“So be my guest, you’ve got nothin’ to lose
Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?”
Frankie Ford, “Sea Cruise,” 1959


DONN YOUNG PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PORT OF NEW ORLEANS


If Frankie Ford is willing to foot the bill for a cruise vacation, pack your bags and head for points unknown. But if the rock ‘n’ roll legend and Gretna native hasn’t called in a while and you’re still dreaming of an escape on the high seas, then there are a few things you should consider on land before embarking on your watery adventure. What kind of cruise are you interested in? Where do you want to go? What sort of amenities are you looking for and what’s your motivation for the trip – is it strictly relaxation or are you looking for something else?

Fortunately, for residents of Louisiana, not a lot of thought has to go into the start of a cruise vacation. New Orleans remains one of the nation’s busiest ports and, due to its geographic location near the Gulf of Mexico, it’s an excellent embarking point for leisurely travel out to the islands and mainland of the Western Caribbean or for exploring the Mississippi River. Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans cruise industry was growing at an exponential rate, from 80,000 passengers in 1993 choosing the port as the embarkation (or beginning) point of their journey, to 734,643 passengers in 2004. Until the storm hit, 2005 was shaping up to be the busiest New Orleans cruise year on record.

For those who might still have some concerns about the port’s ability to service cruise ships, Robert Jumonville, division director of cruise and tourism for the Port of New Orleans, reports that while their facilities are better prepared than ever, the public’s perception of the port’s abilities has to improve.

“The cruise industry relies on tourism – it’s part of the tourism and leisure market,” Jumonville says. “So as the fortunes of New Orleans tourism goes, so goes the cruise lines. They have the same concerns and the same problems the tourism industry has and that’s reinventing New Orleans to middle America.”

Jumonville says that the “lure of the city” is stronger than ever once people realize that much of what they were looking for in New Orleans is still there and, in some cases, has improved. Thanks to new sanitation services, the French Quarter is cleaner (and smells “lemony fresh” as Mayor Nagin noted in his “State of the City” address), and can be reached via a short ride on the Riverfront Streetcar. Once tourists are in the French Quarter, most of the attractions – Jackson Square, Bourbon Street music venues, the Mississippi River, shopping, museums, art galleries and restaurants – are within easy reach. If a swamp tour or a visit to a stately plantation is on your agenda, Jumonville says there are plenty of comfortable tour buses that will take you there.

Cruising from Louisiana
The port has also made some strides to increase the convenience of using New Orleans as a homeport. On Oct. 15, 2006, which coincided with the arrival of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Sun – the first large cruise ship embarking from New Orleans since the storm – the port celebrated the opening of the $37 million Erato Street cruise terminal. The terminal is located right next to the Julia Street cruise terminal and Jumonville says that numerous passengers have described it as the most convenient debarking point in the U.S. Much of this convenience can be attributed to the ample parking available, more than 1,000 spaces – and the ease with which a passenger can arrive in New Orleans and make their way to the cruise ship.

“If passengers are parking for the cruise, they can drive straight into the cruise terminal to the parking garage,” Jumonville elaborates. “Seacaps meet them on the first floor of the garage to check baggage and then the passengers go up to the next floor to park their cars. It’s a short walk from the car to the elevator and the elevator takes them to the second floor and they’re in the embarkation lounge.”

When the cruise is over, Jumonville says leaving couldn’t be easier. Following a stop at immigration and customs, passengers can return to their vehicles and “within five minutes, they’re on the interstate.” Some passengers, however, don’t want to go home just yet, and many spend a day or two in New Orleans after the cruise. In fact, a 2004 survey of the Port of New Orleans revealed that 70 percent of cruise passengers will stay a day or two in the city before or after their cruise. This contrasts with the industry average of 35 percent of cruise tourists that stay extra vacation days in the homeport city.

Chris Bonura, spokesperson for the Port of New Orleans, says there’s no reason to think that this has changed much since Katrina. Bonura says the tourist attractions remain and by doing a little homework, most passengers will realize that having New Orleans as a homeport is like having two vacations.

“If they’re going to cruise from New Orleans, they’ve already investigated it,” Bonura explains. “They are not going to say, ‘I’m not staying in New Orleans.’ They already have gotten the picture that they can come here and have a good time.”

