Crescent City   Cruising

Cruise into New Orleans. Cruise out down the Mississippi and into the wide expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s easy and it’s blissful.

Three major lines, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International, offer cruises out of New Orleans. All provide vacations that are good value for your money. With a little planning, we chose a one-week cruise aboard NCL’s Navigator of the Seas. The itinerary was excellent with ports of call at Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Falmouth, Jamaica. Each island has a distinct history and personality. Since the Navigator of the Seas is one of the largest cruise ships afloat, we wanted to know more. After checking the ship’s layout on the Internet, we decided on a stateroom with a small balcony on a mid-level deck.

The Port of New Orleans and the cruise lines make it simple to reach your ship by car. Well-placed signs direct traffic to the area where ships dock on the Mississippi River behind the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Carnival cruise ship passengers can park at the Erato Street Garage. NCL passengers drive past that garage to the Julia Street Terminal drop-off area, where a skycap tagged our luggage with our pre-issued stateroom number. Then we were directed to the Julia Street “Whale Lot” by the Riverwalk Marketplace. Parking in the secured and lighted lot costs $16 a day. Cruise passengers are guaranteed space even when the city is celebrating major events such as Mardi Gras.

It’s a short walk to the Julia Street Terminal. We arrived about two hours prior to departure. Most passengers had already boarded, so we didn’t have to stand in a long line going through Homeland Security checks. After signing in, crew members took our photos and issued SeaPass cards. Part of the ship’s security system, the SeaPass card must be presented at the gangway when you go ashore and return to ship. It also serves as a credit card for all purchases aboard (payment is made at the end of the cruise).

Finding our stateroom came first. Our midship location was great, making it easy to get about the 15 decks by elevators or stairs. Blond cabinetry and a

cream and aquamarine décor created a relaxed atmosphere. There was a nifty bath with shower, queen-size bed, sofa and TV. The small balcony with two chairs was a big plus, especially the afternoon when it provided an up-close view of a trio of pelicans flying past.

In the late afternoon, passengers were called to their muster station to check life vests and learn what to do in case of emergencies. Crew members were polite, efficient and precise in their instructions.

The Navigator of the Seas can carry a crew of 1,185, and 3,114 passengers. The ship’s so large that it’s much like a small town. It appeals to people of all ages. There’s a lot to see and do with activities available from dawn to well after midnight. The one thing you don’t want to miss is departure from New Orleans.

Be out on an open deck when the ship begins to depart. As she slowly starts moving, turn your eyes toward downtown to get a spectacular view. Once you see the beauty of Canal Street and the French Quarter from the river, you’ll understand why early seafarers fell in love with the setting. Turn in a westerly direction and watch the sun set. When the weather is right, streaks of orange and purple create a golden glow beyond the river’s west bank. It’s breathtaking.

During the next week we visited with people from as far away as New Hampshire and as close as Mississippi. Among those we met were Wayne and Kathy Terrio, of Harahan, veterans of New Orleans cruising. The couple liked the entertainment better on Royal Caribbean ships. They also agreed that the food was better. “It’s not southern Louisiana food, but it’s better than on other ships,” Wayne Terrio said.

The first night is perfect for exploring the ship. Numerous open decks offer grand views of the water and plenty of spots to become a seafaring couch potato. The Royal Promenade, four decks tall at the heart of the ship, serves as an indoor mall. Over a football field long, it’s anchored by towering atriums. The Promenade contains a general store, jewelry shop and liquor store as well as a wine bar, Two Poets Pub, and Champagne Pub. The guest relations desk serves as a reception center where passengers can get all their questions answered.

At the shore excursion desk we checked on numerous side trips once ashore. Excursions can be costly. For example, an eight-hour all-inclusive adventure, including a ferry ride to Playa Del Carmen, zip line rides and rafting across subterranean caverns, runs $182, adult, and $128, child. On the low end, guests can sign up for a three-hour excursion to Red Stripe Beach in Jamaica for $24, adult, and $12, child. The one-hour Trolley Roger sightseeing ride around Georgetown, Grand Cayman costs $19, adult, $14, child.

Island adventures

The Navigator of the Seas docks at ports within minutes of beaches, shopping areas and island adventures.

Tourism reigns supreme in Cozumel, called the “land of swallows,” by early Mayan inhabitants. It’s a quick taxi ride ($8 one-way) from the port into town where the main road facing the ocean is lined with numerous shops. Merchants entice visitors to step inside jewelry shops, liquor stores, and places filled with Mexican curios. You can find anything from Mexican vanilla to top grade tequila or hand-embroidered blouses to T-shirts. We stopped at La Mission Restaurant for lunch on an open-air patio featuring tropical plants and a Mariachi band performing for diners. Our meals, fish fillet a la Veracruzana with a light tomato sauce and enchiladas verde filled with tender spicy chicken, were outstanding. Best yet were fresh tostados, fried corn tortilla triangles, and a huge margarita declared “the best ever.”

