Thursday, June 4, 2015

Galveston to New Orleans

About 80km south of Houston we discovered Galveston or more precisely Galveston Island on the Texas Gulf Coast. Galveston is described as a romantic island tucked deep within the heart of south Texas. It's moniker “Playground of the South” applies because the area has 50km of beaches a host of museums and entertainment plus it is the main cruise ship terminus for itineraries around the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of the city was destroyed (at least 6,000 people were killed) in 1900 when Galveston hurricane came ashore together with a great storm surge that inundated most of Galveston Island. One of the early hotel developments following the hurricane was the Hotel Galvez.

Hotel Galvez
Postcard view of Beach Boulevard and the Hotel Galvez, early 1940s

During the 1920s and 30s, the city exploited the prohibition of liquor and gambling. Clubs offered entertainment to wealthy Houstonians and other out-of-towners. Galvestonians accepted and supported the illegal activities, often referring to their island as the "Free State of Galveston".

On the way from Galveston Island to Bolivar Peninsula (by ferry) we passed by Seawolf Park, a memorial to USS Seawolf, a US Navy submarine mistakenly sunk by U.S. Navy forces in 1944 during World War II.

Seawolf Park

Seawolf Park is unique in that it has a submarine USS Cavalla, and the remains of a merchant ship WWI tanker S.S. Selma, and a destroyer escort USS Stewart designed to conduct antisubmarine warfare - the hunter, hunted, and the protector - all in one museum. 

Five hours drive later (and a memorable lunch stop at a Waffle House diner) we arrived in the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans - the Big Easy, also referred to as NOLA. There's so much to see and do here that this is definitely a city we plan to return to in future visits to the States.

Spanish Architecture in the French Quarter

At the heart of the French Quarter is Bourbon Street - the historic, colourful and extremely musical destination that combines residential, hotels, guest houses, bars, restaurants and tourist-oriented commercial properties. Entry to most bars presenting live music throughout every evening is free so long as you buy a drink. Fortunately, the French Quarter suffered relatively light damage from Hurricane Katrina floodwater as compared to other areas of the city and the greater region.

Bourbon Street at night

Since steam powered riverboats have played such a significant role on the Mississippi River from New Orleans upstream during 19th-century, taking our own short cruise along the Ol Man River aboard the last authentic steamboat on the river felt like an important part of the visitor experience.

We caught up with and boarded the Natchez (the ninth steamer named after the city of Natchez, Mississippi or the Natchez people) at the Toulouse Street Wharf. She's a stern-wheel steamboat built in 1975 and is modeled after the steamboats Hudson and Virginia. Its steam engines were originally built in 1925 for the steamboat Clairton, from which the steering system and paddlewheel shaft also came. 

The Natchez also features a steam calliope - also known as a steam organ or steam piano. We were treated to a extended recital before boarding and travelling upstream for several hours.

Steam calliope being played on the Natchez 

The whistles of a calliope are tuned to a chromatic scale, although this process is difficult and must be repeated often to maintain quality sound. Since the pitch of each note is largely affected by the temperature of the steam, accurate tuning is nearly impossible; however, the off-pitch notes (particularly in the upper register) have become somewhat of a trademark of the steam calliope.

On our final morning in New Orleans we caught the St Charles Line Streetcar through the Garden District. This area was originally developed between 1832 and 1900 and is now considered one of the best-preserved collections of historic Southern mansions in the United States.

St Charles Streetcar outside Holy Name of Jesus Church adjacent to Audubon Park

This whole area was once cotton plantations. It was sold off in parcels to mainly wealthy Americans who did not want to live in the French Quarter with the Creoles. Originally the area was developed with only a couple of houses per block, each surrounded by a large garden. In the late 19th century, some of these large lots were subdivided, as Uptown became more urban. This has produced a pattern for much of the neighborhood: of any given block having a couple of early 19th-century mansions surrounded by "gingerbread"- decorated late Victorian period houses.

19th-century Garden District mansion

Late Victorian period house

The next part of our adventure involved catching (with less than 10 minutes to spare) Amtrak's iconic train The City of New Orleans from New Orleans, north through the state of Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. After Memphis, it then continues north through the heart of USA to Chigago. The train is also celebrated by the folk music song City of New Orleans written and first performed by Steve Goodman in 1970 and subsequently recorded by Arlo Guthrie.

City of New Orleans departing New Orleans Station