ON THE ROAD TO NEW ORLEANS
By Rose Botkin-Beuck & Jules E. Beuck
French Quarter.jpg (23235 bytes)
On The Road is a highlight which will come your way from time to time as a special feature of your friends at DaBelly. These will be travel articles written by various staff writers and encompassing various modes of transportation and a wide assortment of destinations. Personally, we are already working on bringing Las Vegas, Laughlin, Santa Barbara, Disney, Chicago and, today, New Orleans to you. We have recently fallen in love with cruising, so we will also be telling you of our adventures on the "high seas."

Commodore Cruise Lines was kind enough to invite us to review their ship the Enchanted Capri. As the home dock of this port is New Orleans, Louisiana, we decided to also check out the "Crescent City" while we were down there. It was a city neither of us had ever visited before.

Trying to work chronologically, we first dealt with planes and transport between airports and destinations. Things fell into place. Many hotels near airports have arrangements or packages where you can leave your car at their facility while traveling. As it is almost always less expensive to travel from Los Angeles International Airport, we decided to look for a place around there. We found the Furama Hotel-- just a five-minute complimentary shuttle bus ride from the airport.

This Furama hotel and adjacent complex is more than just a mere hotel. For example, on the hotel grounds are a variety of restaurants, a bowling alley, a number of retail shops and a major supermarket. There is also a golf course across the streetshould you get the urge to hit the greens. The lounge has nightly entertainment consisting of either a disc jockey or karaoke.

The rooms are also a step above ordinary. The first thing you notice as you enter is the size of the room. It is quite large. It is also comfortable, has a refrigerator, two sinks and a comfortable bed. You will also find a congenial staff, roomy lobby, lounge area complete with piano and a beautiful pool and pool area. The hotel itself has three buildings and 769 hotel rooms plus a well stocked gift shop.

We were also in luck in New Orleans, as far as getting ourselves to the French Quarter or Garden District, two of the distinguished New Orleans neighborhoods. At the baggage area, scattered throughout are Airport Shuttle desks. We recommend this agency and their service to get you to your hotel and back to the airport at the end of your trip. They have friendly drivers and 24 hour service. For just $10 per person each way they will get you to where you are going. As the vehicles hold a maximum of ten passengers and depart every ten minutes you will never have a long wait or too many stops on the way to your destination. To contact this company in New Orleans call (504) 465-9780.

On to New Orleans proper. As most people know, New Orleans is a big tourist mecca. There is much the city has to offer in terms of entertainment, culture and history. Before you can start exploring the area, you have to have a base of operations, commonly called a hotel. We ended up at two hotels in New Orleans, the Quality Inn Maison St. Charles and the Holiday Inn Downtown-Superdome.

First we will tell you about the Maison St. Charles. Check-in was quick and painless. Our room was a nice size. There were the usual amenities including a coffee maker, a hairdryer (unfortunately our hairdryer did not work) and even a safe. The service directory in the room was printed in English, French and Spanish. USA Today and a local newspaper are provided free of charge.

The hotel consists of a number of buildings, some of which have been designated historic landmarks. It has courtyards with tables and a fountain. There is a small but nice swimming pool. There is also a small cafeteria and full service restaurant, as well as the ubiquitous sports bar. A free shuttle to the main parts of New Orleans is available. The St. Charles Streetcar stops right outside the front door. This is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world and can deliver you to the French Quarter or parts of the Garden District depending on where you want to go. Murals of New Orleans are painted on the parking area walls. There is a fee for parking.

Maison St. Charles.jpg (19330 bytes)The Maison St. Charles is a small hotel and consequently there is no room service. If you need extra pillows or towels you need to go to the front desk where they are more than happy to help guests. The Maison St. Charles is located in the famous Garden District of New Orleans and can be reached at (800) 831-1783 or visit their Web site at www.maisonstcharles.com.

