Riverboating for Families

| October 26, 2004

This summer, my mother, my 11-year-old daughter Alex, my niece Justine and I sailed on a four-night Delta Queen Steamboat Co. cruise aboard the 436-passenger American Queen out of New Orleans. I knew that my mother Gertrude – a former high school English teacher who taught Huck Finn – would love cruising the Mississippi River and reliving the days of Huck, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. But I wondered, would the girls also be enamored with river lore, or would these high-tech kids be bored? Happily, the cruise was a hit with all three generations.


Jackson Square, New Orleans
Much of this multi-generational appeal is due to Delta Queen's new Riverbonding program. Instituted this past summer, Riverbonding cruises are offered on all American Queen voyages from June through Labor Day, most summer cruises on the Mississippi Queen, and on both vessels over Thanksgiving and Christmas week. The point of Riverbonding is to give grandparents or parents and their offspring time together to do fun things like flying a kite or playing a board game. The program is overseen by one or two youth counselors, depending on how many youngsters are aboard (30 were on our cruise).

Riverbonding is supplemented by activities for children aged three to 13, ranging from crafts to ice cream socials. Alex and Justine enjoyed the activities on board that were open to all ages as well as the kids-only activities. However, often they had to choose one or the other due to scheduling conflicts. Hopefully the staff will correct this problem so that youngsters can partake in all the family-friendly and kids-only activities in the future.

Flying a Kite on the Mississippi River!
Riverbonding's "Junior Steamboaters" activities are not meant to replace parental involvement but to supplement it. Thus there is never a full day's roster of youth-only activities on the American or Mississippi Queens as there is on large cruise ships with youth programs. Rather, there are a few activities throughout the day and sometimes in the evening including a pajama party, constructing rings from dollar bills, and making sun visors.

What Alex and Justine seemed to enjoy most, however, were the activities required to earn their Cub Pilot's Certificate and captain's hat. Kids had to attend five activities including touring the engine room, attending a knot-tying class, touring the pilothouse, learning basic navigational know-how from the Riverlorian and listening to a Riverlorian lecture.

Victorian Ladies' Parlour
The Riverlorian is the ship's historian, who imparts interesting "lore" about the river, its inhabitants and the ports of call. Most of her talks were given during the buffet breakfasts or luncheons, which facilitated attendance. I thought the girls wouldn't find these talks interesting. On the contrary, they listened, learned, and generally did not want to leave the talks until they were over. I was impressed with what they remembered from the Riverlorian's talks when we were driving around Baton Rouge.

Justine and Alex in the American Queen's pool
This is not meant to imply that most of the Riverbonding activities were of a studious nature. Fun and games were literally part of Riverbonding; families are given a list of board games to choose from before their cruise, and will find them waiting in their cabin upon arrival. Thus, most nights after dinner were spent happily playing one of our games in the lovely Victorian Ladies' Parlour. This was followed by gulping down the complimentary cookies and milk waiting for us in our stateroom prior to bedtime. How's that for getting back to days gone by?


Justine and Alex grinding corn at the Rural Life Musem
We found steamboating to be the perfect antidote for today's woes. From the moment we stepped on board, we were embraced with feelings of nostalgia for simpler days, as well as patriotism. From the bevy of American flags blowing in the breeze on deck to the shop resembling an old-fashioned emporium (and thus named), this ship is meant to evoke the decor and small-town values of the late 1800s. For kids and adults alike, that means slowing down from today's fast-paced life. There were no video arcades or computer games (other than two computers for checking email), so youngsters had to "unplug" for a week. As a parent, I found this to be a welcome experience.

Grinding corn at Rural Life Museum
There were many family-oriented activities that we all enjoyed. The most memorable was kite-flying from the boat's deck. First we had to put the kites together and then try to catch a Mississippi River breeze. While we weren't one of the fortunate ones who got their kites aloft successfully, we had a memorable experience. Another unique activity was trying to play the calliope, a miniature steam-powered organ. Alex and Justine are both proficient playing the piano, but the calliope was not as easy as it looked! All ages also made Mardi Gras masks, which were worn at the lively Mardi Gras party.

Cajun entertainers at Rural Life Museum
All the evening entertainment was appropriate for kids and adults alike and reflected our destination. On the first night we were treated to a first-rate New Orleans-style Dixieland band; on another, Cajun culture reigned with a lively local band and a Cajun comedian!

By day, when we weren't in port, the girls had a good time in the small pool. Even though it was tiny, they still had to be dragged out of it. They also enjoyed chomping on the free hot dogs and popcorn provided daily.

Justine and Mike two-stepping
While my daughter enjoyed all her previous 17 cruises, this one was unique not only because of flying a kite or playing a calliope, but also because it provided us with much needed time to make our own fun – and we did. In addition to playing games in the atmospheric Ladies' Parlour, another after-dinner favorite was playing the upright piano in the Mark Twain lounge. The girls took turns playing rousing ragtime tunes and dancing with my mother or me. We always ended our evenings chatting and swinging on the Front Porch of America, the fore section of Deck 3. We loved sitting in the rocking chairs or on three-person swings and watching cargo ships ply the river. This was also a great time to check out the stars above and the shores of the "mighty Miss" off to our side. Prior to our cruise, Alex read "Tom Sawyer" and watched "Huck Finn" on DVD. Thus, she and I would often point to a deserted shore of the Mississippi and say, "Can't you imagine Huck, Jim or Tom hanging out there?"


