Thursday, May 29, 2014

Carnival Cruise 2014

Yes,.... it's been a while, but I am now going to chronicle our journey to the Bahamas with a stop at our new favorite place, Key West, Florida (see September 2013 Blog for details). Since our daughter has delivered up our first grandchild and our son is now out on his own, we were toying with the idea of house sitters to watch our Texas Summer home (well....all year home) and care for the dogs. Luckily, some very good friends from San Diego came to our rescue. A former Chase Mortgage co-worker Margo and her husband Frank are now retired and are spending it driving around in their motorhome trekking about the US. Frank and Margo were wandering our way and through a Facebook posting by Dianna, agreed to come out and stay in our Casa.

After briefing Frank and Margo on the care and feeding of our two intrepid dogs, Margo comically referred to them as "the hounds" (Peanut stayed with Nicole), we began our eight hour drive to New Orleans. It is becoming rather mundane after three cruises but occasionally, as we have often found, one gets off the beaten track and finds something unexpected and rather off-beat. Having downed a bag of popcorn, we were getting thirsty and one doesn't drive the highways without a decent cold beverage within reach. So we stopped at the Whataburger in Kilgore, Texas, along the I-20, to fill-up, sorta speak. There, we were pleasantly surprised to find a shrine to 50s and 60s music and a memorial to the Beatles within the restaurant. Who knew?

With another eight hour drive under our belts in Dianna's little white Rogue, or as I like to refer to it...the Pill.... because after being crammed into it for eight are in no mood (or shape) for intimate relations with your loved one. The trip was also complicated by her Garmin NUVI GPS named "Jack". I had recently updated Jack for the trip with the latest map of the south and southeastern states. Unfortunately, Jack must have gotten a case of electronic dementia in that, once in Louisiana, Jack decided we needed to follow some two-lane farm road instead of the more popular (and much faster speed limited) I-49, which is the traditional route, which would lead us to the I-10 and ultimately the Lake Pontchartrain causeway and New Orleans. Imagine my frustration when every effort on my part to derail Jack's evil plan kept deviating us off I-49. Ultimately, I was forced to disconnect Jack and, like Jim Lovell on Apollo 13, fly ( by the seat of my pants until we got onto the I-10 when a rebooted Jack returned to his senses and we breathed a joint sigh of relief as we successfully entered the rain-soaked causeway into New Orleans.

Our trip on the Carnival Dream begins in New Orleans. I decided to try a different track with accommodations on the West Bank of New Orleans and found the Holiday Inn Tower West Bank in the town of Gretna, Louisiana. I wanted to try another cool boutique hotel in the Warehouse District off Canal St. but Dianna nixed that idea. She has been on an anti-bedbug kick since learning of the increased presence of the pestilence in America. So I had to upgrade us to a mainstream (horror of horrors) hotel and the corresponding higher nightly rates they provide. The Holiday Inn was a good compromise and turned out to be a really nice room and facility.

On our arrival, we (well...I) were ravenously hungry. With only an early morning pancake breakfast at a Cracker Barrel in  Mesquite, Texas at the confluence of the US 80 and the LBJ (I-635) and a bag of leftover popcorn from the Angelika Theatre in Plano, Texas (they only use Orville Reddenbacher), we decided on the hotel restaurant (yes...we violated an inviolate tenant of our travel manual but we were famished). As it turned out...I can report the "Round House Bar and Grille" had great food and drinks. I had (what I get whenever I'm in NOLA) the red beans, rice and sausage, Dianna, interestingly, had the beans, rice and pork chops. Very flavorful and the corn bread was fresh and moist too. The Sangria wines were well done but a little pricy for my tastes ( we all know...I'm the cheap one). The room was well appointed and we were well up in the tower and had a really nice view of the bridges and some of downtown New Orleans. One of the best comfortable beds we've had in a hotel.

I should mention that as we mounted the Crescent City Connection (CCC), formerly the Greater New Orleans Bridge (GNO), beautiful twin cantilever bridges, to ford the mighty Mississippi to get to the West Bank, Dianna commented on the sharp angles of a large, imposing grey building just below us by Toupultapas Street. The light suddenly went on when I realized it was the much vaunted National World War II Museum. I had read about the museum, which had recently been expanded to include the other theaters of combat from it's original D-Day exhibits. I had always intended to visit said museum but we had not had the time (or presence of mind) to take it in on prior visits. Well....we were going to fix that this time, it was Saturday and too late to go but it was open at nine on Sunday and we didn't have to be on the boat until three p.m.