Next up is the Holiday Inn Downtown-Superdome. Check-in was quick and painless like at the Maison. This room was also a nice size with comfortable beds that also had bedpost headboards as the Maison did. It also had the usual amenities (including a working hair dryer). Being a larger hotel, there was also concierge floors, regular room service and turndown service. Since New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, the hotel is set up with a jazz theme. A table lamp in the room was made out of an actual clarinet. There is also a mural of a clarinet on the side of the hotel that goes from the ground to the top of the eighteen-story building-- the mural is so amazing that it looks like a photograph. The rooftop swimming pool is a decent size. Off the pool is a fitness center with exercycles and treadmills.

The Holiday Inn Downtown-Superdome has murals of New Orleans in the driveway where shuttle busses and cabs drop off and pick people up. There is a lounge and full service restaurant, as well as room service. Parking is not free here either. Call (504) 581-1600 for more information.

Once you have a base of operations it is time to explore. We took a city tour with Gray Line where we were shown New
Orleans' architecture, where the battle of New Orleans took place and one of their unique above ground cemeteries. We also took a two-hour walking tour of the French Quarter with Friends of the Cabildo. This tour emphasized the history, architecture and folklore of the area. Both tours were enlightening and enjoyable, though the guides differed on the reason many of New Orleans' older houses were built in such a way that you can shoot a gun through the front door and have the bullet go out the back door without hitting anything.

The French Quarter is amazing at any time, but at night it really comes to life. Music was everywhere! Every three doorways was a different style of music. So whatever your pleasure is, you will find an establishment that has it. You can go inside or stay out on the street, as all the establishments have open windows. People stand on the balconies and throw beads to the people below. Every night is a party and, if this is how it is in October, Mardi Gras has to be suffocating. We loved the music and people watching.

Even though we were about to go on a cruise, we decided to take the Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi River and back. It was relaxing and somewhat informational. There was a Dixieland band inside for those who did not wish to look at the passing scenery. Not finished with our preparation for our cruise after the Natchez, we also took an airboat tour of the Louisiana Swamps where we saw alligators and a shack that looked just like the one portrayed in Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

We were supposed to tour a plantation, but there was a communication mix-up between the tour company and us. Our tickets said pickup was at 9 a.m., but they came by to pick us up at 8:52 a.m. and left without us. This tour was not to have been with the Gray Line Tours.

They say always leave something for next time and we did. Not only will we visit a plantation, but there are numerous interesting museums that we just did not have time for.

Another thing, which New Orleans is very well known for, is their cuisine. With this in mind, we checked out some of their finer/most well-known eating establishments. After all, we do want to tell you about the "all around" experience. We actually visited three of New Orleans' more celebrated eating establishments and one of their cafés. All are in the French Quarter. We will take them in the that order we visited them.

First up is Arnaud's. Arnaud's has been a French Quarter staple since 1918 when it was opened by "Count" Arnaud Cazenave. The Cazenave family owned the restaurant until 1978 when the Casbarian family purchased it. They still own the establishment.

The Casbarian's returned Arnaud's to its original glory, as it had started to fall on hard times. The restaurant is a block long, consisting of twelve separate buildings that have been connected by various halls and stairwells. There is also a small museum that houses many of the elaborate Mardi Gras gowns worn by Germaine Cazenave Wells, daughter of the Count. The gowns are amazing in their own right, but many of the trains that accompanied the gowns could have been used for large area rugs and must have weighed fifty or sixty pounds each.

We ate in the Richelieu Room. This room is slightly less formal than the regular dining room, in other words a coat and tie is not required, and has live Dixieland jazz nightly. For an appetizer, we had an Arnaud's original, Soufflé Potatoes. These are French Fries that have been fried once then refried in oil that is hotter than the original oil. This makes the fries puff out and gives them a light fluffy consistency. The potatoes are served with a lovely Béarnaise sauce. We also had the Turtle soup, which was a superb richly textured broth with a slight wine taste.Cozumel.jpg (14972 bytes)

Our entrées were Filet Mignon Au Poivre and the Shrimp and Scallops Eva. The filet is seared, pepper studded and served with a French brandy cream sauce. The shrimp and scallops are served in a sauce consisting of port wine, toasted saffron and cream and are accompanied by jasmine rice. The seafood dish was tender and tasty but the steak was a little bland.

For dessert we had Turtle Pie. The turtle pie was an interesting mix of flavors with French vanilla ice cream over a brownie. It was different and we enjoyed it very much.

