Friday, December 24, 2010

Our Cruise Part 1

It is that time of year when the wife and I take our yearly vacation. Well….it only occurs when all the stars are in alignment and there’s spare change in the bank account. And there was that unbelievable email offer from the cruise line that came in as Summer waned and thoughts of time away from work, kids, dogs and house chores and the fast approaching holiday season (Bah, Humbug) encroached into our consciousness.

Traditionally, we do cruises. They provide a one-stop shop for travel and comfort to exotic lands normally not available to us (ever try to drive to Central America?). Actually, they provide a relatively inexhaustible supply of adult beverages and somebody else (hopefully not imbibing either) doing the driving.
But, of course, you can’t get to a cruise ship from Dallas so there is the matter of getting to the dock. Although there are cruises leaving from our own Galveston, the other is New Orleans a mere 9 hour drive away. Don't forget to stop at the halfway point at the Relay Stop on  I-49 in  Frierson, Louisiana . It has the best sandwiches and a deceivingly vast array of seafood and every fried finger food you can imagine.
We chose the latter because the people watching in the French Quarter is without equal and there are the clubs and shops along Canal Street. This new cruise was not our first rodeo and we had actually been on this same cruise line at the same port two years earlier.

It is normally my job to organize and arrange the cruises. Dianna fancies herself as an airline travel guru and arranges those herself. This goes back to her traveling days with Bank of America. She arranged travel and hotels like an agent. She got lots of points and received upgrades to all the cool hotels because of her patronage. Well, there was that unfortunate incident when she booked our infant daughter, she and I into a trip to Hawaii. When we arrived in Oahu, we were supposed to connect to a shuttle flight to Kaui and our condo.

Problem was, she neglected to take into consideration that the Kaui airport closed overnight and without a hotel, we sat outside the Hawaiian Air terminal in Oahu until dawn so we could hop on our flight and begin our glorious vacation. It really was a great vacation. It was in October, we had met another family from California and we have pictures of our little girl with their daughter Trick or Treating in Hawaii. Ah, the memories.

Here is where I know Dianna gets concerned. I really like doing old historic hotels and try to avoid the mainstream hotels. I did try to book a “big name” place but it was a NFL game weekend (Go Saints!) and everybody was booked. I located a small “boutique” (translated: really old) hotel just off Canal Street and was rewarded by both availability and price (Dianna refers to my rigorous selection process as being “cheap”, guilty as charged).
The  Pelham  is on Common Street one block south of Canal by Harrah’s Casino. The building hearkens from the 1880s and is in the “Warehouse District”.  It is a well appointed hotel and really had a great room. We successfully checked in but the room wasn’t ready until 4 pm. We decided to get an early dinner at a place a co-worker, Tameka, a Katrina alumnus, told me was just down the street,  “Mother’s Restaurant” .

Mother’s was just what the doctor ordered. We had the red beans and rice combo which had some greens and a side of their signature sliced ham. We did enjoy the food but was a little disappointed at the blandness of the rice and beans. It didn’t have the intense flavor we experienced the last time we were in town during Marti Gras at a little hole-in-the-wall place called “Dixie Gyro” on  Carondelet Street off Canal. Tameka warned me that the food in and around Canal was mostly “tourist” food. If I wanted the real deal, I needed to frequent some neighborhoods which might require me to carry a firearm. But it was worth the trip.
Mother’s was one of those places the locals go to and there was a line to the register stretching back into the restaurant. Two things of note. In laid back New Orleans, it was kind of a high pressure place. The ordering line was an assembly line affair and you’d better be prepared and get your order out or you got a snappy, “Lets go, what do you want!” The other was the lack of tipping. There were signs all over the place instructing patrons NOT to tip the employees. I never did get that figured out.
After doing some walking about and our mandatory stop at the Hustler Hollywood Store (the products, displays and instructional talks given by the staff are amazing), we made our way back to the hotel. Our room was ready and we unloaded our stuff. The room was well appointed and had a really neat four-poster king-size bed. This thing actually had a little step stool so you could climb in. But that’s when the trouble started.

I went into the bathroom to wash up and noted a distinct lack of hot water flowing out of the sink. We had been to old hotels before and a lack of water pressure is sort of a given in some situations.

We decided to make a CVS pharmacy run on Canal Street for some last minute toiletries and hit   PJ’s Coffee on  Canal and people watch from the sidewalk tables in the glow of the Christmas lighted palm trees lining the street. It had been quite warm all day and I had left my jacket in the room. It had been threatening to rain all day with a 20% chance by nightfall. Well that 20% became 100% as it began to pour. Thinking it was a passing shower, we picked up our coffees and stood in the overhang of the Sheraton and kept watching. Realizing it wasn’t going to quit, we made our way back to our hotel now much damper than we left.

