Rob Carr  /  AP file
Tourists enjoy a carriage ride along Charters Street in the French Quarter, in this July 26, 2006, file photo in New Orleans.
By John Frenaye Travel columnist
updated 12/7/2006 7:13:47 PM ET 2006-12-08T00:13:47

I have always loved New Orleans, and after Hurricane Katrina took her out in August 2005, I became one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders for tourism recovery. Ditto for Cozumel, which took a hard hit from Hurricane Wilma just two months after Katrina. I’ve never been one to weep and wail from the sidelines, so earlier this year, I organized Tripso’s “Cruise for a Cause,” a five-day trip in late October. The idea was to get a firsthand look at how New Orleans and Cozumel are doing — and to raise some money to get these two great destinations back on their feet.

Cruise for a Cause had some fantastic support and great bookings. Carnival Cruise Lines kicked in some money, and we booked cabins on its recently refurbished ship Fantasy. We got a fantastic special from the hotel Maison Dupuy and from Dominique’s restaurant in New Orleans, along with a discounted “Disaster Tour” of the devastated areas from one of my favorite outfits, Tours by Isabelle. We also booked a “Ghost Tour” of New Orleans from Haunted History Tours — the perfect adventure for Halloween Week.

Thanks to all who made the trip possible. Herewith, my report.

The good news is that both destinations are open for business, and that business is picking up with the return of the cruise ships. Before we left, I spoke with Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“The return of the cruise industry signals another milestone in the city’s recovery as we continue to send the message across the nation and the world that we are open for business,” Romig said. “The strength of the Port of New Orleans is another success story in the city in terms of progress. With regard to tourism, what the cruise industry brings is those travelers who tend to combine the cruise experience with the port city experience. Hence we see the ripple effect of the economic impact on the hospitality industry, as these visitors extend their trip either pre-cruise or post-cruise to enjoy all New Orleans has to offer.”

Touring New Orleans

I have argued in earlier columns that tourists should offer vacation dollars to the cause of rebuilding New Orleans. I’ve said it more than once: “Just go.”

But what about the health hazards? The crime? The pestilence? (I have always wanted to use that word.) Don’t worry. You won’t find them. Unless you are very lost, you won’t even see much damage. Instead, you will find welcoming faces and folks thanking you for coming. In fact, I have never received more heartfelt thanks!

In New Orleans, a quick walk around the French Quarter and the Central Business District turned up a few shops and restaurants with limited hours, but in general the city was ready, willing and able to accommodate visitors. Jazz was playing, go-cups were going and most major attractions — everything from the zoo to the casinos — were doing a brisk business.

We got a rather different perspective on our “Disaster Tour,” ably led by our guide Stanley, who took us to some of the harder-hit outlying areas. Still, there was good news. I have been on this tour four times since Katrina struck, and I am happy to report that for the first time, I saw real progress being made outside the typical tourist centers. Sure, there were some desolate neighborhoods, but most were beginning to emerge from the ruins. I guess the insurance money is finally beginning to flow. Unfortunately, the Lower 9th Ward is still a mess; it will probably be years before it even begins to resemble anything close to “normal”. But people are working, people are partying and people are enjoying all that this city has offered for hundreds of years.

Cruising and Cozumel

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The cruise portion of our getaway was notable because it was Carnival’s first sailing from New Orleans since Katrina. Fantasy is one of Carnival’s older ships, but a recent renovation spruced her up a bit. The embarkation had several glitches, but that’s not surprising when you consider that the port team had been out of practice for more than a year.

Once aboard, we found the ship a great place to celebrate the return of cruising to New Orleans. We certainly never had to go far to find a good time. From the Newlywed Game, to the Hairiest Chest Competition, to scavenger hunts for the kids — it was all there for the taking. And in true New Orleans style, this Halloween voyage had plenty of costumes to enjoy. I was surprised that besides our group, most of the passengers were locals. My minority status was confirmed on Sunday when, in a huge lapse of good judgment, I let out a cheer for the Baltimore Ravens only to be glared back into my cabin by 600 New Orleans eyeballs. These fans take their Saints very seriously!

After an unusually windy and rough day at sea, we arrived at Cozumel and docked at the Punta Langosta Pier in the center of town. As in New Orleans, we were greeted with huge smiles everywhere; I truly felt appreciated for being there. Construction on the International Pier (a few miles from town) is still ongoing and there were conflicting reports about when it would be completed. Throughout the town, building and rebuilding are in full swing. One of my fellow cruisers checked out the Intercontinental Hotel to see if it would be open for her trip in January — no problem!

Perhaps the most disheartening legacy of Wilma is the damage done to the offshore coral reefs, which have long been a paradise for divers. The sea life is slowly returning, but the reefs took a bad hit, and it will be years or even decades before they recover. One of my favorite pastimes in Cozumel on previous trips was to spend a day swimming and snorkeling in Chankanaab Park. The park is still open, but it will likely disappoint swimmers and divers for several more months. However, the park’s two dolphin encounter programs are up and running, and these can be a terrific alternative to snorkeling on your own.

Our five-day Cruise for a Cause seemed all too short, as all leisure trips tend to do. Although we are still tallying the numbers — and trying to make the difficult decision of which organizations to support — I am glad to report that the event was a success and the generosity of Carnival Corporation and our readers will go a long way toward helping some needy people.

If you’d like to take a look at the trip, check out my photo album or some of the other New Orleans trips. And if you are interested in meeting me in NewOrleans for MardiGras in February, send me an e-mail!

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