Well, we’re back from our family reunion cruise on Carnival and we didn’t need to be towed back to port! I won’t say I wasn’t just a little worried primarily because the recent problems occurred after we had booked the cruise and quite a few family members attended the reunion so it would have been a really big disappointment if something would have gone wrong. But, fortunately, everything went great!
Cruising From of New Orleans
Most of us flew into New Orleans and took a cab to the French Quarter (Central Business District) for $33 flat fee and got to the hotel in about 30 minutes. I have taken public transportation in the past and it’s pretty easy but it takes about 45 minutes and then there’s quite a bit of walking to get to the French Quarter. With anything more than a small backpack or carry-on, it’s probably not worth the savings.
The next day, we took a cab to the ferry terminal for $7 per person. It’s only 1.5 miles a way but my parents aren’t up for schlepping bags. (After the cruise, Bob and I hoofed it to save the cab fare and it was good to get our bearings back on land.)
For our family, New Orleans is centrally located and offers some pretty cheap fares on various airlines including Southwest. Also, a big carload drove down from Nashville, Tennessee in just 8 hours.
Our Hotels–Pre & Post Cruise
Pre cruise we booked far in advance at the Hotel Mazarin in the French Quarter. It’s a boutique hotel on a quiet side street. Because of the advance booking we got a rate of $145 per night with breakfast included. The breakfast was a really nice hot breakfast with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, etc. The rate jumped up the week of the trip to double that price! I’m glad we booked early. However, several members of our family didn’t book in advance and got a great rate on Priceline two days before the trip at the Courtyard by Marriott for $100 per night.
Post cruise while the rest of the family members went home, we stayed two extra nights in town at the Four Points by Sheraton in the French Quarter. Starwood has a bonus point deal where if you stay 3 nights you get 2000 points, so between New Orleans and another trip to Chicago, we scored the bonus. In New Orleans we got a weekend rate of $139 for a Saturday night and $99 for a Sunday night. I called Four Points directly to get this pricing and it took the reservations quite a while to find these awesome rates. I had been quoted over $200 per night when looking online. (See my post about researching the best hotel accommodations.)
I had read some reviews about the noise on Bourbon Street so I requested a courtyard room. We were surprised and disappointed that it didn’t matter that we were on the courtyard because there was plenty of noise from the other guests in the hotel until early morning. While the hotel is nice, next time we’ll stay off of Bourbon Street.
I had never been on a Carnival cruise and, in fact, have only been on one other cruise line–Celebrity. Because the cruise was so inexpensive in comparison to other cruises, I didn’t have very high expectations. Of course, I was hoping it would be nice but prepared for it not to be. Well…actually, it was really nice! Our cabin was clean and larger than the cabin on Celebrity. The dining room food was very good and in some cases, excellent. The entertainment was mostly good and appealed to all ages (except for the adult comedy shows). The staff was very friendly.
My only negative points are that the ship is a little outdated looking (1980s-ish) and the buffet food was not that great. One more negative was the price of the shore excursions was too high for the value but there are non-ship options you can book instead for less money. (More on shore excursions below.)
Over all I think Carnival offered a great value for the money and it was a perfect venue for a family reunion with ages from 12 to 73 years old.
After doing some Internet research I found a company called Tours Plaza and booked a large van and driver for our day in Cozumel. The day went perfectly, especially considering the wide range of ages, interests and abilities. I really had not given him any direction other than to come up with a day tour that would make everyone in our group happy.
We went to a private beach resort to view the water and some of us had a quiet drink. Next we went to an artisan chocolate factory for tastings, which was a big hit with everyone. After that we washed it down with margaritas and a tour of a tequila factory (really more of a tequila museum) and then drove to the farthest point of the island for a nice lunch in an open-air restaurant right on the water. There was plenty of time for lunch and walking on the beach. The total cost for the driver and the van for 5 hours was $400 for 12 people. That’s only $33 per person plus we all gave a tip. Lunch cost about $10 per person and the tequila tour with a margarita was $7 per person. In hindsight, it might have been nice to start the day a little earlier to have an extra hour so the younger people could have snorkeled at the beach resort while the non-swimmers hung out.
Progreso itself really doesn’t have that much to offer. As it ended up, our family split up and went separate ways. My sister, her husband and daughter went to a beach in Progreso but the hawkers trying to sell them stuff were too much for them and they spent the rest of the day on the ship.
A few of us went on an official excursion to the Uxmal ruins and lunch at a hacienda. The tour was $85.99 including a small lunch. It’s a long drive (3 hours round trip from the ship to the ruins) and the actual time spent at the ruins is only about 2 hours. In my opinion, the hacienda was a little boring. Grupo Auto Progreso has a tour to just Uxmal for only $49 for about the same amount of time at the ruins.
The rest of our family went on an official excursion called Salsa & Salsa in the town of Merida. They all enjoyed it but it was a little pricey for $89.99. In this case, the more you drink, the better the value because you could have as many margaritas as you wanted. Grupo Auto Progreso has a $10 shuttle that runs from the dock to Merida every 10 minutes that takes only 45 minutes so you could explore the town quite a bit on your own for less money.
New Orleans Food Highlights
Just a quick note about some of the dining highlights of our stay:
Central Grocery—For a quick lunch, it’s hard to beat a muffuletta at Central Grocery. That’s the only sandwich they sell and don’t ask for them to hold anything–you get what they make and it’s damn good! Plan to wait in line about 20 minutes. We got a half sandwich for $14 with chips that filled the two of us.
Felix’s Oyster Bar—We opted for Felix’s Oyster Bar instead of the famous Acme Oyster Bar across the street with a huge line. We’ve been to Acme before and in my opinion (from what I can remember), Felix’s was just fine as well. We got a couple of po-boys and the chargrilled oysters, which are great. Get extra bread for dipping in the oyster butter drippings. It’s not that cheap at $17 for a dozen chargilled oysters but that’s about the average price in the French Quarter.
Commander’s Palace–O.k., so CP is not a cheap dining option but the weekend brunch is a great value for the money. The restaurant offers a number of brunch entrees that also come with a soup or appetizer and dessert for prices ranging from $29-42 for the 3-course meal. Plus, there’s a lively jazz band. Bob and I have eaten at several famous NOLA restaurants including K-Paul, Emeral’s NOLA and Brennan’s, and in my opinion the CP brunch beat them all for value, plus every dish we had was superb.
Fun Free Stuff to Do in New Orleans
We took a 1-hour free walking tour with the National Park Service to learn the history of the city. Excellent, especially since it was free. The NPS also has free educational jazz performances most days of the week.
Pop in and look at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street for a look at the strange and unique practice of Voodoo.
We took a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District. Do a Google search to find several free printouts. A quick trolley ride from the Central Business District to the Garden District for $1.25 each way.
Take the free Algiers Ferry across the Mississippi for gorgeous views of the city and a walk through historic Algiers Point. Stop in a cafe for a bite, walk the Jazz Walk of Fame and take a self-guided walking tour. (The ferry is free for pedestrians and $1 for cars.)
Here’s a list of 50 free things to do in New Orleans from the official tourism site.