walk up over the levee and down to buses. Golf cart rides between the ship and buses were also available at each stop. There are levees all along the river and these are most visible near populated areas. Some levees are vertical concrete walls and others are rounded mounds of earth covered in grass sloping off to the sides, looking like the world’s longest and most difficult golf fairway.
On the River
In the afternoon, our River Historian, Bill, covered the events surrounding the Louisiana Purchase, which set the stage for much of what we were to learn about the role and influence of the Mississippi River on Commerce, Food, Music, and History and its continuing importance to the country.
The weather cooperated and we had a beautiful day on the river, playing golf and croquet on the upper deck, and sitting with new friends and watching the river and scenery flow by as we meandered upstream. The ship pulled into Baton Rouge as night fell. The wharf and the buildings lining the river, as well as the fantastic sunsets combined to provide a memorable experience.
Entertainment in the evening was provided by Bill, sharing the cheating secrets of Riverboat gamblers and presenting a little magic on the side. After Dinner, Tom Hook, a noted New Orleans Jazz Musician entertained us all.
Day 3 – 03DEC2018 (Monday)
Baton Rouge is the capital of Louisiana, so there are a number of historic government buildings and educational opportunities, dominated by LSU. This is the last point on the Mississippi where ocean-going vessels can reach – so cargo is transferred to barges to head upriver or from barges into ships, though that transfer can be anywhere between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Today you could go on one of two tours. One option was the Atchafalaya Basin Tour to see an alligator invested swamp on a covered and enclosed airboat. We opted to start the day with a self-guided tour of the USS Kidd docked next to the American Song.
USS Kidd and Louisiana Veterans Museum
The tour starts in the Louisiana Veterans Museum, which has a section on the USS Kidd, and is dedicated to veterans from Louisiana, such as General Claire Lee Chennault, of the Flying Tigers, and other notable veterans. The destroyer USS Kidd (DD-661), also known as the “Pirate of the Pacific”, deployed in WWII, and had a storied tour in that theater. It even survived a hit by a kamikaze aircraft near Okinawa in 1945 but with the loss of 38 men. After exploring the many small passageways and confined spaces that sailors called home, we were walking on deck and ran into the maintenance manager for the ship, who still had access to one of the maintenance chiefs who served on the ship and recommended reading, “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” for historic context and to understand the role these smaller ships played. Following the tour, we walked back to the ship for lunch.
In the afternoon, we boarded a bus for a guided tour through historic areas in Baton Rouge. Near the State Capitol Building, we stopped at the Louisiana State Museum, for an hour and a half to explore the political, economic, and cultural history. The tour continued through Louisiana State University (LSU) and its Tiger Stadium, known to college sports fans as “Death Alley”. Football here draws an incredible number of fans, with as many people tailgating and in the stands as live in the entire city of Baton Rouge.
Bill’s history lesson today related the story of the Great Steamboat Race in 1870. By now it became apparent that when Bill was finishing a pre-dinner story, he would end with the declaration “and now,… the bar is open”, to a hearty round of applause. Beverages are complimentary and use premium labels, and alternatives such as bottled fruit juices, tea, coffee, and water as well as snack bars are kept stocked in the main common activity areas. Wine is also served with dinner if you choose.
The evening’s entertainment was provided by comedienne Judy Davis, whose Southern humor and incredible vocal talents put the audience at ease, laughing uncontrollably, and in appreciation, sometimes all at once.
Day 4 – 04DEC2018 (Tuesday)
Starting the day still docked in Baton Rouge with an early breakfast for the bus tour departure to St. Francisville, LA.
This planation is known for its gardens and size, but at this time of the year, you see more the structure of the gardens, and the more hardy bushes and trees, as it was a little too cool for delicate flowers. The family who purchased and built Rosedown was at one time considered one of the richest in the country. The home itself is a model of efficient layout, with no wasted corners. Even spaces beside the fireplaces have storage, as this was a functional farm, not a palace, though social functions were held here and in the glass conservatory.
St. Francisville, LA
After visiting Rosedown, the tour continued through St. Francisville, stopping at Grandmother’s Buttons, a boutique for some unique finds that incorporate buttons into the design of products. It is an opportunity to find gifts or some clothing for the cruise (I found a blouse). Diagonal across the street from Grandmother’s Buttons is a monument to the Republic of West Florida and beside it is the Spanish Courthouse from that era. St. Francisville was the capital of the short-lived Republic of West Florida, which was formed by a revolt against Spanish rule after the Louisiana Purchase. In one of his stories, Bill had revealed that Spain and France had made many deals to exchange this land many times to keep ownership or raise money, and some of these deals were made in secret. So, although under Spanish control prior to the revolt, the United States declared the land transferred with the Louisiana Purchase and sent troops to the then independent constitutional republic to claim this former Spanish territory.
