After ten days and God knows how many miles I have returned safe and sound. As with any journey there were many surprises, but sadly a good number of disappointments. The biggest surprise was Jeff Pinder and his tour of Freeport. The biggest let down was the food on the Carnival Conquest. I am glad we went, and despite not having a chair with a back in the cabin, the overall mediocre food on the Conquest - primarily the result of expectations - we had a great time in the ports of call.
Here is a summary of our eleven days
New Orealans -- 5 great food, great time in the French Market and WWII museum
Carnival Conquest -- 65, pretty easy to dance too, lyrics so-so (apologies to Dick Clark)
Staff efficiency, courtesy, and effort -- 5
Food -- 3 Point Steakhouse and two meals great, rest mediocre
Cabin -- 1 although the balcony was great, not having a chair with a back ruined it
Although this is my first cruise I am a seasoned traveler. During the 80's I crisscrossed the US providing conference presentations and workshops on what we used to call "microcomputers" spurned primarily by the two books and more than one hundred professional journal articles I had published. I had a career as a librarian, collecting organizing and disseminating information. I say this because my preparations for this cruise were truly anal retentive.
The original intent was to take the fourteen day Alaskan cruise, replete with every excursion and amenity available. When I went to write the check I thought about what my pappy would say when I met him in Hell and he asked "How could you spend ten thousand dollars on yourself in two weeks." I looked at Judy, my outstanding AAA Travel Agent in Jackson, Ohio and said "I just can't spend this kind of money on myself." She understood and the hours she had spent were for naught.
Our vacations for almost twenty years have been going to Hilton Head two or three times a year. During the summer I play golf four to six days a week. At the Head The Charming Bride would go have coffee and read the paper while I played golf in the morning. Off to the beach for the afternoon and then out to dinner. I loved the ten hour drive down and back. Nirvana. My buddy Gary and I would go to Petoskey in northern Michigan. More Nirvana.
In 2008 I had a hip replaced. In 2009 I had nine hours of radical head and neck cancer surgery, leaving me with a permanent trachea tube. Other than a four day business trip to Baltimore we haven't gone anywhere since the operation.
The Charming Bride and I watched the HBO series "Treme" religiously and remarked how much we enjoyed New Orleans. After each episode of Treme we would talk about how great New Orleans had been. Walking to HS every day I passed the childhood home of Ernest Hemingway, and actually published more words in the high school newspaper (it was a goal of every staff member to "equal Ernie") than he did. As a teen I read every word he wrote and almost memorized the Carlos Baker biography. If we were going to go south again I wanted to go to Key West.
I started talking to Judy at AAA and she suggested the Carnival Conquest voyage that included two stops in the Bahamas and one in Key West with departure and return to NO. We added two days in the holy city at each end and the fearless leader bought in.
I haven't flown since 1989. I had so many bad flights, so many touch and go's, so much paranoia that I swore off taking off. I had driven to NO many times, as well taken Amtrak's City of New Orleans. I love train travel, and have been to California several dozen times on the Zephyr. My current work schedule, and stingy on vacation didn't permit another week to get to NO and return. When you are used to getting six weeks' vacation anything less gets hard to get used to. The only way I was going to make this work was to suck it up and fly.
Judy worked her magic and found us a reasonable (actually CHEAP) flight on Southwest. This meant the Charming Bride could pack her brains out because we each had two bags free. We would land in NO at 10 on Sat and leave at 5 pm on Monday. She also found us very reasonable rooms for the day before and the day after. It was all coming together nicely.
At several points in the process I spent a lot of time reading reviews, comparing prices and developing a cosmic sense of cruising. Recovery is based on honesty so I must admit I spent way too much time on this. But I am old and feeble and have lots of time on my hands. Sure the folks at Black Heart Gold Pants missed me as I surveyed every Trip Advisor entry for Freeport and Nassau and Key West. As pappy used to say, "I've been missed before."
