After a long day I decided to take the thirty four Stephanie’s, Tom, and Tony out for dinner as a thank you for their wonderful hard work yesterday at the charity event and beyond…………by the way, wasn’t Tom’s video brilliant yesterday?

Anyway, off we went to Bourbon Street and after trying one or two of the recommended places and finding them full…….we ended up at a restaurant that none of us had ever tried before called Embers Steakhouse.

Now, I have enjoyed many a fine meal in New Orleans – the city’s cuisine is legendary – and there are times on this blog thingy of mine that I may amplify what happens in my life a wee bit but not on this occasion…………..because quite honestly it was the worst food and the worst service I have had in a long, long time. I will come back and describe what I mean in a moment but for now lets just say this…………..if I had to choose between eating my dinner out of Dwyane Wade’s jockstrap after a winning game…………… or eating at Embers again…………let’s just say that Dwayne my find a ketchup stain or two in his underwear.

Service……………..what’s happened?

I was talking to a Blogger before I had my horrible experience tonight… Jim is a smoker and last night left his table in a busy, expensive New Orleans restaurant for a quick puff in the doorway. While he was out, his wife nipped off to powder her nose. ……………….or as we men say ………….have a piss.

They had paid their bill and were in the process of finishing their bottle of wine. When they both returned to their table, they found it had been cleared, the remainder of their wine was gone and another couple had been seated in their place. When they complained to the manageress — who had included a service charge in the sum she’d just charged them for her hospitality — she snapped that it was not her job to “baby-sit” their drinks.

The conversation then continued as Dan and Carol from the Cruise Mates group also told of their recent service experience at a restaurant in Chicago. They had gone for an early dinner in a restaurant in which the staff neglected to tell them, when they seated them and took their order, that they were 30 minutes from closing. So, after our wine had arrived, and their appetizers and main courses had landed in suspiciously swift succession, the waiters started stacking chairs on top of tables, vacuuming around their feet and loitering pointedly at an empty table reading their evening newspaper. A few minutes later, the manager wafted by and remarked that they shouldn’t feel rushed; they could stay for another half an hour if we really wanted but the restaraunt was closing early that night for a staff Christmas party. And then she presented the bill in which, Dan and Carol noted, she had optimistically left them a space in which to add a tip.

Bad service, ranging from the sullen and unfriendly to the downright insulting and rude, has become the norm rather than the exception in busy establishments all around the world. As a customer, you are more than likely to leave a pub or restaurant feeling that you and your petty little demands have been an irritating impediment to the management’s mission to extract as much of your money for as meager a return as is legally possible..

In a restaraunt/coffees shop in Miami near the Carnival office, where the staff appear specially trained to fling your food at you from a distance of about 3 feet, and where they begin to clear your table before you’ve finished chewing, they have a sign at the till saying Tipping is Not a City in China. So, not only are you expected to pay exorbitant prices for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, you must also leave a gratuity for the staff or risk being sneered at or even worse ………….. because if you don’t tip you may find the next time you order a bowl of pasta that the green pesto sauce is a little crunchier than usual.

We could, certainly, be a lot more vocal in telling managers of nasty hotels why we had no plans ever to visit their establishment again. But we shouldn’t have to. Not if a proper, respectful and dignified service attitude existed in this country in the first place.

And Embers Restaurant stands out as a shrine to rudeness. You get the distinct impression that, if staff is actually passably polite, it’s only because they’ve briefly forgotten their manners.

After ordering an outrageously expensive round of drinks there some time back, we were left waiting for 15 minutes while our cocktails sat, in clear view, going flat on a tray on the counter. When Stephanie Meads got up to inquire if there was any chance of actually getting our hands on them, a waiter sharply told her to sit down. She snapped that the drinks had only been there “for five minutes,” and wondered no doubt if we thought she had nothing better to do than serve the likes of us.

But this was just the start. Just before I start with the specifics I should at this point apologize to Big Ed and his wife Pat, Divetrash and Chef Kevin all of whom saw us sitting in this hell hole and asked if it was OK. At that time we had not been subjected to any food so we said yes …………… come on in …………….and that was them ………… hell……………..with us.

