This trip was planned more than a year in advance, to give myself a tropical getaway, inspired by the atrocious blizzard-a-week winter of 2010-11. (Of course, the winter in which the trip actually took place has hardly been a winter at all, with temps hitting a freakish 30 degrees above normal within two weeks of my return to Massachusetts! But no matter...)
As with any pretty much any cruise I take, despite having favorite lines, it always comes down to itinerary for me in the end. I had been to Cozumel before-- nearly every cruise to the western Caribbean hits that port-- but the others on the list were all new to me, despite numerous previous trips to the Caribbean basin. I could just as easily have gone from Tampa on the Star, visiting the same ports-- but the opportunity to make it a "two-fer", by starting and ending the trip from New Orleans, made the choice of the Spirit a no-brainer. I had long wanted to spend a few days in the city, and this was my first time there.
This was not my first time on this ship, however-- in the first part of Feb 2006, I enjoyed an 11-night cruise to the Caribbean on the Norwegian Spirit, including Dominica, Grenada, Antigua, and Tortola / Virgin Gorda, all round-trip out of NYC. That was the first trip in which the CC Roll Call message boards played a part; I spent my time ashore sharing rides and costs with my new Roll Call friends, and I'm still in touch with some of them. A number of the message board posters on this 2012 trip, the one I'm reviewing here, had done the same western Caribbean itinerary on the Spirit at the same time the year before, and liked it so well that this was their second time around. As you'll see, I found their advice about activities ashore very useful. (Since the Star will be doing this itinerary next year, as the Spirit moves to Europe to stay, I hope my review will at least help people in regard to the ports.)
I flew down to New Orleans on Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. This was deliberate on my part-- I figured I'd have a lot easier time enjoying the city's fabled food, music, history and architecture after the crowds of drunken, screaming, puking frat boys had gone home. Shared shuttle-- $20-- from the airport to the hotel. Not long after booking the cruise, I had booked a room (via hotels.com, $118/nt) at the Country Inn and Suites French Quarter. It's actually in the warehouse district, at Magazine & Gravier a couple of blocks south of the Quarter, but perfectly located for cruisers and nice and quiet. The hotel was converted from half-a-dozen old buildings, all with their own different-colored facades on the street, and thus has some changes of level along the corridors on the upper floors. There's a complimentary breakfast, newspapers, plunge pool, exercise room, lobby internet and wi-fi, and the rooms also have wi-fi, irons and boards, microwaves and fridges.
I succeeded in carrying out my plan to eat my way across the city, threatening to fatten up even BEFORE reaching all those buffets onboard. On Wed, a few hours after arriving, I was having dinner nearby at Herbsaint, which I'd heard good things about, and I certainly was not disappointed.
I spent Thurs and Fri exploring the French Quarter, partly wandering randomly, partly using the self-guided walking tour clipped from my AAA guidebook. Thurs afternoon I had a wonderful lunch in the French Quarter at Bayona, which I had seen just the day before on television, as celebrity chef Mario Batali made a pilgrimage to eat there. I reckoned if HE likes it that much, it's gotta be worth my while! Speaking of celebrities, I found myself just a couple of tables away from famed local hero Harry Shearer (who, in addition to being an extremely funny guy in his own right, is best known as the man behind dozens of character voices on "The Simpsons"-- including Mr Burns, his toady Smithers, Principal Skinner, newscaster Kent Brockman, Otto the stoner school-bus driver, etc.)
On Thurs night I enjoyed another great meal, including the best seafood gumbo of the trip, at Emeril's, which was in the warehouse district a few blocks upriver from the hotel. On Fri night I had dinner at G W Fins, another French Quarter eatery, and again the result of a late tip: about 36 hrs before my flight down, I chatted with the guy representing the wines being served at a local (Western Mass.) wine dinner. Figuring that a man in his position must get to eat in a LOT of good restaurants, I asked him if he had any recommendations for a visit to New Orleans, and he said that years later, he still recalled the seafood at G W Fins as some of the best he'd ever had. The name may make it sound like a third-rate chain eatery, but it turns out to be the most popular / highly recommended restaurant in NOLA on Tripadvisor, and with good reason. Again, a superb meal.
I had come down with a cold just before leaving for Louisiana, and despite bombing it into submission with Cold-Eeze zinc lozenges (startlingly effective-- I NEVER travel without them!) I was now being plagued by a leftover post-nasal-drip-induced cough. I began treating it with a combination of Robitussin and cheap whiskey, and quickly felt a LOT better.