So, after assembling our stuff from the Holiday Inn (in anticipation of the gauntlet we would endure at the cruise registration and boarding), a quick breakfast at IHOP (yes Nicole and Tameka, we did not go to any cool local breakfast hangouts), we set the GPS for the 2.5 mile trip back across the bridge and right to the WWII Museum parking lot to begin a visit to one of the best military museums I've had the privilege of attending.

When we signed up for membership (think taxes, taxes, taxes), the volunteer told me that the Museum had been there for 20 years. I was surprised to hear it was a privately funded Museum but had recently partnered with the Smithsonian to get some of their war related stuff. Before that, it was mostly dedicated to D-Day because of the  Higgins Boats the allies used for beach landings throughout the war. Higgins Boats were a product of Higgins Industries right here in New Orleans. Andrew Jackson Higgins was a good ol' boy from the bayou who made a living turning out shallow draft boats for mostly the local fishermen and some commercial boats for the oil and gas boys.

Mr. Higgins was a devout patriot and when he heard of the need for shallow draft assault boats, went to  the military and pitched his plans for an all wood shallow draft flat bottom boat that could haul men and equipment to a beach, back up, return to a ship and bring more stuff back. His simple design was a hit with the military desperate for a quick, easy (and cheap) solution to their problem and the LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) was born. They ordered Higgins boats by the thousands and most were made by the the 30,000 workers of Higgins Industries, local men, women and minorities throughout Louisiana. At one time, Higgins was the the largest employer on the Gulf Coast at that time. Even Hitler grudgingly admired Higgins referring to him as the “new Noah” of ship builders (take that Russell Crowe!). 

In 2000, the museum was conceived by the late Dr. Stephen Ambrose. The founder of The National WWII Museum spent decades researching and writing about the war, Eisenhower and D-Day. As he collected more than 2,000 oral histories from D-Day veterans, he realized that the United States had no museum to honor these men and women and the people on the Home Front who made our victory in World War possible so a decision had been made to expand the Museum to include other theaters of war and to explain the war from start to finish.

The museum has been continuously expanding and in 2006, the E. J. Ourso Discovery Hall was completed. In November 2009, they celebrated the grand opening of the Solomon Victory Theater, Stage Door Canteen entertainment venue and the American Sector restaurant. In June 2011 they opened the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion, which allows visitors a behind-the-scenes look at volunteers and staff restoring World War II artifacts, such as boats and vehicles. By 2012, they had completed upgrading the original building and expanded into three more buildings west of the main building.

One is the The US Freedom Pavillion sponsored by the Boeing Aircraft Company. It has a pretty impressive display of five aircraft hanging from the ceiling ala the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA we visited when we were in DC and a movie theater with a video documentary of a war patrol of the submarine the USS Tang.  This too, involved raised walkways high enough to stand above and level with the aircraft. Not good for the faint-hearted but for airplane fanatics like myself, way cool. And it happened to have my favorite WWII airplanes, a B-17, P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair, the SBD Dauntless Dive bomber (like the one Bush senior flew) and a B-25.

The Boeing built B-17E, “My Gal Sal,” was particularly interesting in that it was a recovered and restored aircraft from a forced landing in Greenland in June 1942. The crew was ferrying it to England when weather forced it down to a Captain Sully-style belly landing on the ice. Everyone survived the landing but the crew was unable to make radio contact because they needed the generator on the #4 starboard outboard engine (the one on the far right wing) to run the system. Luckily they had a hand hack-saw and they took turns cutting off the three blades of the Hamilton-Standard prop (found and on display) and were able to light up the Pratt and Whitney radial engine, spin the generator and get their distress call out to searchers. Once found, a naval team took on the perilous task of landing on the ice shelf, hiked in several miles, met the crew and guided them to their ship and safety. Amazing.

