When Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sun departs in 12 days for the first of its seasonal Western Caribbean cruises, the moment will bear far more significance than the usual send-off. That's because the sailing, leaving Sunday, October 15, heralds New Orleans' return to full-time, full-season cruising. Though other ships have visited the port for a day here or there since the horrific damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, Norwegian Sun is the first ship to begin a homeport run.

Norwegian Sun will soon be joined by other ships, such as Carnival's Fantasy, which will sail four- and five-night trips, and Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas, which will offer a series of seven-nighters. Princess' Golden Princess will also sail a series of voyages from New Orleans (though it won't homeport a ship here -- at least this year).

While our updated port profile -- and a brand-new Big Easy mini-break -- will be launched in the next few weeks, we wanted to offer a preliminary primer on changes in New Orleans since the last time folks (most likely) embarked on a cruise from its port.

Each ship's inaugural departure will feature a dock-side celebration, complete with live jazz band, courtesy of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The same folks are enticing cruise travelers to stick around before -- or after -- their voyage. New discount packages offering deals on hotels, restaurants, tours and more, are on tap; sample deals include a $129 room rate plus free parking for the duration of your cruise from French Quarter Chateau LeMoyne (part of the Holiday Inn chain) and a $5 discount on New Orleans' celebrated ghost tour, among others (click here for more).

An open-air "block party" style mall opened last week on Fulton St. -- just in time for incoming cruisers. The area is within walking distance of the port, and features restaurants, shops and a brand-new hotel and casino: the 26-story, 450-room Harrah's New Orleans. The downtown Harrah's, which opened on September 22, is the first completely new hotel to open in the city since Hurricane Katrina.

To recap the redeployment announcements Cruise Critic's news team has covered over the past year, here's a helpful timeline:

On October 15: Norwegian Sun sails its first cruise from New Orleans. The seven-night voyages call at Costa Maya, Cozumel, Belize City and Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala. This is a seasonal homeport; for the 2007/2008 winter season, NCL has announced it will replace Norwegian Sun with Norwegian Spirit.

On October 26: Carnival's Fantasy (replacing Sensation, which previously sailed year-round from New Orleans) begins its season of four- and five-night cruises. Four-nighters call at Cozumel while five-night trips add a stop at Costa Maya. Beginning in the fall of 2007, Carnival will add a second year-round ship to the mix: the 102,000-ton, 2,758-passenger Carnival Triumph.

On December 2: Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas launches its New Orleans-based voyages. The ship will sail seven-night cruises calling at Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Costa Maya.

On December 16: Princess Cruises' Golden Princess visits New Orleans for a seasonal stay; the ship will offer three seven-night cruises that call at Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Montego Bay.

Smaller ships such as RiverBarge's River Explorer, Swan Hellenic's Minerva II, Delphin Renaissance and P&O's Arcadia have already paid a visit to the Big Easy.

Tip: Have specific questions about your New Orleans-based cruise, such as where to park or where to stay? One lucky woman, Tourism Sales Manager Leslie Straughan, is on call specifically for you -- and we've got her direct number. Call 800-748-8695, extension 5018 (and tell her Cruise Critic sent you).

--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor