Rollin’ on the river … new American Harmony draws admiring looks on river voyage

With cameras and cellphones in their hands, people on shore watched as the new American Harmony cruise ship docked along the Louisiana shore at St. Francisville. And they weren’t disappointed.

American Harmony’s unique bow opens to extend retractable gangway, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

The ship’s unique 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.

Standing ashore, I admired how the sleek ship with its eye-catching bow looks like something from a science fiction movie.

With its unusual bow, the American Harmony can easily dock along the Mississippi River, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

And I already know how beautiful the ship is onboard.

I am a fortunate passenger on this wonderful new ship cruising for a week from New Orleans to Memphis. Launched in August 2019, the American Harmony 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. Along with that unusual bow, the American Harmony features lounges soaring 40 feet above the water with triple the glass of other riverboats. The result is spectacular views.

Atrium on American Harmony is filled with large windows, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

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 Harmony looks more like a modern European river cruise ship than one of the old-fashioned paddlewheel boats seen on the mighty Mississippi.

Historically, it seems fitting that my cruise on the American Harmony starts in New Orleans. After all, one of the very first American steamboats – a paddle wheeler named the New Orleans – was the first steamboat to make the historic Mississippi River voyage from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in 1811. And my very first cruise was from New Orleans in 1976 aboard the Mississippi Queen, once the largest paddle-wheel driven river steamboat ever built. The Mississippi Queen went out of service more than a decade ago.

Arriving in New Orleans the day before our cruise, we stayed at the lovely InterContinental Hotel in special rooms set aside for passengers. I always advise travelers to arrive a day before any cruise to be sure they are there when a ship leaves port. Flights can be cancelled or delayed and a ship will wait for no one.

My flight from Indy didn’t arrive until almost 7 p.m. so after a quick walk around the French Quarter, I went to bed with sweet dreams of tomorrow’s cruise. In the morning, after a big buffet breakfast at the hotel, we boarded buses for transport to the ship. A brass band welcomed us when we walked down the pier and the embarkation process was simple and smooth. Walk on board. Pick up my cabin key card. Head to my cabin.

The vessel’s hotel manager Mike Powell noted that the ship can carry 190 passengers and 60 crewmembers. Our cruise has 180 passengers with an average age of 72, he said. California was the state with the most passengers, followed by Florida, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

“Many of those passengers are repeat passengers,” Powell added. And many were booking future American Cruise Lines trips while we were cruising.

No wonder. The American-built, American-crewed ship is elegant, the crew is friendly (they knew my name on the first day and knew what drinks I preferred after one meal), entertainment is great, shore excursions are fascinating and the food is divine.

                                  Large staterooms with soothing decor

My cabin aboard the American Harmony, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

My stateroom 506 is larger than many hotel rooms. It has a roomy shower, mini fridge, Keurig coffee machine, phone, big screen TV and large floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors leading to a private balcony.  All American Harmony cabins have balconies. A window next to the balcony has blinds and a fabric window covering that can be lowered. The bed is super comfy with premium white linens, duvet and pillows.

The cabin décor features soothing colors of light blues and earth tones. A desk with a chair, a round table with two upholstered chairs, plus a table and two chairs on my balcony give plenty of places to sit and read or watch the river flow. A dresser with six drawers and a closet are great storage spaces. The ship offers free Wi-Fi and my cabin has adequate plugs for electronic devices.

Exploring the ship, I’m happy to discover all the wide-open spaces with expansive glass windows galore and places to relax. The American Harmony has laundry facilities, a fitness room with free weights and low-impact aerobic machines, putting green on the top deck, two comfortable lounges – the Main Lounge all the way forward overlooking the ship’s bow, plus the Sky Lounge, one deck up at the rear of the ship – a small library with books and games, a sun deck with lounges and two speedy elevators that connect five of the six decks.

American Harmony Dining Salon features open seating, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

The Dining Salon on the Main Deck has table-to-ceiling views and open seating at every meal. As a solo passenger, I am choosing to dine with different people at different tables during our cruise and am always made to feel welcome by my new friends.

A complimentary cocktail hour before dinner from 5:30 to 7 p.m. also has tasty hors d’oeuvres. Some passengers stay for the whole cocktail hour to socialize, sip their drinks and listen to the onboard pianist, Jon England. Others savor a drink and then hear straight to dinner.

Complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks are served with lunch and dinner. I appreciate the casual way in which passengers can choose to dine anytime between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Regional cuisine is featured on the cruise, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

Regionally inspired cuisine with locally sourced ingredients is a ship specialty and it is delicious with multiple entrée choices. My favorite breakfast feature is Poached Eggs Oscar – English muffins, green onions, hollandaise and crab. Other choices include about any breakfast food you could desire.