On Saturday, I took the iconic St Charles Avenue streetcar (a buck-twenty-five each way) about three miles upriver to the Garden District, where I again relied on the pages of the AAA guide for a self-guided walking tour-- all carefully timed to break at 11:30 for my reservation for the famed Jazz Brunch at Commander's Palace, a big bright-blue structure so impossible to miss that it's part of that walking tour. (It's also right across the street from one of the city's picturesque cemeteries, with their characteristic above-ground tombs made necessary by the high water table.) The signature turtle soup was mighty tasty, but the seared redfish was as good a dish as I had the whole time in New Orleans. For dessert, another wonderful signature dish-- the bread pudding souffle. I had one of their excellent cocktails with my soup course, but I couldn't help but notice that some other patrons seemed to be enjoying some sort of bottomless Bloody Mary, their glasses periodically refreshed by waiters bearing a bottle of vodka frozen into a grapefruit-sized chunk of ice. The musicians rove from room to room in the restaurant, asking patrons if they have any requests. I told them that a cough had been making me feel like death warmed over, so how about a little "St James' Infirmary", maybe with a bar of Chopin's Funeral March thrown in at the end? They obliged me, expertly-- I think they were also glad not to have yet another request for "When the Saints Go Marchin' In".
After lunch, and wrapping up the last couple of blocks of the walking tour, I took the streetcar back to the warehouse district, and took a leisurely stroll toward the riverfront along Julia St, which is lined with art galleries. It also served as a sort of dry run for the next day, since the ship docked at the foot of Julia St.
That night, I got together with about 20 other message board posters at Mulate's, a casual, barnlike Cajun place, (complete with live music and dancing, at least the night we were there) also right at the foot of Julia St. Mardi Gras beads and other trinkets were passed around, plus lots of tasty fried goodies. This was the first of the organized activities put together by Chrissy and Brian, the couple on the roll call who'd also arranged our onboard meet-and-greet.
Late Sunday morning, with four fellow roll-call posters, we taxied ($7 per person) down to the pier. As past NCL passengers, we were given a low number for earlier boarding; they began letting passengers on at noon, and I was aboard by 12:30. My cabin was still a long way from being ready, and my room steward seemed harried, (remember, "turnaround day" is always the worst for these poor guys!) but no problem; the lunch buffet beckoned. A planned casual get-together right after the muster drill, at the Biergarten bar area topside, was pretty much of a blowout, literally; the wind was up, it was 57 degrees, and spitting misty rain.
I unpacked as we sailed out. I had a cabin down on deck 4-- standard size, but with a porthole rather than a picture window. The beds are a lot more comfortable since the ship was freshened up a few years back, though I was surprised they hadn't taken the opportunity to remove those awful wall murals from the inside cabins. The tv's are flatscreens now, but pretty blurry. The vessel, which made her debut in 1998, doesn't show her age much, but the occasional cranky behavior by the vacuum-powered cabin toilets is one exception. (A ship's age always shows up in the plumbing first!)
Before and after dinner that evening, I had a chance to sample some of the entertainers who played in the lounge areas at various times, most of whom I thought were very talented. (I caught only bits and pieces of the headline acts in the main show theater, but the duo of Cirque du Soleil-trained acrobats, and the "Elements" show were both got high praise from the other passengers.) There was the usual selection of good recent movies, such as "Moneyball", available on cabin tv-- sometimes shown in the theater as well-- and I appreciated that any given film would be shown several times on different days, since you might have missed it the first (or second) time around.
I found service onboard to be uniformly fine, and that the Spirit lived up to her reputation as a "happy ship". As for dining, there were a few missteps, but I don't understand the complaints some people voice about "terrible" food. Since every cruise line has a large contingent of people from the Indian subcontinent in the kitchen, Indian dishes are always authentic and delicious-- the buffet had some available daily. Even the salad bar setup impressed me-- I could put together a salad as nice as what I would make for myself at home, with spinach, redleaf, arugula, frisee, radicchio, parmesan, etc, and dress it with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I had two dinners at Le Bistro during the trip; the $20 charge is less than most other cruise lines charge for an experience of similar quality, and they reduced it to $15 on multiple nights to encourage people to try it. VERY worth the small splurge, as I'll detail shortly. The wine list has grown, and includes some high-end bottles. (I brought a nice bottle of my own onboard, purchased in New Orleans; NCL levies a $15-per-bottle corkage fee, even if you open and consume it in your cabin, but I saved mine for that first dinner in Le Bistro.)