Arnaud's is located at 813 Rue Bienville. Contact them by telephone at (504) 523-5433 or go to their Web site at www.arnauds.com. At the Web site you can find out more about the facility and ask their chef questions about cooking.

The next day, we had brunch at the Court of Two Sisters. The French Quarter is known for having many courtyards that are not visible from the street. Court of Two Sisters has taken one of these courtyards and turned it into an eating establishment and you can eat indoors if you prefer or if the weather is inclement. Their brunch is served from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and is accompanied by a jazz band. The band alternates between playing outdoors in the courtyard and moving indoors. No one has to miss out on the music.

The brunch consists of eighty items. The items do not stay constant. At one point, we went back to get some glazed ham and found it replaced with a creamed pasta dish. We were pleased with everything we tried except for the horseradish sauce that accompanied the roast beef, it was rather weak, surprising considering all the spices associated with Creole cooking.

Court of Two Sisters is located at 613 Royal Street. Their telephone number is (504) 522-7261 and their Web site is www.courtoftwosisters.com.

Next was Brennan's. The Brennan family owns a number of restaurants in and around New Orleans. We ate at the facility
located at 417 Rue Royale which has been a French Quarter staple since 1946. They are famous for their breakfast, but serve lunch and dinner also.

We went there for lunch. We had the Ribeye steak and Veal 417. The ribeye was delicious. The Veal 417 is sautéed veal
topped with lump crabmeat and a Hollandaise sauce. The sauce and crabmeat were luscious, but the veal was bland. The meals are accompanied by a basket of two loaves of French bread, which were very tasty. For dessert, we had Creole Chocolate Suicide Cake which consists of a rich dark chocolate cake and was excellent. We also had a Brennan's creation (though served at many New Orleans establishments) called Bananas Foster. Take bananas, sauté them in butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and banana liqueur then flame it all in rum, serve it over ice cream and you have a dessert to die for.

At Brennan's one can dine up or downstairs, in a courtyard or on a balcony. Brennan's may be reached at (504) 394-8879 or online at www.brennansneworleans.com. If you want to sample the cuisine at Brennan's but cannot get to the Big Easy, head down to Anaheim. A Brennan's has just opened in Downtown Disney.

Lastly, before departing on this trip, many people told us we had to go to Café du Monde for coffee and a pastry called a
beignet. Café du Monde is located just outside the French Quarter by the Farmer's Market. A beignet is similar to a fried
doughnut and is smothered in powdered sugar. We may have been expecting too much after the build up folks gave us. It was okay, but nothing we would go out of our way to repeat upon our next visit to New Orleans.

If you are going to New Orleans and plan to eat at Arnaud's, Court of Two Sisters or Brennan's reservations are recommended. The prices are steep but they provide excellent eating experiences.

Mural.jpg (20936 bytes)Since this trip was initially based around our going on a Commodore Cruise it is about time we tell you about that. Commodore Cruise Line sails two cruise ships out of New Orleans where one can cruise anywhere from two to twenty-one days. Commodore wanted our readers to be aware of what they have to offer and invited us to sail with them on one of their ships. The ship in question is the Enchanted Capri, their other ship out of the Big Easy is called the Enchanted Isle. The Capri has two basic itineraries. One is a two-day cruise to nowhere. In other words, the ship sets sail out of New Orleans, sails down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, spends a day in the Gulf and then heads back up the Mississippi to New Orleans. Yes, as the song says, "Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico." The other itinerary is a five-day cruise down to the Gulf, or Western Caribbean if you will, with one-day stops in Playa Del Carmen/Cozumel, Mexico (this is considered one stop, as the people let off in Playa Del Carmen re-board the ship in Cozumel) and Progresso/Merida, Mexico.

The five-day itinerary is the one we participated in. We would have to say that we are very happy we did so.

The Capri was built in Finland in 1975 as a car ferry for Russia. In 1984 it was refurbished into a cruise ship and eventually leased to Commodore Cruise Line. It currently is capable of carrying 637 passengers and has a crew of 300.