Many years later, a wealthy aircraft collector, Bob Ready, decided to resurrect the B-17 from the ice and snow and restore it to honor the crew and their accomplishments. Recovered in 1995, the plane was disassembled and brought back to America. Restoration was begun in 2000 by an all volunteer crew to complete the restoration. Originally for display at the Blue Ash Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, when that airport was closed, the aircraft was offered up to the WWII Museum who gladly appropriately hung it in the Boeing sponsored pavilion in 2012.
Server and sandwich

Certainly not enough time to see it all, we did have time to take in the American Sector Restaurant and Soda Shop. Chef John Besh created an expansive restaurant which recalled the Hollywood USO canteens during the 40's. Lots of photos of Hollywood icons like Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, and John Garfield as well as the servicemen and women who frequented the USO canteens set up around the world. I had the Cobb Salad and Dianna had the best Monte Cristo sandwich I've had the pleasure of tasting. She also scored one of the cool kid lunch boxes you can get with a kid meal or buy separately.

As we sadly left the Museum, came the first crisis of our trip.....the missing pillow. Apparently, in our preparations to leave the hotel, somebody....well Dianna.....left her multi-million dollar special ISO-COOL pillow which she must have to sleep. I think there were only five made in the entire world so they're very rare and special...or so I'm told. Thus as I plugged in the coordinates for the embarkation dock (yeah, I know it was only like two blocks away but the technology screams out to be used), Dianna pierced the morning mist with the dreaded words, “ Did you grab my pillow when we left the room?” With that “deer in the headlights” look all husbands display at stressful times like this, I responded, “What pillow?.” My wife has had 39 years to reflect on the fact I hate to back track while traveling. It goes against every fiber of my being to think we may lose precious seconds, feet, virtual inches toward our goal (thus the over-dependence on things like GPS). Let's face is a race and I hate coming in second ( outsider looking in might surmise that has been the story of my life). Yet, mustering up all my will I said, “Ok, lets go get it.” Then came the typical wife response....ok, all together guys, “'s ok, I don't need it, I'll be ok.”

I must point out that uttering those words too has been a constant throughout our 39 years of marriage. Now, all of us guys have been trained from birth to be on guard against this situation and we have braced ourselves to do the following: Above all else gentlemen.... know this is a test! Like a weapon failure drill you must respond confidently, quickly and correctly the first time so you can clear that stovepipe and return fire.

Small muscle memory took over and years of practiced skill forced the words from my mouth, before I knew it, I was saying, “No...we can go back and get it.” A brightness washed over her face (I discretely scratched a husband “point” into the dash) as she pulled out her cellphone (really not much of a reach....she's constantly photographing everything that moves and some that don't) and dialed up the hotel. As we climbed back over the Crescent City Connection bridge a third time, we both rejoiced as the desk clerk reported on speaker phone that housekeeping had retrieved the pillow from the room and it would be waiting at the front desk on our return. Doing my best Paul Walker imitation (Fast and Furious 6...yeah, that one), drifting in sideways, blue tire smoke bursting from our sidewalls, Dianna lept from the car before we had come to a complete halt, ran in and retrieved her beloved pillow. The universe was whole again, now....we could start our adventure.

Back over the bridge with our ship the Carnival Dream idling at dockside below us, we entered the part of cruising I dread the most...check-in. Of course, not our first rodeo (had to say that because we live in Texas) so we have a program like many other hard-core cruisers. With practiced aplomb, with passports, picture ID (yeah,weird, they don't consider a passport as picture ID...who knew?) and boarding passes in hand, we navigate the Disney-style chicane to disgorge all our vital statistics and entire financial history to the smiling 20-something female agent and face all those tough questions like, “Have you had a major illness recently or feel sick today?” Or the ever-entertaining, “Did you pack your own luggage or has anyone asked you to bring anything on for them?”  Good lord, I think we can all guess what the answers to those might be.

Lido (Pool) Deck Nighttime Movies
But once clear of the metal detectors (currently being a security professional with walk-thru metal detector experience....there were several folks who “beeped” **four or more stars**  see Ciea WTMD who nobody stopped, walked back through or wanded), and leaving behind the gentle hum of the Smith-Heimanns x-ray machine, we strutted our way onto the gangway and the brightly colored drink-of-the-day. Once our bags made it to the room and Dianna unloaded their entire cargo into the closets and drawers (can you hear the beeps of the forklifts in the background? I, on the other hand, always prepared for a Titanic event or terrorist take-over...hey, I've seen all the out of my bag) the party could truly begin.

1 comment:

  1. I know about the pillow. Cathie takes her's everywhere, Europe, trips in the RV and once while backpacking in the Sierras she pulled it out of her backpack.