If you feel like airfare to the embarkation port is pricing you out of some cruise packages, look toward the Gulf of Mexico. Two familiar Gulf Coast cities are now opening up to cruise lines. Galveston Island is now a port on more than one cruise line, and the port of New Orleans is now serving one cruise line with high hopes of expanding. Galveston and New Orleans are not only close and convenient for many cruise passengers, these are great undiscovered American cities worth a visit in their own right.
The Gulf Coast’s two new cruise ship ports are Galveston, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. I live near Houston, Texas, and I have noticed that in terms of sky time, Houston is only about three hours from anywhere in the Continental United States. I bet it’s the same with New Orleans.
What this means is that if you live far from some of the main cruise ports, you may get a more economical cruise deal by setting sail from a Gulf Coast port.
Although these ports do not offer all of the cruise destinations of some of the larger ports, they are great places to tack on a few extra days that won’t break the bank.
Galveston, Texas is actually an island about an hour’s drive away from Houston. What you probably don’t realize about Galveston is that it is a historical area. It was a very large, bustling commercial city in the 19th century and you can still see the Victorian buildings and ornate gingerbread housing in and around its historical center (called The Strand). At that time, Galveston was the Ellis Island of the South and many 19th century immigrants first set foot on American soil in Galveston; many of them were Germans.
There is still a lot of German and Czech influence in Galveston; it extends all the way into the Texas Hill Country which boasts towns named “Frederichsburg” and “New Braunfels”. In fact, here’s a stickler. What’s the third most commonly spoken language in Texas today? (The answers are, in this order, English, Spanish, and Czech.)
Galveston has a lot of beaches (try Stuart Beach), good fishing, and some beach culture. Don’t expect Santa Monica. This is more down-home. If you dine out in this part of the world, go for shrimp (it’s a main industry in this part of the world) instead of Tex-Mex. (Tex-Mex is more popular in Houston.)
A great new attraction in Galveston is Moody Gardens, which includes an Imax Theater, extensive gardens, and even a butterfly zoo.
New Orleans is a lot like Galveston in terms of climate but not much else. While Galveston is an island, New Orleans is a city below sea level built on the Mississippi River. Katrina notwithstanding, much of New Orleans is back open for business.
In fact, the cruise business is good for New Orleans and those who want to help New Orleans get back on her feet after an unprecedented natural disaster can only help her by cruising from her port and tacking on a few days to see the city.
The best part of New Orleans for tourists is the French Quarter. Wear your walking shoes and take sunscreen or wear a hat. This is a place for walking around, watching people, window shopping, and feeling the heat. The good news is that you can take a break from the heat every few paces by stopping at the many wonderful eateries and bars.
The French Quarter is a place to sit down and eat well (though not necessarily formally) but you can get an unusual take-out there. Drinks. You can actually stop and get a drink to carry around with you. If you stop at Pat O’Brien’s and can’t finish your hurricane at the bar, just ask for a “go cup.”
Drinking while shopping ought to be against the law, but it’s not. You can browse the antique shops, souvenir stands, and jewelry stores while nipping at your go cup.
Come hungry to New Orleans. You can’t really get a bad meal here, but here are my favorites. If you like Oysters, visit the Acme Oyster Bar, which is near Canal Street (but in the Quarter) and has nothing to do with Wiley Coyote. Go down by the French Market area (ask-it’s near the river and worth seeing) and stop in some of the grocery stores to eat a muffaletta in the bank. It’s a sandwich made with olives. Don’t wear good clothes.
For fancier dining, try Commodore’s Palace (not in the French Quarter-it’s Emeril’s place). Another fun place is The Court of the Two Sisters. The food isn’t legendary, but the atmosphere is. And believe me, a “not great” place in New Orleans is fine dining everywhere else.
Wander down near Jackson Square (you can visit the cathedral there) and you’ll see vendors, street performers, and carts drawn by mules in hats. I have always been a big fan of the mule-drawn carriage tour of New Orleans. The guides are knowledgeable and yakkity in a Southern kind of way.
Once, a mule driver suggested that to complete our stay in New Orleans we try turtle soup, which is particularly well done at Brennan’s. (By the way, if you want the best eggs benedict ever, go there for breakfast.) I asked what turtle tasted like, expecting the smart alecky answer that it tastes like chicken.
The guide turned away from his mule for a second, pondered, and said simply, “Tastes like gator.”
You can get alligator, too. You’ll see it on a lot of menus. When it comes to cooking in New Orleans, you have the Creoles and the Cajuns. Creoles are Europeanized in attitude and taste; they cook with wine, butter, thick sauces, and they enjoy pastries and fancy dining. They don’t much care for spice. Cajuns are rough-and-tumble, more rural, love hot food, and will pretty much eat whatever won’t eat them first. They invented the deep-fried turkey and are not squeamish about things like boudin (pronounced boo-dan) or crawfish.
Both Creoles and Cajun cook in New Orleans and you’ll notice that in two entirely different approaches to food.
New Orleans is mainly fun in a walking-around kind of way. You have to visit Preservation Hall for both the atmosphere (it’s great but the seats are uncomfortable and the hall is hot) and the spectacular live jazz; it’s cheap, too. Otherwise, discover the city on your own. It’s not the sort of place you want to see on a rigid timetable.
If you have time to get out of the French Quarter, you can take the famous street care named Desire to go to the Garden District. These are historical old homes that were built by the people who made their fortune in New Orleans. Walk along Canal Street to do some shopping and people watching and you may notice there’s no canal. Well, it was a plan that never quite materialized.
If you do visit New Orleans as part of your next cruise, be sure to spend some money–it is what is going to really help New Orleans recover. Consider it disaster relief. Take a break and go to the Royal Sonesta. You can sit inside and eat oysters and drink something wonderful while watching the street scene on Bourbon Street. Even at two in the morning, there’s something to watch on Bourbon Street. Or walk down to the Café du Monde for coffee (it’s not like any coffee you ever got at Starbucks) and beignets (pronounced ben-nays).
One caveat: summers and even springs and falls in Galveston and New Orleans are warm. People are friendly, the style is casual and down-home, and most people are out to have a good time. Don’t be too unguarded about your personal possessions! Pickpockets and other denizens of tourist spots are at work on the Gulf Coast, too. The party culture can be infectious, but don’t let it make you stupid. And also, don’t drive if you’ve had anything to drink. Gulf Coast cops may seem friendly but they don’t have much of a sense of humor about drunk driving.