The Capri is smaller than the usual cruise ship, but that does not mean you will miss out on what you go on a cruise for. There is food available around the clock, showroom entertainment and, of course, a casino.

The food was tasty and the service staff in the dining room was very good. Our table captain went out of his way to learn the first names of everyone at the tables he served (about four tables of 6-8 people for two seatings). Three meals a day are served in the dining room, as well as the famous midnight buffet.

The waiters performed the Baked Alaska parade one evening, which was hysterical. For those who have not cruised, the Baked Alaska parade consists of all the waiters and busboys dancing down the length of the dining room (in this case to "The Macarena") with Baked Alaska desserts balanced on their heads. Sparklers are placed in the desserts and the lights are dimmed for effect.

The show room entertainment consisted of two nights of a comedian (the less said about him the better), two nights of musical variety and one night of audience participation. The musical variety was presented by four performers, two male and two female, who performed to recorded music. They had nice voices and were very good dancers. One evening, their show consisted of tunes from Broadway productions and the other night, popular tunes from the '40s, '50s and '60s. The four performers also doubled as the cruise directors support staff, as they would run activities for the guests during the day.

The cruise director had a full schedule of activities planned. There were wooden horse races, trivia games and, of course,
jackpot bingo. If you did not want to participate in the planned activities, you could catch some rays on deck, go to one of the lounges-- a piano bar, disco lounge, a lounge with no entertainment and a dance lounge with band. The ship even has a small library where you can borrow books if you run out of reading material while catching some rays.

The casino is one of the largest on any cruise ship. It is administered by the Isle of Capri Casino, which has about five casinos on land in Louisiana and Texas, and there is also supposed to be one in Las Vegas. The Isle of Capri Casino often rewards their regulars with complimentary cruises on the Enchanted Capri, usually of the two-day variety.

The staff in general was very friendly and accommodating. Any request (within reason) was fulfilled if at all possible. Our cabin steward considered everyone in the rooms she was assigned as her "babies" and invited everyone to call her "Ma." Speaking of our room, it was just the right size for two people. However, the room can accommodate up to four-- two lower beds and two fold down bunks. Four people we feel would be a bit cramped.

There was a masseuse and hair stylist on board. We treated Rose to a massage and she found the masseuse to be superb.Swampboat.jpg (19651 bytes)

There were excursions that could be booked for ports where the ship docked. These included trips to visit the Mayan or Aztec ruins, shopping trips, snorkeling off a catamaran, Jeep tours, glass bottom boats and even a genuine submarine tour. We took the snorkeling off the catamaran tour in Cozumel. The snorkeling was fabulous, as the water is so clear, but we would have liked more time in the water. After the snorkeling, there was a party on board as we sailed to a white sand beach where we relaxed in a hammock until it was time to get back on board the Capri.

Not everything went smooth on the cruise. The ship is twenty-five years old and is showing its age. On the way to the dining room there were electrical repairs going on almost daily. We would walk past as sparks were flying. On the top deck, floorboards were continuously being replaced. In the small gym, half the equipment did not work (we could tell that the gym room was always a workout room, as there was a chin-up bar and dipping bars built right into the bulkhead). There was still enough equipment left to get a decent workout.

The seas were very rough on our trip and many of the activities were poorly attended because guests were seasick. In a smaller ship, you feel the movement of the waves much more than in larger ships. In some ways this is a good thing. You get more of the lull or rocking feel, which can be quite relaxing. This trip, however, it was a detriment. Even some of the crew were feeling the effects.

Overall we were very pleased with our cruise. The Capri may not have all the brass and glitter of the bigger ships, but it provides its guests with all the amenities you expect from a cruise and definitely gives you your money's worth. This is a cruise which we would definitely recommend, especially for the first-time cruiser. Any travel agent can help you book a Commodore Cruise or go to their Web site at www.commodorecruise.com.

All considered, this was a highly enjoyable trip. We recommend all aspects of it. As a matter of fact, we feel that it is not a matter of "if" we will revisit New Orleans and sail with Commodore Cruise Lines again, but "when." Of course, we will keep you posted.

Author's Note: As of deadline, it has come to our attention that Commodore Cruise Lines (at least temporarily) has suspended operations.

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