Take Time for the Big Easy

The fun of a cruise doesn't begin only when the ship sails. I always enjoy going into the port city a day or two early. Not only does it give me a chance to enjoy local flavor, but I can start my cruise rested and refreshed without the hassle of rushing from the airport to the ship and worrying my luggage won't make it.

Prior to my cruise, I went to New Orleans a day early, but, alas, it was not enough time to enjoy all this beautiful and historical city has to offer. However, I squeezed in as much fun as possible and enjoyed every moment.

I stayed at the French-inspired AAA Four-Diamond Le Meridien hotel on Canal Street right across from the fabled French Quarter. The accommodations were luxurious but affordable, the staff polite and helpful at every turn. Along with 24-hour room service and maid service twice daily, there is a health club, rooftop pool, full service business center and Bistro with live entertainment. The thirty-story towered hotel has 494 rooms.

To begin my evening, I dined at Arnaud's, considered the grande dame of New Orleans restaurants. Beautifully decorated in turn-of-the-century splendor with 14 restored crystal chandeliers and a wall of beveled glass windows, live Dixieland jazz accompanies the legendary Creole cuisine. I feasted on hot, fresh-baked bread, escargot, shrimp Creole, Troute Meuniere, and Arnaud's special creation--potatoes souffle--hot, light-as-air puffs dipped in tarragon-rich bearnaise sauce. Don't dare pass up the pecan pie topped with fresh whipped cream and do linger for Cafe Brulot--coffee flamed with cinnamon sticks, cloves, orange, and lemon rind with brandy and Grand Marnier. I know this all sounds terribly expensive, but, without wine, the average check for dinner is around $37.00 plus tip. Quite reasonable for such an enjoyable meal.

After dinner I visited Bourbon Street where more Dixieland Jazz filled the air along with lively Cajun music. People crowded on the wrought-iron balconies above to watch others dancing in the streets below. The atmosphere was charged with excitement, and I can only imagine what it would be like in this party-hearty place during Mardi Gras. New Orleans comes alive in the morning with the sound of streetcars lumbering up the tracks with bells clanging, the smell of sweet olive trees, the feeling of a soft southern breeze, and a cup of New Orleans coffee with chicory.

And not-to-be-missed is the tradition of breakfasting at Brennan's, truly an unforgettable experience. Wine is considered de rigueur despite the early hour. I opted for a Mimosa, which was made with fresh squeezed orange juice. Among other eye openers on the menu, intended to sharpen the taste as well as the appetite: Creole Bloody Mary, Brandy Milk Punch, and the Mr. Funk of New Orleans--a combination of champagne, cranberry juice and peach schnapps. The table d`hote menu is a three course prix fixe. For appetizer, I chose the baked apple with double cream and sampled the turtle soup�both delicious. Eggs Nouvelle Orleans was my entree--poached eggs served on a bed of lump crabmeat topped with a brandy-cream sauce. For dessert, it was a hard decision to choose between Bananas Foster and Creole chocolate suicide cake, so, of course, I tried both and felt no guilt. After all, life is too short not to have dessert at breakfast so why not live a little and indulge in two?

After breakfast, I visited one of the Cities of the Dead. New Orleans is famed for its cemeteries with 142 in the metropolitan area. Because of the city's high water table and below sea-level elevation, the practice of building tombs above ground became necessary. Strolling among the squat white structures, some ornately decorated, it is truly like walking in a miniature city. Among interesting graves was that of the legendary Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Her grave still has fresh offerings akin to the practice of voodoo.

There are quaint shops on Decatur Street and don't miss the candy shops where fresh pralines are made daily. But be warned: a warm sample right out of the black iron cooking pot leads to buying several pounds to take with you. A ten minute taxi ride from the hotel and I was at the pier and ready to board the ship, rested, relaxed, well-fed, very in l ready to cruise

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