My wife had a milestone birthday recently and chose to celebrate it by taking the kids and grandkids on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise. I was in favor of taking them on a rail trip – less expensive and no seasickness – but it was her birthday.
We looked first at cruises from California to Mexico, thinking they’d be cheap. Surprisingly, Caribbean cruises were less expensive. And they left from New Orleans, one of our favorite cities. Cheaper and New Orleans as a bonus? No contest.
There was just one problem.
Our travel agent warned us to reserve rooms right away because hotels would be filling up quickly. This was in December, almost three months before Mardi Gras. She obviously was exaggerating,
She wasn’t. New Orleans starts celebrating Mardi Gras weeks before it actually starts. As if that weren’t enough, thousands of real estate agents would be in town for a convention. The only rooms that would accommodate all of us in reasonable proximity to the city’s attractions would have cost approximately as much as dental implants. We booked what were almost literally the last three rooms in town.
By “town,” I mean Algiers, on the other side of the Mississippi from New Orleans proper. Algiers is not what most people think of when they think of New Orleans.
“Are you sure this is right, Dad?” one of the kids asked as our Uber driver snaked through a neighborhood where sensible travel accessories might have included pepper spray.
As we neared the hotel, something about the area seemed familiar. The reason became clear when we saw a water tower with a faded inscription: U.S. Navy.
No wonder our hotel was available. It was conveniently located on an abandoned Navy base.
As a Navy veteran, I had mixed feelings about this. Would breakfast be sea rations? Would the receptionist order me do pushups and shine my shoes?
Eager to try some Cajun cooking, we asked the women at the reception desk the quickest way to get to the French Quarter.
“Hmmm,” she said, pondering the variables. “The quickest would probably be to take a taxi. But that depends on how long it would take a taxi to get here. This isn’t on the beaten track.
No argument there.
“Or you could walk to the ferry and take it across the river.”
“Ferry? That sounds like fun. How far away is the ferry?”
Judging by the expressions of some of the family members, who looked as if she’d suggested hiking the Appalachian Trail barefoot, not everyone was keen on walking. We had, after all, spent the day shoehorned into cramped seats on packed flights with screaming babies and had had nothing but airline pretzels to eat since dawn. A bit of grumpiness was understandable.
“Is it safe to walk two miles to the ferry?” I asked, thinking of a sketchy area we passed through en route to the hotel.
“Perfectly safe. And it’s a nice walk.”
Four of us took her up on it. I was the oldest by decades.
The receptionist was right. It was a nice walk, most of it along a landscaped levy where people strolled in the sunset and enjoyed views of the river and the city on the other side. The ferry was right on time, too. Huffing and puffing only slightly, I climbed aboard and prepared to enjoy the ride.
The ferry had barely left the dock when it became obvious that something wasn’t right.
We were on the wrong ferry.
Instead of the French Quarter, we were headed for the business district.
“That’s okay,” the kids said. “We’ll just walk.”
Easy for them to say. They’re in their 20s and fast walkers. By the time I limped into the restaurant, they were near the front of the waiting line. The rest of the family, those who had taken a taxi to the restaurant, were finishing dessert.
It was still early enough after dinner to explore the French Quarter. Normally this is a pleasant pastime, but during pre-Mardi Gras revelry it’s like exploring a sardine can. So many people were packed into the narrow streets that we had to hold on to each other to keep from getting separated. After almost losing the 12-year-old to a surge of enthusiastically inebriated conventioneers, we agreed that we’d had enough fun for one night. Hotel Navy was sounding better by the minute.
Two Lyft drivers wanted a total of $150 to take us there. We declined, already having spent more than what our rooms cost to get everyone from the airport to the hotel. When a taxi driver offered to take four of us for $25, we couldn’t accept fast enough.
It took about two minutes to realize that this charlatan had about as much business driving a cab as I would piloting a 787.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
We gave him the name of the hotel.
“I know it.”
This was reassuring. For about 30 seconds. Instead of taking a nearby thoroughfare, he happily plunged into the middle of a parade. Gridlock on steroids. People were walking faster than we were moving, on the rare occasions when we were moving.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” one of my daughters asked him.
“Yes. I know the area.”
“Do you have a GPS?”
“Yes. But I don’t like to look at it.”
Sensing that he had only the vaguest idea of where to go, she opened the GPS on her phone and began giving him directions, which he not only ignored but became defensive and sullen in the process.
Dozens of stops, myriad floats and thousands of milling revelers later, we crossed the river and found ourselves somewhere in the vicinity of our hotel.
“Do I turn right or left here?” the driver asked at a stoplight.
He lived in New Orleans, he had somehow managed to get a taxi driver’s license and he was asking tourists from Idaho for directions?
I was relieved beyond words to say goodbye to this treasure and collapse in my hotel bed, hoping not to be awakened at dawn by a bugle playing reveille.
I’ll spare you details of the rest of the trip except to say that we’re over the colds we caught on the airplane, none of us were among the passengers who fell and broke their legs on the cruise ship’s rain-slick decks, and my stingray bite healed up rather nicely.
It happens that my wife and I have a milestone anniversary coming up in a couple of years and a trip would be a great way to celebrate it.
Amtrak, here we come.