Meeting My Brother for a Cruise on The Newest Riverboat, American Symphony
By Jackie Sheckler Finch
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
My brother Joe lives in Durango, Colorado. I live in Bloomington, Indiana. As the last two in a large family of nine, Joe and I try to get together every year. But it is not always easy.
We both have busy lives. Joe is a professional drummer and has regular gigs. I’m a journalist. So, suddenly, it can seem like a year has passed and our planned visits haven’t happened.
Elvis In the House
This year, however, we made reservations to cruise for a week on the new American Symphony from Memphis to New Orleans. Joe flew into Memphis from Colorado and I flew from Indiana. We met at The Guest House at Graceland for the two-day pre-cruise “Elvis Experience.”
Why the American Symphony? Because she is the newest riverboat to cruise the mighty Mississippi River. In addition, the Symphony is a beauty and I’m looking forward to seeing what she offers. Since Joe has never cruised before, I’m curious what his fresh eyes will think of a cruise on American waters.
American Symphony Features Contemporary Design
Inaugurated in Natchez in August, American Symphony is the newest ship in American Cruise Line’s eagerly anticipated series of contemporary riverboats. The first modern riverboats ever in the United States are showcasing several pioneering innovations on America’s waters.
Founded in 1991, American Cruise Lines specializes in small-ship coastal and river cruises throughout the United States. Each American Cruise Lines vessel is a traditional USA-built (at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Maryland) as well as American-flagged and crewed.
With the most cruise options in the USA, American Cruise Lines prides itself on “Small Ship Cruising Done Perfectly.”
Memphis to New Orleans
On our cruise, Joe and I traveled from Memphis to Vicksburg and Natchez in Mississippi, and St. Francisville and Baton Rouge in Louisiana before ending our cruise in New Orleans.
Since Joe’s flight arrived in Memphis about four hours before mine, I told him he would have no trouble recognizing the complimentary shuttle from the airport to The Guest House. Just look for the sleek blue-and-gold van with huge likenesses of Elvis on the sides and back, I told him. Joe had no arrival problems at all.
Both of my flights from Indy were delayed so I arrived at The Guest House just in time to meet Joe for cocktail hour in the Founders’ Room, followed by an after-hours backstage look at Graceland which is part of our pre-cruise experience. Among the memorabilia usually not seen by Graceland guests was a belt Elvis had worn. Not a concert belt, just an everyday belt, our guide said.
With metal lion’s heads holding chains, the studded belt was huge and heavy. Wearing cotton gloves, we were welcome to hold the belt and take photos.
A couple of women on our tour decided to keep their gloves as souvenirs. After all, they noted, the gloves had touched something that was once touched by Elvis.
Boarding the American Symphony
After a buffet breakfast at the Guest House, Joe and I climbed aboard American Cruise Line’s cruise coach for a ride to the American Symphony.
When we arrived, passengers and other folks had their cameras and cellphones ready to photograph the beautiful vessel.
The Symphony’s bow opens like some mythical creature’s jaws from which a retractable gangway can be extended for bow landings virtually anywhere. Passengers then walk comfortably down the extended gangway. Seems like something from a science fiction movie.
Along with that unusual bow, the American Symphony features lounges soaring 40 feet above the water with triple the glass of other riverboats. The result is spectacular views.
The ship’s four-story glass-enclosed area with a large domed skylight, called the Atrium, serves as the central gathering point for the ship. With its clean and uncluttered décor, the Symphony looks more like a modern European river cruise ship than one of the old-fashioned paddlewheel boats seen on the mighty Mississippi.
The restaurant on the Main Deck has table-to-ceiling window views and open seating at every meal. Regionally inspired cuisine with locally sourced ingredients is a ship specialty and it is delicious with multiple entrée choices.
Complimentary room service also is available. Warm cookies are served in the morning and afternoon, plus snacks are always available in the Sky Lounge and the evening cocktail hour features scrumptious hors d’oeuvres.
For more casual dining, the Ellipse Café serves breakfast and lunch which can be eaten inside the Sky Lounge or on the deck area outside.
Roomy stateroom with a balcony
Our stateroom No. 417 was larger than many hotel rooms. It had a phone, flat screen TV, Keurig coffee maker, and the biggest mini fridge
I have seen on any cruise vessel. A roomy shower had good water pressure and plenty of hot water. The bed was super comfy with premium white linens, a duvet, and pillows.
