Meandering down the Mississippi River from the Big Easy to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
The levees that keep the mighty Mississippi from over-flowing its banks disappeared into the darkness as the Carnival Elation followed the river’s serpentine course from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.
Like jambalaya and jazz, the levees are synonymous with the “Big Easy,” a city built by French-Canadian explorers in 1718 on a crescent of Louisiana marshland 100 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi.
When the world’s third-largest river swells with run-off from as far away as Minnesota, it’s the earthen levees that protect the city and surrounding countryside, most of which is below sea level. But during the Christmas holidays the levees serve a more frivolous purpose — it’s where people build their “feux de joie,” the traditional Creole bonfire to welcome Papa Noel from his journey down the Mississippi.
In this meandering stretch of the river where there are so many twists and turns, it was often difficult to know where we were headed. At one point after rounding a particularly large bend at English Turn, we even found ourselves pointing back towards New Orleans.
Despite the circuitous route, we slipped into the warm waters of the Gulf some eight hours later, and set a southwesterly course for Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
The first port of call in our five-day cruise from New Orleans to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Playa del Carmen is a small, quiet village with beautiful beaches and warm, turquoise waters. It’s also the jumping off point (literally, since cruise ships tender passengers ashore) for excursions to the nearby Mayan ruins at Tulúm, which are said to have inspired the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Mayan civilization was one of the most advanced cultures of the pre-Colombian Period, and it flourished on the Yucantán Peninsula where it built several great cities including Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal and Tulúm. Tours to all three were available on our cruise from either Playa del Carmen, or from the tiny fishing village of Progresso, Mexico where we docked the next day.
While less well preserved than Chichén-Itzá and Uxmal, Tulúm is perched on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and easily has the most beautiful location.
Built in honour of the sun, the city has some 56 temples, shrines and platforms, many with carvings featuring the solstices, equinoxes and movements of the sun. The principal buildings include The Castle (a tower overlooking the Caribbean Sea used to safely guide Mayan boats through the dangerous reefs surrounding Tulúm), the Temple of the Frescoes (an outstanding collection of Toltec wall paintings), and the Temple of the Wind (a small sanctuary overlooking the bay built in honour of Ehecatl, god of the wind).
While we were spending the better part of a day touring Tulúm, our ship relocated to nearby Isla Cozumel, where we rejoined it later that afternoon. Many passengers prefer to disembark the ship at Cozumel, a popular resort island which has much better shopping and snorkeling than Playa del Carmen.
After leaving Cozumel, our ship sailed overnight to the small fishing village of Progresso on the opposite side of the Yucatán Peninsula. The village itself is not much to see, but it is located near a number of interesting destinations including Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal and the Spanish colonial city of Merida.
Founded by the Spanish in 1542, Merida has some of the oldest colonial buildings in America, including the San Ildefonso Cathedral, La Casa de Montejo, and the Governor’s Palace which are all located near the city’s Main Plaza. The Governor’s Palace houses a history gallery with a series of beautiful murals depicting the history of the Yucatán.
After strolling through the Main Plaza, we hired a horse-drawn carriage next to the cathedral for a 45-minute tour. The carriage rides along El Paseo de Montejo with its grand 19th-century European mansions, and loops around the famous Monument to the Flag which depicts the history of Mexico.
Two days later our cruise ended in New Orleans, where we decided to spend several days before returning home.
For our stay, we chose the Hotel Maison de Ville near the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon streets in the French Quarter. Originally built in the 18th century, the boutique hotel has 16 rooms overlooking a charming courtyard. Playwright Tennessee Williams stayed here in the 1940s (room #9) and sat at one of the courtyard’s wrought iron tables working on “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Since the French Quarter is where New Orleans was born, its narrow streets are filled with old homes and elegant buildings, many with ornate iron balconies and lovely courtyards. Several of these historic landmarks have been turned into public museums, such as the Gallier House on Ursuline Street and the Hermann-Grima House on St. Louis Street. The best way to see them all is to pick up a guidebook and start walking from St. Louis Cathedral on Chartres Street. Luckily, the French Quarter was not badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
It’s also worth walking over to Canal Street to catch a ride on the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which opened in 1835 and is the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world. This 6.6-mile line passes through the central business area before reaching the Garden District, which has some of the city’s most glamourous mansions built during the antebellum years when New Orleans was one of the richest cities in America. The homes here, many of them designated national landmarks, were built in the mid-1800s in several architectural styles including American cottage, ornate Italianate and Greek Revival.
While the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street is full of honky-tonk fun, serious jazz lovers usually head to the historic Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street, or to the nearby Faubourg Marigny. This district is home to many of the best jazz clubs in New Orleans, including The Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor, and Sweet Lorraine’s.