On a personal note The Charming Bride and I do not need to be entertained every moment of the day. I do predict, perhaps as early as Tuesday some signs of kitchen utensil withdrawal on her part. As of yet I have failed to develop a game plan for this inevitability. I don't believe the proper response will be "Go to the Lido deck and get a pizza." We will find way too much pleasure sitting on a veranda and staring at the ocean. So for excursions, I wanted to experience where I was at, not where I have been. Chintz slick does little for me.
Up Up and Away
We left the house at 4:30, planning to get to the airport at 5 for our 7:50 flight. I dropped the charming bride at the departure gate
New Orleans, Before and After
One of our principle desires was to spend time in New Orleans. I would be hard pressed to choose it over San Francisco so for pabulum's sake I shall simply say they are my two favorite travel destinations.
As I mentioned earlier, I have not been to N.O. since I have been sober. My memories were of awesome food and standing on Bourbon Street with cheap cold beer and ice cold shot of Jagermeister listening to the best live music I have ever heard. I was unsure how much of this memory was alcohol induced. I also had not been there post-Katrina. I was unsure how I was going to deal with that.
Needless to say I just moved forward, letting the memories fall where they might.
We were set to arrive at 10 AM on Saturday with a Sunday evening cruise departure. I had asked Judy to avoid the monoliths downtown we always stayed in as conventioneers. Our outbound stay was going to be in the Drury Inn which was as reasonably priced as we needed. We are not fancy folks. Is the room clean? Do the TV and thermostat work? Is it convenient to what we want to do?
Judy, the Queen of AAA in Jackson, advised going on the internet to arrange the transport twixt airport and town. The king of the hill seemed to be Airport Shuttle -- New Orleans and in a few clicks had the job done, vouchers ready for the driver.
We also reserved the right to try to catch the 11;30 AM departure of the Natchez. We have enjoyed it before, and much of the motive of this trip is to do our best Jethro Tull and try living in the past. If we choose this option, it's off to the Treme when we return from the steamboat. My memory is the narration is that serves as a great review of the history.
The plan was to stash the luggage at the Hotel, then off to the Treme for lunch. We gave Willa Mae's Scotch House the nod after reading numerous reviews here. After all this is the warm up, options are acceptable.
As we rode up Canal in the cab, I was depressed looking at all the vacant lots. Those were places where people used to live. Right across the street from the restaurant was a house obviously waiting for some attention. Seems sad to me we can live in a country that can take care of victims all over the world we seem unable to take care of our own.
We hit Willa Mae's at the right time and were promptly seated. It wasn't long before there was a line out side the door waiting for a seat. Quite simply the reason was the food. The Charming Bride had the chicken, I had veal and red beans and rice. Take Me Now Jesus, it was awesome. She is much more a chicken connoisseur than I and declared it the best she had ever. After tasting it, I concurred. I will never come to the big easy without stopping her and I never would have found it had it not been for Trip Advisor.
The Charming Bride kept mentioning the restaurant with the great pork chops. Her memory is good, but the geography component is sometimes lacking. "That's NOLA" was my response "and I have been there three or four times." My memory is that I was actually there the week it opened. A couple clicks and I had a reservation for Saturday night at 8:30. I told her I had the perfect place to end our trip the following Sunday night, but in the words of the great John Dvorak, "more, later."
We ended up taking more than an hour and twenty minutes getting to the hotel AFTER boarding the airport shuttle. We wound over and back, around the through the city, actually passing our hotel twice before they dropped us off. Glad we weren't in a rush, but this eliminated the Natchez option. We checked into the very vintage and tasteful Drury and headed to Willa Maes. The folks on Trip Advisor were not wrong, the best fried chicken ever to pass my lips. I actually had the veal on the bone which gave the Charming Bride's chicken a run for it's money. The red beans and rice was the real surprise. Thirty bucks well spent. Getting a cab back was a challenge but I just pretended I was waiting for the HBO film crew.
While checking Trip Advisor, I noticed that it kept calling the Holiday Inn French Quarter" We called the hotel to make sure we had a reservation. The place was in mass confusion and they asked us to call back the next day. We did call back and indeed had a reservation, but this should have harbinger of things to come.
