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Posts Tagged ‘Paddlewheel steamers’


Day two of three in the Big Easy was going to involve a lot of water. Firstly, we had booked a four hour swamp and bayou sightseeing tour.  And in the evening, we had made a reservation on the three hour dinner jazz cruise on the Creole Queen paddlewheel steamboat, a staple on the Mississippi since 1983.

Although we were unlikely to get wet during either event, the weather gods had lived up to the previous evening’s predictions by unleashing torrential rain upon us as we embarked upon the ten minute walk from the hotel. With characteristic British stiff upper lip we had made a conscious (and doubtful) decision not to purchase an umbrella, relying on our waterproof jackets.

With near ninety degree temperatures dictating that the rest of our attire need not consist of more than t-shirts, shorts and sandals, it was inevitable that we would still get drenched, standing for nearly half an hour waiting for the feeder bus under the wholly inadequate cover afforded by the ticket booth.

The Cajun Pride launch point from where we were to take our boat was a thirty five minute ride away. By the time we pulled in alongside the lush Manchac Swamp in Laplace among the South Louisiana bayous for our 12.45am start, the rain had abated and was to stop altogether once we were on the water.

As we stepped onto our boat we were greeted by one of the locals with some timely advice.

Within minutes the senior residents of the swamp introduced themselves. These were American Alligators, whom it transpired, were particularly partial to marshmallows.

Or not.

I think it might just be a droll way to entertain the gullible tourists.

The moment our boat captain, Danny, rustled in his bag of marshmallows and hurled them overboard, the alligators tucked in.

“Captain Danny” proved the most knowledgable, amusing and skilled tour guide imaginable. His deadpan southern drawl only added to the appeal. And he never drew breath throughout the tour, except to answer questions.

 

The most fascinating story involved the legendary voodoo queen, Julia Brown, who would sit by the bayou frightening anyone who passed. On the day of her funeral in 1915, she could be heard wailing over and over again “One day, I’m gonna die, and I’m gonna take all of you with me”.

Shortly afterwards, a devastating hurricane wreaked havoc in the area, completely destroying three villages and killing hundreds of people. There were reminders of the event on the swamp.

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Whilst the alligators were the stars of the show, we saw other wildlife, notably a colony of raccoons, who wandered down to the bayou’s edge as we passed. Soft shelled turtles, egrets and squirrels also made periodic appearances.

But the highlight of the ride was the opportunity to handle Bruce, a baby alligator whom Danny plucked from a large cool box towards the end of the tour. Although Bruce was still young and remarkably well behaved, his gnashers were still sufficiently sharp to inflict damage on a human, hence the muzzle.

The tour was one of our most enjoyable, informative and entertaining. Even the sun eventually made an appearance.

But light rain had returned by the time we were required to check in on the Creole Queen at 6pm for our dinner jazz cruise, scheduled to commence an hour later. However, probably because of the inclement weather, we were welcomed on to the boat and into the elegant dining room early. We were already demolishing the first plate of our Creole buffet when the majority of diners were ushered in.

Jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, seafood pasta, meats and cornbread all featured on the menu. I cannot report what the dessert might have been as we never got past the main course. On reflection, it was the least satisfying of the four evening meals we consumed in New Orleans, but that is not intended as a criticism. Whilst I can’t claim I lose my appetite at buffets, I do wish I was able to take more advantage of the unlimited food available and get full value for money.

The boat moved away from the dock promptly as dusk, unveiling fine views of the Mississippi riverfront.

As the dining room filled up, and we became surrounded on all sides, we retired to the upper deck with our wine to enjoy the local Dixieland jazz band in the balmy evening air. Every song you would associate with the city was played, and the drummer and lead singer was also an engaging raconteur.

As we approached the dock at the end of the cruise we went in search of our server as we hadn’t yet paid for our food and drink! Moreover, once we had tracked him down, he seemed unconcerned, even surprised that we had sought him out after everybody else was a-pushin’ and a-shovin’ to disembark.

It had been a long day surrounded by water – from above and below – but a satisfying taste of Louisiana history and culture. With another busy day planned for tomorrow, we returned to our hotel for a gin and tonic at the bar.

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We had three full days in New Orleans, one of which would be largely given over to organised sightseeing tours, so we had to make the most of the remaining time.

Having ticked Pat O’Brien’s off our “must indulge” list, it was time on our first morning to sample the revered breakfast dish of beignets, deep fried doughnuts sprayed with powdered sugar. This would not have been my first choice – eggs, bacon, sausage and toast will always lay claim to that title – but we acknowledged that it was incumbent upon any new visitor to the city to try them at least once.

