Central America And The Mardi Gras With Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines Part 4

We spent most of the day sailing along the Mississippi River, which was delightful. When I visited New Orleans last year, our transit of the Mississippi was at night for arrival and departure, but this time we got to experience it in daylight. Granted, there’s not a lot to see until you start getting closer to the city, but it’s still a pleasant way to spend the day. Finally, the city skyline began to creep into view and it wasn’t long before we were sailing past the Lundi Gras festival on the waterfront, and towards our berth.

Balmoral was alongside in NOLA (New Orleans) at 16:30 and we were soon off the ship, through immigration and walking towards Canal Street. There were thousands of people out enjoying the parades of Lundi Gras and some of the floats were spectacular. I think we had arrived just at the right time to catch some of the best ones! The city was electric, but we didn’t stay ashore long. We had big plans for the following day and wanted to be up early to catch the Rex and Zulu parades – 2 of the biggest parades of Mardi Gras – so we retreated to the ship for some refreshments and sleep.

Finally, the day we had been waiting for arrived: Fat Tuesday as it’s known. We left the ship before 08:00 and walked up Julia Street until we came to St Charles. We turned right and walked a few more blocks before settling in place for the parades. The section of street where we decided to pitch was also where Balmoral’s passengers would sit on the organised excursion (across the street), but they had stands and toilet access, unlike us – I guess sometimes an excursion ticket really does come in useful! The atmosphere was incredible and everyone was having a good time. There were a few locals that thought they owned the sidewalk, one woman in particular was bossing people around as if she held the key to the city, but my friend and I managed to remain in place. We had travelled half way around the world for Mardi Gras, we were not moving!

After several hours of standing in the same place, we decided to walk towards Canal Street – we needed a change of backdrop and to get the blood flowing in our legs and feet again. We squeezed our way through thousands of people and finally slipped into a gap in the crowd on Canal Street which was as close to the parade route as we would get. Before long, more floats were passing us and the beads were being thrown in every direction. Mardi Gras is serious business and there were people with several bags filled to bursting with all kinds of beads, soft toys and other wonderful goodies. I lost count of how many sets of beads my friend and I caught (and how many had been slammed into the boot of the Police car in front of us), but they kept coming and we kept throwing them around our necks – by the end of the day my neck ached! The beads collectively are heavy and several times we had to take them off and put them in bags just to give our muscles a break and to allow our skin to breathe.

The weather in New Orleans was perfect for Mardi Gras – warm and sunny – and by 15:00 we were both tired, hot, hungry and thirsty. I’d made a reservation at a restaurant called Royal House before we left for the cruise, so off we went to cool down and fill up. Royal House is on Royal Street, which is just a short walk from Canal Street and a stone throw away from Bourbon Street. The restaurant was busy, but it wasn’t long before we were seated and browsing through the menu. I ordered the shrimp and deep fried grits stuffed with mozzarella. The food was nice, there was a lot of flavour, but my grits were a little overdone on one side and the presentation of the food wasn’t good. We also ordered some hush puppies to share and they were very tasty, I’d have those again. There were lots of people enjoying oysters while we were there – the restaurant has a rather impressive oyster bar – and one couple also ordered crab legs, which looked amazing! I did have food envy for a while. Although I didn’t have the best experience at Royal House, I would like to go back when it is not Mardi Gras and try some other dishes on the menu as the restaurant usually gets such good reviews. Royal House also has a sister restaurant on Canal Street called Creole Cuisine and the menu there looks great!

Fed and watered, it was time to enjoy the evening, so we made our way to Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street is certainly not for the lighthearted and it was even more crowded during Mardi Gras. We stopped in a few bars – Tropical Isle and Jester being the only ones I can remember – before heading back to the ship at around 23:00. Everything shuts down at midnight on Fat Tuesday to allow the city to clean the streets etc. before normality resumes the following day. We had such a great time there! It’s not for everyone – even without Mardi Gras New Orleans is always busy, day and night – but we spotted several passengers from the ship that were also out enjoying the city and everything it has to offer.

Balmoral wouldn’t sail from New Orleans until 18:00, so we made the most of our last day in the city and took the St Charles line streetcar the following morning to the Lafayette Cemetery. The cemetery was built-in 1833 and was filled to capacity within just a few decades of it opening. One thing my friend and I both noticed were the names on many of the above-ground graves: they were German and Irish. Immigrants were truly devastated by the yellow-fever epidemics of the 19th-century and one tomb contains an entire family that had all died from it. I know a cemetery isn’t usually the first thing on a ‘must-do’ list when exploring, but Lafayette is certainly worth visiting if you are ever in New Orleans.

We left the Cemetery and made our way along the riverfront towards the market. It was crowded, but nothing like it had been the day before. I bought a few pieces of African art and then we jumped on the Riverfront streetcar and stopped in the RiverWalk shopping outlet. We had lunch, browsed some stores and then made the short walk back to the ship.

Balmoral sailed from New Orleans and my heart felt heavy, my feet also ached terribly, so I didn’t stand on deck feeling sad for too long. The next day was spent at sea (thank you God, I thought to myself) and I spent most of it out on deck, reading and sunning myself. I don’t know how far we walked over the course of our 2.5 days in NOLA, but we had certainly earned the right to be bone idle for the day.