The waiter was in a world of his own. He took our order after another 30 minute wait during which time I was so hungry that Big Ed started to look like a good piece of Prime Rib. Eventually he wafted over and took our order……………I should have listened to my instinct because any waiter who writes the order for 8 people on the back of a bar napkin is likely to have the brain capacity of an amoeba and get it all wrong……………..and he did.

Big Ed’s Gumbo arrived after 20 minutes………….this was fine except the rest of us had bugger all to eat………….our appetizers were no where to be seen ………… Big Ed didn’t like it when a bit of Gumbo dribbled down his chin and I tried to lick it up.

It was 10 minutes after Large Edward had finished his Gumbo that our starters arrived. I had ordered the crab cake which was advertised as being cooked in “secret sauce”…………..well. It’s only a secret if you have never heard of Hellman’s Bloody Mayonnaise before…………because I had a blob of it next to my sad looking crab cake. The others all said that their food was average to dreadful.

However, this was just the tip of the iceberg because we then waited …………….. are you ready for this…………….one hour before our main courses arrived. Well…………..when I say arrived I mean……….well………….lets see if I can remember everything.

Mrs. Big Ed……………well she ordered a Jumbo Shrimp Platter……………….when it arrived she asked the waitress………….sorry …………….she asked the waiter if this was the Jumbo Shrimp Platter…………he said “yes”………and that’s all he said.

Well, the shrimps were a little small but Mrs. Big Ed tucked in although I could see she was not impressed. Well, a few moments later the waiter arrived with my Prime Rib which I had asked for to be cooked well done. I would have checked it there and then but unfortunately I had no knife and fork. I had asked our waiter for some cutlery but that had been ten minutes ago …………… yep………….I sat for ten minutes without a knife and fork and was very close to becoming John the Caveman and eating it with my hands when another waiter walked past and I asked him. He then went to a draw and took out the weaponry needed and brought it over.

I cut open the steak and couldn’t believe my eyes. My steak looked like the opening 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan as huge fountains of blood spurted from the deceased cow. I was about to ask the waiter to take it away but he was occupied with a much more serious matter. He had realized that he had given Mrs. Big Ed Tom’s Shrimp Curry and without apologizing he removed her plate mid chew and put a plate of proper Jumbo Shrimp in front of her ……………. then…………..and I have seven witnesses to this……………he took the partially eaten shrimp curry and placed it in front of Tom……………we were speechless.

I couldn’t be asked to mention my steak was pinker than a yawning hippopotamus and neither could Chef Kevin who had ordered a medium rare and had been given a well done. Tony’s pasta dish was colder than an Eskimo’s nipple and Big Ed would have complained about his prime rib I am sure………….but the waiter had forgotten to put the order in so he had bugger all.

Now you know me…………I never complain……………….well…………….I do here on the blog thing but always after the fact…………….and this time even I had reached my boiling point. I respectfully asked the waiter to speak to the manager and over he came. I explained all of the mistakes, I told him about the service and the quality of the food and he got very defensive. I didn’t shout …………..I called him sir………….and I resisted the temptation to beat him over the head with my steak.

At first he didn’t listen and wanted to check with the waiter that we were telling the truth. I think realization hit him when he turned round to look for the waiter who had suddenly buggered off and by the fact that I pointed out that Big Ed was starting to naw at a chair leg because he hadn’t received his main course yet. And so………….after much discussion the manager reluctantly said there would be no charge for Mrs. Big Ed’s half eaten shrimp thingy or for Big Ed’s main course……………oh well that’s good since he didn’t have the bloody (or well done) thing yet. However, there was nothing he could do about my Saving Private Ryan steak and he ignored the fact that the rest of food had been left uneaten.

We had arrived at 7:45pm. We left at 10:10 pm …………hungry and bemused and somewhat angry. The waiter still had the nerve to leave a space on the check for a tip and for the first time that I can remember ………………I left the waiter …………. bugger all.

But the fact that all of these places clearly expect tips for their staff, no matter how poorly they treat their customers, is really at the heart of the mutual failings that have given rise to this curious crisis in the service industry.

