An American River Holiday

Climb back aboard with treasured purchases — homemade orange marmalade, perhaps, or hand-knitted scarves for the family. Check your watch — time for a gingerbread house-making workshop. The fragrance of pine cones wafts through the riverboat as holiday decorations twinkle. Sure sounds like a Christmas market sail in Europe, but not this time. We’re describing an unabashedly American celebration unfolding here at home, on our iconic waterways.

Consider late November and December prime time for sailing and celebrating on American rivers. On the mighty Mississippi, choose between classic paddlewheelers or modern riverboats (the latter closely resemble European vessels in design). Both promise, well, a boatload of holiday charm.

American Cruise Lines’ Queen of the Mississippi paddlewheeler goes hog-wild on its roundtrip New Orleans cruise, departing December 20, 2021. On shore, count on jaw-dropping visits to decorated to-the-max antebellum homes and plantations in Oak Alley, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi.

Stroll through local Christmas markets, nibbling or sipping regional specialties. Praline candy or liqueur, anyone? Purchase locally crafted gifts, such as hot-pepper jelly, elaborately coiffed and dressed collectible dolls, historic tomes, and county cookbooks. Passengers can also attend holiday concerts or other seasonal events, such as gingerbread-house hotel displays and festivals of light.

On board, the merriment continues with a gift exchange and cookie-decorating class. Even the complimentary cocktail hour goes festive; sip a poinsettia, colorfully fashioned from champagne and cranberry juice.

New American River Cruise Ships

American Cruise Lines’ new American Melody and American Jazz riverboats may vibe modern, but their holiday hearts still beat traditional. Their Christmas voyages, both departing on December 20, 2021, sail from New Orleans to Memphis. The Lower Mississippi itinerary allows browsing charming shops in historic towns like St. Francisville, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. In the evenings, regional musicians and singers come aboard, honoring the season with song.

All vessels promise memorable Christmas feasts. Cocktail hour can star awesome eats like cheese, charcuterie, shrimp, and crab claws. Expect regional favorites such as seafood chowder with cornbread croutons; entrees like mustard, brown sugar, and rum-baked ham; and crawfish-stuffed redfish with collard greens and lemon caper sauce. Desserts like sweet potato pie and Yule logs hit holiday high notes.

For cruises sailing New Year’s Eve, count on a Mardi Gras-themed onboard gala, with live entertainment and a midnight toast ringing in 2022. The gala dinner usually showcases inspired Southern fare, like corn and crab bisque, pan-seared ribeye steak with crispy fried soft-shell crab, and flourless chocolate torte.


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Janice Wald Henderson is a Los Angeles–based food and travel journalist who writes regularly for Brides magazine and online for Epicurious and Gourmet Live. She is also the culinary editor for CruiseMates, the author of two cookbooks, and has appeared in Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Cooking Light, German Vogue, and both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times syndicates.