Mindful of the long lines that accumulate outside Cafe du Monde in the morning, combined with fact that, following the previous night’s drinking, we had not risen early, we decided to tuck into them at the first opportunity, which turned out to be Cafe Beignet on Decatur Street. Ironically, by the time we had reached the flagship branch later, there was no line at all, though a healthy crowd were being entertained by a lively jazz band.

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At Jackson Square, former military drill field, “Place d’Armes”, we explored both the magnificent St Louis Cathedral and the statue of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and previously military leader responsible for defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

One thing that struck me – though it really shouldn’t have – was the number of walking tours being delivered in the area, some well supported, others less so. There were several underway of the French Quarter, but this only scratched the surface as, amongst others, there were tours available to cover the New Orleans’s history, ghosts, voodoo, cemeteries, food and drink as well as for other parts of the city, for example the Garden District, home to the Lafayette Cemetery and dozens of monumental antebellum mansions.

There were several conspicuous reminders around the area that the city was celebrating its 300th anniversary.

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I called into the visitor centre and was greeted with that genuine, warm southern hospitality that we were already becoming accustomed to. Two delightful ladies of undoubted pensionable age directed me to the impressive, free official visitors guides to the city and state. As I turned to leave, they exclaimed in unison, “y’all have a nice day, now”.

After such a cheerful salutation, how could I not?

We wanted to make the most of the improvement in the weather (the sun had even made an occasional appearance), so decided against visiting any museums, much as we may have wanted to. These will have to wait for our return (for return we shall) on a later date.

And we were getting peckish again.

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One and a half beignets each was hardly going to fill us up, so we were, or rather I was, delighted shortly afterwards to spot the Central Grocery, home to the equally legendary muffuletta, a massive layered olive salad, meats and cheese sandwich drizzled with olive oil. We sat in the store and devoured one half of the half sized muffuletta (not cheap at $11.50) before moving on.

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We continued to stroll along Decatur Street until it met Esplanade Avenue, the boundary between the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny district. With light rain falling again, it was reassuring to discover the indoor French Market which ran alongside the riverfront.

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Given the number of jewellery, as well as craft, stalls available, it was only a matter of time before Janet purchased her first earrings of the trip.

Although there is no substitute to eating the fabulous food that New Orleans has to offer, just reading the menu boards, as at this stall in the French Market can be almost as satisfying – I repeat almost.


It certainly served to remind us that we still had half a muffuletta left, which we devoured in triangular shaped Latrobe Park after first having had cocktails at the Gazebo Cafe (we had fully sobered up by now), whilst being thoroughly entertained by another accomplished band playing a number of New Orleans classics.

Our intention all along today had been to saunter back along the riverfront, or “Moon Walk”, from the furthest reaches of the French Quarter, and we were not going to allow the steady drizzle to deter us. Our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, which is to feature so prominently on this trip, was framed by the Greater New Orleans Bridge.

The pretty red Riverfront streetcar pulled into Toulouse Station, evoking memories of those rattling, cranky vehicles in San Francisco that we had ridden so many times before (and sometimes seemed we had spent half our lives on). We planned to travel the three main lines here on our final day.

The riverfront amble also gave us the opportunity to compare the two paddlewheel steamboats that we had considered for our dinner jazz cruise on the next evening. As we approached, the Natchez, images of which, including a giant mural, we had already witnessed around the city was herding its latest group of passengers off the boat. It looked a little chaotic to be honest.

We had already booked the Creole Queen for the following evening, a decision that already looked vindicated. It appeared smaller and more intimate. The Mardi Gras character pictured below seemed to be promoting it too.

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A brief exploration of the Outlet Collection at Riverfront, including a coffee at another branch of Cafe du Monde, prefaced a return to the hotel, negotiating the noisy and substantial building works that were upgrading the area still further.

We returned to the French Quarter in the evening, enjoying another outstanding seafood meal at Oceana on Conti Street, a few yards from the intersection with Bourbon Street. Bypassing the growing drunkenness and debauchery infecting the whole area, we returned to the Red Fish Grill where we had eaten the previous night, for a nightcap in their quiet, civilised bar.

Tomorrow would be a different day with water having the starring role. We had booked a swamp and bayou sightseeing tour for the morning/afternoon and the aforementioned jazz dinner cruise in the evening.

And the weather forecast was for heavy rain and thunderstorms!

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