Saturday, March 2, 2013


We checked out of the Travel Best Inn around ten on a blustery and cloudy Saturday morning. New Orleans was in the throes of a winter cold front and it was depressing as hell. The forecasted high was 48 degrees – about the same as Baltimore.

The cab picked us up in front of the motel as our young wrestling buddies pounded carbs and headed for the mats.

Our cab driver was a very well-spoken and interesting fellow from Honduras who was trying to move his family to the US to escape the drug cartels that kidnap children to feed the thriving market for fresh human body parts. The next time you think this country is nuts, remember that one.

I asked him whether New Orleans had finally recovered from Hurricane Katrina and he said, “Well, they rebuilt what they wanted to keep. But some of the low spots, like over in the Ninth Ward, are still abandoned.”

I suggested that rebuilding where it was going to flood again was probably not a wise move and he agreed.

“It must have taken an army of construction workers to clean up the mess and put the city back together after Katrina,” I suggested.

Our driver chuckled. “Yep, we had half of Mexico and Latin America up here for a few years. Every construction site was filled with Latinos doing the hard labor and the local rednecks supervising. And as soon as all the work was finished, the Immigration Police started rounding up all the illegals at the Home Depots and then shipped them back home.”

The Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise ships leave from the River Walk shopping mall at the base of Canal Street where the 1984 World’s Fair was held, right next door to the Convention Center and the giant warehouse complex where they build the Mardi Gras floats. It’s on all the city tours. But given that Fat Tuesday had exploded less than a week before, the place was looking pretty empty and forlorn.

In order to speed up the boarding process, Royal Caribbean encourages you to register on-line, and once you have completed the reservation forms they tell you to arrive at one, about three hours before the ship leaves the dock. We knew from our last cruise that they will actually let you board around ten thirty. Once all of the passengers from the previous cruise have disembarked at ten, they immediately start reloading. They are still cleaning the ship and, most importantly, the staterooms, but they will let you come aboard and do some exploring or lounge around the pool until your room is ready.

This time we just carried our luggage aboard with us – no muss, no fuss. If your bags can fit into the x-ray machine, you’re good to go. We were scoped and scanned along with our bags and then we headed over to the final checkpoint where we received our Sea Pass. This is a blue and gold credit card that you use to charge everything your heart desires during the voyage, and gets you on and off the boat at each stop. Essentially it’s your passport and line of credit – one little handy-dandy piece of plastic. The whole boarding procedure took about thirty minutes and by eleven, we were drinking beers by the pool and staring down at New Orleans like excited children.

My closest friends from my days at the Grand Canyon, Larry and TC, who had recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service, were joining us for what would be their first cruise, and by the time we were settling into our room they called us on our cell to say they were standing on the dock below in the world’s longest line. We, of course, had avoided all that crap by coming aboard early. Plus, we had our bags. Live and learn.

I still can’t really wrap my brain around the fact that our ship, the Navigator of the Seas, leaves New Orleans every Saturday with over 3,000 paying customers and a crew of over 1,000, sails around the Caribbean for a week, and then arrives back in New Orleans the following Saturday, says goodbye to the slightly dazed and sunburned cruisers, cleans everything from stem to stern in the course of a few hours, loads the boat with food and fuel, and then does it all again, and again, and again. I don’t care what you do for work. I don’t care how hard it is, or how complex. Nothing rivals this business plan. It’s akin to going to war every week.
And I can’t possibly express how difficult the life of the crew is. They sign eight month contracts and never get a day off. They work endless shifts. They share a room the size of the average American bathroom with a total stranger who may not even speak the same language. They are all “Yes, Sir” and “Hello, Sir” whenever and wherever you encounter them. And they always do it with a smile.

A lot has recently been said about the cruel conditions these young men and women – and this is definitely a young person’s job, for sure – endure. After the Carnival Cruise disaster, tearing at the dark underbelly of the cruise ship industry has become a sort of blood sport. But I talked to a lot of folks from almost fifty nations who worked on the ship, and while most admitted theirs was a tough road to hoe, they also said it was a great opportunity to escape their home countries where there were limited opportunities, and they got to see the world.

I’ll be coming back to the internal nuts and bolts of the boat scene during the course of the next few days, but I want to say right up front that the people who toil on cruise ships work their asses off under tough conditions, but most feel like it’s a step up – maybe a small step – but it’s better than the place they left. No one is forced to work aboard a cruise ship.

After hooking up with Larry and TC, we began exploring the ship. Much of the cool stuff is on Deck 5, where the Royal Promenade is located. There are shops and kiosks all dressed up to look like a fancy little commercial street. You can buy anything from very expensive jewelry to a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone. And the Royal Promenade changes color based on the time of day and the various events occurring on the ship. In addition, there’s the Connoisseur Club, Vintages Wine Bar, the Champagne Bar, Two Poets Pub, Ixtapa Lounge, Swan Lake formal dining room, and the CafĂ© Promenade that serves free Seattle’s Best coffee and snacks 24-7.

There are several elegant stairways leading to the deck below where there is the Mardi Gras-themed Casino Royale, Boleros Lounge, Schooner Bar, the Dungeon DJ Dance Hall, and the Coppelia dining room.

On Deck 3 there is an art and photo gallery, Studio B ice rink, and the Nutcracker dining room.

