|By Steve Stephens, The Columbus Dispatch,
OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September 20, 2009 --CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The Delta Queen is dead. Long live the Delta Queen.
Last year marked the end of old stern-wheelers plying American rivers with overnight passengers.
The final blow came when Congress refused to renew the exemption that had allowed the old boats to operate with overnight guests. (For details about that decision, visit www.steamboats.org.)
But the venerable steam stern-wheeler Delta Queen has been saved for now and is moored on the Tennessee River as a boutique hotel.
And what a hotel.
The Delta Queen was built in 1925, well after the heyday of Mark Twain-style riverboats. But the boat reflects all the nautical grandeur of an almost forgotten time, when riverboats were not only a fun way to see the heartland but also a preferred means of luxury transportation.
The brass still gleams, the stained glass still casts reflections from the water into the staterooms and lounges, the teak decks still echo with the sound of the river slapping against the hull, the crystal chandeliers still sparkle with light and memories.
And the four-decked ship, though not going anywhere for the foreseeable future, is still adorned with the now-anachronistic reminders of its river-churning past: a huge red stern-wheel, a bright prow bell, a steam whistle and a delightful steam-powered calliope that chuffs out tunes daily.
I tried to sneak open the keyboard and peck out a few bars of Beautiful Ohio late on my first night, but I couldn't turn the calliope on -- which was very fortunate, I realized the next day. When our tour guide played several tunes for us, I marveled at how the crazy circus sound echoed mightily off the buildings of downtown Chattanooga across the river.
Guests and visitors can also take regularly scheduled tours of the boat. The engines on the main deck sit at ready, should the ship ever regain its certification. (They still put out enough power to operate many of the ship's systems, such as the steam for that calliope.) Up in the pilothouse, the ship's wheel and boat whistle beckon.
The ship's library, which forms the central corridor on the second deck, displays big navigation maps where little river towns such as Mingo Junction are more important than cities such as Columbus, Indianapolis or Charlotte; photos from the Delta Queen's heyday; and big oil portraits of the men and women who have piloted the stern-wheeler.
Although the library is imbued with an eerie beauty, especially in the dead of night, I never encountered the ghost of a former captain said to roam the deck. But the bookshelves were filled with other ghosts: guidebooks of destinations stretching from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. The guidebooks seem a bit forlorn, now that the Delta Queen no longer ventures anywhere near those places. But other books, detailing the history of the rivers, riverboats and American navigation, were a fun and welcome reminder of the Delta Queen's past.
And the past is the Delta Queen's present, its whole reason for being. The ship is a floating museum, with more than 80 little private museums (staterooms) where guests can spend one night or many.
The rooms are small -- this was a riverboat, after all -- but with thick, comfortable mattresses and beautiful furnishings that reflect the opulence of the common areas where much more comfortable lounging opportunities abound.
Of course, guests today are no longer confined to the boat, much less to the smallish staterooms.
The Delta Queen is moored on the north side of the river, opposite downtown Chattanooga. The gangplank leads immediately down to Coolidge Park, a lovely riverfront urban oasis with a huge play-fountain for kids and a historic indoor carousel. A pedestrian-only bridge also leads from the park to downtown Chattanooga, directly adjacent to the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Tennessee Aquarium and just a short walk to AT&T Field, the home of the city's minor-league baseball team.
The artsy North Shore neighborhood adjacent to the dock is home to many interesting boutiques, galleries, restaurants and bars.
One of the best places for a cold refreshment, however, is the Delta Queen's Texas Lounge, which opens to the public at 4 p.m. each day. The lounge has a lovely antique bar and a terrific view of downtown. Guests can also take their drinks out onto the ship's ample deck.
The ship also still offers riverboat-style entertainment, with live music in the Texas Lounge on Friday and Saturday nights and a weekly dinner theater in the boat's Orleans Showroom, usually on Saturday nights, with a prix fixe meal and music.
And what kind of riverboat would it be without poker? The Delta Queen offers a Texas hold 'em poker tournament (just for fun and prizes) each Thursday night. Not to brag, but yours truly, for at least one night, proved to be the king of the riverboat "gamblers."
Onboard I met a couple of Delta Queen fans, each of whom had ridden the ship on at least 50 cruises and were visiting for the first time since the vessel was docked.
The women were sorry that the ship is no longer sailing but happy that it has found an extended life in Chattanooga.
"It's not the same, but as long as she's here, we'll come to visit," said Pat Traynor of Marco Island, Fla.
"You don't abandon a good friend just because she's been put in a retirement home," said Barb Hameister of Blanchester, Ohio.
So here's to a long and illustrious retirement for the beautiful Delta Queen.
And if I should ever see you aboard, how about we play a little Texas hold 'em? I'd be happy to deal.
Today's story on the Delta Queen is part of an occasional series profiling lodgings across the region.
To see more of The Columbus Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbusdispatch.com.
Copyright (c) 2009, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
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