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Karen Knowlton

Age: 55

Occupation:travel consultant

Number of Cruises: 8

Cruise Line: Delta Queen

Ship: Mississippi Queen

Sailing Date: November 16th, 2003

Itinerary: New Orleans to Memphis


My husband and I decided on a cruise with Delta Queen Steamboat Company, as its relaxed pace and emphasis on history appealed to us. We found some special pricing on a
mid-November sailing one way, upriver from New Orleans to Memphis on the Mississippi Queen, and booked the best available cabin at the time, an outside with verandah. We found the food better, the cabin smaller and our fellow passengers a bit younger than expected, and we had an enjoyable week on this very different cruise.

The Boat:
Lest one think I do not know my nautical terms, “boat” is correct in this instance. The Mississippi Queen cruises only rivers, not the ocean, so it is technically a boat. The Mississippi Queen, like her sisters Delta Queen and American Queen, is an authentic steamboat, propelled solely by a paddlewheel at the stern. The Mississippi Queen is 382 feet long, with 7 passenger decks, and holds about 420 passengers in both inside and outside cabins – most of the latter have balconies. Outside cabins on Main Deck, the lowest, have only windows. Some of the inside cabins are no larger than closets; in contrast, the category AA suites up on Promenade Deck are huge and comfortable. All are romantically decorated in Victorian-style patterns, colors and furnishings, as is the boat as a whole.

Our cabin, a category B, outside with balcony, was small but comfortable enough for two, and sported a nice little balcony with plenty of room for the two of us to sit and enjoy a drink while reading or watching the river scenery. The glass-paneled door to the balcony, plus two windows, let in plenty of light and the view, and privacy was maintained by standard roller-type window shades. Twin beds were pushed together to form a queen-size bed; of necessity, one side of the bed had to be against a side wall. Mattresses were firm but comfortable. Extra blankets and pillows were provided on the closet shelf, though we never needed them. A small chair provided seating, but got in the way – we could have done without it and just sat on the bed. The bed springs hung low enough that only one of our suitcases barely fit underneath – the other suitcase had to go in the closet. There was a 4-drawer metal dresser, painted a bright but not unpleasant green, and a small closet with almost enough hangers (more could be requested from the cabin attendant), a shelf above the hanging rod, an iron and ironing board, and a portable luggage rack. The bathroom was small, with a marine toilet, corner shower stall with an eyelet lace curtain, and a convenient holder for soap, shampoo, etc. The sink had a small counter, a mirror, and there was also a mirrored medicine cabinet to hold toiletries. Soap, conditioning shampoo and hand lotion were provided. Décor was a different flower pattern everywhere you looked – again, in keeping with the Victorian-era feel of the boat. Old pictures, wallpaper and antique-looking light fixtures added to the “old-timey” atmosphere. Soundproofing was fair between cabins; there were some times when we could hear our neighbors talking or coughing.

The public areas, though much scaled down from the large oceangoing cruise ships, consisted of familiar types of spaces: dining room, purser/shore excursion office area, staircase and elevator landings, gift shop, library, show lounge (which doubled as the buffet location for breakfast and lunch), several small lounges (bars) and one large one, the two-deck Paddlewheel Lounge overlooking guess what, at the stern. There is no atrium. There are a lot of stairs onboard, and two elevators, which most found to be very slow. A unique indoor space was the “Wheelhouse,” a small alcove at the bow end (albeit the back of the room) of the Grand Saloon (the show lounge) – not the actual wheelhouse, but located right underneath the pilot house – which served as the office for the Riverlorian, and had river charts for passengers to check our location, plus some extra information related to steamboating and our itinerary. The Grand Saloon itself serves multiple purposes: show lounge, buffet area, lecture hall, dance floor, etc. Outside, there was the Calliope Bar, under cover at the stern, the Sun Deck with a tiny pool resembling a hot tub in size, and several wide spaces in the front of three decks, equipped with rocking chairs, inviting us to sit and watch the scenery unfold at our breakneck upstream speed of 7 ½ mph. Although our weather was warm for mid-November, ranging from the 60’s to the 80’s, it was a bit windy up front, and only during the warmest part of the day would passengers want to tarry for long periods.

Besides the relatively small size of these areas and the flowery décor everywhere, many other details reminded us we were not on a traditional cruise ship. There was a genuine steam calliope up next to the open space at the stern, above and in front of the paddlewheel, which one of the entertainers played each time we left a port. The forward cabin lounge, where the purser and shore excursion desks were located, had lots of comfortable chairs and couches, and a pretty wooden birdcage with four lively little zebra finches as residents. Main Deck had a couple windows which allowed passengers to look into part of the engine room and watch the huge driver arm which turned the paddlewheel. (I understand that on the other two Delta Queen boats, passengers can tour the engine room. That option was not offered on Miss. Queen.)

