90 Minutes In New Orleans

An amenity-laden cruise ship is “the destination” to many cruisers. I definitely get that. After all, today’s ships are modern floating resorts, so why should anyone want to leave?

That said, I’m among those who view an amenity-laden cruise ship as a fun, pampering means to the destination. Seeing the world’s sites is to me, the greatest joy of cruising.

So, when a recent Carnival Fantasy five-night voyage from New Orleans to Mexico was over (and a great experience it truly was), I bemoaned the fact that my flight was leaving just after mid-day. I was headed to the airport – without seeing anything in the Big Easy.

So Close, Yet So Far

Along with dozens of other Carnival passengers, I dutifully prepared to board the airport-bound motorcoach. It was about 8 a.m. I knew that upon arrival at the airport, I’d have hours to wait.

If my flight would have departed a bit later I could have booked Carnival’s half-day, post-cruise tour excursion and airport transfer, a relatively good value at $55. But that would have been too late for my flight.

I was caught in no-man’s land – that unfortunate circumstance in which one has too many hours at the airport and not enough time to book a half-day tour of the destination. But from the ship, I could almost see the promised land. I knew the French Quarter was just a mile or so from the pier.

Alas, I was here and I was going to miss it. Or, was I?

In a split second decision, I asked the Carnival representative at the motorcoach parking lot where the cabs were. She pointed me in the right direction, I slid into a cab and boldly told the driver, “Café Du Monde!”

Off we went – motoring through the warehouse district, by Harrah’s Casino and along the fringes of downtown. I had one impression: “clean and neat.” No signs of Katrina’s visit here.

Café and Beignets

Within 10 minutes, I was seated at my own table at Café Du Monde, a French café near
Jackson Square. It was a gorgeous day with temperatures in the 70s. I had a blessed sense of appreciation for the simple joys that travel delivers for any of us in the travel business. Even grabbing a few minutes here or there in an exotic locale is simply priceless.

Soon, I was savoring Café Du Monde’s house specialty -- three flaky beignets, basically square French-style fried fritters (aka donuts) topped with powdered sugar. Café Du Monde has been serving up this fare since 1862. The bill itself seemed stuck in time. One order of beignets was $1.82. Including coffee, my tab was $4, a bargain.

Café Du Monde isn’t so much a place as an experience. Beyond the beignets, it’s a great place to watch people. New Orleans has its share of quirky types in the French Quarter, making the “watching” even more enjoyable.

The locals were out in force walking their dogs, many of which comically resembled, not surprisingly, the owners themselves. A street entertainer created colorful balloon art. Tourists snapped photos.

But after a half-hour of bliss just watching life in the French Quarter unfold, I knew the clock was ticking. By 8:45 a.m., I headed over to Jackson Square. While I wanted to just stroll, I also was toting a carry-on suitcase and a computer bag.

Carriage Ride into History

Presto, in front of me at the curb appeared a lone red-and-white carriage. It was early yet, so the long line of carriages that typically wait there hadn’t yet materialized. The mule seemed healthy and well-groomed.

“I usually take four people at $60 apiece, but because it’s early and there aren’t a lot of folks lined up, I’ll take you solo for $50 if you like,” volunteered the go-getter who was the carriage driver. Fondly remembering similar rides in 1998 and 2003 with relatives and friends, I agreed and hopped onboard.

Usually, these rides can stir up some incredibly tall tales. Blessedly, this driver was entertaining and highly informative, but he stuck to the facts – a treasure trove of dates and happenings – and left the jokes behind, which I greatly appreciated.

In about 30 minutes, I received a wonderfully comprehensive carriage tour of the French Quarter. The experience flew by quickly as the driver talked, the mule traveled and I snapped photos. It was a whirlwind tour.

From Bienville’s statue to the Bonaparte House, from St. Louis Cathedral to Pat O’Briens, from Antoine’s to the Cabildo, local bars, historic buildings and the French Market, the city’s history and soul came alive with every turn my carriage took. Gold, green and purple Mardi Gras banners fluttered in the soft breeze. My driver explained the meaning – gold is power, green is faith, purple is justice.