The weather was MISERABLE in N.O. barely in the forties in the middle of the afternoon. Any visions of hanging out in Jackson Square melted like sugar plum fairies. I actually had no sleep since Thursday (this being Saturday) so a nap was no problem.
We left the hotel a little early for our NOLA reservation. They accommodated us with no problem and we were seated on the third floor. Marvelous view of what i assumed was the bakery and porter's room. I wonder if Emile knows the porter wipes his face and pulls his hair back barehanded readying himself to lift a huge stack of plates?
I started with the Gumbo, as good as it was in 1992. Cha Ching!!! I ventured to the world of the pulled pork patty and after doing so had no wish to return to our humble surroundings. The Charming bride ventured down the path of the tilapia and had a smile wider than Bourbon Street as the result. Her dessert was a perfect finishing touch. Tax title and license and I was $140 shorter. Thank God I can't go there once a week.
Next morning we were quite satisfied with the supplied breakfast buffet at the Drury. It was above adequate, although our thoughts were tempered with heading to the Conquest where there was no anticipated recurrence of the Donner Party (part of the
The Carnival Conquest
Boarding was very simple and straightforward. Anticipatory Andy left the hotel at 12:15 not wanting to be late. We actually to go the Launchpad at 12:30 but nobody seemed to mind we were early. Although I had printed out the luggage tags, I had forgotten to actually staple them. No problem, the porter had a stapler.
I had arranged all the paperwork in a binder. At check in it was easy to retrieve our Carnival document and the birth certificates. We were in the door in less than two minutes. They let me ride the elevator. The trache has some benefits. In the airport they let me board like I was handicapped
Planning Shore Leave
If I had learned one thing in my research, it was that the Cruise Line excursions were overpriced and limited in range. One of the compliments I think Trip Advisor needs to be given is the ability to not only review, but contact and arrange activities. I also learned during one excursion that Carnival extracts a 40% tithe from the vendor for the privilege of being promoted by them.
Once I grasped the logistics, no thanks to UPS, I went to work on the excursions. They confirmed something I have always known about life, you can't make all the folks happy all the time. I used a large bag of salt to temper every opinion realizing we all reach nirvana in our own way. I developed my own form of the cruise crap meter, if something didn't have more than 80% "Excellent" or "Very Good" it probably had some issue with the masses. I still looked at them, just with two open eyes.
Excursions selection was also a lot easier for me. With a trache, swimming with the dolphins or snorkeling just ain't happenin. Walking long distances in short times is also out for the combo trache / hip KO. With the Caribbean as the destination, this removes a lot of options.
I spent a career collecting and disseminating information. Trained not only as a librarian but as a historian I have a fairly keen ability to put the variant opinions within a range and discern the average and mean deviation. It is fairly easy to tell when someone had a disagreement with a staff member and that spurned their whole opinion of an event. When someone says something is better than sliced bread, you have to wonder how long they lived on whole loaves.
Walking to HS every day I passed the childhood home of Ernest Hemingway, and actually published more words in the high school newspaper (it was a goal of every staff member to "equal Ernie") than he did. As a teen I read every word he wrote and almost memorized the Carlos Baker biography. If we were going to go south again I wanted to go to Key West, and there this would be my first stop.
I have a colleague that owns a time share, and told her as long as I got to go to Ernie's she could detail the rest of the day. She said it is obligatory to go to "Furthest South" down the street from Ernie's for the photo session. Her next vehement suggestion was to take the conch train tour. "How touristy" was my response. For the initiated, touristy is not I. "No" she replied "it will give you a good sense of the lay of the land. "
About ten days before we left for N.O. I read in a blog where someone was renting an electric car for the day. A little surfing made it clear that there were plenty of opportunities for the running dog running capitalist pigs at Southern Moist. I found the rates at Sunshine Scooters to be about $20 more than the Conch Train and there reviews on Trip Advisor were positive. When I asked my bud at work she had forgotten about the electric cars and recommended it highly.