The Crew:
Mississippi Queen, like her two sisters, is an American-built, American-flagged, and American-crewed boat. That in itself is a marked difference from most cruise lines. Our cabin attendant, Melissa, was a pleasant young gal from Ohio, and our wait staff were from various places in the South and northern Midwest. All were lots of fun, and competent at their jobs, as were most of the staff we encountered. There was a little bit of uneven service in the dining room (not by our servers, but some others we encountered during the open-seating breakfast and lunch times), but most of the crew were very personable and often friendly. And of course, no language problems, unless one isn’t good at understanding different North American accents! As on the big cruise ships, the staff work long hours, for several months at a time, then get a good-sized break of a month or more.

The Passengers:
I had expected a largely senior crowd, especially with this being a “Big Band” theme cruise, and before we went I had joked with friends that we would probably be the youngest folks onboard. Fortunately for us, this was not the case, and we found plenty of fellow passengers about our age (50’s), some even younger. Nevertheless, the majority were senior citizens, which is consistent with this cruise line’s history. Activity levels varied. In my opinion, wheelchairs are not advised on this boat – although there are elevators, the hallways and traffic patterns around the public areas are really not large enough for them – but there were plenty of slower-moving “guests.” Most were fairly active, willing and able to walk some distances on shore, and I understand the dance floor was full every night, when the Big Bands played. The narrow walking area on Observation Deck was always busy while we were underway, but not so full that one couldn’t get a good fast walk going.

Food:
I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by the food, having expected “down-home cooking” types of things, instead finding some imagination in the preparation. Even after a fantastic meal at the Palace Café in New Orleans the night before the cruise, we were rarely disappointed with our meals, and even then, disappointment was minor. Each dinner featured an entrée typical of New Orleans or southern river communities (catfish was prominent during the second half of the cruise), but there were 4 or 5 other entrees to choose from as well, including one vegetarian and one or two “heart-healthy” ones. Dinner was served only in the dining room, with no alternate buffet; breakfast and lunch both had dining room or buffet options. Portions were generous, without being overwhelming. Snacks were available between meals – there was a hot dog stand on the Calliope Deck which had self-serve hot dogs, brats and condiments all afternoon each day until 5 PM, and also a soft-serve ice cream machine. A nook near the gift shop offered coffee, tea and ice water all day and evening, and really great cookies! Hors d’oeuvres were served in late afternoon, but we were usually otherwise occupied.

The breakfast and lunch buffets, served in the Grand Saloon, were outstanding. Many previous cruisers among the passengers remarked that they outshone the buffets on the big cruise ships, and I would tend to agree. There was a lot of choice, including two or three featured hot items (two kinds of eggs and a made-to-order waffle or omelet station at breakfast; another cooked-to-order hot entrée choice for lunch such as stir-fry or pasta), fresh fruit, bagels and bread for toasting and several juice choices at breakfast, and several salads and pop choices for lunch, etc. The fresh pineapple was just wonderful – we all loved it! Desserts tended to be down-home style: cherry cobbler, bread pudding, etc. The only trouble is finding good seating for the buffet, as the tables in the Grand Saloon are tiny lounge tables, and there isn’t quite enough seating for everyone at once. However, fellow passengers were polite and friendly enough to invite us to sit with them, after observing us wandering around with full plates, looking lost.

There are the traditional two seatings for dinner, early being at 5:15 and “main” (late) at 7:45. As the early seemed just a bit too early, we opted for late at the time of booking. However, when our documents arrived, we noticed we were assigned to early seating anyway. At boarding, we went to the maitre d’ to request a change, which was granted before dinnertime. It turned out to be an excellent choice, as our tablemates were wonderful – loads of fun, with interesting experiences to share, and we all ended up friends by the end of the cruise.

Entertainment and activities:
The entertainment onboard the Miss. Queen was great! There is a small ship’s band, consisting of trumpet, trombone/baritone, and wind (clarinet/sax), double bass and percussionist, plus two pianists who rotated duties, and they were excellent. They played every evening, plus for a few special occasions (such as the Captain’s dinner), had a good repertoire of jazz, pop, country and old standards, and sounded just fine. In addition, there were 4 singer/dancers who put on 2 small “production” shows, both very enjoyable, and a few of whom entertained individually on other evenings. The shows tended to feature American pop music, Broadway tunes, etc., and one of them had a real patriotic flair. And there was a trio – pianist, (female) drummer, and lead singer who could play guitar, banjo, and tuba, among other things – who played every night after dinner in the Paddlewheel Lounge, plus provided some of the entertainment in the Grand Saloon. The two pianists also alternated at the calliope, which they played for a few minutes each time we left a port.