Mon the 27th: A day at sea. Our message-board group gathered in Henry's Pub for the Meet & Greet in the morning, drawing a good number of people who hadn't made it to the dinner on land on Saturday night. Various hotel department heads, and the cruise director, stop by to introduce themselves, giving everyone a notecard full of their phone numbers if we have any questions, requests or issues. The sun is out, temperatures are quickly climbing through the 70's, and although we're sailing right into a 20 mph headwind, the wind and waves settle down as the day progresses.
Tues the 28th: Costa Maya / Mahahual...Just a perfect beach day-- air at 85, sea at 80, and with a strong breeze, 25-30 mph. (Strong enough to make docking tricky, in fact, since it's trying to push the ship off the pier.) The area by the dock is one of those walled "villages" created just for cruise ship tourists, with swimming pools and all sorts of "shopportunities". A ride from this compound two miles south to "downtown" Mahahual, the center of the two-mile-long beach area, is $5 round-trip-- $3 down and $2 on the way back, plus any tip. Following the suggestion of some of the message board posters, I joined the six or eight others from my group who had already reserved places for themselves in advance, and went online to hold a spot for myself at the Tropicante, one of what must be dozens of such places along the beachfront walk. (I don't think a reservation was really vital on that day-- but then, we happened to be the only ship in port, and 2000 passengers ain't nearly enough to fill those 2 miles of beachside restaurants and clubs.) This one has the advantage of being just steps from the spot where you're dropped off, but whichever place you choose, they all have their own lounge chairs and tables and umbrellas and shade trees, and as soon as someone comes along and takes a seat, the waiter for that establishment will bring them a menu. No charge for the lounge chair, but since people nearly always want some food and drink, it works out well for everybody. This being Mexico, the beers are about a third of what they cost on the ship. I had some very good shrimp fajitas and a frozen margerita, followed up by a little hazlenut gelato from a cafe a few minutes' walk south along the malecon.
Having heard that this was a night with a reduced charge for Le Bistro, I arranged to have dinner there with a couple from our group. Like me, he's a bit of a "wino", who'd brought along a bottle of a favorite California pinot noir of his; I brought my bottle of Gigondas, which paired perfectly with the restaurant's superb lamb chops. The tatin (apple) dessert was the best of its kind I can recall. A great time was had by all, and we immediately began plotting our next visit to Le Bistro!
Wed Feb 29th: "Leap Day"! Belize-- The waters off Belize City are shallow, so ships stay about 3.5 miles offshore; local ferries make the run in under 15 minutes. The day is pretty well taken up by an excursion I booked privately w cavetubing.com, which two other couples in our group had gone with last year and praised highly; one of the couples was doing it again this year. (This outfit also gets top ratings on the web.) The crew were loud, friendly, and funny. You get more (two caves, followed by an additional half-hour floating "down a lazy river", with lovely scenery throughout) for less ($45 per person-- they prefer to be paid in cash-- US dollars, in fact. The cruise line's excursion would run you about double that, I think.) The hike to the entry point is about a mile-and-a-half, but nearly all flat, and well-shaded. You carry your big inner tube on the walk, but it doesn't weigh much-- I wore mine like a sun hat most of the way! (For the lazy, the guides will carry up to four tubes at once!) Once you're on the river, it's shallow enough for the guide to pull your particular group of eight (tubes clipped together) along as he strides through the water, describing the passing features as he goes. You also get a head-mounted LED light for the cave portions, which each run close to a mile. When a shallow rapids area is just ahead, they shout, "Butts up!", signaling everyone to straighten out their bodies; in fact, it's their motto, printed on their souvenir T-shirts!
You leave the river near the start of the earlier hike in-- just a minute's walk from the parking area, dropping off your tube and life vest (and in my case, water shoes rented for $3) before a quick trip to the shower / changing rooms and re-boarding the bus. Then it was off to a covered pavilion for a delicious lunch of chicken tamales, (a vegetarian option is also available) included in your tab. (I also sprang for a tasty Belizian beer-- $3) It's about one hour, mostly on fast straight roads, back to Belize City. True, this town won't win any beauty contests, but then, most Caribbean ports wouldn't; I've seen places that looked way worse on previous cruises.