The real action takes place up on Deck 11, where there’s the main pool, pool bar where bands play throughout the day, multiple Jacuzzis, a solarium with its own sea-water filled pools and hot tubs, a state-of-the-art gym, Navigator Day Spa, Sea Trek Dive Shop, the Peek-a-Boo Bridge where you can watch the Captain do his thing, the Island Grill, Portofino, the Chops Grille, and the sprawling Windjammer cafeteria where they serve free buffet-style meals from dawn ‘til nine at night.

On Deck 12, there’s a jogging & walking track, climbing wall, miniature golf course, Adventure Ocean, basketball & volleyball courts, Sky Bar, the Johnny Rockets diner, Challenger’s Arcade, Living Room (Teen Area), and Fuel: Teen Disco. Cruise ships go out of their way to cater to young folks with tricked-out arcades and fun programs, and while it seems a bit off-putting at first to see all the youngsters running around, most of them are like little toys and it really is quite nice. Frankly, I can’t even imagine how cool a cruise would be for a kid – sort of like living for a week in a sugar-packed amusement park.

Deck 14 is as high as you can go, and there you will find the chapel, 19th Hole bar, Cloud 9, the Viking Crown Card Lounge, and the Cosmopolitan jazz bar that crowned the ship like a white flying saucer with tinted green windows.

Brightly-carpeted stairways and etched glass elevators connect all of the decks.

And for those who think cruise ships are all glitzy glitter, that’s utter nonsense. The Navigator of the Seas showcases over 2,000 pieces of art worth $8.5 million dollars. Navigator’s main Centrium sculpture spans over seven stores and is based on the bubbles a scuba diver makes when swimming under water.

Before leaving the dock we were required to attend a safety drill in the Mayan-themed Ixtapa Lounge where they explained what was expected of us in the case of an emergency. If you hear seven or more short blasts on the ship's whistle and the general alarm, followed by one long blast, you are to quickly head to your designated life boat area with your life jacket in hand and then – I stopped listening at that point.

By 4:30, the ship was loaded and it was time to set sail. We began our voyage from the Big Easy with the Big Spin, as the Captain backed our 1,020-foot whale of a ship away from the dock and ever-so-slowly turned it around in the middle of the busy river and headed south past grey levies, a zillion ships of all shapes and sizes, an eclectic mishmash of houses and slightly out-of-place antebellum mansions, industrial cranes, leafless trees, sturdy churches, broken docks, tons of tugs and barges laden with who knows what, abandoned-looking warehouses, hulking oil refineries, and freighters galore.

Staring out at New Orleans from the bow on Deck 12, at the top of the world, it wasn’t hard to see why hurricanes are such a threat to New Orleans. The city is flat as a board. The bridges are the tallest structures.

We followed the meander bends in the Mississippi as a pilot boat cleared the way for us down river, playing "dodge the ships" as the sun set bright orange behind us. We had a strong tail wind from the big arctic blast that had turned New Orleans so cold. When I closed my eyes it felt like we were gliding through the air. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

It's amazing how quickly after leaving New Orleans there is NOTHING – just endless swamp land interspersed with oil refineries, like grain elevators rising out of the flat farm fields of the Midwest.

We were looking at a ninety-mile trip down the Big Muddy that would take about nine hours. The 9% VAT tax would be in play until we got to the ocean, so we drank our own booze that first night. You are allowed to bring aboard two bottles of wine and we celebrated our happy reunion in great style from Larry and  TC’s ocean front balcony every evening before dinner.

We were in the first seating for dinner and arrived at our assigned table in the Nutcracker dining room on Deck 3 at 5:30, where we met our table mates, a friendly family of four from Saskatchewan, Canada. This would be the only night we would see them, no doubt because getting their two young boys to sit still through a long, three course dinner, was a bit too much fun.

Lots of Canadians escape the bite of winter by taking a cruise. Let me put this in perspective for you. This family had driven eight hours through a blizzard to get to the largest regional airport for their flight out. That airport was located in Minot, North Dakota. Winter is a cold, hard bargain when anything in North Dakota is the big city.

Unlike our first cruise, which left from San Juan, Puerto Rico, there weren't that many Europeans on the boat. I guess that if you are going to travel all the way from Europe to find some heat, then you want to start as far south as possible to ensure warm weather. And after dealing with temperatures in the 50’s in New Orleans, that seemed like a pretty good strategy.

After dinner we roamed the ship and caught a very snappy Welcome Aboard Variety Show in the Art Deco Metropolis Theater. The stage productions are not Broadway caliber, but they are always entertaining and free. Free is good.

By nine, we returned to our rooms and discovered that Larry’s bag had yet to arrive. He called down to Guest Services and was told that he had been busted by the Boat Police because they had found a Swiss Army knife in his bag. The dangerous weapon was confiscated until the end of the voyage and Larry was then given back his luggage with a smile.

“You wouldn’t believe the assortment of weapons they had down there,” exclaimed Larry. “There were big knives, clubs, and swords. There were even a couple cross bows.”

Ahhh, yesh, there’s nothing like traveling abroad to bring out the warrior in us all.

Tip of the Day: If you are checking your luggage, carry a small pack aboard where you can store your reading materials, sunscreen, bathing suit, sandals, sunglasses, medication and whatever else you think you might need until after dinner, because you may not see your bags again until then.



  1. Waiting in anticipation for your next post. Love your stories! : )

  2. Thanks! It's like Assateague on steroids.

  3. have me trying to convince Chris to take a cruise. Love your stories. : )