Being a Big Band theme cruise, there also was another band onboard. The stage is not big, so the band couldn’t be either. During our cruise, we had two different Big Bands, switching them out halfway through. I don’t recall the name of the first; the second was the Guy Lombardo orchestra – with a different conductor, of course! Despite the “big” name, I heard many passengers remark that they liked the first band better. We did not go to their performances, but they seemed to be well-attended. Several older “gentleman hosts” were onboard to allow unaccompanied ladies the chance to dance and enjoy some good conversation; they also assisted with the dance classes. Most of them came along on the shore excursions, not as guides so much as fellow tourists, and in my few interactions with them, I found them pleasant fellows.

The highlight for me among the entertainment staff was the Riverlorian. Ours was a man in his 30’s named Bill Wiemuth, and he did a wonderful job of making history fun. Every morning during buffet breakfast, he gave what was called a lecture, but that is unfair, as that word makes one think it will be dry and boring. Far from it – he made history live, so that all could enjoy it. His presentations were on steamboat history, river navigation, the impact of the Civil War on the area we were traveling through, and the Lewis & Clark expedition (this year being the 200th anniversary of the beginning of that great trek). In addition, he could often be found out on deck checking out other river traffic, wildlife or navigational details, or checking our speed with a handheld GPS receiver; or in his “office,” the Wheelhouse, talking about various aspects of river history and lore or going over navigational charts with interested passengers. He gave the tours of the pilot house while we were tied up in a port too. Bill had obviously done his homework, and was very knowledgeable about the subjects he talked about, both in his “lectures” and in more informal settings as well. The Riverlorian program is a unique feature of Delta Queen Steamboat Company, and in my opinion is one of the best things about this cruise line.

In addition to the entertainment, there was a variety of fun activities offered onboard, both while underway and also in port, for those who didn’t care to go ashore. Typical cruise-ship activities like bingo, trivia and not-so-newlywed games and “steamboat races” (similar to the fake “horse races” offered on some big ships) mixed with more unique events like kite flying, “old-time singalongs,” and make-your-own hat contests. On one of the afternoons on the river, passengers were allowed to briefly play the calliope and have their picture taken doing it; afterwards, those of us who did were awarded Vox Calliopus certificates commemorating the event!

Being an upriver cruise (one way from New Orleans to Memphis), our port calls along the way lasted about half a day each. We had a port call every day but one, and spent most afternoons “steamboatin’” on the river, watching the scenery and the other river traffic – primarily barges with their towboats - relaxing, or enjoying some of the onboard activities.

Ports:
We started off in New Orleans, and flew down the day before. We booked our hotel and air separately from the cruise line, and found that one-night hotel stays on the weekend this time of year are hard to come by, or very expensive, due to football season. We did find a room at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, a huge rambling hotel located right on the Riverwalk, itself a nice brick-paved park along the riverbank, stretching from the cruise docks to Jackson Square in the French Quarter. Our room was nothing special, but the hotel location was great, across the street from Harrahs Casino, walking distance to the Quarter and all the restaurants and nightlife on Canal Street, and situated right above and next to the large Riverwalk shopping mall. (It appears that the mall also has an entrance from the cruise terminal, and would be a great place for passengers on the big cruise ships to spend some of their time while waiting to board!)

We had spent time in New Orleans previously, and we are not party animals, so we did not go to the Quarter at night. We did walk up along Canal St. for dinner at the Palace Café, which was recommended by my brother, who used to live in New Orleans; we had the hotel concierge make a reservation there for us. Excellent meal! Somewhat pricey, and all items are a la carte, but it was worth it. The Hilton Riverside offers a big jazz brunch on Sundays which looked tempting (priced about $45 per person) but we decided that would be too much food before a cruise, so we opted for the regular buffet breakfast in the lower-level restaurant, and were quite satisfied. There is plenty to do in New Orleans, whether on one’s own or through the cruise line, and it can even be relaxing – just sitting on a bench along the Riverwalk watching the river traffic and the tourists is a fine way to spend a few hours.