Back on the River
Upon return to the ship, we departed Baton Rouge and the ship held a gingerbread decorating contest in the River Lounge on the 2nd deck in early afternoon. Aboard ship are separate common areas, with plenty of room on every deck. We spent much more time in the Magnolia Lounge on the 4th deck forward, and less time in the Sky Lounge on the 4th deck aft. When the temperature permitted, the top deck and its expansive views gave the feeling of being connected to the river. It was quite impressive how large the common areas were on the ship, creating a feeling of spacious luxury. Though there was a little mystery as to who kept turning a cute little dog statue to the side by the center stairs and elevators…
Before dinner, our River Historian Bill covered the “The Anaconda Plan” used by the Union to end the war with the Confederacy. Again, his insights and storytelling skills were both informative and entertaining. This was followed up after dinner with Laura singing a medley of “The Great Ladies of Song” with accompaniment by Bill on the piano, as we were continued upriver to our next destination.
Day 5 – 05DEC2018 (Wednesday)
We started the day in Natchez, MS, where we explored until sunset.
There were two optional tours, one to Frogmore Plantation, on the other side of the river in Louisiana, where you can see the life, activities, and equipment of a cotton plantation from its settlement and founding in a wilderness through the Civil War and up to today.
J.N. Stone House and Concert
The other tour was to the J.N. Stone House and Concert, where we experienced a short classical concert in a home completed just prior to the Civil War. After the concert the owner had his little dog precious come out and greet us. Afterwards, there was complimentary Champagne, egg nog, or a pecan liquor.
After the event, we took a quick bus tour around town, ending in the downtown shopping area, where we explored on foot for a bit. Natchez was a significant city along the Mississippi, with sweeping views up and down the river. St.Mary Basilica was the center of the Roman Catholic Church in Mississippi. The cemetery here was moved, but one marker remains for “Colonel” John Willis, who was in the North Carolina Militia during the Revolutionary War. Walking through Natchez, along the streets filled with very old houses and history, we passed Magnolia House, the in-town home of a wealthy planter, which is in the process of being restored after use as a school. Then we continued back to main street, then down to the bluff, finding a marker for the “Natchez Trace” which is a trail leading up to Nashville, Tennessee. Following the road down to the ship, and finishing lunch, we returned with a tour to the Longwood Plantation, a huge unfinished octagonal home, interrupted in construction, like so many things, by the Civil War. It would never be finished beyond the shell and the first floor. Passing back through town, we opted to jump off the bus at the time of the bluff and to walk down again to the ship below; taking in the views, restaurants and quaint stores along the way.
On the River
Bill told the story of the “Journey of the Steamboat “New Orleans”, the First steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and later he and Laura performed a Magic, Music& Mayhem variety show. Later that night, we pulled back from the shore and headed upriver toward Vicksburg.
Day 6 – 06DEC2018 (Thursday)
Woke up docked in Vicksburg off a branch of the Mississippi from the Yazoo River. After the Civil War, the Mississippi re-routed past Vicksburg and the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the river, re-established the flow from the Yazoo.
This was the only place where cabin numbers were used, where deck 2 and half of deck 3 toured the battlefield in the morning and the other half of deck 3 and deck 4 toured in the afternoon. Being in the latter group with our friends, in the morning, we took a shuttle to Main Street, which is accessible up the bluffs by walking. Walking around town, you pass the massive red brick structure that is the Army Corps of Engineers center for all Mississippi River maintenance and monitoring activity, as well as a Museum for the 1st Coke-Cola Bottling factory in the world and a number of monuments and historic locations for the Civil War battles and siege of Vicksburg.
Here we learned that many of the riverboat gambling ships had been required to be in the water on the Mississippi, but due to the rise and fall of the Mississippi, which can be up to 40 feet in a year, and some natural disasters, these have been allowed to move to land.
Pilot House Tour
Traveling by boat up the Mississippi River is a job for river pilots. Modern navigation equipment makes that must less complex and tracks all traffic on the river, as well as water levels, underwater obstacles, and surface radar. The propulsion and steering controls of a modern ship are also quite different than they used to be, giving the pilot much greater control then was possible not that long ago.
Vicksburg Military Park and Battlefield Tour
The Military Park Tour is by bus, with very brief stops at the visitor’s center, passing through the battlefield, and then through town to the USS Cairo (pronounced “K-Row”).
There is a channel dedicated to the National Park Service aboard ship that shows a movie on Vicksburg and other topics. Viewing this movie prior to the tour is advised, unless you are already familiar with the battle and siege. Brochures from the National Park Service are also available near the office – on the 1st deck beside the stairs and elevators.
During the battlefield tour, the guides make you aware that many markers outside the park are found in neighborhoods in town. While on the bus, you see markers and cannons and get a very general sense of what the troops here saw from their relative positions. What is striking is the terrain. These are not gradual changes in elevation, the geography itself if a formidable obstacle, particularly for an army trying to move another army out of the way. The bus pauses frequently for photos, but usually one side has a better view than the other – it appeared to benefit the left side slightly more.
