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River cruises

Rolling down the river on American Cruise Lines’ refurbished paddlewheeler

American Splendor, one of four paddlewheelers in American Cruise Lines’ fleet of traditional and contemporary riverboats, has undergone a facelift. Here’s what to expect on a US river cruise.

Words by Jeannine Williamson

“One and two and thumb, and don’t forget to count out loud,” smiles Dan Knowles as I attempt the musical equivalent of rubbing my head and patting my stomach. The lounge fills with the discordant twanging sounds as American Splendor rounds another bend in the Mississippi.

By the end of my first-ever lesson I reckon I’ve cracked my banjo mojo, albeit just a couple of chords. In a rousing finale it’s great fun to strum along with renowned banjo player Dan and his double bass accompanist. That night they show how it’s really done in a toe-tapping concert.

I’m on American Cruise Line’s newly revamped ship American Splendor, and the banjo lesson is one of many fun and authentic experiences on my sailing along the Memphis-to-New Orleans stretch of America’s best-known river.

Think of the Mississippi and it’s likely that stately Victorian paddlewheelers spring to mind. The 180-passenger American Splendor, launched in 2016 and previously called America, epitomizes all the best bits of that nostalgic concept while providing modern-day comforts to sail the river in style.

Miami-based Studio DADO, which has worked its interior design magic on cruise line projects with the likes of Regent Seven Seas, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania and Carnival, was first brought in to create the interior design on American Cruise Lines’ modern riverboats before bringing similar elegant and elevated interiors to the paddlewheelers.

The new-look interiors on American Splendor celebrate the musical genres of the Mississippi, from jazz and blues to country and rock and roll, with modern elegance and touches from yesteryear, such as white rocking chairs on deck.

There are two big lounges, the panoramic Sky Lounge and Paddlewheel Lounge, which as the name implies overlooks the wheel. These form the heart of the ship and are used for relaxing and entertainment that befits a voyage along the Mississippi.

I particularly enjoy a stirring performance of songs by the exuberant Victory Belles, with their bright red lippie and 1940s costumes, and daily talks by the resident ‘riverlorian’, who brought the river life with a mix of historical facts and storytelling.

While my clumsy attempts at banjo playing didn’t do justice to the musical heritage of the region, my sailing on American Splendor will immerse anyone into life on the mighty Mississippi.


There are no inside cabins so you’re never going to miss any of the passing views. Apart from some single rooms with fixed windows, all of American Splendour’s good-sized accommodations have a balcony with room for a table and chairs.

There are also veranda cabins for solo travelers which is a nice luxury if you’re traveling solo. For the all-important early morning caffeine fix all rooms come with coffee makers.

If you want to splash out there are six massive Owner’s Suites. Aside from all the extra space, they have fridges that come stocked with complimentary wine which you can replenish along the way (see below).


You’re not going to go hungry, that’s for sure. There’s one main dining room and you can sit where you want, although for the best views it’s best to bag a table around the sides or back of the ship when you’re sailing. Expect hearty, Southern-style cuisine beginning with the breakfast buffet and menu of cooked-to-order items.

From then on meals are forgettable, but not in a bad way. You have to order lunch and dinner at breakfast. It’s a great way of cutting down waste but unless you take a photo of your order, which some canny cruisers did, come lunchtime, let alone dinnertime, most days I’d forgotten what I’d ordered.

But it never really seemed to matter and the ever-smiling waitstaff bought whichever dish I fancied at the time. Think Creole chicken, lump crab cakes, sweet potato pie and, of course, gooey Mississippi mud pie.

An eagerly awaited daily highlight is hors d’oeuvres served before dinner. The array of hot and cold nibbles is a meal in itself and I always overindulged.

It’s worth mentioning that American Splendor doesn’t have a bar as such. But don’t panic. Wine is free with lunch and dinner and you can always ask for an extra glass/bottle or bottles (nobody counts) to take away with you to enjoy in your cabin, out on deck or in the lounge.

Plus, every evening during snack time the staff get out a huge array of bottles to set up a makeshift bar in the lounge and you can again order whatever you want.


You’ll be stretching your legs on daily excursions at every port of call; some of them walking straight off the ship into the heart of towns and cities and others on a motorcoach. If you’re an independent spirit you can also head off by yourself. Just make sure to get back in time.

The most exercise you’re going to get on board is taking a gentle stroll around the deck, going to the small gym or trying your hand (carefully) on the mini-golf course without sending any balls overboard.

When you’re sailing the main emphasis is watching the world drift by from a lounger or outdoor rocking chair beneath a fluttering Stars and Stripes and listening to the rhythmical splash of the paddlewheels. With an iced tea or similar to hand, there couldn’t be a more iconic way to experience ‘Ol Man River.


On American Splendor you can dip a proverbial toe in the water with a four-night taster cruise or sail on a variety of week-long cruises.

For the rest of 2023 and throughout 2024 the vessel will sail on the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers, including the classic Lower Mississippi cruise from New Orleans to Memphis, and in reverse, and a Music Cities itinerary from Memphis to Nashville, or back.

If you love nature you can earn bragging rights on the one-off Great Smoky Mountains National Park sailing in September 2024.

Set sail

Lower Mississippi Cruise with American Cruise Lines

Duration: 7 nights

Where: Memphis | Vicksburg | Natchez | St Francisville | Baton Rouge | Houmas House | New Orleans

Ship: American Splendor

Price: From $4,730 pp

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Published 07.18.23