A Cruise to Remember

New OrleansA Birthday like none other started with a train ride, a journey of over seven hours, from Birmingham to New Orleans. I booked a last-minute cruise that would call on ports in Mexico, Honduras, and Belize. I love trains and it was wonderful to simply board the Crescent in Birmingham, sit back, relax, and see lovely small towns along the route. The journey through Alabama and Mississippi to the final destination in Louisiana was so wonderful that I knew instantly that I would do this again.

I love New Orleans. I love everything about the city: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This was my fifth visit to Nola, the third since Katrina, and it felt so good to be back. Meeting up with Millie prior to boarding the ship was all I could have asked for.

cruiseMy first day on board the ship was exactly what I had wanted. There was no more cell phone connection and no more emails. Nothing but blue skies and the soothing waves of the sea. I loved it so much that when we arrived at our first port of call I decided that I would not join any shore excursion but simply walk around Cozumel for a couple of hours and spend the rest of the day onboard, relaxing and enjoying a pretty much empty spa.

IMG_7781Our next stop was Roatán, an island in the Caribbean, off the northern coast of Honduras. I joined a group for a visit to Gumbalimba Park, located in West Bay. While I wish I could have gone there on my own, I found what I wanted: white faced Capuchin monkeys. The monkeys were hilarious and absolutely cute, and interacting with them was unforgettable.

The little rascals where so adorable that, even though I was warned, I did not realize till it was too late that one of them had snatched my sunscreen right out of the pocket of my camera vest. But, as I said, they are so amazingly cute, that I would have given them pretty much anything but my glasses for a chance to interact.

There is so much more to see and do at Gumbalimba Park, but the Capuchin monkeys are the highlight of any visit. The park has beautiful landscaping, and I loved the flora and fauna.

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You can sign up for zipline canopy tours, snuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and more. The monkeys are the stars, but I was also amazed to see iguanas, big and small.

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Iguana or lizard? This is the question I never could solve, but I sure enjoyed meeting some of the smaller little fellows.

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Gumbalimba Park is also home to a huge population of parrots. They are so used to visitors that many will interact with you. They are stunning creatures and absolutely beautiful.

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One of the things to remember when visiting Gumbalimba Park is to respect wildlife. Do not approach the monkeys if they have a baby with them, as the mom and dad might feel threatened.

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The next port of call was Belize City. All I wanted was Mayan ruins, and so I signed up for a visit of the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. Like with everything in life, the good stuff is not in walking distance and so I went on a long, long bus ride to the Mayan site of my dreams. Be prepared for a two-hour bus ride and another hour on a boat.

IMG_5064The reward, however, is a Mayan city in the middle of the rain forest. Lamanai means “submerged crocodile” in Maya. The site is simply amazing, but nothing tops climbing to the top of the 125-foot High Temple to see the jungle canopy spreading beneath.

IMG_5053Check out the Mask Temple begun around 200 BC. Modified several times over the years, it has two 13-foot masks of a man in a crocodile headdress. Our guide told us that the two masks are the same person at different times in his life.The masks are considered some of the finest big masks in the Maya world. In order to protect the originals from the elements, the masks seen by visitors are fiberglass replicas that have been placed n front of the original limestone masks. Deep within the temple, archaeologists found the tombs of a man and a woman. Our guide told us that the women’s skull showed a fracture that indicates that she was put to death when her husband, the presumed leader of that time, passed away.

IMG_5122The next day, I went for some more Mayan history when the ship was in port back in Mexico. I had visited Tulum before and decided that this time I would head for Chacchoben, also known as “The Place of Red Corn.” The Mayan culture, customs, language, and beliefs are fascinating to me, and I hope that I can visit many more similar sites in the future.

After another day at sea, the ship returned to New Orleans, where I enjoyed a few more hours of the Nola vibe. I am grateful for all the experiences I had. I saw people work so hard, for so little, especially in Honduras and Belize. I wish for a future where cruise ships will not only bring eager visitors to distant shores but also real change to the destinations. I want to see a day where the money that guests cough up for shore excursions goes to those who really need and so deserve it.

 

Back in New Orleans

New OrleansWhat a treat it was to be back in New Orleans. I love this city with it’s distinct French and Spanish Creole architecture. Who can resist the charm of the French Quarter where vining plants spill over the edges of balconies?

I love the multicultural atmosphere of the city, as well as the complete mix of architecture, from Greek revival, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, to Renaissance Colonial, and Gothic. I love the street performers, the ghost and voodoo stories, the street cars, the parades, and the people of New Orleans.

New Orleans, catastrophically affected by Hurricane Katrina, and hurt by the recent recession and the BP oil spill, is still struggling to recover. While the city welcomes back thousands of visitors yearly, many of the bayou inhabitants have yet to return as post-Katrina housing has become quite unaffordable.

New OrleansI was in town as part of a team competing in the Ironman 70.6 triathlon. What an amazing experience. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to Alyce Weixler and her husband, Andy Gunkler, for having me as their half marathon relay runner.  We had so much fun together; seeing the city through their eyes was wonderful.

Together we experienced the amazing cuisine of Nola that you really do not get anywhere else in the country. Jambalaya, gumbo, and muffulettas are all traditional dishes, and no visit would be complete without beignets from Cafe du Monde.

New OrleansThe cafe was established in 1862 in the New Orleans French Market and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It closes only on Christmas Day and on the day an occasional Hurricane passes too close to New Orleans. So make sure to visit. People-watching on the terrace of Cafe du Monde is my favorite thing to do in New Orleans, rain or shine.

And Then There’s New Orleans Jazz

New OrleansOn arrival day, we had a lovely drink at the bar of Brennan’s, where a Jazz orchestra provided a festive welcome.

To best way I know to describe Jazz in New Orleans is to borrow a phrase I read in the New Orleans Official Guide: “Jazz, of course, is not an invention. It’s alive. It grows, it dies, it changes, it stays the same. Jazz is to American music what the Mississippi is to America, and just as many rivers feed into the Mississippi, music (and musicians) from many cultures came together in the creation of Jazz. And they came together in perhaps the only place in the world where it could have happened, a place where multiculturalism was, and is, embedded in the fabric of everyday life: New Orleans.”

Jazz was, of course, not born in one day or one place, nor was only one particular person responsible for it. Jazz is when a variety of influences come together to create something special. In New Orleans, they call that gumbo. And I agree that nobody makes gumbo like they make it in New Orleans.

I can’t wait to visit again!