Natchez

I was in New Orleans last September for a travel writing workshop with GEP. I’ve been to a few workshops with them, both for writing and for photography. Boston, Chicago, Miami, Korea, Costa Rico, the photography safari last November (wow, a year’s gone by already), and the one in New Orleans. I always have a great time, learn a lot and look forward to the next one. 🙂

During this workshop we were assigned to come up with story ideas, then actually write a story. We had help on making them more interesting and salable. One of the great things about travel writing and photography is that doing it gives you a focus and incentive to get out there and do all kinds of things.

You may not know it, but I’m actually pretty shy. Focusing on a story gives me the courage to talk to people. Without the story, I’d be way too nervous to do more than say ‘hi, how’re you doing’. With a story in mind, I’ll ask them all kinds of questions since now I have an ‘excuse’. 😉

Before I left for the trip to New Orleans, I asked around for some help and the nice people at the CVB sent me on a riverboat cruise. Specifically- a jazz dinner cruise on the historic Steamboat Natchez. I wrote a story about it, and was supposed to have it published on the website of the company that set up the whole deal with the CVB. Sadly, they shut down before my story ever got published and I haven’t been able to find another spot for it yet (tho I am still trying, in between job hunting and all the other things on my plate).

Here’s the first draft, please give it a read and let me know what you think. I could use the critiques. 😉

Steamboat Natchez (www.steamboatnatchez.com) docks where Toulouse Street dead ends at the Mississippi River, in the French Quarter. You walk up the gangway to take a trip back in time as you slowly steam your way down the Great Mississippi River. You’ll be transported back to the 1800’s, when these boats ruled the river. From only 20 in the 1810s, to over 1200 in 1833. They carried passengers and freight from as far away as Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis, Little Rock, and further out the Missouri, Arkansas and Red Rivers down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

Steamboats were built of wood, shallow draft (1-5’ loaded), with the main deck close to the water and used for cargo. Wood burning boilers were placed midships, with the engines aft, shafts turning the paddle wheels. Some added 2-3 decks above that for passengers. Most were simple workboats, but some became quite ornate. For those carrying upper class passengers, they were richly decorated: delicate filagreed railings, large mirrors reflecting gilded highlights, coffered ceilings, velvet upholstery, plush carpets. Fine food, liquor and gambling helped pass the time during the voyage of up to 2 weeks.

Though she was built in 1975- the ninth iteration of the series to carry the name, Steamboat Natchez follows in this tradition and offers daily Mississippi River cruises. She’s a 265’ long 46’ wide stern paddle wheeler, with 3 decks. She’s furnished in the manner of a high class passenger vessel of the mid-1800’s. In only a couple of hours, you can soak in the atmosphere and get a taste of what it was like in the heyday of the Mississippi River steamships. You can go for dinner, Sunday brunch, or just a harbor cruise with no meal served.

I went for a dinner jazz cruise with the Dukes of Dixieland aboard. As I stepped aboard from the gangway, the hostess informed me of the procedure for dinner. Since I had chosen the 1st seating, I was led to my reserved table in the dining room. The setting was impressive, a large room running almost the full length of the vessel. It had large picture windows all the way around, decorative moulded ceiling tiles filling the white coffered overheads, wall to wall carpet, and nicely set tables filling the space.

My table was set for 4 (tho I was by myself). There was a salad already dressed (iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, croutons, vinaigrette), along with silverware and plates, but no water. The waiter soon came by to take drink orders. It took him a while since he had at least a dozen full tables. As the room filled up, another couple was seated at my table, but we still had one seat open. Good, since the tables were tightly packed and it was crowded. My neighbor had to get up every time I needed to get out of my seat. The dinner was buffet style, so I did have to get up a few times.

There were two long buffet tables, one on either side of the room. The servers dressed in chef’s whites  stood behind the chafing dishes to answer any questions and help if you needed it. They had classic Southern recipes like red beans & rice, blackened fish, gumbo, greens, and more ‘mainstream’ dinner classics like pork loin and roast beef. It was all made onboard, hot and fresh. It was OK, but nothing spectacular. For a city as famous for its food as New Orleans, I really expected better of them.

The lights were too low to read by but bright enough to see your food. We were able to have a conversation even with the music in the background since we were at the very back of the room.  The band was set up in front. There was another playing jazz and dixieland outside on the upper deck, I spent most of my time up there. I enjoyed watching the scenery go by, being able to smoke, drink, and still listen to the music.

The live jazz band adds to the atmosphere onboard. It was casual and relaxing. I enjoyed having drinks on the deck, watching the river rolling by, snapping photos of the New Orleans skyline and passing ships. It was easy to imagine myself drifting back to an earlier time. There’s a real sense of history aboard.

Steamers have all but disappeared from the worlds waterways, due to many factors. They usually had a short lifetime (there were many boiler explosions), competition with railroads back in action after the Civil War, displaced by competition with diesel tugs and barges.  The Natchez is one of only 2 true steam paddle wheelers left on the Mississippi River today.

Her engines were originally built for the sternwheeler “Clairton” in 1925. They were recovered when the Clairton was retired and placed in the Natchez, where they are still going strong. Anyone interested in how things work will enjoy wandering around the Natchez. You’re free to take a look in the engine room. Check out the engines (with posted explanations) and the boilers “Thelma” and “Louise” next door. The engineers are rightly proud of their gleaming domain.

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The entire crew seemed to love their job, their ship and it showed. They did their job well and took pride in that fact. From the Mate who welcomed me aboard, the engineers, the hostess who showed me to my table, the servers at dinner, to the deckhands who secured the ship back to the dock. Everyone was friendly, polite and answered my questions with a smile.

A cruise on the Steamboat Natchez is a New Orleans experience you just can’t get anywhere else. From the magnificently maintained historical vessel, to the lively jazz bands, to the delicious Southern style cooking (don’t miss the white chocolate bread pudding), to the mighty Mississippi itself. It all adds up to a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours next time you visit New Orleans.

PS- This post is for Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Letter N. Join in, all it takes is to come up with a post starting with the letter N. 🙂

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