Back on the River
While we pulled away from Vicksburg headed for Houmas House, River Historian Bill taught the story behind the Tragedy of the Steamboat Sultana at the end of the Civil War. And later, Laura performed the songs of country music legend Patsy Cline accompanied by Bill.
Day 7 – 07DEC2018 (Friday)
River Historian Bill discussed the role of the Mississippi River in shaping Mark Twain’s life, career, and writings as we made our way downriver on the way toward New Orleans.
Also known as the “Sugar Palace”, Houmas House is a restored antebellum plantation in Darrow, Louisiana with a huge gift shop, extensive manicured gardens and three restaurants. Everywhere you look is picturesque and there are many stone sculptures and metal and wood decorative elements than highlight the brick and stucco exteriors, ornamental plants, and huge trees. You could spend all day here and the site is expanding, but time did not permit this and we made the short walk back to the ship.
Back on the River
Later that evening we docked back in New Orleans and packed for the return. Actually, we had found it easier to just leave most things packed and put the bags on the bed to dress in the morning, so this was not all that difficult.
The show tonight was “Laura and Bill’s Spectacular Spectacular” featuring a sing-along, variety show, and a salute to Veterans on Pearl Harbor Day. With that, we went to complete our packing for departure.
Day 8 – 08DEC2018 (Saturday)
Bus Tour ending at the Airport.
The ride took us through the French Quarter. Our Tour Guide was a wealth of information. We passed by the Café du Monde, with its green awnings, which is famed for the best beignets and coffee in New Orleans and is across the street from Jackson Square, and the St.Louis Cathederal. The rain on the bus windows created an artistic effect of the Cathedral being a painting. Passing through other areas, we covered the reason for the development of the narrow houses and the areas affected by Katrina. The very slight elevation changes put 4 feet of water on one side of the road while it was dry on the next and the drainage canals which usually carry water out of the city into Lake Pontchartrain on the North side of the city became rivers flowing into the city as the hurricane passed and wind blew the water up canals. New Orleans is still recovering, but with the economy moving again, there is plenty of growth and restoration. Some of the old warehouse areas, near the cruise dock, were on the highest ground in the city and many are in the process of being converted to condos.
The tour continued through one of the raised cemeteries unique to New Orleans and then through the New Orleans City Park on the North side of the city. This is quite a large park – similar in size to Central Park in New York. On the way to the airport, we did manage to finally pick up some beignets and coffee.
On leaving, it was a “big easy” decision that visiting New Orleans would be back in the travel plans.
Tips and References:
Some of the menu items might have unique names for items that bear a strong resemblance to other foods. This might lead to some unexpected selections. For example, the Mississippi River Bourbon Pie is very similar to a pecan pie with bourbon flavoring, so ask what something might be similar when making choices. In all, food was excellent, and if you are not used to eating often or in larger portions, ½ sizes can be selected. The menus for lunch and dinner are presented at breakfast, to minimize waste. You can request alternate choices if there is nothing on the menu that will work and there is a separate option on the 3rd deck aft in the Crow’s Nest, with personal pizzas, hamburgers, and hot dogs (as a personal note the hamburger and hot dogs are excellent), with other options such as fruit. You will not lack for options or quantity.
American Cruise Lines celebrates your special occasion with style. We enjoyed celebrating our 21st wedding anniversary onboard!
Bill Wiemuth and Laura Sable, his wife, provided entertainment onboard, except where noted. Bill is an amazing storyteller and “River Historian”. If Mark Twain were on the Mississippi River today, he would be a storyteller of the caliber that Bill Wiemuth is. Laura is a very talented singer and together with Bill on the piano, and with some banter between songs, they make beautiful music.
Bill provided a Recommended Reading List with clickable links that take you the books listed for sale on Amazon.com for further exploration into the great stories from river history and wrote and narrated a River History Series of audiobooks that explore our past and tell many more amazing stories. Although these stories are particularly enjoyable as you cruise on a river where the history was made and listen to Bill tell them in person, for those who could not be there, they really are entertaining gifts.
The Crew on American Cruise Lines
The crews was very personal and attended to all our needs. They even went out of their way to get a special drink for us that was not onboard! Always friendly and always available to address questions or need.
TSA Pre-check is the best way to travel by air. Not only do you get through the lines quicker but you do not have to take your shoes, belt, etc. off.
On October 1, 2020, Real ID is required to board a plane – a passport will also work. But it would be best to take care of this before the deadline. Your State must meet guidelines to qualify as a REAL ID. At last count, 9 States do not have a process to create valid identification for this purpose and must present a passport, Military ID, or another document from a very small list to fly.
Just as a reminder, we have another group forming to cruise with American Cruise Lines (ACL) on the same ship, the American Song, but this time on the Columbia River and Snake River in the Pacific Northwest in 2020!
Also, if you would like to see the beautiful state of Alaska, come join us on the Specular Wilderness Cruisetour on May 17, 2019.
Hope you can join us!