I savored the sights of lovely wrought-iron balconies; historic homes; and French style buildings with open-air courtyards. I glimpsed the bar where Harry Connick Jr. got his start. And without the driver’s banter, I would have missed noticing an innocuous, multi-million-dollar French Quarter home owned by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

Impressions of a Cabbie

Around 9:45 a.m., my carriage driver – who went the extra mile for service – was kind enough to hail me a cab. He volunteered. I did not ask. It’s the kind of proactive service you’ll find from many in this city during these times.

Soon I was en route to the airport. On the way, I chatted up the cabbie about tourism. When you want to know what’s really happening anywhere you just ask a cabbie.

My cabbie came to New Orleans 30 years ago to attend Tulane University’s graduate school, but let the good times roll, as he explained it. He never did go to Tulane, but he partied hearty. He’s now married and lives in the New Orleans area, and loves it – save the economy.

His view was that the city was doing remarkably well in its post-Katrina recovery when the economic melt-down hit. A working class guy, he sadly noted that there were some 1,600 cabbies pre-Katrina, but today that number is down to 800 or so, with more dropping out daily due to the economic crunch.

One problem, he noted, is that New Orleans isn’t just a tourist town, it’s a convention city. And lately conference participants – already booked to attend – simply are failing to show up. For the auto dealers’ convention, for example, thousands simply didn’t show up – likely a fall-out of closing dealerships across the nation.

That said, my cab driver along with everyone else I met during my short foray into New Orleans clearly appreciated tourists and convention goers. These folks know right in their pocketbook what travelers and conventions mean to the city’s economic engine. So if your clients want to mingle with “friendly” folks in their vacation destination, they’re likely to find them in New Orleans.

Never a Better Time

Today, many hotels and cruise lines have great deals. The city isn’t overrun with tourists, so your clients generally will have a less crowded experience, except during big event periods.

Appearance-wise, the French Quarter, the Warehouse District and downtown looked terrific. I know some residential areas remain in serious need of repairs and help is still needed. Fortunately, people are still coming to work in the recovery effort. The bloggers participating in the second annual John Heald Bloggers’ Cruise on Carnival Fantasy, for example, came in pre-cruise to assist with local clean-up and repair work in one of the hardest hit areas of the city.

Safety issues? I didn’t have any concerns based on what I saw in my short time in the city. Perhaps the best advice is what my carriage driver volunteered: “Just be aware of your surroundings. Don’t flash money.” That’s good advice wherever one travels in the world.

New Orleans still wows tourists. It definitely had me at the taste of that first beignet. Of course, my tally for my short foray – about 90 minutes in the French Quarter – was more expensive than the motorcoach tour offered by Carnival. Other, more affordable options such as grabbing a shared van from a French Quarter hotel to the airport, may have saved some bucks. But in my case, speed was crucial.

My tally for the morning excursion totaled $109. That included $10 for the cab ride and tip from the pier to Café Du Monde; $4 for beignets and coffee; $50 plus a $10 tip for an excellent carriage ride tour; and $35 including tip for the cab ride to the airport.

A New Perspective

Was it worth it? That’s a resounding “yes.” Prior to this brief excursion, my impressions of New Orleans were rooted in the pre-Katrina past. Today, I have an updated view of the city’s tourism heartbeat.

I arrived at the airport a comfortable two hours before my flight. I could have stayed even a bit longer downtown, but I didn’t want to be rushed and chance missing my flight.

Upon arrival at the airport, I immediately noticed two bloggers from my cruise eating beignets at an airport restaurant. They bemoaned that their beignets definitely weren’t as tasty as the beignets from Café Du Monde. They were shocked to hear I’d actually gone to the French Quarter from the ship on my own. “We should have done that,” they responded in rousing unison.

People sometimes are skittish about trying something not on the schedule in an unfamiliar destination. But as long as your clients don’t cut the return ride to the airport too close, it’s possible add on a quick, mini-excursion.

Ninety minutes in the French Quarter certainly isn’t a lot, but in my case, it was a blessed fun. The experience reinforces my view that cruising – in this case on Carnival Fantasy -- is a great vacation. It delivers pampering and inclusive value onboard. It also gives travelers access to the world’s great destinations. New Orleans is certainly one. And the Big Easy unfolds just a short cab drive away from the pier.