As we stroll down St. Peters Street in the French Quarter, the unmistakable sound of calliope music grows louder. “That has to be coming from the boat,” I say to my husband, Mark. We both agree later that catchy Dixieland tunes being pumped out onto the streets by a 32-note steam calliope is a brilliant touch, effectively sprinkling a handful of fun dust all over the already jovial mood of people set to board a steamboat.
The Natchez Steamboat has been cruising down the mighty Mississippi since 1975, but for this pair of nerdy writers, it’s infinitely more fun to pretend it has been paddling through the muddy waters since 1875. We begin to envision a young Samuel Clemens standing on the upper deck cookin’ up his soon to be famous (and infamous) Mark Twain pseudonym, despite the fact that the storyteller was piloting these waters 20 years before the birthdate we imagined for the ship – so we agree to ignore the facts in an effort not to break the spell.
And indeed, what an enchanting spell. It is nothing short of magical to sip Champagne while the Dukes of Dixieland blow “Lazy River” in your ears and Capt. Steve Nicoulin climbs to his perch on the front of the vessel to shout commands at his crew through a large, white megaphone. Many of our fellow passengers opted for the spectacular idea of drinks and music on deck for $44 per person, but we decided to go for the full experience and enjoy a meal with our cruise for $74.50 each. The buffet brims with entrée choices, but we stick with the staffer’s suggestion of cornmeal-crusted fish and pork loin with a kickin’ Creole mustard sauce. Mark fell hard for the maque choux, while I set out with gusto to devour the shrimp and Andouille sausage gumbo.
Through an act of what can only be described as divine intervention, I somehow have the foresight to reserve a table. This simple gesture allows us to avoid the somewhat chaotic process of wandering bewildered around the dining room in search of seating, while simultaneously balancing a plate piled precariously high with meats, sauces and sides and the aforementioned delectable gumbo bowl.
Post dinner, we promenade the upper deck to catch the fine breeze, positing ourselves in a prime location at the back of the boat. Observing the powerful paddlewheel as it propels the vessel upriver at surprisingly high speed is an experience in and of itself. Mark recalls a movie in which the main character battles a similar paddle wheel and loses. This prompts me to suggest walking back to the front of the boat to enjoy the band.
Dancing on deck to a Dixieland version of “Great Balls of Fire,” while whooshing past massive ships glowing in the night and taking in the city’s twinkling skyline, punctuated by the majestic and familiar outline of St. Louis Cathedral, is not only a recipe for romance, but also just about the most bewitching way I can think of to experience the history and charm of New Orleans.
Steamboat Natchez, 586-8777, SteamboatNatchez.com