Two great vacations for the price of one

There was time when enjoying a Caribbean cruise meant departing from Florida, but today there are many different ports that offer travellers the opportunity to cruise through the turquoise waters of the Caribbean to explore sunny tropical islands.

If your cruise is boarding at New Orleans

If your cruise is boarding at New Orleans

There was time when enjoying a Caribbean cruise meant departing from Florida, but today there are many different ports that offer travellers the opportunity to cruise through the turquoise waters of the Caribbean to explore sunny tropical islands.

New York, Texas, Louisiana and Washington are just a few of the states besides Florida that have regular Caribbean cruise departures and the advantage of choosing a less common departure port is that it provides the opportunity to explore a unique port city before or after the cruise.

Of all the possible port cities, there is perhaps none more fascinating than New Orleans. In January, Phil and Lori Hallet of Rimbey, enjoyed a five-day Caribbean cruise departing from New Orleans and spent five days exploring the city during the start of the Mardi Gras festival.

It was their first cruise experience and their first time visiting the Big Easy and after it was all said and done, the couple felt as if they actually managed to get two vacations for the price of one.

Although the peak time of the Mardi Gras celebration typically takes place in the two weeks surrounding Fat Tuesday in March, the carnival season in New Orleans actually begins in early January.

“January was a great time to visit New Orleans,” explained Lori. “We were able to visit Mardi Gras World and see the elaborate floats that had been made for the Mardi Gras parades and learn about the history of the celebration. One evening when we went to look for a restaurant, we got caught up in a Mardi Gras parade and saw the king and queen. A clown handed me a whole handful of beads. It was great fun.”

New Orleans is undisputed as the birthplace of jazz music and one of the things that Phil most appreciated was the music that fills the streets of the city.

“I have always loved music, but visiting New Orleans opened my eyes to another style of music that I wasn’t very familiar with,” he said.

“The entire French Quarter was alive with music, even during the daytime. You can visit Jackson Square at any time of day and find someone playing music. One evening on Toulouse Street there was a young guitarist sitting on top of a lamppost playing with his band on the sidewalk below. The visit to New Orleans helped me develop an appreciation for jazz music that I never had before.”

During their stay in The Big Easy, the couple enjoyed great food, friendly locals, historical architecture in the French Quarter and the Garden District, Mardis Gras fun, and several tours including an airboat tour of the Bayou, a paddlewheel dinner cruise along the Mississippi, a plantation visit, and a night tour of Bourbon Street.

The most unusual tour was undoubtedly the night tour of Bourbon Street. “The night tour was led by an 85-year-old local woman named Mary who had been born and raised in the French Quarter,” explained Lori.

“Mary is a Grande Dame and one of the most fascinating people we met in New Orleans. She led us all over the area and introduced us to great little nightclubs and jazz places we never would have found on our own. Everyone seemed to know her. When the tour was over, we walked with her back towards her home and she invited us inside. It was an insider’s tour that provided insights into the city and the people who live there.”

In addition to exploring New Orleans, the couple enjoyed a five-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph cruise ship with stops in Progresso, Mexico and Cozumel, Mexico.

“Our first cruise experience was wonderful,” said Phil. “I was impressed with the entertainment onboard. There were five or six top notch bands performing in different areas of the ship. They also had a Las Vegas magic act and a tastefully done Las Vegas Burlesque show for entertainment on certain evenings. There was so much to do onboard the ship that it was impossible to do everything.”

While Phil watched the NFC and AFC championship football games on the big screen off the back of the boat, Lori enjoyed relaxing on the balcony of their suite inside the ship. “We had been warned by a travel professional that Carnvial was a budget cruise line and that we might not enjoy it, but we were really happy with our cabin and the entire cruising experience,” said Lori. “The food was wonderful, the entertainment was excellent and the crew went out of their way to make the cruise special. We loved it.”

When the ship was in port, the couple enjoyed experiencing the culture and history of Mexico. At the Progresso stop, they participated in an excursion to Chichen Itza, an ancient Mayan archaeological site located about two hours by bus from the port. Dating to between 750-1200 AD, the ruins of Chichen Itza were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and were recently selected as one of the seven new wonders of the world.

“Our Mayan guide was able to fascinate us with many cultural aspects throughout the long drive there and back,” said Phil. “To have been able to experience one of the wonders of the world up close was an amazing opportunity.”

The final cruise stop was the island of Cozumel, located off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. In addition to relaxing at the beach, enjoying some local Mexican food, and visiting the main town of San Miguel de Cozumel, the couple enjoyed a submarine tour of one of the island’s dazzling coral reefs. “Cozumel is famous for its marine life and since we are not really into snorkelling or diving, the submarine tour worked out really well for us,” explained Lori. “One of the first things we saw was a large shark that swam right past our porthole. We also spotted a moray eel and saw countless colourful fish and corals. It was a good way to see the marine life of the reef.”

Overall, the cruise and the visit to New Orleans proved to be a wonderful vacation for the couple. “We had such a great time on the cruise and in New Orleans that we are planning another trip,” said Lori. “I think most Canadians cruise out of Florida, but those who want something a little different should consider a cruise from New Orleans or one of the other less-common port cities.”

If you go:

• A five-day Western Caribbean cruise from New Orleans starts at about $450 per person for an inside cabin or $999 per person for a balcony suite (not including taxes and port fees). Flights to New Orleans can cost as little as $500 per person including taxes from Calgary depending upon the month of travel and how far in advance the tickets are purchased.

• The Hallets recommend taking a carriage tour around the Quarter and/or a bus tour of the city shortly after you arrive, as this gives you so much information for the rest of your time there. They also found that talking to fellow travellers and the locals helped to steer them to some great spots in the city they might have otherwise overlooked.

• The Hallets pre-booked their tours in New Orleans through a travel agent, but they would recommend waiting until you get to New Orleans to book tours, unless you are travelling at the busiest season. They found that the hotel concierge was more familiar with the local tours on offer and better able to advise them according to their interests. The tour they enjoyed the most was called Bourbon Street Nights and their guide’s name was Mary. This tour was booked through Gray Line Tours (graylineneworleans.com).

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.