The terminal was alive with the sounds of The Steamboat Syncopators in full swing. We thought we had died and gone to a jazz heaven where the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong play 24-hour gigs, but in reality we were getting ready to board The Delta Queen Steamboat Co's American Queen for one of its "Dixie Fest" theme cruises.
Next, into the terminal, marched Andrew Hall's Society Brass Band, a New Orleans street band to join the Syncopators for a jam session. In the old days when bands ran into each other on the streets of New Orleans there would be a "challenge" and here in the Delta Queen terminal it wasn't long in coming. It's one of the greatest free jazz shows you're ever likely to experience.
Believe us, when we all finally boarded the American Queen we were still stompin' and clappin'.It set the mood for the rest of a marvellous journey.
Adding to that mood is the American Queen itself, the world's largest sternwheeler, and the 30th steamboat the company has operated in its colourful 109-year history.
While modern technology guided her construction, the American Queen is pure Victoriana a palace of fretwork and curlicues crowned with towering fluted smokestacks, and a colossal red paddlewheel powered by lovingly refurbished vintage steam engines. The ship includes all the comforts associated with a deluxe ocean cruise ship, but overall it's modelled on the fabled, classic steamboat palaces of Twain's era.
The two-storey Grand Saloon, for example, was conceived as a miniature opera house in a small prosperous river town in 1890. It has a tall proscenium stage flanked by private box seats on the mezzanine.
This is where we gathered to hear some of America's biggest jazz names like clarinettist Pete Fountain paying their tribute to the idiom: from contemporary jazz and New Orleans Dixieland to Memphis Blues and St. Louis Ragtime; this is where we stepped out to Big Band tunes; where we enjoyed several cabaret and Vaudeville-style floor shows.
At the bow of the boat, a sweeping exterior staircase ushered us up to the second-level Cabin deck. There, at the top of the stairs, is the demure Ladies Parlor, based on the drawing rooms of the 19th century steamboats (where spittin' and cussin' were forbidden). Across the passage are the rich leather furnishings of the booklined Gentlemen's Card Room. Imagine white-suited planters discussing cotton prices over a bourbon and branch water.
Past the parlour and card room and leading to the Purser's Lobby is the antique-filled Mark Twain Gallery. The authenticity on the boat and its fittings is mind-boggling. The Gallery is lined with antique cupboards housing a huge selection of old books, some published in the late 1800s, many in the early 1900s.
The Purser told us that in their quest for antique books the researchers came across an antique bookseller who had been toying with retirement and they struck a deal to buy his entire stock for the American Queen library. The library cupboards, we found, were always unlocked. Wide-eyed, we lovingly fondled some Mark Twains, some early O. Henry's. Imagine not only the stories they told, but the stories each book could tell of its own comings and goings.
On the first morning, armed with several of the library books, we made our way to the bow of the Texas Deck where the Front Porch of America beckoned with a porch swing and cozy rocking chairs to watch that Ole' Man River just rollin' along and with a bar a few feet away dispensing cool mint juleps. It served frosty lemonade or freshly brewed tea too!
We were not concerned about the skipper's navigation (we knew he was heading up the lazy river) but the Chart Room where we could follow the steamboat's route and learn about the Mississippi was not far away.
Life aboard the American Queen could be hectic had we wished it: daily "Riverlorian" talks about the history, culture and lore of the river, calliope concerts, sing-alongs, pilot house tours, kite-flying, engine room viewing, lectures, line dancing lessons, games, craft lessons, movies and, for those who needed to punish themselves after the quite superb cuisine, a fitness room.
The benchmarks that distinguish fine restaurants from the also-rans include award-winning cuisine, a great view and attentive yet unobtrusive service. We had it all in the American Queen's J.M. White Dining Room. Two decks high, with the ornate fretwork arches seen in photos in vintage steamers, the room is divided by a dropped ceiling in the middle, giving each half of the room a narrow, soaring appearance. Diners enjoy waterline views of the river through walls of mullioned windows. Emphasis is on American regional cuisine, with menus that incorporate the unique local flavours along the cruise itineraries like the Bayou Stuffed Catfish with Cajun Beurre Blanc we enjoyed in Louisiana.
Many of the guests on our trip soon found a home in either the Captain's Bar, Engine Room Bar or the Calliope Bar. Others found the Sun Deck recreation and bathing pool area.
A number of American Queen's staterooms open onto wide promenade decks, giving easy access to the panorama of the river. At the same time, it provides a sense of neighbourhood as guests get to know their fellow passengers in nearby staterooms.
By cruise ship standards, the fares are reasonable though it's worth noting that it would have cost 10 times as much to enjoy the music alone on land. But after all - who can put a price on jazz paradise like this?
For more information visit The Delta Queen Steamboat Co.'s web site at www.deltaqueen.com