Greetings everyone! I am currently sailing aboard the revolutionary and seminal ship, Voyager of the Seas, once the largest cruise ship in the world in 1999 when introduced. Royal Caribbean is marking its return to New Orleans service with the mega ship that has since spawned the likes of the Oasis and Allure of the Seas. The ship is in beautiful shape minus a few caveats, and New Orleans as a city is phenomenal but as a port a bit lacking, at least currently.
Having never visited the Big Easy previously, I arrived a day early into New Orleans to get a taste for the city. I am extremely impressed. The Mississippi port city is brimming with rich history, eclectic architecture, exquisite food, and outstanding music. There is nothing else quite like listening to traditional jazz live in New Orleans. To a jazz lover like me, it’s magical.
I started out my day of touring with a two-hour city overview by bus. The Gray Line tours here are extremely well done. My bus driver/guide, Sylvester, was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. We drove around the infamous French Quarter, down residential streets with pre-Civil War antebellum homes, through the city park, and to a quick stop at one of the above ground cemeteries. I became quickly aware that one day would only just touch the surface of all there is to do and see in this great city.
After my bus tour, I boarded the genuine steamboat, paddle-wheeler, Natchez, for about a two-hour lunch cruise on the Mississippi River. I enjoyed a tasty roast beef po-boy sandwich and then proceeded out on deck to gaze upon the rather stark banks of the river. This is certainly an industrial port with dock facilities and anchorage points for various tankers. Rising above the flat landscape is the sinuous structure of an oil refinery, a weather-beaten sugar factory, and military facilities, along with some residences. Still, don’t expect to see anything like Long Beach in the way of an abundance of docks and cranes.
This river cruise afforded me the first glance of the cruise terminal I would soon be sailing from. Situated amongst a complex first built for a world’s fair, the terminal is in a state of flux. From the outside you can see an old gangway structure with torn canvas coverings, possibly a relic of hurricane Katrina’s carnage six years ago. Otherwise, the building is in fine shape, although still in the process of interior remodeling, and reminds me somewhat of Canada Place in Vancouver. I’ll have more to discuss on this later.
After the river cruise, I strolled through the French Quarter on foot to peruse the shops and soak in the unique energy that infuses these streets. Royal Street, for instance, was closed off to traffic and instead made way for various street musicians and performers. There was much more pedestrian traffic this time of year than I had expected which contributed to the vivacious vibe of the city. I enjoyed the sounds of jazz on the streets, the smell of delectable treats, and the sights of architectural history.
In the evening, I took a walking tour that begun with a fantastic sit-down meal complete with a wonderful seafood-topped pasty and a very tasty banana bread pudding. The tour took us through the French Quarter at night to a small jazz club and bar where we were treated to a set of traditional jazz standards and a hurricane, a delicious New Orleans drink of fruit juices and rum. The night concluded with a visit to Cafe de Monde where you aren’t served just one or two, but three powdered sugar coated beignets along with a cafe au lait. And yes, the beignets truly are as delicious as they say. Krispy Kreme has got nothing on these sweet babies.
The next morning my cruising experience began. My hotel was only two blocks up from the cruise ship terminal, so I decided to roll my luggage down and expected to walk quickly and easily into the check-in area. To be sure, New Orleans is a fantastic city, but its port proves to be a bit of a bottle-neck to say the least. At noon, many guests from the previous cruise were still exiting the terminal areas while many new guests begun to arrive. The porters were extremely friendly and helpful in gathering luggage and pointing out directions.
The check-in process took an abnormally long time to divvy up everyone’s room keys. The situation was further confounded by the tiny waiting area which quickly filled up beyond capacity with guests forced to sit on the floors and stand while waiting until 1pm when boarding finally commenced. I since heard that bathroom facilities were so scarce here that some had to leave the secure area for a comfort stop only to be required to go though the security check once again. The terminal corridors in which we passed to make our way on the ship were still under construction awaiting final installation of flooring treatments. Still, we happily made it onboard after a brief disorganized period.
The ship was scheduled to depart at 5pm. It didn’t actually make way until 7pm. 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. This is my 45th cruise, and I have never been two hours late in sailing before. However, it’s my understanding that this is a newly configured cruise terminal with a new staff. That plus the fact that this is the largest cruise ship ever to dock at New Orleans is sure to present logistical hurdles on a scale new to this port. I’m hopeful that the turnaround time for this ship in this port will improve, but for now, it’s less than ideal.
The ship on the other hand is generally wonderful. The ship from the outside is clean and well painted except for a few oddly located rusty blemishes. The public areas are pristine and have held up very well for a 12 year old ship. My stateroom, however, is starting to show its age. The cabinet finishes are very scratched up and worn down, and the outside veranda is very rusty. The only other noticeable shortcoming across much of the ship is the poor upkeep of the deck railings which are missing a substantial amount of their varnish.
All in all, the ship is still magnificent, and it remains an industry benchmark for its introduction of so many revolutionary cruise ship features. For instance, I have already indulged in a meal at the delightful Johnny Rockets at sea, and it continues to amaze me that this ship has an ice rink onboard. And of course, there is the always impressive Royal Promenade – the open “mall” space stretching a good length of the ship from atrium to atrium – flanked by so many unique interior staterooms that have an inward view. I truly get a kick out of this ship.
Tonight is formal night, and we are sure to be treated to a very nice meal in what is, in my opinion, one of the nicest dining rooms at sea. The decor is perfectly balanced with a rich yet subdued color palette of white, jade, merlot, and gold. And tomorrow we will be in Cozumel, Mexico, where I will be enjoying a salsa and margarita making shore excursion. It should be fun. I’ll keep everyone posted.