travel - touring the american mississippi

the river was an awful solitude, then. and it is now, over its stretch. the great mississippi, rolling in its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun. the dense forest away on the other side bounding the river glimpse and turning into a sort of sea and a very still and beautiful one- mark twain

Mark Twain used these words over a century ago to describe one of the greatest natural resources and most scenic waterways in the world. Yet they could have been spoken yesterday.

The Mississippi River lies at the heart of the USA, draining most of the country and supporting hundreds of settlements, from thriving cities to the tiniest towns. Close to its banks are palatial mansions, unbridled tales of history and culture of every kind.

Through it all winds the Great River Road that runs all the way from New Orleans in Louisiana's Gulf coast to Ontario in Canada. If you want to see America - really see America - then take a car and drive it. We did just that, choosing perhaps the most colourful part of the river route, the southern section, winding through the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. We start our journey in America's most European City, New Orleans in Louisiana

In truth, New Orleans isn't really a place you'd do much driving in. Better to park up, find a comfortable little hotel in the French quarter (ours was the Ste Helene on Charters Street) and take a step back in time.

When originally established, the city was a melting pot of European culture (primarily British and French) and the signs of this live on in both the streets and the restaurants. You spend the day exploring the purple-shadowed carriageways and admiring the picturesque 'Iron Lace' architecture. The evenings of course, are set aside for jazz and spicy Cajun food. Perhaps even a trip along the Mississippi in the steamboat Natchez.

Too soon, the river was calling us North and it was time to hit the Interstate, a fascinating piece of engineering that runs for many miles built on concrete stilts which carry it across alligator-infested swamps. The car selected for the trip was a Mercury Mystique - an American derivative of the Ford Mondeo - and just the kind of thing you might hire at the airport. Ours was light on the kind of electric gadgetry Americans usually take for granted, but it was fitted with the one essential piece of equipment you'll need in the Deep South; air conditioning.

As you venture further into Southern Louisiana, the humidity becomes stifling, particularly after the heavy rain shower that falls during almost every afternoon in the summer months. These are not conditions in which you want to be searching around off the highway for places to stay. Better to arrange things in advance; we found the New Orleans and Louisiana Office of Tourism (0208-760-0377) eager to help.

Nor does that mean being stuck in a series of faceless hotels. For our first stop in 'Cajun Country', a stay in an old Plantation Mansion - Chretien Point, just north of Lafayette - had been arranged. The drive from New Orleans was a relaxed three-hour lope but after the noise and bustle of the city, the peace of this 160 year-old homestead came as welcome relief.

It's hard to imagine that some of the lands around saw some of the bloodiest battles of the American Gulf war. Indeed, the house is still marked by cannonballs and bullet holes. Inside the staircase was the one copied for the movie, 'Gone with the Wind'. Truly a step back in history.

In the surrounding area, you drive around sleepy towns with hostelries aplenty serving shrimp gumbo (a kind of fish soup), Jambalaya (a fish and rice dish) and alligator (which tastes like chewy chicken). At our next stop, Louisiana's capital, Baton Rouge, we were able to see alligators in their natural habitat on one of the 'Alligator Bayou Tours' that conduct you through the swamps.

The curiously named city owes its title to the red stick that once marked the boundary between two Indian tribes. The French originally explored, developed and settled the place but these days a rather pleasing multicultural mixture prevails. Accommodation is of course plentiful and not too expensive (you pay between $50 and $80 for a comfortable place like the `Best Western Chateau Louisiana' we used).

Leave the last words to a local. Out in the country areas of South Louisiana, these people slur their language into a pleasing regional dialect they've christened 'Arcadian'.

"Ah'm tinking you folks are from Ingerland. Arrybody here likes de Inglish. You sure got a pretty accent an you?" You too boy, you too.

Suggested Accommodation For Driving The Great River Road In New Orleans and Louisiana

New Orleans - Hotel SteHelene - 011-504-522-5014

Lafayette - Chretien Point Plantation - 011-318-662-5876

Baton Rouge - Best Western Chateau Louisiana - 011-504-927-6700.

"When I was driving a truck, every time a big shiny car drove by, it started me sort of daydreaming. I always felt somehow, something would happen to change everything for me. I would daydream about how it would be" - Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley understood the lure of the Mississippi. Born in Tupelo, he lived most of his life in Memphis, just a few miles up the river. When other stars moved to Hollywood, he stayed close to his roots. The attraction of the area is hard to understand unless you drive through Mississippi and Tennessee, as he often did.

