12 February 2009

A cruise of contrasts

The Rambling Redhead has returned from faraway exotic places, lands of placid beaches, unparalleled crystalline waters and warm sultry days…or so the brochures told me. Yes folks, I have returned from Central America whiter and quite possibly paler than when I left Ottawa. While it was an enjoyable and very interesting trip (it still beats winter after all), we didn’t exactly luck out in the weather department. Who knew I’d be shivering in Belize, drenched in Guatemala and shopping for sweaters in Mexico? It wasn’t exactly the sunny break I dreamed of but such is life I guess.

January 31 – New Orleans

Hubby and had a very smooth flight onboard United Airlines. We left Ottawa early in the morning and had no troubles catching our short connection in Washington D.C. Luckily we arrived at our hotel in NOLA around 3:00 PM and had plenty of time to explore nearby Bourbon Street and the infamous French Quarter. I’ll admit that I was a little frightened about wandering around in one of most violent cities in America before I actually got there but thankfully I put my fears aside and took time to explore this amazing, bawdy yet beautiful city. After a few colossal drinks “to go” on Bourbon Street, hubs and I were well in the party spirit along with the crowd which was amazingly large for daylight hours. Being the sober old farts that we are, we packed it in early and headed back to the hotel by nightfall. However, on route back to saner quarters, we made sure to enjoy some traditional Cajun fare at the Gumbo Shop and some sinfully delicious beignets and café au lait at the famous Café du Monde. NOLA is certainly not a city for those on a health kick.

French Quarter, near Jackson Square

February 1 – Embark NCL Spirit

After some much needed Zzzs, hubby and I had some time to kill before our scheduled embarkation at noon. After a tasty and fattening complimentary breakfast at the hotel (Americans do it right), I grabbed the camera and we were off to explore the splendor of the French Quarter in the morning. If you’re looking for a gentler stroll of the historic district, I highly suggest seeing it on a lazy Sunday morning when the cleaning crews are out in full force. The streets are awash in bubbles and the smell of disinfectant fills the air. Everything is surprisingly calm; it’s the perfect opportunity to appreciate the unique beauty of the architecture, the detailed wrought iron balconies, as well as watch the diverse musicians and street performers lugging their instruments and equipment out for a day of entertaining. I love NOLA in the morning.

By 11:00 AM, hubs and I headed to the Port to board the NCL Spirit, which thankfully turned out to be a fairly organized process. By noon we were happily ensconced on the back deck of the beautiful ship, enjoying lunch and some yummy drinks. We spent the afternoon exploring and taking pictures of the various public rooms and lounges around the ship before most of the other travelers got onboard. At 5:00 PM we set sail to a cloudy and somewhat chilly 18ºC, not bad but not shorts weather with the wind howling across the decks. As we made our way down the murky Mississippi I naively thought that we were sailing towards the heat…my mistake.

NCL Spirit

February 2 – Day at Sea

After a surprisingly decent sleep, hubby and I awoke early to yet another overcast sky. I was hoping to spend the bulk of our day at sea lounging by the pool and putting in some serious work on giving myself some skin pigmentation. One look at the goose bumps on my arms and legs and I knew that I was destined for pants and a sweater (two bad I only packed 2 pairs of pants and a light fleece). I was a little bummed by the distinct lack of “tropicalness” but was content enough reading on the promenade deck, sipping coffee and watching the waves.

Captain O'Redhead at your service

February 3 – Costa Maya Mexico

I have said it once and I’ll say it again – I love Mexico! We finally encountered our first legitimate rays of sun. It was still on the cooler side for Mexico at 22ºC but our shiny big friend in sky keep us warm and content as we explored the magnificent Mayan ruins of Chacchoben. We took a four-hour shore excursion further inland and thoroughly enjoyed exploring three ancient ruins with our funny and information guide, Luis. Any guy that can wail away on a conch shell is cool by my books. In typical Mexican tourism fashion, our tour dropped us back off at a heavily-guarded port shopping complex – a beautiful purpose-built facility with everything the unadventurous traveler could want or need. We shopped a little and satisfied my Guacamole craving at one of the restaurants on site (holy yum), but the highlight of my day was certainly being off the compound, seeing the country, learning some history and getting to experience some of the damage that was caused by Hurricane Dean last year. Costa Maya still has a long way to go before it becomes the next Playa Del Carmen, but its rustic simplicity is part of its charm.

