Today is Fat Tuesday — or Mardi Gras, as they call it down in New Orleans. And as you read this, that city is already celebrating one of the world’s most famous parties. All of which evokes memories of last winter, when I visited the Big Easy. And looking to get the true taste of New Orleans, I embarked on one of the city’s iconic experiences: a New Orleans riverboat cruise.
Paddlewheelers were once a vital part of life in New Orleans, bringing supplies from the North and hauling cotton from the plantations in the South. Once that era was over, they became passenger boats, sashaying people up and down the river in grand style. They were also an important venue for live music: Louis Armstrong got some of his first jobs playing on the jazz cruises that operated on the New Orleans waterfront.
Times have changed, but the riverboats haven’t left. There are still two paddlewheelers on the city’s docks, and I chose to take a day cruise on the Natchez, a handsome ship stationed near the centre of town, a stone’s throw from Jackson Square.
The Natchez is a piece of history, the ninth ship to bear its name; some of its predecessors carried passengers like the Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The current ship is one of only two steam-powered riverboats in North America, and it sports a few parts form a number of other ships that are now defunct, including a bell made of 250 melted silver dollars.
The ship also has a calliope, a mainstay during the days of steam. And when it was time to cast off, the captain did it the traditional way, with an old-time bullhorn.
As we pulled away from the downtown, we had a unique view of the city’s waterfront and some of its landmarks, including the Mississippi River Bridge, which links New Orleans to Algiers Point, a bohemian neighbourhood across the river.
And then we were out and cruising on the muddy Mississippi, skirting the shore for a while before heading toward the town of Chalmette. This was the site of the Battle of New Orleans, in which a local militia fought off an attack by the British with the help of the infamous privateer Jean Lafitte. It was the last battle of the War of 1812, and there’s still a cemetery near the battlefield. We passed a suitable-looking cemetery on the shore, and a plantation-style building that looked like the 1800s had never left..
Despite the history, however, there’s no doubt that the port of New Orleans is a place of commerce. In fact, it’s the fourth-busiest port in the United States, handling 90 million tons of cargo a year. That was apparent by the number of cargo ships we sailed by as we cruised. And now and then, we got a close look.
For the most part, it was interesting enough to sit on the deck and watch the river flow by while the ship’s announcer kept up a steady stream of facts about the river, the ship and the port.
That is, until you got hungry. And then you went inside for a little lunch and some music. It wouldn’t be a New Orleans riverboat without a jazz band, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I opted for the snack bar a deck below, where I had my first alligator sausage — tasted just like chicken.
On the way back, we got some unrivalled views of the French Quarter, with the St. Louis Cathedral flanked by the Pontalba Buildings, some of the first purpose-built apartments in the United states. We also got a good look at the beautiful Jax Brewery building, now occupied by condominiums, shops and restaurants.
Coming into port, we cruised by the other New Orleans riverboat, the Creole Queen, which also runs cruises on the river. The Queen is just as stately as the Natchez, but it’s not a true steam boat — it’s powered by diesel-electric engines.
Taking a New Orleans riverboat cruise is one of the essential experiences of the South. It’s not a thrill ride by any means, but it’s a good way to discover a side of the city you’ll never see if you stay on shore. And if you take the day cruise on the Natchez, come early and drop by the Cafe du Monde, just down the waterfront, for some coffee and beignets — another New Orleans classic.
If you go: The New Orleans riverboats offer a number of different cruises to suit different tastes, from harbour cruises and history cruises to jazz brunches and dinners on the river. Prices start around $30 U.S.; be prepared to pay more for cruises with meals, and for special occasions.