Tampa marked the beginning of our Floridian ports and as we had never been before, I’d arranged for a tour of Ybor City with the Tampa Tourism Board before we left on the cruise. We were picked up from the port and within a few minutes we had arrived in historic Ybor City; in some parts it felt like we had stepped back in time. We stopped for a quick drink at The Bunker before meeting Wally at the Ybor City State Museum for a guided tour of the museum and then Ybor City itself. Wally was brilliant, such a lovely man and very good at what he does. Before we went inside the museum, he introduced us to Ybor City’s chicken population. The chickens are protected in Ybor and are direct descendants of the chickens that lived in the backyards of the neighbourhoods earliest residents over 100 years ago – they’ve earned the right to be there, but not everyone is thrilled by their presence.

We said our goodbyes to the chickens and crossed the road (see what I did there) to begin our tour of the museum. Wally told us all about the city’s history and also proudly mentioned that he is an expert cigar roller. He and his wife currently hold the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest cigar rolled by hand. It was 59.82 metres in length and was made during the Cigar Heritage Festival in November 2009.

Wally at his original cigar rolling table with a section of the cigar beside him.

The museum was once the Ferlita Bakery, known for producing Cuban bread, and the history of the bakery is also showcased inside the museum. From the museum, we walked down the street to La Casita (which means small house): an example of how workers in Ybor would have lived 100 years ago. It was incredibly interesting and even more so when Wally reminisced about his time as a child growing up in a house just like the one we were standing in. If I remember correctly, he’d lived just around the block with his family.

Wally took us to other areas of the city, including Jose Marti Park. Jose Marti was a Cuban national hero and his campaigning in Florida was a huge contributor to the success of the Cuban War of Independence.The park is only 0.14 acres, but holds great significance. It is has been owned by the Cuban government since 1956 and is classed as Cuban territory. Technically, we walked from Florida to Cuba and back again in just a few minutes!

Once our tour was complete, Wally walked us to the Columbia Restaurant, where we had arranged to have lunch. The oldest Spanish restaurant in the world, the Columbia has been owned and operated by 5 generations of the same family for over 100 years. It takes up an entire block and although beautiful tiles adorn the exterior, it doesn’t look as exciting outside as it is on the inside. One moment, I felt like I was in the grand hall of an old manor house, then I walked through an archway and was suddenly in what resembled an old Spanish courtyard – it was beautiful. We were promptly seated and our waiter brought us fresh, warm Cuban bread and some glasses of water. I ordered the Mojo Chicken sandwich and it was not only delicious, but incredibly fresh. I ordered churros for dessert and they too were tasty. The food and service were both exceptional – prices are also quite reasonable, given the portion sizes!

We left the Columbia and walked around Ybor for a few more hours before getting the street car back to the port. We’d bought soda and water in the city, so we left those heavy bottles onboard Balmoral and then made our way back ashore and around to ChannelSide Bay Plaza for some drinks. There are various bars and restaurants there and we decided to sit at Hooter’s – which, surprisingly was playing host to at least 30 other passengers from the ship! We watched the sun set, with a rum and coke, and before long we were both feeling hungry. We ordered a chicken strips appetizer to share and they were gone in minutes – the food is really good at Hooter’s! We decided to only order something small as there was a pizza restaurant around the corner that we had our eyes on, and as an added bonus, we had to pass it on the walk back to the ship – talk about good luck! The time came for us to make our way back, so we grabbed our pizza and walked back home to Balmoral.

We had a great day in Tampa and Ybor City was fantastic. I can’t cover every individual detail from our visit (this blog is already stretching its way to Australia), but if you get a moment, please look at this link as it shows you step by step where we went during our walking tour and you can do the same thing – Visit Ybor City.

The next day (which we spent at sea) was warm and sunny, but quite windy. Throughout the cruise, my friend and I had sat by the pool on Deck 7 most days without issue, but on this particular day, we had to contend with salt splashes – it was very relaxing watching the water do this for several hours. It had taken on a life of its own.

Everyone was looking forward to our early morning arrival in Key West the following day, but then, it came. Captain Stoica made his noon announcement and broke the news that because of strong winds, Balmoral – along with several other cruise ships – had cancelled her call to the port. My heart sank. I didn’t get to see much of Key West last year because I was unwell, so to be told we wouldn’t be going was very disappointing. This was the 4th port that had been cancelled and the natives onboard were starting to get restless.  I’m sure at one point some people were even discussing taking bets on where our next port would be. We had to make light of a bad situation, we’d been plagued with bad luck – where the weather was concerned – since we left Southampton. The Captain continued with his info update and advised that we would instead sail straight for Miami and spend the evening and following day alongside. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go ashore on the Sunday evening because there were no security services available to allow us to disembark. Fred. Olsen offered to cover the costs to hire another company (which I thought was very good as it certainly wouldn’t have been cheap), but authorities in the U.S. said no. On a happier note, Captain Stoica finished his announcement with the news that a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks would be free for the rest of the day. This softened the blow somewhat and the entire ship came to life. I’d never seen the Morning Lights Pub on Deck 7 so busy! People were dancing and singing, and having a great time. The singer in there even continued his show for over an hour longer than he was supposed to, simply because he too was enjoying the atmosphere.

We arrived in Miami to the glow of the city skyline and it was a beautiful sight! Miami was a bucket list port for me and I was quite pleased that we arrived later than planned (we were originally told around 19:00 but it was after 21:00 when we docked) as the sun had set and all the buildings were lit up with dancing lights – some quite literally. It was frustrating that we couldn’t go ashore that evening, but we were looking forward to exploring South Beach the following day…

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