We’d rather go into debt to sustain the expensive lifestyles we feel we are required to keep than query a bill or haggle over prices in a hotel or restaurant. Non-smokers complained for years about smoky pubs, but publicans never bothered to facilitate them, either by providing non-smoking areas or by installing the ventilation systems for which they’ve suddenly developed such enthusiasm. They would rather let people suffer discomfort and health risks than take on an “unnecessary” expense.

In a nutshell, the problems in our hospitality industry arise because we’ve got service personnel who barely conceal their belief that it’s beneath them to wait on us or make us comfortable. And while there are obvious exceptions to this in every town and city in North America, Canada and the UK (not France) they are too few and far between.

It is therefore that I look forward to being back onboard tomorrow where I know that the Carnival service will shine. Oh………..the waiter may bring you a steak that may not be cooked just as you would like it…………………or the stateroom steward may forget to refill the shampoo one day ……………but on the ships of Carnival they will run themselves ragged until they make up for their mistakes and………..the words I am sorry will echo round the ship and I can promise you that the crew member will go to bed that night regretting his mistake.

The more I travel and the more I stay in business hotels and eat and regular mid-priced eating establishments the more I realize that the service onboard the ships is a shining example of what great service should be. I did though love Bourbon Street and its totally unique flavor. Here is a quick video I shot last night.

I want to say this…………….a pre- or post-cruise package in the Big Easy and then a cruise on the Carnival Fantasy or later this year the Carnival Triumph should be on everyone’s to do list. It’s a wonderful safe and fun combination and as long as you don’t eat at Embers Restaurant then it will be a vacation package you will always remember.

There is no doubt that for a time after Katrina New Orleans had an image problem. Once the tourist view of the Big Easy was a Louis Armstrong-type shimmying joyfully down Bourbon Street. Say New Orleans today and people still remember the news footage of disconsolate locals knee-deep in floodwater. But after what I have seen these last few days the official message is that “Party Town USA” is still swinging in the three years following Katrina. The people are laughing again and the tourists are back in their thousands and it is as I said …………..a brilliant town to spend a few days before your Mardi Gras continues on your Carnival cruise

Jaime has the day off today but will return with another Dear John letter from the Carnival Splendor tomorrow.

Well, here I am back onboard the good ship Carnival Fantasy following a very successful morning at the park and a cocktail party at the hotel to say thanks to everyone who helped. This afternoon after life boat drill we will hold a welcome aboard cocktail party for everyone. This will include the introductions of the Carnival folks and the press and a video message from Heidi. I thought you might like to see that so here it is.

I am one lucky man aren’t I?

Now during the next five days the blogs may be posted later than usual and they may be a little shorter or indeed feature more videos than written words. However, I will promise you daily updates regardless and once the cruise is over we will return to normal and I will catch up on your comments and questions.
However…………………there is one now that I would like to share with you…………… it is.

From: Nippa, Michelle
Sent: Friday, February 06, 2009 10:48 AM
To: John Heald
Cc: Salmeri, Rachel (CCL)
Subject: Carnival Glory Cruise 1/23 to 1/30 (Western Caribbean) We (my husband and I) have just completed our 4th cruise along with our Cruise partners who made “Platinum” this year. Our “Platinum” friends. Had already completed 6 cruises when we took our first. With their help, we felt like true seasoned cruiser’s after the very first time-I still can’t believe that we have only been on 4 cruises. I feel like I’ve been cruising forever. Each time that I have returned from a cruise, I have always called Rachel Salmeri, our Carnival Vacation Planner, with the good and the bad about our cruise. She has always been very professional and forwarded the emails on to the proper persons that should be involved. I have paid attention to many things that happen in my cruise experience and have fallen in love with Carnival as a company and cruise line.

Interestingly enough, I have had both good and bad happen along the way (including falling off one of the tenders when on the Carnival Spirit in 2007), so I feel I’ve almost become the “Carnival Critic.” This week in making my “annual” call to her, I could not find one thing wrong at all with this last cruise on the Glory. As always, I filled out our comment card and left it aboard the ship, making a point of mentioning all of the names of the employees that touched our lives during that week, Nolito-our room steward, Michael and Edward-our dinner servers, Alex-our bartender, and even Claudio-who made perfect omelets for us every morning on the Lido deck. The only people that I failed to mention and who should have received the highest commendations from all of us that week were the captain and the security team in charge of our ship.