Oak Alley, Louisiana was the first port of call after leaving New Orleans, and here we saw firsthand how different a river cruise can be. We had tied up to the shore before dawn, and the foggy morning was dreamlike. The gangway, which the boat carries along, was resting on the grassy slope of a levee, and we needed only to climb the path over the levee to be standing right in front of the famous plantation. Oak Alley is actually the nickname of what is probably the most photographed antebellum mansion in the South. Framed by 28 huge, 300-year-old live oaks, the columned mansion is reached by a long gravel walkway. A two-lane country road winds along between the property and the levee; a policeman was stationed there all morning to assist us in crossing the road (there was a somewhat steady stream of local traffic.) We had purchased the shore excursion that included a tour of Oak Alley and also nearby Laura Plantation, and after a walk between the oaks, waited a short time for our tour through the plantation home, given by a young lady in an 1860’s hoop skirt. After some time there, with opportunity for a mint julep on the back porch, we walked back to the road and boarded buses for the short trip to the very different Laura Plantation. Both plantations were run by people of French descent, and grew sugar cane, but the similarity ends there. Laura Plantation is much less pretentious, though its owners were probably nearly as wealthy as those of Oak Alley; its family were Creoles, who were French immigrants in the 17th century, and who passed the plantation down through the generations to the child deemed most apt to run it well – who in this case were all daughters! Our guide there was wonderful, full of information about the very different and fascinating Creole culture (not to be confused with Cajuns – an entirely different group of folks!)

The third day of the cruise we spent a rainy morning in Baton Rouge, the capitol of Louisiana. The riverboat dock, called the “Paperclip” by locals, (seeing it made it obvious why), is right next to the USS Kidd, a World War II destroyer, which is now permanently set there, and is a museum. Several tour options were available here, but the most popular – and the one we chose – was Cajun Heritage. We ended up on a bus heading through some nice residential areas to a bayou outside of town, and were rousingly entertained at a rustic bar/restaurant on the bayou by Cajun music and dancing, tastes of Cajun foods (like gator and “boudin”) and lots of lighthearted fun. We even had the chance to hold a baby alligator and get an up close – but not too close! – look at a huge 100-year-old “alligator” snapping turtle (so named because of its rough, spiny shell). On the way back into town we learned a bit about Huey Long, “our dictator governor,” according to the guide, who described both the mob-boss attitude of the colorful governor of lore, and also a few things he admired about him – apparently he kept some good campaign promises that benefited some of the poorer people in the state.

Natchez, Mississippi was our fourth-day stop, and we tied up to the levee right below “Natchez Under the Hill,” which was the seamy side of town in the 19th century. Only a few buildings of it remain, the rest having been washed away in the river floods. Most of the town is located higher yet, on a bluff above the river. The tour we chose there was the Frogmore Plantation tour, and we were a little surprised to find we were returning to Louisiana (across the river to the west) again! Frogmore is both a historic and a modern cotton plantation and gin, and the owners themselves directed our tour of the old gin, authentic slave cabins and the fields, and a quick trip to the modern gin as well. They have taken a great interest in the history of this area and cotton plantation life, and the tour was very informative and educational – and fun.

Our fifth stop (one each day) was at Vicksburg, Mississippi, for which we had to leave the river entirely, and travel about a mile or two up the Yazoo River Diversion Canal. The Mississippi itself had cut itself off, looping back on itself, in the years since the Civil War, and left Vicksburg high and dry, so to speak. In order to keep its status as a river port, with the attendant cargo business, Vicksburg had to dig a canal or channel several miles to connect the big river with the nearby Yazoo River! We tied up to a large concrete revetment below the town – again, the eastern shore of the river was high and blufflike. Our tour took us to the Vicksburg National Battlefield, which is full of steep ravines and hills, and lots and lots of monuments, put up by the states which sent men to battle there, and by various veterans’ groups within those states. We stopped at the National Park Service visitor center for a while, and then continued on the bus tour. Our guide was disappointing, seeming to be more interested in boosting modern Vicksburg and telling us how much money each monument is worth today, than in recounting the history of this important and pivotal Civil War battle. Luck of the draw, as each bus’s guide seemed to have his own slant on the tour.

Our sixth port of call was Helena, Arkansas, the “heart of the Delta.” This area of lower Arkansas/northern Mississippi/west Tennessee was cotton country, and Helena has a nice little museum in the old train station devoted to its history. They have built a pleasant park from the sheltered cove where we tied up to the trees, along a mile of paved road running along the riverbank, to the town. The town itself has seen much better days, and is something quite unexpected in a cruise port. The locals have really put all they have – and then some – into what facilities there are. Buses were available for a tour (which was about the same as one could do themselves, if mobile), but many of us opted to walk into town on our own.