Next she directed us to Sarabeth's for brunch. Surfing to their site got my appetite whet,, only to find they are only open Wednesday -- Sunday. Alas poor Eric, the calendar bites me again.
When informed of this clash with the holy calendar she recommended Turtle Kraals. From everything I can find on the web it looketh not like the "local joint where the fishermen eat." She then moved us to Sloppy Joe's to encourage my Hemingway fix. We finally decided to feed ourselves at
I think next I will try to make Fort Zachary Taylor. I am an avid history buff, and The Charming Bride likes these venues as well. If time or energy permits I shall wave at Harry as I pass by or perhaps stop. Having read the excellent Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford I might try to duck into the lobby of the Casa Marina.
Because the electric car gave us unlimited mobility we could keep driving by Hemingway's until the line went down, about 1:30. There was no parking, but the God's were with us. One spin around the block and there was a spot on the street directly across from the entrance.
I freely admit to be somewhat enchanted by Hemingway. No matter how I walked to High School I passed his Oak Park home. I wrote for the same school newspaper, and when relating to this story to the ticket seller he said "The Trapeze" (then name of the paper) and I replied "right answer." By the time I was 17 I had read every word he had written and actually had more words printed in the Trapeze than he did. I lamented that Carlos Baker's brilliant biography was out of print and there was a copy for $47, which I refrained from purchasing.
Understanding I had a great desire to see this place, it is the best "house" tour I have ever taken. The grounds seemed to be preserved as they were in his time. The mementos and photographs appeared extremely authentic. I felt that I truly had gone back in time.
The real charm of the tour was Loren, our guide. Although not quite the stature of Ernie, Loren being several inches short of the author, and probably weighing at least twenty pounds lighter than the wordsmith, his beard, demeanor and performance were spot on. I truly felt as though the spirit of Ernie pervaded his performance. It was truly enthralling -- from the chandeliers replacing the ceiling fans to the penny in the patio, I have no reservation recommending it and have every intention of revisiting it.
My trache limits my activities, at least in the swimming / diving / snorkeling mode so all of those venues don't even get a look. For Freeport, I read literally every all of the fifty attractions and activities admittedly skipping the snorkel / diving / pet the dolphins orientation. I kept coming back to the Bahamas Interisland Ecotours Private Day Tours . I think the thing that sold me was the Guide, Jeff Pinder, took you to his cousin's for lunch. Not that I have a Sopranos fixation with keeping it all in the family (sorry Archie Bunker) but a guy who was going to take care of his family and openly admit it scores mucho style points.
Unfortunately the snorkeling tour was the one offered for the one day I was to be in Nassau. As my sainted mother taught me, it never hurts to ask. When I emailed him about my trachea and the inability to be a water park ranger, he gladly offered to change venues for my convenience. I knew I was going to like this guy.
In the interim I have read four titles on Bahamian History and kept running into the name "Pinder." I emailed Jeff and we have already had a wonderful discussion of Bahamian history. Something tells me this is going to be a good day.
This is what I said on my TripAdvisor review
A day with Jeff Pinder and Bahamas Interisland Eco Tours definitely provides a natural alternative to the standard excursion fare. I have never had as pleasant a day and learned as much about a new culture as I have with this trip.
When I originally surfed to Pinder after finding him on TripAdvisor, his itinerary for the day was his Eco tour with snorkeling. This was out of the question for me, as I have a trachea tube and he graciously changed his schedule to accommodate me.
When we got to Freeport he was waiting for me, along with six new friends who decided to join us. The first part of the tour emphasized the history of Freeport and the structured nature of its development. We then went to the Lucayan National Park where Pinder's knowledge of the flora, fauna, and history made the place come alive. The extensive details provided about the special place Ben's cave has in the history of the island was truly moving. Even with this and my titanium hip, the walking, taken slowly, was not uncomfortable. I am thankful that at times, the group waited for this slow poke.
On the way to lunch at Diamond's & Pearl's in High rock, we stopped for the chance to see Miss Delores and purchase some of her homemade bread. This octogenarian greeted us with a charm that is unique to this island. Lunch was awesome and as instructed I replied "Muddysick" when asked about the wonderful fare provided.
