Cruising with American Queen Steamboat

A Duchess, a baker, a plantation history maker: Meet this coterie of capable ladies of the river, including a duchess defined by her all-suite staterooms; a nationally known chef who has cooked for the likes of Mick Jagger, Lily Tomlin, and Shirley MacLaine; and a Louisiana rebel who saved the history of the Creole plantation that bears her name. You’ll find them all on the waters or near the shores of the mighty Mississippi.

FIRST ALL-SUITE PADDLEWHEEL VESSEL

With its wide-open and airy lounge and library, bar and dining room, beautifully trimmed staircases and statement chandeliers, thoughtfully planned and expansive accommodations — including loft suites that stretch out over two floors and 550 square feet — it may be hard to believe that the American Duchess was once a rowdy casino — but she was.

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And in spite of her somewhat checkered past, the third and newest vessel to join the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) offers those onboard elegance and intimacy in the shared company of only 166 like-minded river cruisers seeking an authentic experience akin to that romanticized by Mark Twain in his memoir, “Life on the Mississippi,” and published in 1883.

Says American Queen Steamboat Captain Joe McKey: “There are many parts of the river that are still as wild and untamed as when Mark Twain was here.”

But thankfully there are many civilizing factors, too, such as the bundle of amenities that distinguish the vessels in this all-American crewed fleet, including rollicking riverboat entertainment, shore excursions in every single port of call, regionally-inspired cuisine, complimentary cappuccino, espresso, bottled water, soft drinks and ice cream throughout a given voyage as well as complimentary wine and beer poured at dinner.

Additionally, the company operates its own fleet of motorcoaches that whisks passengers to their shoreside adventures. And not to worry: Wrapped in glorious paddlewheel art, the American Queen name emblazoned across their length, these deluxe River Coaches can be seen far and wide, coming and going. Also adding a unique touch to the experience is the onboard historian known as the Riverlorian, who shares snippets of river history and culture as scenes of slow-moving barges, flocking wildlife and small-town America slide past the windows.

SOUTHERN AS A BISCUIT

A special AQSC shore tour has a font of pure Southern hospitality in Regina Charboneau, a celebrity chef whose pedigree includes working as a camp cook in the Alaskan bush, opening award-winning restaurants in San Francisco, serving as culinary director of the Duchess’ big sister, American Queen, hosting cooking class weekends and authoring several cookbooks, including “Mississippi Current Cookbook: A Culinary Journey Down America’s Greatest River.”

A seventh-generation Natchezean, this Mississippi maven, famous for her savory, sumptuously stratified butter biscuit recipe, has gracious hospitality stamped in her DNA. Charboneau opens her nearly 190-year-old mansion-home named Twin Oaks to passengers coming ashore from AQSC riverboats.

“I’m such a product of my parents,” says Charboneau, crediting their opening the family home to all as a way of life for her penchant for genuine hospitality. “I really enjoy people, feel like I really get to know them.”

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On the “Inside Regina’s Kitchen” premium excursion, guests are ushered into Charboneau’s living room (some even wander upstairs, at the chef’s invitation, to poke about the abundance of antiques and art) for a mid-morning or afternoon of hands-on biscuit making and getting acquainted. Guests are also treated to refreshments and small bites, like chicken pot pie and eggnog ice cream — wherever Charboneau’s culinary whims take her — while gathered round her 18-seat family table.

Nearby at the chef’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted King’s Tavern — a restaurant tucked into the oldest building in Natchez and one featured on TV’s “Ghost Adventures” — visitors may opt to try a wood-fired flatbread, including the peppered brisket, plated more than 10,000 times, and counting. Or try a tipple at the Charboneau Distillery next door, owned and operated by Charboneau’s son, Jean-Luc. The distillery has the distinction of being the site of the first legally distilled rum produced in Mississippi. Not to be missed is the coffee-flavored rum, a jolt of smooth deliciousness.

WHERE BR’ER RABBIT BEGAN

The stop in White Castle, La., where the largest antebellum mansion in the South is located at Nottoway Plantation, is also where the less showy but equally colorful 200-year-old Laura Plantation is found. Here riverboat explorers meet the plantation’s namesake, Laura Locoul Gore (1861-1963), who is credited with saving the history of this woman-run sugar plantation through her memoir, “Memories of the Old Plantation Home.”

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“Laura did not intend for her memoirs to be published,” notes historian and Laura tour guide Kyle Crosby. “She wrote them solely for her grandchildren to be able to read about their heritage.”

But published they were, from a manuscript Laura completed in 1936. It was safeguarded by family and friends until 1993 when her story of “French aristocrats, Creole colonials, war heroes, astute business women, stoic slaves and bored childhoods” was finally published to shed light on a vanished way of life in Creole Louisiana.

“Her Memories spans four generations of love and greed, of heroism and pettiness, of pride and betrayal, violence and excess, each generation dealing differently with a disintegrating culture,” note editors Norman and Sand Marmillion in the book’s preface.

Because of Laura’s in-depth narrative, the formerly abandoned plantation, which includes historic 1840s slave cabins, was acquired, restored and opened to visitors. Laura saved a chapter of Creole heritage as well as the site where the African American tales of the “Compere Lapin” shared in the oral tradition and popularized by folklorist Joel Chandler Harris as the “Br’er Rabbit” stories, were recorded.

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PLAN YOUR TRAVELS

American Queen Steamboat Company’s (AQSC) growing fleet of opulent U.S. flagged riverboats includes the gingerbread-trimmed American Queen, the largest riverboat in the world; the American Empress, serving the Pacific Northwest; and the all-suite American Duchess. In 2020, AQSC will welcome the 245-guest American Countess. Excursions from six to 23 days traverse America’s waterways — Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Columbia and Snake Rivers. See www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com for dates and details.

Note: AQSC recently acquired Victory Cruise Line and its ships, Victory I and Victory II, to expand AQSC’s presence and overnight excursion offerings into the Great Lakes region.

With a chef famous for a biscuit recipe living and baking in its midst, it makes sense that Natchez — Chef Regina Charboneau’s hometown — is the Biscuit Capital of the World. Not only that, it is also the site of an annual Biscuit Festival (www.natchezbiscuitfest.com). Expanded to include the Southern Song Writers Summit, the festival takes place — with biscuit tastings, biscuit cook-offs, music by guest songwriters and more — at the Natchez Farmers Market in Biscuit Alley on Saturday, Sept. 28, in 2019.

Future Steamboaters take note: This May Charboneau is opening Regina’s Kitchen Cooking School and Regina’s Rind and Vine, a wine and cheese bar, in downtown Natchez.

Trace the history and heritage of Creole Louisiana at Laura Plantation. With a dozen of its buildings listed on the National Historic Register, Laura offers tours of its grounds and gardens, in both English and French, based on Locoul Gore’s “Memories of the Old Plantation Home.” A self-guided tour of the museum exhibit, “From the Big House to Quarters: Slavery on Laura Plantation,” is also offered.

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©2019 Kathy Witt