The Mississippi In Flower

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Gardens were my excuse to cruise the Mississippi River last April on the stern-wheeler American Queen . They were the focus of a five-day roundtrip from New Orleans, with stops in Louisiana and Mississippi to enjoy the region in its lush spring flowering. But before long I succumbed as much to the charms of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s newest and most luxurious vessel as I did to the attractions onshore.

Holding 436 passengers, the American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built—418 feet long and 97 feet high when its retractable stacks and pilot-house are up. Its calliope and forty-five-ton paddle wheel were crafted specially for the boat, but its pair of refurbished steam engines came from a 1932 Corps of Engineers dredge. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must mention its “auxiliary electric Z-drive propulsion engine” and “twin bow thrusters,” which come into play when needed.) With six decks bordered by exuberant Carpenter Gothic fretwork and red, white, and blue bunting, it presents a gorgeous sight—not only from shore but from any vantage onboard.

Delta Queen’s home port is New Orleans, the perfectly festive place to begin a river journey. The American Queen steamed out of the port on a clear, moonlit evening, to head for a morning arrival at Oak Alley plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. This stop was a good introduction to steam-boating, since tying up at Oak Alley resembled the old method of “choking a stump” (slinging a rope around a tree). Passengers strolled off the boat onto the levee and walked a few hundred feet to the much - photographed alley of twenty-eight live oaks that have stood here for nearly three hundred years, lining the path to the 1839 “Big House,” which was open for guided tours. The house, I must confess, has already blended in my memory with other such I’ve visited over the years; the massive sculptural oak survivors are what grip the imagination.

Except for one full day in Natchez, the program was divided between shore excursions, mostly in the morning, and long, lazy afternoons on the river, a pleasing arrangement. Once afloat, I found nothing more congenial than occupying a rocker on the deck whose bow section is appealingly named the Front Porch of America. This is a spacious area, open to the breezes and shaded from the sun by the deck above; furnished with an array of period seating, including lacy ice-cream chairs, wicker loveseats, rockers, and even a couple of swings, it is so homey that the brochure promises you can breakfast there in pajamas and slippers. With an all-day supply of lemonade, ice cream, and snacks available just inside the doors, this really does offer all the relaxed comfort of a Victorian front porch. But here the village green takes the form of a river.

Travelers on the South’s Mississippi catch on pretty quickly that this isn’t the prettiest patch of the river; Wisconsin and Minnesota probably hold that title. Levees or a screen of cotton-woods rise in many places to obscure views of towns or magnificent plantation houses, and most of the landscape lacks drama. Still, the passing scene is everywhere compelling, from the sight of a pair of pelicans diving for dinner in front of the bow to the turn in the river and the sudden view of a power plant rising up like a Soviet poster celebrating industrial might or the string of three dozen coal barges lashed together and pushed by a small, powerful tug.

From time to time I had to abandon the Front Porch for the other onboard attractions, such as the lectures by the horticulturists Judy Glattstein and Felder Rushing, who accompanied the garden lovers on excursions. There were times during their talks or while chatting with other passengers when I felt as if I’d come in during the middle of a conversation and couldn’t quite catch up; but when Judy said, “A garden is plants put together so they look better than they would alone,” or “A garden that you can see all at once is plain vanilla,” I could relate.

Same thing when Felder Rushing, a proud “eighth-generation Southern gardener,” explained his philosophy: “Let’s just have some fun. Those of you who think you’ve got to have a lot of time to garden, lighten up. Gardening is not like a recipe; it’s like making chili. Some use beans, some might not, but it’s still chili.” Another easy-to-digest nonrecipe from the iconoclast Rushing: “Every garden needs something spiky, something roundy, and something frilly. Put them together, and people will think you know what you’re doing.”

Like most of the smaller cruise ships (and virtually none of the large ones), the American Queen pays a lot of attention to history. The onboard historian provides talks each morning on the art of navigation, famous steamboats, and the cultures of the ports we’d visit. She delivered a riveting portrait of Huey Long and his impact on Louisiana just as we were cruising into Baton Rouge, where Long’s skyscraper-Deco state capitol (the site of his assassination and his mausoleum) loomed.