All That Jazz, and More

The alarm clock sounded off at 3 am on Friday, February 2nd. Laurel and I got out of bed and finished packing and loading the car, then drove to the airport for a 7 am flight to San Francisco. We connected there with a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. Thanks to the three-hour time change, we didn’t land in Florida until about 6 pm.

Celebrity Summit

The reason for all this silliness was the Celebrity Summit, a recently renovated and posh cruise ship that embarked on Saturday afternoon for New Orleans and Cozumel, in Mexico’s Yucatan, with 2,450 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But the thing that made this cruise extra special was the hundred or so of the best jazz musicians and singers in the world who were about to perform on Entertainment Cruise Productions’ 2018 Jazz Cruise.

Riverside Market Grill

In the meantime, we were in Ft. Lauderdale at dinner time. On our first trip to the city in 2010, the best beer we had been able to find was a bottle of Samuel Adams. But things are different in 2018, and Laurel found a brewpub on Yelp called Riverside Market Grill. We took a cab from our motel and found a bustling spot with two large walls of refrigerated cases that held more than a hundred different craft beers. They had plenty of draft beer on tap, as well. We tried a couple of pints of Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing near Tampa, and it was terrific. In addition to the mammoth beer inventory, Riverside Market Grill has a great brewpub menu.

We had dinner with our beers and chatted with friendly local quaffers and the owners, Julian and Lisa, who were very gracious hosts. Wherever we travel, beer lovers pay attention when they hear we’re from San Diego, “beer central” of California.

We had read about jazz cruises in prior years. Entertainment Cruise Productions has been doing them since 2001, but this year the list of talent just grabbed us, and we knew we had to be there. Each day, performances in several venues began around noon and lasted until midnight with the late night Birdland-produced series. Each concert was ninety minutes, and we saw three or four each day, so we were immersed in jazz for from four to six hours a day. And what a treat it was!

Birdland floats on the Jazz Cruise

I won’t go into the entire list, but a few highlights were, in the singer category, Kurt Elling, Nnenna Freelon, Ann Hampton Callaway, the New York Voices, John Pizzarelli, Niki Haris and Roberta Gambarini for starters. The musicians included the Clayton Brothers, Jeff Hamilton, Joey De Francesco, Wycliffe Gordon, Anat Cohen, Houston Person and Benny Green. Happily, a lot of the chairs and lounges for listening were comfortable, not just folding chairs. The large theater actually had rows divided like loveseats by twos with small tables, and the sight lines were very good.

Commander’s Palace

Monday, February 5th was Laurel’s birthday, and she was going to celebrate it in New Orleans! Around midday, we sighted land, and the Celebrity Summit headed upriver through miles and miles of Mississippi delta. We docked around four in the afternoon and went ashore at about five with a busload of hungry and thirsty passengers. Our destination was Commander’s Palace, an excellent restaurant in the Garden District of New Orleans. It was established in 1893 and features Creole fare. Our ship had booked the entire restaurant, and circular tables seating eight filled the dining space. As we entered, I told the hostess that it was Laurel’s birthday, and in a few minutes a bouquet of balloons was added to our centerpiece. They were pouring wine for all the guests, but I went to the bar and ordered two Sazeracs, the famous New Orleans cocktail made with rye and absinthe, although this one was made of cognac and Pernot.

One of the perks of sailing on this cruise is the fact that the singers and musicians live aboard and eat and drink and have lives like the passengers. When the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Laurel, two of the people at the table next to us were John Pizzarelli and his wife, Jessica Molaskey, and they were singing, too. In fact, when we left to go back to the ship, we ended up in an overflow bus with just ourselves, John and Jessica, and Gianni Valenti and his wife. Gianni is the owner of New York’s famous Birdland.

Gotcha!

We overnighted in New Orleans, and the next morning, Laurel and I went on a swamp tour in a covered, flat-bottomed boat. We learned a lot about the swamps and marshes that are so common in Louisiana, saw a Bald Eagle nest with eagles in it and, of course, plenty of alligators. In fact, Laurel got to hold one. I had to take the picture.

Back in the city, we had the pleasure of eating lunch at Muriel’s, a famous French Quarter restaurant. The food was superb, and a local jazz band played NOLA-style music. They also served us Sazeracs, which were the classic recipe, and they didn’t charge us extra for them. As the ads for the cruise said, “A taste of New Orleans.” This certainly whetted our appetite, and we’re eager to travel back for more.

The ship sailed in the early evening, bound for Cozumel, an island in the Yucatan region of Mexico, and we had nothing to do but spend a few more hours listening to great jazz.

When we reached Cozumel, we were surprised to learn that more cruise ships in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico call on the island than any other port. The docks were filled with lines of passengers from several ships, either walking to a bus or waiting for one to arrive. We had chosen an excursion to the site of ancient Mayan temples, combined with a beach visit, and our group walked several blocks through a bustling mall to reach our bus.

Mayan Beauty

Adrian, our excellent guide, informed us that while the Yucatan is full of Mayan ruins, the Mayan people are by no means extinct. In fact, while he is a native of the island who is not Mayan, his wife is. And throughout the region in Mexico and Central America, more than six and a half million Mayans live in today’s world. The island of Cozumel is known as the island of butterflies and flowers and is held sacred by the Maya, because it is the coastline in their land that’s farthest east, therefore, it’s the first point to welcome the rising sun.

Found my beach.

Laurel had hoped that the beach would be good for snorkeling, and she had brought her mask and snorkel, but the open surf crashing on the beach led her to a lifeguard station, where she learned that the water was dangerous. Instead, she settled for the option of sharing the shade of an umbrella with me, at a table on the sand with fish tacos and Pacificos and margaritas for lunch. Behind us, waiters literally ran full speed through the restaurant serving food and drinks to the overflowing crowd of visitors from the ships.

When the bus dropped us off back by the docks, we headed toward the ship, but noticed La Internacional Cerveceria, a craft beer bottle shop on the street, and had to check out the brews they carried. Behind the bar were rows of bottles brewed all over Mexico, along with plenty from the U.S., too. It’s amazing how craft breweries and beer shops are popping up in Mexico and Central America, as well as in the states. We tried a local IPA that turned out to be quite good.

Wycliffe Gordon pays tribute to Pops

We boarded the Summit in time to attend a swingin’ concert by the Clayton Brothers Quintet before dinner. The ship sailed at six, heading home to Ft. Lauderdale, which we would reach after our final day at sea. On Friday evening, the last night of the cruise, the New York Voices joined John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey for an all-star vocal session. The room was even more crowded than usual, since a lot of musicians were finished performing, and many of them stood in the wings and edges of the space to share in the music.

All in all, a cruise that Laurel and I will never forget.

2 Responses to All That Jazz, and More

  • GERRY SCHROEDER says:

    VIC,
    SOUNDS LIKE GREAT FUN. THANKS FOR SHARING.
    MICHELE AND I SPENT 5 DAYS IN NW ORLEANS AND
    I COULD WRITE A LARGE BOOK ABOUT ALL THE POSITIVE THINGS
    THAT HAPPENED TO US…SUFFICE TO SAY, GREAT FOOD, GREAT
    JAZZ, ETC. SOME DAY I’LL FILL YOU IN.

  • mike vaccaro says:

    Some great oysters down there too when I was there 20 years ago.

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