We finished in Memphis, and those of us with late flights could opt for a shore excursion there too (not noted in pre-cruise documentation). Our tour took us through some of the renovated parts of town, where there is a tourist trolley, many blues joints, and other attractions. We stopped briefly, staying on the bus, by the Civil Rights Museum, built onto the back of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was killed in 1968. The motel façade has been left intact; there’s even an old early 60’s car parked in front! A bit eerie. We then went to the St. Jude Hospital complex, and spent some time in the Danny Thomas memorial building there. It’s small compared to the hospital, resembles a mosque (though Danny was a Christian), and it honors those who have contributed to the hospital and its research into children’s diseases.

The big stop on the tour was, as I expected, Graceland Mansion. With that name, I expected a huge, palatial estate, but it was surprisingly modest in size, and is not far out of town at all - I suspect suburbia has caught up with it over the years. The place was crowded with a steady stream of tourists, including families with young children. Very good crowd control – visitors must take a shuttle bus across the busy 4-lane street from the visitor center to the mansion complex itself, and though we were allowed to proceed through the complex at our own pace to some extent, there are always many people following behind. In sharp contrast to the Danny Thomas memorial, Graceland is unsurprisingly gaudy, busy and tacky; Elvis fans were in heaven.

Steamboatin’:
This is Delta Queen’s version of the “day at sea,” and it offered various activities like bingo, “steamboat races” (similar to “horse races” on some big cruise ships), dance lessons, etc. Unique to the Delta Queen line is the traditional kite flying, which took place on this sunny but very windy day. The wind proved too much for most of the flimsy paper and balsa wood kites (provided at no charge by the cruise staff), but the crashing and diving kites provided lots of laughs and enjoyment by the fairly large number of passengers who participated. Relaxation is of course possible too, with reading and watching the river scenery slowly roll past being the big attractions. We had one day of “steamboatin’” on the itinerary, plus the other halves of the days we had port calls.

There is a lot to watch along the river. From Baton Rouge down to New Orleans, the river is kept dredged to 40 feet deep, allowing oceangoing freight traffic in addition to the river barges. There are some very industrial stretches – cruising past chemical plants and barge loading docks is an unusual experience! North of Baton Rouge, the countryside is much more rural, and only barge traffic goes by. The river was very low when we were there, and there were many sandbars along some of the banks – some held dozens of white pelicans, resting and warming themselves in the late fall sunshine. We learned a bit about river navigation – which in itself is an extremely impressive skill – from the Riverlorian, and were able to find navigation aids and landmarks to match to the charts displayed in the Wheelhouse.

Embarkation/Disembarkation:
Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s warehouse-like cruise terminal is reached by the same two-lane street as the terminal for the big oceangoing cruise ships, so traffic can back up a bit on embarkation day. However, when we arrived (about 1 PM) there were only a few people in line, and the friendly Delta Queen shore staff had us checked in quickly, tagged our luggage and directed us onboard. For guests who do not wish to get on the boat right away, there are several dozen white wooden rocking chairs on the dock, facing the river, to relax in. Although we could not get into our cabin until 3 PM, we were able to get onboard in the early afternoon, have a buffet lunch and enjoy the public areas. Outdoors at the bow, on several decks, were more of the rockers, and they were well occupied throughout the afternoon. We got familiar with the layout of the boat, which did not take long, met with the maitre d’ to request a change in our assigned dining, and relaxed in the rocking chairs, met some fellow passengers and watched the huge Carnival Conquest at its dock just downriver from us.

Disembarkation had some disappointing similarities to the last day of a “regular” big-ship cruise, namely that we had to put our luggage out in the hall before bedtime the night before, for the crew to collect and organize – this despite its not having to go through customs – and having to vacate our cabin right after breakfast and wait in the Grand Saloon to be called (by cabin number) to leave the boat. It was a little disconcerting to see our luggage sitting outside, with no cover, on the revetment – we were sure glad it wasn’t raining! Otherwise, though, disembarkation day went pretty smoothly. Buffet breakfast was set up in the hallway outside the entrance to the dining room, with open seating in the dining room itself (no menu service that morning.) And the friendly purser’s staff, despite all they had to do that day, corrected a mistake on our final bill quickly, without complaint.

Summary:
Delta Queen Steamboat cruises will appeal to adults with an interest in American history and culture, who don’t require a daily adrenaline rush, who are comfortable with lots of seniors around, and who aren’t especially interested in gourmet cuisine. Those who need lots of physical activity, aerobics classes, a large pool, onboard gambling and Broadway shows should head for large oceangoing cruise ships. Small children would probably be quite bored on most Delta Queen sailings; however, there are a few weeks each year when the cruise line encourages families, and they add special children’s activities during those times. The lifestyle is comfortable and casual; however, as Delta Queen is popular with the older generations, the dress-up nights are dressier than the literature would lead one to believe, and denim is not the most common daywear.

 

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