Click for OffbeatTravel home
Photo by Robert Painter

Riverboats and Rails: Upriver and down rail from New Orleans

New Orleans is coming back. Tourism has suffered immensely in Louisiana. Although the beautiful plantations fared fairly well, the drop off of visitors has been disastrous for some of them. So come on back to New Orleans for a visit and take a cruise up the Mighty Mississippi while you're there.

Cruising down the River

Leaving New Orleans on the mighty American Queen was an exciting event. This largest steamboat ever built with its brilliant red paddlewheel churning up the Mississippi must have been a sight to behold for those on shore. For those of us on board it was the beginning of a five day adventure along the Big Muddy from New Orleans to Natchez and back. A trip back in time. An opportunity to gain a glimpse of the glamour of old time steamboatin' from years long past.

If you saw the wonderful old movie Showboat with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson you probably have an idea of what the old riverboats were like. From my research, I don't think they were quite as glamorous as portrayed in the movie. And they certainly weren't as fabulous as the fleet of Delta Queen Steamboats of which the American Queen is the largest at 418 feet in length with a capacity of 436 passengers.

For a small cruise vessel I thought the entertainment was very good. It certainly helps to not have ocean waves rolling everything around. The food was quite good as well. I just happen to love bread pudding and they served it every night for dessert. The list of desserts each night was different, but our terrific waiter announced the list and each time bread pudding was listed last. And, he described it as the two day old bread pudding, then the three day old day pudding, and so on. But the joke was on those who didn't try it. And all the different varieties were just right for me.

The after-dinner shows followed by late night dancing came early enough to still get plenty of rest for the shore excursions. And for those needing even more exercise there was a quite adequate little exercise room. Thankfully, for me, most people don't spend their vacation in the gym so I had no trouble using the treadmill each day.

Photo by Robert Painter

Cities and Plantations Along the Way

I hadn't visited Natchez before so it was good to have the chance to visit this beautiful little city filled with hundreds of antebellum townhouses and mansions. And a tour of Frogmore Plantation afforded us with the opportunity to participate in a re-enactment of a slave wedding with the ceremonial "jumping of the broom." And, not to be missed in Natchez is Stanton Hall, built in 1857 and one of the South's largest antebellum mansions.

Another stop was Baton Rouge, heart of Cajun country, with a visit to Cajun Village and the Art on the Front Porch program featuring over 200 South Louisiana artists. Baton Rouge is the state capitol of Louisiana and famous for its long line of "interesting" political figures.

Probably the highlight of this particular riverboat cruise are the stops made at several plantations near Vacherie, Louisiana. Oak Alley with its spectacular rows of oak trees lining the entry drive to the main house garnered everyone's attention. Partly because it is just a short walk over the levee from the boat dock and easily accessible to all the passengers, but, I think, mostly because of the stately line of old oaks. I noticed the fairly inconspicuous lighting in the trees and thought it must be a marvelous sight after dark.

I think the next most popular plantation on the trip was the Laura Plantation. It was a Creole plantation and those were different, both in size and architecturally. A lot of out buildings were still there and some had been reconstructed and some brought in from other sites. The tour guides seemed very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about telling their stories. I do think, however, that they all tended to overemphasize what I would label as the myth of the happy slave. They all seemed to think that their slaves were never mistreated and all loved their masters and were all part of a big, loving family.

I even heard this at one of the plantations where, at one time during the slave uprisings all the slaves involved in the uprising were killed and their heads were displayed along the waterfront as a warning against future revolts. Why an uprising if they were so contented?

Aside from a few historical discrepancies the plantation visits were informative and fun. I wouldn't miss them, but would suggest doing a little reading on your own before you visit - or when you get home.

Making the Most of the Riverboat Cruise

A suggestion regarding the steamboat trips would be to take them farther up river if you have the chance. While this was a really fun trip, I think I would prefer to get away from the refineries, chemical plants and heavy river traffic in this area. The Delta Queen Steamboat Company has a lot of interesting itineraries going as far north as Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and even Chattanooga.

Another suggestion would be to check out their splendid variety of theme cruises. Some themes based on music, some on dancing, some on history and even some based on special events like the Kentucky Derby, Fall Foliage, 4th of July and even special Steamboat Races. And you can be a passenger on one of the racers. A special treat would be to see the bonfires along the levees at Christmas time.


And where, you might be asking, do the rails come into this story. Well, it turns out that New Orleans is a major stop along the route of the Sunset Limited, the cross country Amtrak train. One of the best parts of traveling on Amtrak is that you can plan your trip to get off at certain stops and the ticket price doesn't suddenly double or triple like an airplane ticket might. My ticket took me from El Paso to Florida, then back to New Orleans where I got off for a week, then returned me to El Paso. The Sunset Limited is usually not very crowded and the seats are very wide and there is lots of leg room. If you can sleep in a large recliner, then you can probably sleep on Amtrak. If not I'll warn you that the prices skyrocket if you get a sleeper room. You're better off flying and staying in the best hotel in town when you get to your destination. It will probably cost less.

An addendum is in order here relative to the Sunset Limited. It is still running into and out of New Orleans. The problem, however, is that the portion from New Orleans to Jacksonville, FL is by bus. I was aboard the westbound Sunset Limited years go when the eastbound train ended up in the bayou. I rode the bus from Jacksonville to New Orleans and I can tell you that I did not enjoy that part of the trip. Partly, of course, because of my height. If you're about 5'2" and can curl up in a bus seat it's probably not so bad.

The train called the City of New Orleans that runs between Chicago and New Orleans is apparently experiencing no problems, so anywhere along that route should be fine.

New Orleans

Photo by Robert Painter It's an easy stroll to the French Quarter and to one of my favorite restaurants, Brennan's. But not just for breakfast. If you're too busy doing something else in the morning try Brennan's around noon for a late brunch or plan on having dinner. It's a wonderful atmosphere, the food is always perfect and you won't find better service anywhere. They have a well deserved reputation and they always strive to uphold that reputation. And don't forget - this is where Bananas Foster became a part of culinary history. You may want to take home a copy of their cookbook

If you've skipped Breakfast at Brennan's and you're seeking a light snack try Cafe du Monde, another New Orleans legend. If you're on the go this is a great place to get a quick coffee and the legendary New Orleans beignets. Not to mention their coffee. I think you're required to have these before you can officially say you have visited New Orleans.

No one knows yet what all the Christmas plans are for New Orleans, but I think it will be a fun place to spend the holidays. I can't guarantee how many bonfires will be built on the levees this year, but I'll bet there will be plenty. Traditions like that don't die easily. I'll attach some links here for you to check on periodically to keep up with what's happening in the Big Easy!

For More Information
Check for general information on New Orleans, and for information on cruising on the Delta Queen. For Amtrak schedules, click on Learn more about the bonfires on the levees at Some of these are spectacular. One fire company builds an enormous log fire truck that makes a terrific blaze.

A former college professor, Robert Painter is author of one of the highest ranked Southwestern Art and Travel books on He has traveled extensively throughout Indian country attending virtually every major American Indian art show in the Western U.S. and visiting Native American communities throughout the country. Robert has recently completed cruises on the Crown Odyssey, the Silver Cloud, the Silver Shadow, the Norwegian Dream, Seven Seas Navigator and the Windjammer S/V Mandalay. He has traveled to Italy, Greece, Barbados, Russia, Denmark and more countries than we have room to list.