Lunch choices start with soup and salad, then entrees including New Orleans BBQ shrimp, chicken pot pie, Southern pulled pork mac and cheese, shrimp and sausage gumbo, smoked chicken, BBQ beef brisket, shrimp and clam fettucine and pan-seared catfish. Desserts are pecan bourbon pie, caramel sea salt cheesecake, strawberry cake, banana bourbon bread pudding, lemon meringue pie and more.

The dinner menu features appetizers, and entrees like crab stuffed lobster tail, seared red snapper, herb roasted prime rib, oven roasted duck, braised lamb shank, Parmesan crusted salmon and braised short ribs. Dessert is always three choices – ice cream or sweets like Louisiana bread pudding with whiskey sauce, Bananas Foster cheesecake, peanut butter pie and chocolate lava cake.

Complimentary room service also is available. Warm cookies are served in the morning and afternoon, plus snacks are always available in the lounge. For more casual dining, the ship’s Back Porch Café has a menu of pizza, burgers, wraps, soup, hot dogs and nachos.

Jon England performs Beatlemania on the cruise, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

Entertainment is primarily guest speaker Tom Hook and musician Jon England with a guest comedian and musical group brought ashore along the way for an evening’s entertainment. Hook is a longtime riverman and an excellent speaker. He shares wonderful programs like the history of the mighty Mississippi; the background of Baton Rouge; Natchez and the Great Steamboat Race; the Siege of Vicksburg; and Memphis as the cradle of soul and rock & roll. Hook also plays a mean ragtime piano the night he told us about jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton.

Then there is the velvet virtuosity of Jon England. Without ever having a music lesson, the self-taught musician has been entertaining cruise ship passengers around the world since he was a teen. England’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.

My favorite on our American Harmony cruise was the evening England presented Beatlemania. Strapping on a Brit-pop guitar and wearing a mop-top wig and Nehru-style jacket, England rocked out the Fab Four’s greatest hits. Passengers sang along to the full screen lyrics.

Bette Davis, Elvis shore excursions

As we travel the Mississippi, we stop every day for intriguing shore excursions included in the cruise price. First day, it was Houmas House just as I remembered from the old 1964 Bette Davis/Joan Crawford movie, “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Make that the Bette Davis movie.

Houmas House was the setting for ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,’ credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

“Joan and Bette got into a fight,” Houmas House 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 has just stepped out for a cocktail and plans to return.

At our stop in St. Francisville, Rosedown Planation is on the itinerary. One of the most beautiful plantations in the South, Rosedown has 90 percent of its original furnishings, guide Trish said. Placed in front of a fireplace is a beautiful tapestry stitched by Martha Washington, wife of the nation’s first president, George Washington.

In the afternoon, we hopped a tour bus to visit historic Baton Rouge, viewing Governor’s Hall, the New State Capitol, the Old State Capitol and the exterior of Magnolia Mound, a French Creole plantation house build in 1791. At the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge, I heard the most amazing story.

On New Year’s Eve 1912, a young New Orleans boy fired a gun in the air. That was a big mistake. Or maybe it was a huge break for the child and for the world of music. Arrested for disturbing the peace, Louis Armstrong was sent to the Colored Waif’s Home. While there, he received his first formal music training from Peter Davis. A bugle that Satchmo played at the home is now displayed at the museum.

In Natchez, we were off to 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.

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. We also toured the ironclad gunboat USS Cairo that was sunk in the Yazoo River during the war. Using a cheap compass, historian Edwin Bearss and Civil War buffs found and raised the Cairo from the bottom of the muddy river 102 years after it was sunk.

Graceland in Memphis is ‘Where Elvis Lives,’ credit Jackie Sheckler Finch

Our cruise ends in Memphis where I catch a tour bus for Graceland on the ship’s extra-priced Deluxe Graceland Tour. Elvis was 22 when he bought Graceland for $102,500 on March 17, 1957. It was where he lived for the next 20 years, where he died on Aug. 16, 1977, and where he is buried. Graceland was opened to the public by Elvis’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley on June 7, 1982.

Across the street from the Graceland mansion is the new Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a sprawling $45 million entertainment complex that opened March 2017. It is the five times the size of the previous complex which opened in 1982. Shuttle buses take visitors from the new complex across the street to the Graceland mansion.

Disembarking from the American Harmony was as smooth and easy as embarking. But I wasn’t ready to go. The American Harmony is a wonderful way to learn more about America and to be pampered as the ship cruises along the river to some of our nation’s historic treasures.

Cover photo: 1955 pink Cadillac on display at Graceland. Elvis bought the Cadillac for his mother even though she didn’t have a driver’s license. Photo credit Jackie Sheckler Finch.

Editor’s notes:

Learn more about American Cruise Lines and book an American Harmony cruise here: https://www.cruisecompete.com/ships/american_harmony.html, https://allthingscruise.com/browse-cruise-lines/american-cruise-lines/

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