Large floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors led to a private balcony with two chairs and a table. All American Symphony cabins have balconies. The cabin décor featured soothing colors of light blues and earth tones.
A desk with a chair and a round table with two upholstered chairs offered good seating. A dresser with six drawers and a closet was great storage space. The boat has free Wi-Fi and our cabin had adequate plugs for electronic devices.
Exploring the ship, I was happy to discover all the wide-open spaces with expansive glass windows galore. The American Symphony has a complimentary self-serve laundry facility, a fitness center with free weights and low-impact aerobics machines, a walking track on the top deck, a small library with books and games, a sun deck with lounges, and two speedy elevators.
175 Pax, 155 crew
Hotel General Manager Mason Hollandbeck said the American Symphony can carry 175 passengers. On our cruise, we had 160 passengers and 155 crew members.
Quite a pampering passenger/crew ratio. No wonder I felt as though the crew was always spiffing up the boat or asking if we needed anything.
Entertainment was primarily guest speaker Jim Schweickart and musician Jon England with a guest comedian and musical group brought ashore along the way for three evening’s entertainment.
A passenger favorite, Jon England is self-taught, never having a music lesson. He has been entertaining cruise ship passengers around the world since he was a teen.
Jon’s amazing phonographic memory allows him to play all kinds of music – from classical to show tunes to Big Band and pop. He also can play a wide repertoire of musical instruments.
A passenger favorite on our American Symphony cruise was the evening Jon presented Beatlemania. Strapping on a Brit-pop guitar and wearing a mop-top wig and Nehru-style jacket, Jon rocked out the Fab Four’s greatest hits.
Historic shore excursions
As we traveled the Mississippi, we stopped for intriguing shore excursions, mostly included in the cruise price. At Vicksburg National Military Park, we saw the final resting place for 17,000 Union dead from the Civil War, more than any other national cemetery.
An estimated 5,000 Confederate soldiers are buried in the Soldiers’ Rest plot in the Vicksburg city cemetery. We also toured the ironclad gunboat USS Cairo which sank in the Yazoo River during the war.
Using a cheap compass, historian Edwin Bearss and Civil War buffs found and raised Cairo from the bottom of the muddy river 102 years after Cairo became the first ship to be sunk by a torpedo.
In Natchez, we visited the historic Longwood mansion, the octagonal house that looks glorious on the outside. But is unfinished on the inside. Haller and Julia Nutt were building their dream home until the Civil War broke out. Workmen left their tools and headed north.
Only nine basement rooms of the 32 planned were completed. The Nutts and their 11 children lived in the basement. Hall died in 1864 of pneumonia, some say of a broken heart. Julia was left to struggle to support her children. She lived in the basement until her death in 1897.
For the Houmas House stop, we docked right across the road from the 16-room “Sugar Palace” showcasing the immense wealth this sugarcane farm boasted during the 1800s. The plantation was just as I remembered from the old 1964 Bette Davis/Joan Crawford movie, “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” which was filmed there.
Make that the Bette Davis movie. “Joan and Bette got into a fight,” guide Danielle said. “Joan packed her bags and went back to Hollywood. They got Olivia de Havilland to replace Joan and had to reshoot all Joan’s scenes.”
A Houmas House bedroom is where Bette Davis stayed. Her hat and purse are placed on the bed as though she just stepped out for a cocktail and planned to return.
The cruise ends in New Orleans
In Baton Rouge, the American Symphony was docked so close to the USS Kidd that we could walk over and back. But it was surprising to see the World War II destroyer sitting high and dry because of the Mississippi River’s very low level.
Although some folks think the Kidd is named after pirate Captain William Kidd, it is actually named after Rear Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd, killed aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Pirate Kidd is the ship’s mascot and the crew is officially authorized to fly a Jolly Roger and the ship’s smokestack boasts a painting of the legendary pirate.
Our cruise ended in New Orleans where Joe caught a flight back to Colorado and I headed home to Indiana. Now we need to plan another trip together.
As Joe said, he kept thinking he would see family more when he retired. But time seems to have a way of slipping away and many loved ones are no longer here. Best to plan times together and make them happen.
The author’s cruise was sponsored by the American but the opinions are all her own. For more information: Contact American Cruise Lines at 800-460-4518, www.americancruiselines.com.