Wanting to wash up before bed, I tried the hot water again and no-go. It still didn’t bother me, I’m sure it was temporary but I sensed it might be a problem come morning. I chalked it up to that and, after some TV, the long drive caught up to us and we fell asleep in anticipation of our march through the cruise terminal the following day.

Sure enough, when we arose, no hot water. I called down to the desk. They seemed concerned and were sending somebody up. Soon after a maintenance guy came up and by then water was running out of the tap but it wasn’t even warm. I might add that overnight a cold front moved through the area and the tepid temperatures of yesterday had plummeted to freezing with a solid and blustery wind blowing out of the north. Our guy told us they were having problems with the boiler and were working on it. So, of course, here we were faced with quick, cold sponge baths before our departure.

The only bright light that morning was breakfast. On the corner of the hotel was a neat restaurant called the  “Red Slipper” . It had a short but colorful breakfast menu. Dianna had the Eggs Cachon with Hollandaise Sauce. I had the Migas. The pork under her eggs and sauce were laid over two of the tenderest homemade biscuits. My Migas (chunks of ham, scrambled eggs, onions, potatoes and salsa) were ladled over tortilla chips. The coffee was hot and the food plentiful. We stumbled out of there and took the opportunity to go back to the CVS for stuff we had not gotten the night before.

On our return, we saw a line forming in the lobby for checkouts. Believing this would not bode well for our checkout, we finished packing keeping in mind the death march we have to perform at the cruise terminal (all loose metal in the bags, belts and necessary small stuff in carry-on until the bags arrive at the room). Still having some time before we had to get there (can’t get on the boat until noon) and still unseasonably cold (the wind was whipping up the narrow streets gusting to about 40 mph) we decided to return to PJ’s for a cup of Joe and waste some time.

Unable to stave off the inevitable, we returned to the hotel and ordered up our car (valet parking only at this place). On the way back to the room to collect our things, we were joined in the elevator by a harried looking housekeeper. I made a comment about the hot water and she informed us that things had been tough because the hot water had been down since yesterday morning. It was clear the clerk had failed to mention this when we checked in at 3 pm.

Still remarkably calm over this new revelation, we got our stuff and headed to the lobby which had now filled up with overnight revelers (some still reeking of alcohol at 10 a.m. and not of sound mind) demanding retribution for the lack of hot water. There was brief conspiratorial talk of utilizing a nearby guillotine (well it was a French territory once) in exchange for their demands. I was unceremoniously cut off by a partier who, in his loudest inside voice, demanded an immediate refund as well as his valet fees and I think he wanted the owners to pay his next years taxes as well.

Now, the wife and I have passed the half century mark in our lives (please don’t tell Dianna you read that) and, in time, have somewhat mellowed in our views about the machinations of things clearly out of our control. This was one of those. There was talk of comping our rooms for the nights we all stayed and if anybody felt the need for reimbursement from the lot they contracted with (for me, it was hard to catch the correlation between the lack of hot water and parking), they could take it up with the valet service. I, for one, was content with that and armed with my American Express receipt, I knew I could challenge the room rate if it showed up on my bill, thus my calm demeanor when I handed over my key card and said adieu. Travel can be such an adventure.
Now to the ship. I had the foresight to arrange our accommodations both close to the action on Canal Street as well as spitting distance to the  Terminal  a mere 10 blocks away. Dianna would still tell you it was because I was “cheap” and not deserving of recognition. Ok, guilty. But a quick turn down Poydras onto Calliope and we were at the long term parking lot. Now the dance began.

Let me say that cruising is not the same as jumping onto an airliner. It is a trip intended for several days not a few hours in a big fragile metal tube which could plunge to earth it seems with the lighting off of someones underwear. Though the security is rigid, that’s where the similarities end. Folks have brought a weeks worth of clothes for both climates and lots of liquids which would cause a member of the TSA to breakdown and cry. Not to mention a lack of concern for nail clippers and pocket knives. Its also conducted by private security who know where their bread is buttered and really don’t put up much of a fuss when the metal detector buzzes. The room took on the air of a Las Vegas Casino with bells ringing and buzzers buzzing.

There were no pat-downs or disrobing going on. Just the sheer number of wheelchair bound travelers would put a serious strain on the system if everybody had to go through a major review of their stuff. And there is the, “Let’s get goingitis” of the cruise lines. They’ve gotten very good about getting large numbers of people on board and to their destinations on a well oiled schedule. I am not disparaging the security, there were lots of folks checking IDs and Passports, but it wasn’t DFW either. Though I am confident we avoided a Sandra Bullock take over moment ala Speed 2.

