We drove from Dallas to Baton Rouge, the week after the record-setting ice storm. It was the first time we had sailed from New Orleans and Baton Rouge seemed like a simpler, cheaper place to stay the night before. The drive from Baton Rouge into New Orleans was easy on a Saturday morning, light traffic, sunny sky. We parked in the city lot ($80 in advance) and were onboard within an hour. The parking garage seems safe and clean and the process was no worse than Galveston or Miami. We probably just had good luck getting on board so quickly, but it does make the whole trip seem more fun when you get on quickly.
We were on the Empress deck, cabin 7201, which other people on CrusieCritic have asked about. This cabin is tiny, with basically just a queen bed (made from two twins), a small desk and a TV: no fridge, no couch, not even a chair! However, since the cabin is in the extreme bow of the ship, directly under the bridge, the "obstructed view" involved our own "private deck", wrapped around the entire front of the ship, with discreet doors on either end. A few other passengers eventually wandered around "our" deck, but the lack of chairs and drink service kept the place mostly for us. So the good thing was the "private" deck but the bad thing was the tiny size of the cabin itself. The window in the cabin is one-way glass, so you can see out but people walking by on the deck outside cant see in. Still, this is a little weird at first, if you are used to your own balcony. There were five deck chairs roped down on "our" deck, which we set up and used throughout the cruise. There is even an ashtray out there, if you like cigars after dinner. Considering we paid for an inside cabin, having this big, nice (although public) deck right outside our window was great. And this section of the boat is very, very quiet, and vibration-free.
Launch at 4pm was delayed and we stood on the bow outside our cabin, right under an enormous bridge in New Orleans, for an hour watching ships sail by. As the Triumph fired up and began her turn into the Mississippi, two brightly-lit paddlewheel boats floated by, one playing a genuine Scott Joplin rag tune on a real caliope, as dusk flickered down and we steamed into the river. (The one playing the music was the Creole Queen.)
It takes several hours to leave the Mississippi River, before the ship enters the Gulf. We hoped to stay outside and watch this part of the trip but night got too cold, too fast. We could see the lights along the river banks from inside the dining room, though, and we will definitely sail out of NO again when it is warmer, to watch the river banks go by in the summer.
Day one at sea was cold: February is still winter on the Gulf of Mexico. We tried laying out in the sun a bit but mostly slept and roamed the ship. We ended up with the equivalent of own private table at dinner, a comfortable booth designed for four which we had to ourselves every night. Dinner in the dining room is a different experience when there are only two of you: you can eat and talk at your own pace, and the service was wonderful every night. ("Table" was actually booth #358 in the lower Paris diningroom, early seating.)
Day two was Progreso. We had been here several times before, so no excursions, just the free bus shuttle into the town and shopping. (The city bus tour is fun, though, if you havent been here before. Its cheap, it only takes an hour and you see the lighthouse, the length of the beach and the church, all on an open-air double decker bus. Worth the price, but just buy a ticket in the mercado- no need to book an excursion.) The town is still charming, small and clean, with a lovely beach full of brown pelicans and girls offering massages. We roamed through the mercado, watched the fisherman bring in the catch of snapper, sipped Coronas with lime slices in bottles, got sand in our sandals on the beach. The free bus drops you off in front of the central mercado: lots of inexpensive stuff, and LOTS cheaper than Cozumel. We found some really pretty sea glass necklaces, laced with shells and stones in the packed central market. Too many tourists to get a good price? The green necklace was the only one like it- and started at $48 but once I carefully pulled out my wrinkled ten dollar bill and my wrinkled five dollar bill, looking regretful and beginning to walk slowly away...I got it for $15. The ploy of being penniless and wistful worked this time (but nowhere else on this trip.) I couldn't bargain the hard-nosed lady at the pier down at all and paid full price ($20) for a spectacular woven tablecloth. Gorgeous colors, though, and lots of other cheap stuff right on the pier: beach bags, coffee, hats, blankets, etc
It was Valentines Day so dinner in the ship dining room was lobster and sirloin, with red carnations delivered to all the girls. The towel creatures were swans, entwined. We had a formal picture taken for $20, drank free champagne and listened to an amazingly good jazz quartet. How could Vday get any better?
(The jazz combo practiced in the Venice lounge every afternoon and we kept going down to listen to them. The sax player was astonishing: no sheet music, several different sax's, amazing musician)
Day three was Cozumel: perfect turquoise water, tidy little beach, nice wifi cafe on the waterfront. (Cafe Punta del Cielo is in the center of the new pier area. They charge $4 for an hour of wifi internet access with comfortable chairs and strong coffee. Lots of ship staff were there checking their email.)
We have wandered the real streets of Cozumel so many times that we opted out for just a stroll through the new pier shops and a nap under the rustling palms on the waterfront, watching the brave souls attempt parasailing and speed boat racing while we drowsed in the sun. The breeze was still cool: it is still winter in most of the world. But not here, since it was in the low 80s. Los Cinco Soles was having a pottery sale, so I splurged and spent $10 for a nice glazed fruit bowl. The best part about driving versus flying is you can haul home heavy, delicate stuff that would never survive being packed on a plane. Kahlua was cheaper here than in Progreso, surprisingly: we spent $19 for two of the big bottles.
Day four at sea: going north again, the breeze colder, the light starting to dim. No one could stay outside in the sun for very long since it only got to 60 degrees. People from Minnesota were laying out on deck chairs by the pool in the sun in their ski pants, just to feel the rays one more time before going home.
The food is always nice on Carnival. We liked the mushroom soup, fresh rolls with real butter, crème brulee, well-done flat iron steaks, baked potatoes, asparagus soup, chocolate melting cake, lobster tails, pasta with shrimp, deli sandwiches, enormous chef salads from the Lido, lemonaid, raspberry danish and mushroom omelettes for breakfast, frozen yogurt, 3 pounds of fresh Valentines Day chocolates, grilled burgers, Earl Grey from bags, barbeque ribs, mango ice cream, raspberry cake with icing.
For an inexpensive way to escape winter and celebrate Valentines Day, this was an ideal low-budget trip. Driving meant we controlled our schedule (better than flying in winter conditions), the cost of visiting the two ports was almost nothing and we found nice souvenirs for cheap. Cabin 7201 was fun if you dont need much room and the 5-day schedule leaving on Saturday meant we only missed three days of work. We have sailed on Carnival 8 times before and this was one of our favorite trips.