We were the ship that encountered the 9 refugees floating in the ocean during our trip from Costa Maya to Nassau. During that three hours that we were dead in the water in the middle of the ocean waiting for the US Coastguard to arrive, I came to understand a whole new part of cruising that previously to that event, I took for granted. I would like Carnival to know that during that event, the captain and his security team kept us safe at all times and at the same time were
able to impart the utmost humane courtesy and respect to the 9 refugees in the sea. At no time did I ever feel in danger-I felt that Carnival had my health and safety as a number one priority. They followed the rules of Maritime Law and the advice of the U.S. Coast Guard at all times. I wonder how many of us actually pay much attention to all that happens behind the scenes to keep us safe. As the captain and his security team do not really affect us in a personal way-as do the others I mentioned, I know we take them for granted. I, personally, will no
longer do this. I would hope that this email is passed to our captain and his staff in hopes that this serves to stand as a personal thank you to all of them from me.
Michelle Nippa

Well, thanks Michelle for taking the time to write and to mention the captain and security staff. You are correct that in a situation like this we have very strict guidelines that I won’t discuss specifically. However, they include the well being of those looking for a better life and the safety of the guests and crew and the vessel itself. It appears that you felt that the Captain and ship’s company did an outstanding job in both these areas and that is a joy to read.
Best Wishes

I just wanted to share this with you and as resuing people at sea is something that happens quite often I hope that everyone will understand the complexities that this involves these days. Before the fight against terrorism began it was simple. Rescue the poor sods, bring them onboard, give them a cruise staff uniform and a pizza and make sure they didn’t need medical attention ………… but things have changed and of course the world dictates we must be more careful. Have any of you been on a voyage when this has happened?

OK, this morning before leaving for the ship I realized that I had no gift for Heidi from New Orleans. I like bringing her a gift from all the places that I visit but as usual I left it too late and that was me……… the hotel gift shop. I’m constantly amazed at the inability of gift shop proprietors in the world’s tourist hot spots to sell anything that anyone might remotely want to buy.

There’s always a glass dolphin, perfectly crafted, with the name of the place you’re in stenciled onto the base. Now if there was just one on the shelves and if it was a bit rough and ready, then yes, you might be fooled into thinking it had been made, by hand, in a cave by a local man in traditional national costume.

But since you’re in a New Orleans Marriot and there are 2,000 of them in there, and they’re all the same, and they say “made in China” on the bottom, and you saw exactly the same thing in Dallas last year, only with “Dallas” etched onto the base, then you’re not going to be fooled.

I could have bought this morning a New Orleans intricate four-foot galleon, complete with real canvas sails, half a mile of cotton rigging and cocktail-stick delicate masts. Great. But how are you supposed to get something like that home? …………..and what has a galleon got to do with New Orleans?

If you’re setting up a gift shop for tourists here’s a hint. Sell stuff that airport baggage handlers can’t break. And more importantly, ensure that your stock reflects your surroundings in some way. Accept that visitors to New Orleans are not necessarily going to want a plastic dolphin or………….a President Obama mug which was on sale at the Marriott for $5.95

At home I have what I call the “Cupboard of Crap.” It’s a glass-front cabinet in which I keep all of the useless rubbish I’ve found in gift shops over the years. Pride of place goes to a foot-long model of the Last Supper in which all the disciples are wearing different colored glitter capes, as well as a hand-carved penis I bought in Ocho Rios, Jamaica because I felt sorry for the kid selling it.

These gift shops never have anything I really want. When I was last in Paris, I searched everywhere for something perfectly French………… something relevant would have been nice. A model, perhaps, of a crowd of people with their hands held high in surrender …………………..eating cheese.

Anyway, in the end Heidi you got a New Orleans hoodie sweat shirt thingy…………it says “New Orleans” on it ……………..and the label tells me it was made in the Louisiana province of ……………. Pakistan.

Your friends
John, Heidi and the Thingy

Hi, I’m John, and this is my blog. So please don’t mistake my opinions — or those of my dear friends, fans or commenters — for those of Carnival Cruise Line or Carnival Corporation. My apologies in advance for anything I may say that upsets you, but this disclaimer covers Carnival and puts the blame directly on me………….. bugger.