Rollin’ on the River: The Steamboat Natchez

Lisa Fritscher April 14, 2011 No Comments

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The Steamboat Natchez

The last steam-powered paddlewheeler in New Orleans

The Mighty Mississippi River has been inextricably linked with New Orleans since its earliest days. During the 19th century, when cotton was king, New Orleans was its most important port. In those days, the river was filled with steamboats of every description, carrying travelers on business and pleasure trips. Today the Port of New Orleans remains the centerpiece of the busiest port complex in the world, but steamboats are largely a thing of the past. The Natchez is the last remaining steam-powered paddlewheeler in New Orleans.

The Ship

The Steamboat Natchez at Dock

The Natchez at dock

Commissioned in 1975, the current Natchez is the ninth ship to carry the name. The steam engines were originally built in 1925 for the sternwheeler Clairton, while the copper bell comes from the J.D. Ayres. The ship features a 32-note calliope and endless touches designed to evoke a more genteel era, including live jazz music on every cruise. Like her predecessors, the Natchez has never lost a steamboat race.

Virtually all areas of the ship are open to the public including the engine room, so take time to look around. The calliope plays a short concert before each sailing, which can be heard throughout Jackson Square.

The Cruise

Kid Friendly Narrated Natchez Harbor Cruise

The fully-narrated harbor cruise is great for kids

Dad and I chose the daytime Harbor Jazz Cruise, which boards daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. An evening Dinner Jazz Cruise is also available, with boarding at 6 p.m. Although both cruises welcome children, we both feel that the daytime cruise has more to offer for very young kids. The evening cruise has a bit more focus on dinner and dancing, while the daytime cruise offers a fully-narrated look at the New Orleans-area waterfront.

Creole Lunch on the Natchez

The optional Creole lunch was fantastic

We arrived at approximately 1:30 for our 2 p.m. cruise and there was already a long line to board the ship. We had tickets on hold, which necessitated a stop by the Lighthouse ticket booth on the pier. The Lighthouse handles tickets for a wide range of tours, and it was quite busy. Pick up your tickets in advance if possible.

Although the line was long, boarding was relatively quick and painless. You must stop for the obligatory tourist photo, billed as a necessary security measure. Your photo will be on display for sale as you leave the boat, but there is no pressure to buy.

We decided to purchase tickets for the optional Creole lunch (you must buy these before you board), so we headed directly for the elegant dining room. Lunch was served cafeteria-style, and we soon settled at a table by the window. The food was excellent! The menu that day included Creole fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach with artichoke hearts, coleslaw, baked beans, jalapeno and cheddar cornbread, fresh fruit and bread pudding. Menus change periodically, so your meal may be different. Everything is prepared fresh on the boat, and the quality was quite high.

Jackson Square from the Mississippi

You'll pass Jackson Square shortly after departure

Take your food outside if you want to get photos of Jackson Square and various French Quarter landmarks as you sail past. We chose the dining room, and I ended up dashing out to the open deck mid-meal to grab a few shots! If you are not taking pictures, though, the view from the dining room windows is just fine.

Steamboat Natchez Engine Room

The engine room is well worth a visit

After lunch, we strolled around the boat, again rushing outside to take photos of interesting landmarks along the shoreline. The gift shop is small, but has some exclusive Natchez souvenirs. The Texas Bar, a beautiful but unpretentious small watering hole on the third deck, is a great place for the adults to relax with an alcoholic beverage. The paddle wheel was also fun to see up close. But as a former Navy man, Dad was most excited to see the engine room.

The engine room is visually stunning, though hot and steamy. Descriptive signage on the walls tells the story of the engines’ history, and explains how everything works. The engine operators are friendly and willing to answer questions, so don’t hesitate to ask. Although everything is fairly well chained off, keep a close eye on the kids. The heavy, moving parts could be dangerous, so keep them well back.

When we were finished exploring, we settled into deck chairs, eventually spending a bit of time on each of the three decks. The cruise is relaxing, allowing you to slip into a mindset that time no longer matters. There is a strong sense of connection with both the past and the future as the narrator discusses both historic and current events.

Tips for Parents

The Steamboat Natchez Deck and River View

We took some time to relax on deck

Take your kids on a walk around the ship rather than expecting them to stay in one place for the two-hour duration. There is a lot to see and explore, and most kids we saw seemed fascinated. Let them take the lead, and be prepared to answer questions. Some children become absorbed by the narration, while others seem to tune it out. Try to listen as much as you can, so that if your child asks “What’s that?” you will have an answer for her.

Children under age six cruise for free, with a nominal charge for the optional lunch. Kids aged six to twelve receive a small discount off the adult price. If you prefer not to spring for a full lunch, sandwiches and drinks are available a la carte.

If anyone in your group is unable to negotiate stairs, you will be able to visit only the main level of the ship. The dining room and open deck are wheelchair-accessible, though some doorways have small lips. Nonetheless, the cruise is worthwhile even for those with mobility impairments.

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Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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