New Orleans meet Voyager of the Seas; Voyager of the Seas meet New Orleans. And while we’re at it, New Orleans meet Jason Leppert; Jason Leppert meet New Orleans. Having never previously traveled to the so-called Big Easy, I was excited to experience the historical city for myself.
While I only had a full day pre-cruise and a half day post-cruise to take as much of it in as I could, the impressions the city made on me are lasting. From the people to the music and from the architecture to the food, New Orleans shines bright with an undeniably vibrant personality. And now with the Voyager of the Seas sailing from its riverbanks, Royal Caribbean International returns to the historic city once again with its unique brand of cruising adventure and entertainment.
My lodging was with a pair of excellent Marriott hotels, one a Courtyard and the other the Marriott at the convention center, that just skirted the outside of the historic French Quarter – which worked out perfectly for the cruise portion of my journey as I was able to walk my luggage to and from the vessel at most only two blocks. Also, the hotels were all of 15-20 minutes walking distance again from the very heart of the French Quarter where my traditional New Orleans experience would begin.
New Orleans is quite simply a melting pot of the exemplary kind. Sporting French and Spanish influences juxtaposed with antebellum American history, the city is rich with culture. My series of terrific Gray Line tours originated from around the Jackson Brewery building right on the mighty Mississippi. I first took a short but extensive two-hour bus tour that explored the city and provided an overview of its layout from the French Quarter to the rows of beautiful homes along St. Charles Avenue and from the massive City Park to one of the numerous above ground cemeteries. Our only stop along the way was at this cemetery where we were able to get a quick sense for how impressive the marble crypts are – since there is no natural stone indigenous to the area, they are constructed from imported material.
Our guide and bus driver, Sylvester, was proficient at describing Creole culture, essentially comprised of the people native born to the area from foreign descent. From what could be perceived as a culture clash arose the diversity in architecture, music, and food that New Orleans is now distinctly known for. For instance, while American homes were painted white, it were the Creole homes that sported colors. Rich jazz music here is celebrated and performed in clubs and on the streets and is fervently preserved by the people of the city. And the food is downright phenomenal. As our guide put it, New Orleans is no city for a person on a diet.
My brief culinary experience consisted first of a simple but tasty roast beef po-boy that I enjoyed aboard the steamboat Natchez during another one of my tours here. It was fantastic to enjoy a genuine steam-powered cruise down the Mississippi, a journey that foreshadows the impending return of the great American Queen steamboat to these waters in April of next year. The Natchez tour even encourages passengers to come inside the engine room to take in all the wonders of steam power, which as a gear head myself I certainly did. While the banks of the Mississippi are rather sparse outside the city, save for a few industrial and military facilities and some residences, it does provide an interesting perspective on the levees that broke here 6 years ago. When some structures are just barely visible over the levees themselves, it becomes very clear how easily these areas flooded. Thankfully the city has rebounded from the tragedy that was caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Later, I wandered the famous Royal and Bourbon Streets and came to the conclusion that Royal is best for shopping and Bourbon is best for bars. Royal, which was closed to traffic during the day, was also where I experienced my first taste of genuine New Orleans jazz music with a great gypsy-style band and dance duo playing in the street. As a jazz lover, I could have stayed there all day, but the magic of the city’s jazz permeates every nook and cranny with a multitude of other street performances and clubs by day and night. My evening walking tour included a great set à la Louis Armstrong at Maison Bourbon with Dwayne Burns and his New Orleans Band.
This tour also included additional culinary experiences with a lovely seafood pastry dinner at Tujague’s and a beignet and café au lait dessert at the famous Café du Monde. To prove my day guide and bus driver’s point, when you order a beignet here, they don’t just bring you one French donut. No, they bring you three of these delicious powdered sugar-covered morsels in a bowl. I quickly found out that wearing black pants was a sugary mess of a mistake, although a mess well worth it. Krispy Kreme has got nothing on these bad boys. Simply yum.
Post-cruise, my New Orleans experience was short lived but did afford me one last taste of the city which included their famous gumbo this time. And yes, it really is as fantastic as its reputation claims. I’ve had “gumbo” before outside of New Orleans, but it was nothing like the real McCoy here. All I can say is the next time I am in New Orleans, I will be enjoying a bowl of gumbo first thing off the plane, and I can’t wait until I return. The city with its delicious cuisine, outstanding music, beautiful architecture, fascinating culture, and friendly people is an absolute joy.
The port of New Orleans is a different story, however. I checked out of my hotel at noon and carried my luggage down two blocks to the dock. Upon arrival, I was met with a bottleneck experience. At this time, passengers were still leaving from the previous cruise while busloads of new passengers and pedestrians such as myself were attempting to navigate through the crowds. The porters were extremely friendly and accommodating and trying their best for sure.
Once my luggage was set to hand off for shipboard delivery, I made it to the check-in process where it took what I thought was an abnormally long time, about a half an hour, to divvy up room keys. I later came to realize that I had it good as others who arrived after me had to wait up to two and a half hours to be processed through.
My own relatively speedy experience was confounded by the tiny waiting area that filled up beyond capacity where our early-bird group waited until 1pm, when boarding finally commenced. I later came to find out that bathroom facilities were so scarce in the waiting room that some had to leave the secure area for a comfort stop only to be required to go through the security check once again. While the facility was nice and new, the terminal corridors we passed through to make it to the ship were still under construction awaiting final installation of flooring treatments.
Still, we happily made it onboard with a scheduled departure of 5pm, but the ship didn’t actually make way until 7:30pm. The lifeboat drill took place at 5:15pm, itself delayed from 3:45pm, on the promenade deck where I peered over the side of the ship to assess the situation. There was a slew of luggage and provisions yet to be brought onboard the ship. In my 45 cruises, this was the first to ever be two and a half hours late to depart.
It’s my understanding that this is a newly configured cruise terminal with a new staff. That plus the fact that the Voyager of the Seas is the largest cruise ship ever to dock here is sure to present logistical hurdles on a scale new to this port. While onboard, I learned that the captain made a concerted effort to make arrangements with his crew and the port to ensure that improvements would be made for the following cruise.
Disembarking was better but still a bit of a mess as unnecessarily long passages were poorly plotted, with crowds entering and exiting the luggage retrieval area through the same narrow opening. My post-cruise hotel room had a view of the ship, and I kept an eye out to see when the next sailing would begin. The ship left at 6:30pm which, while an hour earlier than we left, is still and hour and a half late. I’m hopeful that the turnaround for this ship in this port will improve, but for now it’s certainly less than ideal.
Continue to Part 2 with The Cruise…