In some ways I wish I could have jumped ship and spent the rest of my vacation with Jeff. I am not sure I shall ever travel to Grand Bahamas again, but if I do, I will look no further than Bahamas Interisland Eco Tours and Jeff Pinder to create my itinerary.
I can hear Bob Marley saying "You can't go to the islands man without doin' the beach man". We decided that this stop would be our white sands and blue ocean day.
We immediately ruled out the hotel scene. Atlantis is a classic Donovon song, not some over built resort. Surprisingly that rules out a good number of attractions if you include their brothers and sisters in the resort world of Paradise Island. That sort of scene may work for you, but as Chairman of the Socialist Workers Party in Jackson County, "not I" said the little red hen.
Being review conscious, we decided on Sandy Toes. Emailing made booking a snap and shazam Gomer Pyle, the shore was planned. Well almost.
About two weeks after booking they emailed saying that they had a change in plans and the excursion was not available. They offered the sandwich days, before and after, but because we were on a cruise that was not an option. That's a bummer said the drummer.
Taking the honesty approach I emailed them asking the age old question -- "If we can't do your thing, which thing should we do?" They immediately replied with some alternatives as recommendations.
The speed boats don't do anything for us. I am old, I am feeble, I like slow and steady. We tried to contact the catamaran folks, but like calling dead relatives there was no answer. . A long a time ago I worked in a boat yard, and spent a lot of time on sailboats. Speedboats are at the wrong end of the spectrum.
In an epiphany I thought, "I bet Jeff Pinder (from Freeport Eco Tours) goes to the Convention and Visitor's Bureau Christmas Party and knows a few folks from the other island" so I just emailed him. He promptly replied "Just grab a taxi and go to Saunders Beach."
Simply put, if it's good enough for Jeff, it's good enough for me. The revisionist historian wants to footnote that this opinion is subject to review.
We actually were rather exhausted from the previous two days of excursions. We slept in, Had breakfast in the dining room. Went out on souvenir patrol. Best buck I spent was asking a cabbie where I could get soda in six packs. After I gave him the buck he pointed across the street. "That liquor store." Best buck I spent in Nassau.
Reprise -- Sunday / Monday March 10th & 11th New Orleans
I am too old to rush. The Charming Bride and I decided since part of the joy was revisiting NO one of the driving forces of this endeavor, we decide another night in our favorite city would do us no harm. That way we could stroll off the boat sans press of flights. We might eat the last of the cruise food for lunch if it is available. If not we won't starve until we get to the hotel.
We were off the Conquest in about 35 minutes. Customs didn't care Bo Didley, grabbed the form then go. We got to the hotel around ten-thirty, and encountered are only problem of the trip. As I mentioned previously, the Holiday Inn had become the Wyndham. The desk clerk needed serious congeniality training, bordering on rude. "Check back in two hours."
We stashed the bags and headed up to Jackson Square. It was a push of a walk for me, but we took it slow and made the nine blocks. It was full of artists and tourists. It was as beautiful as I remember it. We wandered through the square, crossed Decatur Street and headed for Cafe Du Monde. The line was about a block long so we went back down the street finding a seat by the artillery memorial. The Charming Bride watched the street performers; I just soaked in the charm and ambiance.
We still had time to make the Natchez and were only two blocks away. We agreed we liked it so much twenty years ago and headed for the wharf. A stiff cold breeze began to blow and we realized there was would be wiser to wait for a better day. So we cut through the Jax Brewery, which looked rather down. A quick Walgreens stop for cold meds, the Charming bride was beginning to sniffle then up Decatur to the French Market.
I found a nice fountain pen. They are getting scarce and the vendor was willing to knock down the price and through in some extra refill cartridges. The Charming Bride bought some new sun glasses. I found a wonderful T-Shirt "Crawfish -- The Other White Meat". Unfortunately I let the vendor talk me down one size, my bad. We found a food stand, and had a very wonderful lunch. The Charming Bride called the Wyndham, and they did not have the room ready. She reported that the clerk was less than pleasant chanting what was to become the refrain for the day "Your room is not guaranteed until 4 PM".