Cacchoben Mayan ruins, Temple 1

February 4 – Guatemala

Today hubby and I learnt the true meaning of rainforest. As we pulled into the busy, lush and exotic port of Santo Tomas de Castillo the rain started pouring...torrential to be exact. Seeing as we had already booked our excursion, we donned some très sexy traveler’s ponchos and headed to the Las Escobas Waterfalls. As our bus bumped its way through towns and along the muddy dirt track into the mountains (along the sides of a cliff…yikes), I witnessed some of the worst abject poverty I have yet to encounter. The town was a bright mix of concrete and sheet metal buildings, but the rural areas in the mountains were dotted with shacks and earthen / palm thatch huts. Perhaps it was all the rain and the mud that made things appear worse than they actually are. The one thing that struck me, however, was how happy and friendly everyone was. I loved seeing the bright smiles and waves from adorable little children as our bus drove past.

When hubby and I stepped off the bus at Las Escobas the clouds seemed to double in number as did the force of the rain…I guess there a reason why rainforest got its name. After accepting the fact that there was no possible way to stay dry, even with the dorky oversized poncho, we sloshed our way down the beautiful paths on our way to the falls. Unfortunately I didn’t get many pictures for fear of ruining my new camera, but the heavens decided to participate for a brief moment when we arrived at the second set of falls on our trek. Seeing as we were already soaked, I stepped into the cool water near the base of the falls, socks, shoes and all. While I was hoping to get that quintessential holiday shot of myself in a bikini standing in the falls, I’m still fairly pleased with the fully-dressed drowned rat shots that we managed to take.

After our wet and wild stint in the rainforest, we headed back to the port for shopping, a sip of the local beer (Gallo) and some wonderful entertainment from a marimba band and some beautiful and mesmerizing Garifuna dancers. What truly struck me about this port was the fact that the vendors, while clearly in need of money, did not harass the visitors as much as they do in other busy ports. There is a quiet and humble sense of pride about the people; they have yet to be tainted by over- commercialization or a booming tourism industry. It felt more authentic than other places I have been and I got the sense that the people truly appreciated our presence and support. As we pulled away from the dock that evening, all the port workers bade our ship farewell in touching sendoff party: honking their horse, waving Guatemalan flags, dancing, singing and generally making us feel like a million bucks.

Two drowned rats at Las Escobas

February 5 – Belize

We awoke to what appeared to be a sunny day and some of the most beautiful coloured water I have ever seen. I was so excited to finally be in Belize and, for weeks, had looked forward to lazing in the sun on one of their infamous beaches. After another fattening breakfast (5 lbs in one week folks!), I squeezed into my bikini, slathered on the SPF 30, and make my way to our tour meeting point on the ship. Sadly, we were informed that our beach break scheduled for Bannister Cay had been cancelled due to high winds and rough seas; tendering to the offshore island would have been too dangerous. Hubby and I were very upset and tried to find another last minute tour of interest but they were all booked…double damn! Instead, we decided to tender in to Belize City on the mainland. I can honestly say that they weren’t kidding about the waves and the wind. The short 10 minute tender to shore was one of the roughest and scariest rides of my life; my back and my posterior and still feeling the effects of bouncing around roughly of the waves (although it was kind of fun too). Guess what happened once we got to port? Drum roll…it started pouring rain! Once again defeated by the weather and still wobbly from the jarring tender ride, we stuck to the touristy shopping complex and spent a good chunk of our money before returning to the ship an hour later. I’m still bitter that I didn’t get to see Belize. The extra salt on the wound was the fact that the sun popped out just as our ship raised anchor and sailed off.