At George Town, Grand Cayman, we joined an exploration tour. Columbus called these islands “Las Tortugas” in 1503 after the sea turtles here. Later they were named “Cayman” after the Carib word “caiman” for the marine crocodile. It was somewhat unnerving sitting behind our guide Clarence Foster while he drove on the left hand side of the road. Basically, everything is imported on this flat, dry island, but Grand Cayman, known as a tax haven, is thriving.

Foster noted how well residents have bounced back from Hurricane Ivan’s devastation in 2004. We stopped at the Cayman Turtle Farm, a famed research center. Walking past various turtle ponds, Foster said the farm is a leader in breeding green sea turtles and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. After washing our hands, we were allowed to touch small turtles swimming about special tanks. We learned more about the turtles’ lifespan at the education center. It’s amazing how big turtles can get. A teenage girl was surprised to see a large turtle shell completely covered her back.

We went to Hell. The touristy, tiny spot at West Bay was named for black, limestone formations creating a lunar landscape. Ivan Farrington, dressed in red cape and horns, runs the Devil’s Den novelty shop and post office where you can send postcards from Hell, with comments such as “This is a Hell of a place.”

Jamaica, our next island, is a lovely spot with lively music and incredibly friendly people. Falmouth’s new port is impressive. Designed to receive shiploads of tourists, the complex of attractive buildings is built around a large plaza. Colorfully garbed stilt walkers greeted new arrivals.

We loved meandering through the open-air market where vendors hawked Jamaican crafts. We sampled delicious Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee in one store and heady Jamaican rum in another, but we bypassed the Cuban and Jamaican cigar shop. We watched street entertainers drumming out heart-thumping rhythms while their female dancer showed a young girl how to get into the swing of native dance steps.

A trolley tour ($20 per person) introduced us to the real Falmouth. Founded in 1769, the town was one of the wealthiest New World ports in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The historic district still contains a number of Georgian-era buildings, although many are badly in need of restoration. The architecture reflects the island’s boom and bust eras tied to the sugar and shipping industries. Especially lovely are houses styled by newly-freed slaves (in the mid 1800s) with gingerbread fretwork and flowering gardens. Stepping into St. Peter’s Anglican Church (ca. 1796) we were awed by the tranquil interior with its original mahogany columns, boxed pews and restored stained-glass windows.

Jamaicans are very tolerant of tourists. It’s a bit difficult at first to grasp the islands’ Creole patois (a blend of African and English). Locals love to joke with you about their lingo, but falling in love with Falmouth is “No problem, mon.”

Back aboard ship it was time to take advantage of the many activities.

There’s always something to do: swimming, miniature golf, bingo, dance classes, craft classes, card games, line skating, jogging, indoor cycling, belly flop contest, karaoke and the casino. We attended a talk on acupuncture, and chatted with musicians on break from playing everything from New Orleans jazz to Broadway show tunes. Watching passengers (hitched up to harnesses) climbing the rock wall was fun in itself. Touring the ship’s $8.5 million art collection is also fun. Start with Larry Kirkland’s “Aquaria,” a spectacular sculpture filling 11 levels of the Centrum. The casino’s multi-media Mardi Gras art includes beads and doubloons. We also recommend the art auction. Even if you don’t place a bid for a print or painting, the complimentary glasses of champagne make this a top-drawer event.

Entertainment in a spacious theater featured several outstanding comedians, one whose act was modified for families with children. Best performance was the outstanding Ice Dancin’ show featuring Ekaternia’s Hula Hoop act and a cast of international skaters.

It was here we met Don and Gloria Kreeze, of Seattle, cruise aficionados. Married more than 50 years, the couple spends winters in warmer climes. Don Kreeze said, “We cruise frequently — about five or six times a year.” He said they prefer traveling on the Royal Caribbean line out of Fort Lauderdale.

“This is our first time out of New Orleans,” he said. “We came to the ship early to miss the crowd.” Unlike most passengers, they planned on being aboard for a month of round-about trips and were definitely happy cruisers.

Food aboard Navigator of the Seas is plentiful and varied. It’s good, but not exceptional. Service was excellent in the three-story main dining room with elegant chandeliers. We found most dishes bland, but there was always Tabasco. The buffet-style Windjammer Café was great for breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks. Our favorite snacks were the fresh fruits and chocolate chip cookies available every day. At breakfast, we especially liked the separate stand where eggs were cooked to order. Café Promenade, a no-fee sidewalk café, was a good spot for sandwiches, pizza and espressos. Nearby, a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop offered creamy flavors for a charge.

Like other cruise ships, regular meals with coffee, tea, milk, water, are included in the price you pay for the cruise. However you must pay for all other drinks (including sodas and alcoholic drinks) anywhere aboard the ship.

Each day, bars prepared a punch-styled alcohol specialty “Drink of the Day” for $6.75 plus tax, and the plastic glass is yours to keep.

A circus parade, with clowns and jugglers, ended our final day aboard ship. Last of all we stepped out on deck at night to watch distant lights on oil rigs as we entered the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The next morning, we took advantage of “express walk off” to roll our bags off the ship, down the gangway and quickly through U.S. customs. Within 30 minutes we were on our way home.