Girls with Captain's hats they earned
As a Northerner, I really enjoyed the Southern charm I felt from the moment I set eyes on the five-deck, wedding cake-style steamboat. I loved the frilly white exterior grill work, the churning red paddle wheel, and the communal deck area outside each stateroom. Inside, Victorian decor reigned -- especially in the lounges and the ornate grand staircase. During the evening shows and Riverlorian talks, the girls liked sitting in the balcony boxes of the Grand Saloon, which is the boat's theater modeled after Ford's Theatre. Another favorite was the floor-to-ceiling window in the J.M. White dining room, which provided great views of the peaceful river rolling by.

The food was good but not great. While I enjoyed trying the local specialties, we would have preferred greater variety in the menus and fewer Cajun choices. My favorite was the nightly version of the old Southern standby, bread pudding. At dinner, there was a Junior Steamboaters menu from which the girls often ordered. They would have preferred it if the menu had hamburgers on it instead of spicy chicken fingers.

Captain with kids on deck
The wait staff was very pleasant, and many befriended Alex and Justine. By the end of the four nights, the girls taught a few assistant waitresses how to fold napkins into origami-style hats, which the girls wore proudly.

Our staterooms were unlike any we've ever had, especially with their period décor. From light fixtures to oak desks and overstuffed chairs, our cabins overflowed with late 1800s charm. Since most cabins are for two passengers, we had connecting staterooms featuring two full bathrooms. There are some staterooms for three that can also be connected with another cabin, accommodating families of five or six.

Outside our stateroom
If you book any cruise-only Riverbonding adventure for this Thanksgiving, Christmas or summer 2005 by December 31, 2004, two children under 18 years old cruise free in the same or an adjoining stateroom. With three or more children, you can purchase the first room at full price and the second room is free with the applicable advance purchase discount. If you book the New Orleans & Riverboat Adventure week package on the American Queen, there is a charge of $149 per child for the land portion of the program to cover meals and attractions. Advance purchase discounts, which include two-for-one pricing, are available until October 31, 2004.


We knew we were in for some fun and interesting tours when the New Orleans tour guide on our bus ride prior to the cruise, Jenny, was so funny that my mother asked if she was a stand-up comedian. Her amusing presentation was great for getting the girls' attention, and they learned a lot of fun facts about New Orleans. We certainly enjoyed the Cajun joie de vivre (joy of living) that was ever present in Louisiana.

Alex and Justine in Victorian hats aboard ship
Our four-night cruise was packaged with three days in New Orleans before the cruise. While in the Crescent City we strolled the French Quarter munching on beignets from Café du Monde; went on an interesting horse and carriage tour of the French Quarter; learned about colorful local history at the Conti Wax Museum; and had a fabulous dinner at famous Brennan's restaurant, where Bananas Foster was created. Naturally we had it for dessert and the girls were quite impressed by the tableside preparation, complete with flambé effect.

The tour package included the hotel, coupons for attractions, restaurants, baggage transfer and a pre-cruise bus tour. We stayed at the upscale Fairmont Hotel, which was within walking distance of the French Quarter. On the day of our embarkation, we left our bags in our room, went sightseeing independently in the morning, enjoyed the bus tour after lunch, and were then dropped off at the Delta Queen pier. We never saw our bags again until we reached our staterooms.

Alligator snapping turtle at Rural Life Museum
Delta Queen has a separate brochure for Riverbonding Tours, which highlights shore excursions that are most appropriate for children. We chose one from the Riverbonding selection and one from the regular brochure and the girls enjoyed both immensely. Our first call was at Natchez, Mississippi, home of many antebellum homes. We went on the "Music, Mistresses and Marriage" tour to Frogmore Plantation (located outside Natchez) and gracious Linden House in Natchez. At Frogmore, we heard gospel singing while sitting in a former slave chapel, were given tambourines to play, witnessed the African "jumping over the broom" ceremony, saw the cotton fields, and toured slave and overseer quarters. While the original "big house" is no longer at Frogmore, we learned about life on a cotton plantation in the 1800s from the point of view of both the mistress of the house and the slaves. Then we drove to immaculately-groomed Linden House, which was not as interesting for the girls as Frogmore.

(L TO RT): Luisa, Justine, ALex and Gertrude prior to the captain's dinner
Our next call was in the state capital of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where we were whisked away by bus to the Rural Life Museum for a "Child's Day at the Plantation" tour. Once again, our Cajun tour guide had us laughing from the moment we stepped aboard the bus. Besides being a guide, Rodney is a professional accordion player, and he serenaded us once we arrived at the museum. He was joined by Mike, a representative from the state tourism department, who taught us about Cajun two-stepping. The girls had a great time since they helped him demonstrate the fast-moving dance steps. After that, the adults independently toured the grounds, which included schoolhouses, slave quarters, and other facilities from the 1800s. Justine and Alex got a separate lesson on using 1800s tools. They grated corn off the cob, ground it, and put it through a sieve until it resembled corn meal. The girls certainly had a greater appreciation of modern conveniences after that. At the end of the tour, we got to touch a 100-pound, 200-year-old alligator snapping turtle!

When we looked at the photographs of our fun-filled time aboard the American Queen and our adventures ashore, we had a good laugh over a photo of Justine dancing at the Rural Life Museum with her feet way off the floor as Mike spun her around! And that pretty much sums up our steamboatin' adventure – while learning about the interesting culture and history of the area, we also had many a laugh along the way.

Copyright © 2004, Cruisemates. All rights reserved.

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