Seven years ago I began a fascinating quest to see our country’s 50 states from its waterways— the rivers, lakes, canals, and coastlines. Since then I have enjoyed a variety of unique adventures on more than 12 cruise lines that ply American waters, most of them small, casual ships.
Last December, a 10-day cruise from Memphis to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast soon became one of my favorite U.S. expeditions. Our ship, the 138-guest Yorktown, is owned and operated by a little-known cruise company, Travel Dynamics International, which specializes in educational cruises for the lifelong learner.
Some of the passengers had arrived in Memphis a day or two early to sightsee and stay at the South’s legendary Peabody Hotel. Many were part of a large audience that gathered in the hotel’s elegant lobby to view the festive traditional ceremony of the Peabody’s Marching Ducks. Much to my surprise, I was appointed the Honorary Duckmaster to lead the parading ducks from their rooftop home to the lobby’s fountain at precisely 11 a.m.
Upon boarding our comfortable yacht, the Yorktown, we were pleased to discover that it had undergone extensive renovations, including new carpets, draperies, linens, attractive reupholstered furniture, wood restoration, new generators and navigational equipment. Lovely art work throughout depicts the various ports of call.
The small ship has four decks connected by stairs. (There are no elevators). Three decks have outside cabins and the top Sun Deck houses four superior outside cabins with walk-out balconies. Although the cabins are smaller than you might find on other cruise ships, there is ample storage and a well-designed bathroom.
I chose a cabin on the Lounge Deck because all the lectures and social activities took place in that deck’s Observation Lounge. In addition, the cabin windows look directly out onto the passing scenery, offering more privacy than those on the Promenade Deck, which open onto a common exterior passageway.
More importantly, early each morning a pot of freshly brewed coffee was only a few steps away in the lounge. (Typically, there is no room service on small river ships in the U.S.)
Most of my fellow passengers were active seniors traveling with several college alumni groups or the National Audubon Society. Others had booked directly with the cruise company.
Three of our educational program lecturers were experts in Civil War history and a fourth lecturer from the National Audubon Society specialized in the natural history of the Mississippi River.
We studied the society and culture of the Antebellum South, the Civil War as it was fought on land and sea, the legacy of the war in contemporary America, the origins and traditions of jazz and blues, and the flora and fauna of the region. In addition, the concerts and informal performances of our talented group of five jazz and blues musicians brought the festive spirit of New Orleans and Memphis to the ship.
Our first Mississippi River port was the small town of Helena, Arkansas, a major destination for Delta blues enthusiasts. That morning, following a stirring gospel performance at the Great First Baptist Church, we toured a home that was a finely restored example of Queen Anne architecture and briefly explored the Delta Cultural Center.
In Vicksburg, there was a battlefield tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park, where one of the Civil War’s pivotal struggles for control of the Mississippi was fought.
Shore excursions in Natchez the next day included a tour of a stately plantation home and a walk through a wildlife refuge designated an “Important Bird Area.”
A short distance from Baton Rouge, we anchored near two of the most spectacular examples of antebellum plantations -- Rosedown and Oak Alley Plantation, with its breathtaking canopy of century-old live oaks. Both were beautifully adorned with fragrant fresh greens and elaborate Christmas decorations, as was the nearby Houmas House Plantation. Our charming hostesses, decked out in their antebellum best, extended a warm welcome as they transported us back in time to their former gracious lifestyle.
That evening we sipped traditional Mint Juleps in the courtyard before strolling through the lovely gardens.
From Rosedown Plantation, it was a short drive to the Oakley House, where John James Audubon worked on 32 of his famous bird paintings
Then, near a scenic cypress swamp, we learned about life on the colorful Creole plantation of Laura, the only plantation of its kind to retain the original slave cabins.
Back in Baton Rouge, there was an opportunity to visit the Old State Capital Museum, a 150-year old Gothic building of political history exhibits , where “Louisiana politics, like its food, has a flavor all its own.”
Leaving the Mississippi River, we cruised through the sugar-white sand dunes and beaches, the tall pines and live oaks of the Gulf Island National Seashore. Its numerous ponds and lagoons serve as a refuge and rookery for a wide variety of sea birds and migratory birds.
Pensacola, tucked away at the western end of Florida’s Panhandle, was our last port before disembarking in New Orleans. The town’s Historic Village is a delightful surprise of 19th century buildings and museums of 450 years of treasures from by-gone days. Today, the downtown’s filigreed balconies and weathered brick structures are full of elegant restaurants, art galleries, sidewalk cafes, and music halls.
Two of the ship’s photographers surprised us each with a personalized dvd of our voyage as we left the Yorktown in New Orleans.
It’s always a special treat to visit New Orleans, a French outpost that later survived the Civil War intact. I chose to extend my stay in a renovated cottage where Audubon once lived. One of seven luxurious Audubon Cottages in a secluded setting in the French Quarter, it was quiet and convenient location for exploring the city’s musical venues, historic sites, and fine cuisine.
For More Information
• www.traveldynamicsinternational.com or call 800-257-5767
• All excursions and wine with lunch and dinner are included in the cost. Gratuities and alcoholic drinks are extra.
• Yorktown itineraries between Jacksonville, Florida and Richmond, Virginia: Civil War Sites and Historic Homes & Gardens of the Colonial South.
• It also offers: New England to Montreal, Canada’s Provinces, the Hudson River and the Chesapeake Bay, the Caribbean, and several golf cruises.
• From June through August, it cruises on the Great Lakes and between the St. Lawrence Seaway and Chicago.
• In addition to the Yorktown, Travel Dynamics International owns and operates three other small ships with itineraries on the west coast of Africa, Mediterranean, South America, and Antarctica.