Steam Spirit

Riding the Delta Queen to New Orleans costs a lot more than a short-hop flight, but you get what you pay for—great food, beautiful views, and five days of glorious peace.

MY WIFE, PHYLLIS, AND I HAVE A BASIC RULE ABOUT TRAVEL: Never get aboard a vehicle that you can’t get off and walk home, flights to Europe excepted. I have this recurring dream of being trapped in a small room with a man who sells insurance. We were somewhat apprehensive, therefore, when we boarded the Delta Queen ( DQ) last December for a five-night cruise from Galveston to her home port, New Orleans. We guessed the average age of our fellow passengers would be about 65—only a few years older than we were—but we wondered if we’d have much in common. As it turned out, we had a great deal in common, not the least of which was a deep love for life and adventure.

A National Historic Landmark and the only authentic, fully restored overnight steamboat in the country—maybe the world—the Delta Queen had arrived in Texas for the first time two days before, for Galveston’s annual Dickens on the Strand festival. This month she’ll return to Galveston for Mardi Gras, then again in December for the Dickens celebration, and after that, as often as demand dictates. Demand should be high, for the DQ is the last of that noble breed of steamboats that connected the cities of the western frontier. The DQ and her two larger sister boats, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen,  still steam more than 30,000 miles a year combined up and down the heartland rivers of America. They cover all of the Mississippi, stretches of the Ohio, the Cumberland, and the Tennessee, and the Arkansas from where it connects to the Mississippi. Now that the leg of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway between New Orleans and Galveston has become a regular route, there is almost no port in the middle part of the United States not served by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of New Orleans.

Almost all of the nearly 130 or so people we met at the Port of Galveston had traveled before on the DQ or one of her sister boats. Many had done so fifty or sixty times; river people collect rivers the way bird people collect bird sightings. Pat Sullivan, a retired Procter and Gamble employee from Cincinnati, was making her eightieth voyage. Earle and Bette Tucker, a handsome couple in their seventies from Charlottesville, Virginia, have logged eighteen trips aboard the DQ, covering every inch of every river except for one short stretch of the Arkansas that they are booked to cover this summer. Where water travel is concerned, river people have phenomenal memories. Some are able to recall each snag and sandbar on each river they have ever traveled; others claim they can identify a river pilot from a mile away by how he plays the steam whistle. River people, as they say, are different from you and me.

They’re so different, in fact, that they’re willing to pay a great deal of money for a river ride that costs nearly as much as a vacation to Europe. There are eight classes of staterooms and suites on the DQ, and voyages last from two to twelve nights (for dates and fares, call 800-543-7637). Fares for a five-night trip, such as Galveston to New Orleans, range from $3,030 per person double occupancy for a AAA suite on the Cabin Deck or the Sun Deck to $740 for a small F-class stateroom on the Texas Deck. Phyllis and I shared a class-A stateroom, which cost us $4,260 plus tax. Fares include four meals a day plus a moonlight buffet, but while wine and alcoholic beverages are available in great abundance, they’re not figured into the cost. Neither is airfare, which can add a few hundred dollars—or even a thousand—to the total.

Cost aside, though, Phyllis and I agreed that this was one of the great trips of all time. From the moment we arrived at the gangplank, we were pampered shamelessly by the DQ’s staff and crew. Our luggage magically found its way to our stateroom at the stern end of the Cabin Deck, where a basket of fruit and cheese awaited us. The stateroom was surprisingly roomy and comfortable (once we had coordinated our dressing schedules and mastered a do-si-do manner of moving about) and featured antique-style twin brass beds, brass fixtures, and wood paneling. Although we were situated directly above the engine room, there was little noise except for an occasional lugging sound. Steamboats are among the quietest and most peaceful methods of transportation. One hears only the hum of pistons, the lap-lap-lapping of the paddle wheel, and a chorus of solitude.

The Cabin Deck is the DQ’s principal common area. All Cabin Deck staterooms open onto the Betty Blake Lounge, a well-appointed parlor where people read, write, work jigsaw puzzles, and study charts, maps, and printed histories of the boat. It was there that I learned how the Delta Queen started shuttling passengers on the Sacramento River in 1927 and later served as a Navy ferry in San Francisco Bay during World War II. At the end of the war, Tom Greene, the president of Greene Line Steamers of Cincinnati, purchased her for $46,000, had her crated up and towed by way of the Panama Canal to New Orleans, and spent another $750,000 fixing her up. In 1965 Congress passed a law outlawing vessels with wooden superstructures that carried more than fifty overnight passengers, but after a heroic petition campaign by the Greene Line’s legendary public relations woman, Betty Blake, for whom the lounge is named, the Delta Queen  was given a temporary exemption, which her owner must renew every five years.

Being aboard the DQ is like being a guest at a small Victorian resort, except that the view changes constantly. Coffee, tea, and snacks are usually available in the Forward Cabin Lounge, and there are various types of organized activities—kite flying, quilting, lectures, films, and tours of the galley and pilot house. An ornate grand staircase leads up to the bar

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