Once passed registration we quickly walked the plank to the spacious innards of the ship. The Norwegian Spirit is a fairly new and very modern cruise ship. Built in Germany in 1998 at 75,338 metric tonnes (84,378 US but who’s counting) is 882 feet long, 105 feet wide and about 13 stories tall. Word was there were about 2,000 passengers with a crew of 980. The crew were from about 58 different countries.
Once on-board, everyone is forewarned about the need for the dreaded Boat Drill. Prior to leaving, it requires all the passengers to muster at their assigned rescue boat stations and get a demonstration on how to use a life vest. It’s a requirement for all ships at sea to have a Boat Drill prior to departure. At the appointed hour, we got ourselves to our rescue station and had to stand in the cold while interrogated by a couple of 20 somethings asking our names and cabin numbers.

Our Boat Drill leaders introduced themselves as two of the musical group dancers Felix and Alan. Most of the contract players and musicians also have other duties as greeters, Bingo assistants and the like. Every instruction begins with, “In the unlikely event of an emergency…..” you put this thing on, you get in the boat and kiss your butt goodbye. I always get a mental image of Rose cutting DiCaprio loose from the raft she’s on. Most of those Titanic people were told they wouldn’t sink either. Mind you, we’re all trying to be good sports about it but I need to remind you it had “warmed up” to about 50 degrees with a wind chill around 40 and the sun was going down quickly. Our leaders could see the mood getting uglier as we were forced to stand in ranks in the blustery wind as the Captain, from the comfort of his heated cabin,  assured us that Norwegian Cruise Lines considered our health and safety of the utmost importance. There was talk of mutiny in our group and discussions as to just how we would dispose of our dancer leaders and return to the bar without anyone being the wiser.
Once underway, we left the pier and made our way down stream along the mighty (and muddy) Mississippi toward the Gulf. Once through the New Orleans part of the channel, we continued south at a leisurely pace through the Mississippi delta. But soon, the delta was left behind and is overtaken by a grim reminder of our dependence on the petroleum industry. Deep water drilling aside, there is a vast infrastructure of oil platforms and support facilities permeating the delta and mouth of the river.

As we plied our way through the darkness, suddenly a huge complex of tanks, buildings and docking facilities would appear out of the blackness. Their night lights blazing and the ubiquitous torches of by-product gases burning brightly in the night. As quickly as they appeared, they would slip by and shrink away into the inky blackness they came from. You could clearly see that oil production was a 7/24 operation where men and women worked year round to make sure we can power our cities, warm our homes and feed our cars.

Late that night we left the protection of the delta and were suddenly thrust into the deep water of the Gulf. The ship was now speeding up for it’s nighttime run and digging into the deeper troughs awaiting us in the choppy seas ahead. We got up to quite a rolling motion that lulled us to sleep like babies in a cradle. The later it got the less noise was heard from the Welcome Aboard parties and the now liquored up passengers made there way back to their cabins.

The rest of the day didn’t see a let up on the rolling motion of the ship. We were still in a turbulent sea state our Captain credited to the cold front which followed us from New Orleans and rolled overhead. The skies clouded up and threatened rain but the crew assured us things would change when we got to our first destination, Costa Maya, Mexico on Tuesday.

Dianna and I spent the day catching up on our reading while the rest of the passengers spent most of their day catching up on on their drinking. It’s pure theatre watching drunk people attempting to make there way down the main decks and corridors. There were some green colored people wandering around and the crew had layed out plenty of seasick bags (amazingly similar to airsickness bags) in the stairwells and elevators. Tomorrow is our first full day at sea.

The time spent at sea is really relaxing. The ship is alive with activity until the wee hours of the morning but then it quiets to almost a dull roar of ventilation and cleaning equipment like any hotel with the added constant vibration of engines and machinery beneath your feet. But if you wake up in the middle of the night like I do, it's kind of cool to walk around inside and head out on deck.

There you can look down and watch the black water turn frothy white as the prow brakes open the sea and sends it along and behind the ship back into the darkness. It's a little unnerving and a little surreal to look out from the railing and not see a horizon. It has a Hollywood quality to the whole thing as though you were just an actor in front of a green screen and we could actually just be on a sound stage at Universal Studios. Oh yeah, and there is the 24 hour cafe to order and suck down a cheeseburger and fries.

Daylight brings early risers jogging and walking about, some with children (what were they thinking) some older couples making their way to breakfast or Bingo. Everybody getting their "sea legs" in this choppy (we're talking white caps) winter Gulf sea lane. It is a great feeling to look in all directions and not see land but only the vast blue waters around you. It can be, at once, liberating and frightening.

Dianna and I spend the day reading and I writing (for the Blog). The day goes quickly as we look forward to a good nights sleep being rocked by the ship and our first port-of-call, Costa Maya, Mexico. 

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