What's that? The sun as we sail away?
(note the sweater and dorwned-rat look)

February 6 – Cozumel

Back in Mexico and finally back to the sun! Once again, Mexico didn’t disappoint. Today hubby and I headed out on a large Fury Catamaran, an experience I would highly recommend to anyone visiting the region. We sailed along the coast, spent some time snorkeling in the pristine water, had lunch on a beautiful private beach and enjoyed the booze cruise home. The weather was still cool and the wind made me shiver out on deck but the fantastic margaritas and bursts of glorious sunshine kept me content. Salty, tipsy and happy, hubby and I spent the afternoon shopping at port (a common theme) and whiling away some time in the ever-amusing Senior Frog’s - not a place if you’re shy or want to actually have a meaningful conversation with your dinner companion, but a great place for some cerveza, yummy quesadillas and utter nonsense. It was a good day, the best day of our cruise in fact, and sadly it was coming to an end now that we were starting to really enjoy ourselves.

Finally getting into the spirit

February 7 – Final day at sea

Mother Nature wanted to tease us by providing the brightest and warmest day of our cruise on our last day at sea, as we were making our way back towards New Orleans and the end of our trip. Bound and determined to have some colour on our pasty Celtic skin, hubby and I spent the entire morning basking in loungers on top of the ship and sipping fresh fruit smoothies (me that is; too girly for him). In the afternoon I gave in to guilt and visited the gym to work off some of my overindulgence from the week. In my defense, I tried to get to the gym earlier in the cruise but my running shoes were still not dry from the Guatemalan rainforest trek….seriously.

Finally a beautiful sunset

February 8 - Debark NCL Spirit

We awoke in New Orleans to a beautiful sunrise shining through the steel of the I-90 bridge (again what’s with the great weather when we’re leaving?). With several hours to kill between debarkation and our flight home, hubby and I decided to book an organized bus tour of New Orleans; this was easily one of the best decisions we have ever made. We got to the see the beautiful, the bawdy and the ugly sides of New Orleans. Even more poignant and astounded was the tour of Hurricane Katrina devastation. Four years later, huge chunks of New Orleans still look like a war zone. It sent shivers up my spine seeing homes with body counts still painted on the doors, fields of concrete slabs that were once homes, and a laughingly small levy wall that does nothing to protect the city from similar disaster in the future. I had no idea that the scale and scope of destruction was as large as it is; it’s no wonder the citizens of New Orleans have little faith in government – they were forgotten.

New Orleans is truly an amazing city that all people should see at least once in their lives. It’s a city of contrasts, superstition, sin, riches, amazing food and, of course, frivolity. Sadly we were two weeks too early for Mardi Gras but it was fun seeing all the decorations on the homes and taking in the party atmosphere that seems to sweep over the city. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

These marks are on many of the houses
left standing in the 9th Ward

So there you have it folks. Not quite the balmy cruise we were expecting but it was better in certain aspects. I may not have lazed on too many beaches and I’m still pale as a ghost, but I got to experience new cultures, history, sights and sounds that I’ve never known before. I have also leaned the importance of packing more pants, no matter when or where you’re traveling.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad to find your story-sounds like mine! We were on that cruise with you. I too wanted a great picture in the waterfalls-wet rats-that was us too.It was a little crowded and rushed I thought. Thank goodness I had some underwater cameras! Our fishing trip in Belize got cancelled so we got a Ruby at Diamnond International instead and took a city tour with a stranger that made me pretty nervous. And the sunset on the last day? At least we got one. And the 2 hour drive back home after we arrived in New Orleans? GREAT weather!Of course after the 7 day cruise was over.It was "my first time" and I loved it.