Thurs March 1st: Roatan-- The unfortunately named main town of Coxen Hole (cue the sniggering twelve-year-old boys) is closer to the things I'm seeing and doing than the Mahogany Bay area used by Carnival and its subsidiaries. As in the prior ports, I followed the lead of another message board poster, and booked privately with South Shore Tours, again a highly rated outfit, for their "Zip-and-Dip" combo-- ziplining at their facility, followed by two-and-a-half hours at Roatan's most highly-rated beach and snorkeling site, West Bay Beach, a.k.a. Tabyana. ($55, including a nice rum drink when you get to the beach; I paid in advance by credit card, and printed out a voucher to bring with me.) Everything is within a few minutes' drive of the pier. South Shore was at kiosk #2 after you exit the terminal. The ziplining course was beautiful in its own right, criss-crossing a jungle valley with ocean views, and the crew encourages you to try tricks, like "flying" or upside-down poses, for photo ops. (They ride along with you if you want to try those.)
At the beach, we were left at a club called Foster's, where I got a bit of lunch. I then headed down to the other end of the beach, by the Infinity Bay resort, where I find a man with a boat on the little pier who offers me a ride out to a "beauty spot" above the reef ideal for snorkeling. (I brought my own mask & snorkel; he has a safety vest, and dashes onto the beach to get me some fins that will fit my big feet.) In retrospect, I should have gone down to this end of the beach first, and let the lunch wait-- it would have been cheaper to join in on a group rather than be the only passenger in his boat-- but even though I spent a bit more than I needed to, I wouldn't have wanted to risk missing this. The water was crystal-clear, the coral was gorgeous, and all sorts of colorful fish were swimming around, their numbers enhanced as my driver tossed a little food in the water near me, generating an instant swarm-- it was like being in an aquarium! No wonder Roatan is known for having some of the best snorkeling and diving in the hemisphere.
Fri the 2nd: San Miguel, Cozumel-- There were seven or eight other ships in port, many of them with one-and-a-half (Mariner) or even three times our passenger load, (Allure) so I figure there will be about 22,000 people coming ashore...unless they just stay onboard and enjoy their umbrella drinks in a quieter setting. I leave the ship before 10am, with no definite plan in mind other than looking to share a ride to one of the various beachfront resorts near the port. As in Costa Maya, there's no charge to use the facilities at nearly all of these places, since it's assumed you'll buy some food and drinks while you're there. In the crowded downtown terminal area where we (and the Norwegian Star, out of Tampa) are docked, I spot a local holding a sign up leading a group toward the parking lot; his sign says something about a beach excursion. When I catch up to the front, I ask him if he has room, and he does. For just $20, (I think it's usually 25, but he had enough people in the van to mark it down a bit) we got a ride to and from the Cozumel Caribe resort about 3 miles north of the center of town, and complimentary use of snorkeling gear (you just have to sign a legal release form.) There's a swimming pool, rest rooms to change in, and a nice big bar and restaurant area under cover. I had a very tasty daily special of grilled octopus, and some sort of daiquiri. The snorkeling, in a rope-marked area closest to shore, couldn't match Roatan-- less actual coral, and fewer fish-- but was still enjoyable. Despite the huge number of cruise passengers in town, this place was only half-full. Another relaxing beach day, and at minimal expense. Back in town, the driver stopped a few blocks north of the pier to let off anyone wishing to do a little shopping before returning to the ship.
Sat the 3rd: day at sea-- Our group met in the morning in the casino for a slot-machine pull: we all chipped in nine bucks, then took turns pulling the lever, waiting for that giant jackpot in which we would all share. And yet, it never arrived-- astonishing! Oh well.
I returned to Le Bistro for a second outstanding dinner, this time in the company of a Wisconsin couple who had retired from teaching. (Having accumulated the most total points, we had won little prize bags after a week of 6pm "progressive trivia" competitions held in the Champagne bar overlooking the lobby, so why not celebrate a bit?) Then off to the cabin to pack up-- WHAT? It's already over?! Oh, poop...
Sun the 4th: Back in New Orleans-- Parting is such sweet sorrow, but the blow is softened by the fact that my onboard tab exceeds the $155 onboard credit provided by my travel agent by a mere five bucks. Carrying off my own luggage, I'm off by around 8:40am. Rather than shell out 30 bucks just to have my luggage taken to the airport for my 3:15 flight, I drag it a couple of blocks to a nearby hotel, which stores it for a few hours for no charge other than my tip to the bellman when I retrieve it. I head to the World War II Museum a few blocks away, where I spend a few hours taking in the fascinating and moving exhibits. ($20 admission)
I get a cab ($33, plus tip) to the airport, where I indulge in one last bowl of seafood gumbo at Jester's Express.
All in all, I so enjoyed this trip that like some of the folks I met through the message board group, who were on their second annual go-round, I plan to book it again, "same time next year". The ship will be only a little different...and it's this wonderful itinerary, New Orleans included, that is drawing me back.