Though Louisiana is a great starting place for a Great River Road trek north up this magnificent old waterway, it is only that; a starting place. Not until you reach the two states that Elvis called home is the majesty of the Mississippi really clean - as Jonathan Crouch discovered.

The late afternoon shower still hadn't fallen as we left the state of Louisiana far behind and headed into Mississippi. Here at last, was an opportunity to leave the mountainous interstate and join the scenic parkway known as the Great River Road. Established in 1938, this route is now a 3000-mile network of federal state and country roads on both sides of the Mississippi River from Canada to the Gulf.

Our portion of the route would be based around Highway 61, a road trudged by black and white settlers, Confederate armies and Union troops alike. It quietly travels through woodlands, river towns, peaceful farmland and some of the most scenic areas in America's Deep South.

Drive north from Baton Rouge and your first port of call is likely to be the historic town of Nachez. At the turn of the century, most of America's richest people lived here; palatial residences are everywhere you look.

There's a casino here but it doesn't really fit with the place's old time charm. Better to take a brief overnight stop - just enough time to taste the unrivalled Southern Fried chicken at the Carriage House restaurant. Then it's back to Highway 61 for the trip to historic Vicksburg.

This is a place still haunted by old and bloody memories of the American Civil war. Chief amongst its attractions is the 1858-acre Vicksburg National Military Park, the nation's best-preserved civil war battlefield. In true American style, you don't even have to get out of your car to visit it. Just buy a narration tape at the front gate and cruise along an access road that winds through all the battle sites. It's a bit like a safari park without the animals. A Disneyland of death could be another description.

Here we decided to take a break from chain hotels and try a traditional old American bed and breakfast. The problem - if you see it as such - is that most US B&B's are neither traditional or particularly old. This form of accommodation is a relatively recent innovation for Americans and, far from being cheap and basic, is normally aimed at the upper end of the market. The place we stayed - Belle of the Bends - had prices between $85 and $150; however it was an exception on the age front, the Victorian building dating back to 1876.

Back on Highway 61, it's a four hour drive north out of Mississippi, along the river into Tennessee and onto Memphis, home of the Blues and birthplace of rock'n'roll. It's been said that Memphis is mentioned in more songs than any other city in the world. Whether this is true or not, the place certainly has plenty to sing about, with a rising tourist trade that rides on the back of the city's principle tourist attraction - Graceland.

This is home of course to Elvis, or at least it was until he died in 1977, leaving a trail of debts that forced his divorced wife Priscilla to open the house to the public - or most of it anyway. An aged relative had been given permission by Elvis to live there until she died and insisted on doing so, apparently oblivious to the thousands of tourists trooping through. As a result, only since her recent death has the kitchen at last been opened, giving legions of Elvis fans another excuse to visit.

Across the street, a shopping plaza has been turned into a parking place for Elvis' two aeroplanes, a Visitors Centre and an impressive automobile museum. The latter is surprisingly interesting, for Presley, it seems, was a car nut, collecting everything from go-carts to golf-carts, Harley Davidsons to buggies, and a collection of cars that covers everything from a Ferrari Dino 304 GT4 to a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood, the famous 'Pink Cadillac'.

To continue the musical theme, we headed away from the Mississippi River for a few days, first to the country music capital of Nashville, then onto Pigeon Forge, on the edge of the glorious Great Smoky Mountains National park, where the black bears are almost as friendly as the rangers.

Chain hotels are probably best for destinations like these since they're close to the action. We used the Holiday Inn Select (Memphis), The Doubletree Hotel (Nashville) and The Hampton Inn & Suites (Pigeon Forge). Though all were quiet and comfortable, more were quite as characterful as the residence we tried at our last stop, The Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn. It's built inside the city's old railroad station, a building upgraded but otherwise changed little.

Outside sits the Chattanooga Choo Choo train (what else?), towing carriages you can actually stay in. We chose the city of Chattanooga as a final staging point on our journey back from the Great River Road to catch a transatlantic flight from Atlanta back home. The city is certainly a good place to visit but isn't in the heart of America. For that you need to head to the Mississippi and stick around. Just like Elvis.

Suggested Accommodation for Driving The Great River Road and travelling In Tennessee

Natchez - Mississippi - Ramada Inn Riverview - 011-601-446-6311

Vicksburg - Mississippi - Belle of the Bends - 011-601-634-0737

Memphis -Tennessee - Holiday Inn Select - 011-901-525-5491

Nashville - Tennessee - Doubletree Hotel - 011-615-244-8200

Pigeon Forge - Tennessee - Hampton Inn and Suites - 011-423-428-1600

Chattanooga - Tennessee - Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn - 011-423-266-5000