We hopped a cab back to the hotel around 2:30, praying there was a room. Again Miss Congeniality sang the "Your room is not guaranteed until 4 PM". We knew we were beat and went next to the bar. Luckily the B1G tournament was on and we could watch basketball, something the Charming Bride enjoys. Indeed at 4PM they had a room. My concern is not their room policy, which I accepted, but the lack of tact of their staff.
The room was actually above expectation, with a large sitting room, separate sleeping area, clean and well appointed. Unfortunately it did not make up for new song we learned in New Orleans "Your room is not guaranteed until 4 PM".
One place I have never taken the Charming Bride is our dinner stop -- Commander's Palace. It was the best meal I have ever had in my life. I wasn't surprised when Trip Advisor had it as the 3rd of 1,009. (NOLA was only 36th on the list.) restaurants in New Orleans. We took a cab and arrived early.
This may sound weird, but there is no way to describe the fare at Commander's Palace. It is so good it defies description. Twenty years ago it was the best meal I ever had, and this evening proved no different. We shared Spicy Shrimp Remoulade and were ready for rapture. The gumbo is better than sex. Her fish was so good it can't be described. My veal, cooked as roast wanted to make me ask forgiveness. The pecan pie was better than I remember it. This trip to heaven cost $170, but gladly paid.
The last day was to be kicked back wait for the plane say goodbye to New Orleans. We checked the bags and just went next door to the restaurant/bar with the Wyndham. The reasonably priced American comfort breakfast was well done.
We hopped a cab to the WWII museum. I believe it was oringally the D-Day museum, and for a good reason. The man who built the landing craft, Higgins, was a New Orleans businessman. Regardless the half hour wait to get in the doors was worth it. Thank God it was only rainy and cold,
I participate in a vibrant online community, perhaps spending more time there than I should. I thought there would be a similar platform for the cruise, unfortunately I was substantially disappointed.
The Carnival Blog isn't worth the bandwidth that delivers it. There is no content of value, and the Grateful Dead were right when they intoned "death don't have no mercy in this land."
The Cruise Critic board was very vibrant, unfortunately it is like the worst of Facebook, Twitter and voice mail from your ex-wife rolled up in one. I only started a Facebook page because my daughter wanted me to. I rarely visit it. To me these sites are like sixth grade. I quit worrying how many friends I had in sixth grade. The Facebook crowd was still there.
I did find one immensely helpful tip, about electric cars in Key West, that had I not muddled through the amassing muck would have left me on the Conch Train.
Having said all that, I did meet several interesting folks at the meet and greet hosted by the blog,
TIME IN THE DIGITAL LIBRARY
I like to know a little about where I am going. When I was young mother would check out the WPA State Guides from the library. As we drove along she would read from them. I got in the habit, and over the years acquired quite a number of them from library used book sales.
For this journey I returned to my faithful friend Amazon. Initially the plan was to get a travel guide or two and several history books. My undergraduate major was "The Teaching of History Through Film and Literature" (it was the early 70's, we wrote our own majors, it was cool) which trained me to be fairly effective in evaluating and balancing sources. A career as a librarian only reinforced this process. Having written and published my own newsletter, two books on library computing and more than two hundred software reviews I dove into the searches.
It would describe the results as slim pickings. I had no interest in going down to the Jackson City Library and interlibrary loaning any tomes. If it wasn't online and preferably downloadable I wasn't interested.
So in the order in which they were acquired, here is my reading list.
Bahamas by Justin Dodge Even For a Buck, It's Not Worth It
The Bahamas in American History by Keith Tinker
Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Crew Member: Answers to All the Questions Every Passenger Wants to Ask by Joshua Kinser
Cruise Ship Tricks [article] by K. Harper
I am glad we went, and despite not having a chair with a back in the cabin, the overall mediocre food on the Conquest - primarily the result of expectations - we had a great time in the ports of call.