I hit a full gallop in about two seconds flat on the sidewalk outside the New Orleans Riverwalk, a shopping center famous for being hit by a wayward cargo ship on the Mississippi River in 1997. A few years back, after the repairs, they installed a plaque commemorating the exact spot the vessel hit the mall. Just making the most of it, I guess. On this particular day, I was running to catch a ship of my own: The Steamboat Natchez.
The Steamboat Natchez, as you might have guessed, is not for hauling cargo. But, it isn’t a run-of-the-mill tour boat, either. It’s a steam-driven paddlewheeler. Modeled to be like one of those classic Mississippi cruisers of the 1800s, the Steamboat Natchez has been traversing the most southern sections of the river for nearly four decades.
Born and bred in Louisiana, I left the state for good in 2000. Since then, I’ve come back regularly as a makeshift tour guide for family and friends. In 2005, I met my wife Emma in my first year of living abroad, and it was on her first trip to the US and to my home state that we were about to, quite literally, miss the boat.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s the Mississippi River. It’s a slow moving steamboat. It’s New Orleans. Mark Twain, eat your heart out.
- Sure, everybody goes to Bourbon St., the French Quarter, and the French Market, but this is an experience just a rich in tradition, history, and culture.
- It’s great for boat enthusiasts (you can visit the steam engine room), families, or for those of us nursing a bit of a hangover, a fantastic way to slow down in the heat of a swampy afternoon. History/Civil War buffs are also rewarded with a good view of a battlefield.
A Slow Boat to Nowhere
True to form, the Steamboat Natchez blows a whistle just before she sets sail. Easing out into the swift currents of the Mississippi, the cruise heads south towards the Gulf of Mexico, and already I’m heading up to the upper deck where the bartender is happy to oblige with a vat of a Bloody Mary. Pickled items stick out every which way, and there is a bottle of Tabasco to do as I please. Then, as they say, it’s smooth sailing: We settle on the rear deck and watch as the city passes.
Over the sound system, jazz horns trumpet, and every so often a voice announces what we are looking at and peddles a little history: The site of the Battle of New Orleans, the St. Louis Cathedral, Jax Brewery, the Domino Sugar factory (Louisiana being a large producer of sugarcane), and one of the sets for Interview with a Vampire. When nothing but nature spreads out in the horizon (roughly an hour), the paddlewheel kicks us around and it’s back upstream.
Besides the scenery, it’s always fun to explore the boat, usually with a second Bloody Mary and growing need for handrails. The cool wind cuts through the perpetual humidity as we circle the decks. Some folks sit in the dining room over a Creole lunch. A band plays. We drift through the engine room (like a little museum), browse the souvenir shop, and sit on benches along the starboard side of the middle deck.
What It Means to Miss New Orleans
I’ve probably taken that boat ride five or six times, and it’s still something I want to do every time I go home. So, I’m glad that typically heading to New Orleans means I’m showing it off to somebody, which means I’ll be doing it by boat. Even having been gone well over a decade, watching the city struggle from afar and come out swinging as always, that boat ride just gives me time to appreciate it: the lilt of the Cajun tongue, ornate balconies over the streets, the sharp scent of cayenne in the jazz-infused air. It’s a little pocket of America unlike any other.
I’ll never forget my wife, my brother, and sister-in-law jogging behind me as I ran to catch the boat that afternoon. Emma squawked in terror as a huge pelican swooped right by her head. “What is that thing?” she screamed. “It’s like a pterodactyl.” My brother burst into laughter, his feet losing rhythm for a moment. I couldn’t wait to tell her that was our state bird, as if we owned the right to all brown pelicans. Funny thing, Louisiana, it resides more sincerely in me the longer I’m away.
- Cruises leave twice daily, boarding at 11:00 and 2:00. Unless something major is happening in the city, it’s usually fine to buy a ticket on the day of. If you wonder off too far while waiting, the boat doesn’t officially depart until half-an-hour later.
- The lunch is only around $10 extra and is a Creole meal prepared on board. It’s a good option. I just can’t help but to remember all the fine restaurants of New Orleans waiting for my patronage.
- The Toulouse Street Wharf is but a skip away from the French Quarter, Café du Monde (the classic beneigt café), ten minutes from Bourbon St., right alongside the streetcar tracks, and neighbors with the Riverwalk shopping center and Harrah’s Casino. Mischief awaits you upon your return, so easy on the Bloody Marys.