The rest of the cruise ship industry is taking notice of New Orleans efforts. Porthole Cruise Magazine recently named New Orleans as the recipient of its 2007 “Editor-in-Chief Award for Best Comeback Port.” More importantly, cruise ship passengers are becoming convinced as well. Even though the 2006 cruise season out of New Orleans didn’t really begin until Oct. 15, there were still more than 150,000 people who chose New Orleans as the launching point for their cruise vacation. Bonura and Jumonville say that they are projecting that approximately 490,000 cruise passengers will use New Orleans as their homeport in 2007.

Besides offering a provocative home city and accessible port terminals, New Orleans boasts three ocean-going cruise ship lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line – and two companies – Majestic America Line and RiverBarge Excursions – that operate tours of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. As for cruise line selection, it depends on where you would like to visit, what you’re hoping to experience onboard the ship and what you want to get out of your vacation.

Carnival ranks at the very top of the cruise ship business with more than 3 million people annually taking a Carnival cruise. Carnival’s Fantasy, which can hold 2,056 passengers, sails out of New Orleans and is currently offering four- and five-day cruises to the Western Caribbean with ports of call in Cozumel and Costa Maya, depending on the length of the cruise. On board, there are a variety of activities and, as spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz points out, Carnival aims to please.

DONN YOUNG PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PORT OF NEW ORLEANS

“Carnival’s objective is to offer something for everyone in a fun and relaxed environment,” de la Cruz says. “Whether you’re a toddler or a senior citizen, there are things to do on our ship that will appeal to you.”

With its complimentary children’s programming, which is available morning to night, Carnival attracts a fair amount of families with parents that don’t want their kids to be bored, but need a little time to themselves. For adults, the Fantasy provides a day spa, a casino, fine to casual dining, a dance club and an array of daytime and night time activities. Information, www.carnival.com.

If the last thing you want to do is follow a prescribed schedule, then Norwegian Cruise Line might work for you. The company prides itself on something they call “Freestyle Cruising.” That means, for instance, that guests decide when they want to eat because the restaurants onboard will seat diners from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m., and passengers can choose where they want to dine instead of assigned seating. There is no set dress code and if a guest requests it he or she can have breakfast in bed.

Norwegian continues its free flowing spirit with “Active Decompression” lifestyle programs such as yoga, cooking classes and mountain biking shore excursions. Don’t worry though, if you want to gamble and dance, that’s offered as well. Norwegian will return to New Orleans in November with the appropriately named ship, Spirit, and will be sailing on seven-day excursions to the Western Caribbean with stops in Costa Maya, Santo de Tomas De Castilla, Belize City and Cozumel. Information, www.ncl.com.

Royal Caribbean International has cut back its service from New Orleans but does have a 7-night Western Caribbean cruise listed to depart from New Orleans on March 8 of next year.

For history buffs and amateur cultural anthropologists, a trip up the Mississippi River will reveal the river’s rich past and the various cultures that have thrived along its banks.

RiverBarge Excursions, which can accommodate 196 passengers, offers package trips such as “Cajuns and Creoles,” which takes passengers up to Baton Rouge and on to Lafayette and other parts of Southern Louisiana that Acadians call home. Area fishermen bring on board spicy Cajun delicacies such as boiled crawfish and local historians, storytellers, musicians and other artists will make presentations to passengers during frequent stops along their river journey.

Larry Conrad, senior director for sales and marketing at RiverBarge, says that their passengers are typically older, have been on many cruises, and are searching for something different. RiverBarge also offers other themed trips. Information, www.riverbarge.com.

If you’re a big fan of Mark Twain and you’ve always fantasized rolling down the river on a steamboat, then try the Majestic America Line. On a seasonal basis, the company operates two steamboats, Delta Queen and American Queen, out of New Orleans and most of their cruises are seven days. Like RiverBarge Excursions, Majestic America primarily focuses on the history and culture of the trip’s ports of call. April Matson, spokesperson for Majestic America, says that their guests don’t just visit a place; they experience it. “Our cruises are designed to reflect more of the environmental culture and heritage of the ports we stop in,” Matson says. Information, www.majesticamericaline.com.

Jumonville says that the cruise business has been expanding rapidly and that has to do with the value and ease of sea travel. Passengers only have to unpack once and they get to experience multiple places on their cruise at a lower price without having to worry about varying degrees of quality for accommodations. Jumonville adds that cruise ship lines consider themselves to be in the resort business – it just happens to be a resort that floats. So for Louisianians who want to enjoy a little sea cruising, it makes sense to book a trip with a short vacation to New Orleans built in.  – David Winkler-Schmit

DONN YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY PORT OF NEW ORLEANS

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