Posted by Stephanie Weyant
It has been too long! Amidst a new job, new home, new friends, and new projects, the travel column has taken the proverbial back seat. Well, let’s get back to it, shall we? I’ve missed you!
In early February, I was fortunate enough to partake in a work trip down to New Orleans, Louisiana – a mysterious and seductive place I’ve always wanted to explore. Alas, the opportunity finally knocked. If you ever have the chance to fly somewhere new on your company’s dime, make the most of it! Stay through the weekend, see the sights, play the tourist. After all, you’re already there and the airfare was free: there are no more excuses.
I wrote this article in the style of The New York Times’ “36 Hours” series, in the hopes of some day contributing to the iconic publication. It didn’t happen this time, but when it does, you’ll be the first to know. Nevertheless, I want to share with you my experiences and takeaways – the unabridged version – from the voodoo capital of the U.S.A.
The gas lamps flicker as the fog rolls in. It’s humid and warm; a tropical winter warmth where 65° feels like summer for anyone living north of Appalachia. The Spotted Cat Night Club rumbles with the vibrant blues of another age, timeless though it seems. This is another world. This is New Orleans.
You cannot walk a block in New Orleans without music tickling your ears. It may emanate from a bar, or from a banjo duet on a doorway’s steps; even from a one-man band rattling down the street holding up traffic. You won’t hear horns honking, though, no sir; honking is not music. And no one is in a hurry. New Orleans folks move at New Orleans pace. A pace that lets decades slip by unnoticed. A lifestyle that may rob you of time, but reward you with stories.
It’s a city of characters with a vibrant history that still lives on today. Buildings that once housed slaves are now apartments; cemetery graves from over a century ago are continuously reused; establishments where illegal trade flourished are now thriving bars. These are just some examples of a city whose spirit constantly revives itself.
1. A TOAST TO HISTORY
Ease into The Big Easy with a dark and stormy at the oldest bar establishment in the Quarter: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Dating back to the mid-1700s, the bar was once the Lafitte brothers’ headquarters: two roguish lads involved in every aspect of commerce and infamous in their day. Who they were depended on who you asked; they were pirates to their enemies, entrepreneurs to their friends. Legal or otherwise, when business had to get done during America’s Revolutionary days, they made it happen for the highest bidder. Fortunately, as the story goes, the highest bidders were not the British. You won’t have to bid for a drink here though; they’re reasonable like much of the city. The Blacksmith Shop Bar honors its heritage in other ways as well: like the 1700s, at night a stone fireplace provides the only heat, and the tavern is illuminated solely by candlelight.
2. REAL ESTATE ROAMING
New Orleans is one of eight U.S. cities where it’s legal to carry open liquor containers in public, so order a drink to go and wander through the Quarter’s charming, historic neighborhoods. Admire the multicultural influences in architecture by not just the French, but also the Spanish and Portuguese styles dating back to the early 1800s. Bright and vibrant, each home is unique: before a homeowner can paint, a city council must approve the colors. Notice the narrow, two- and three-story buildings adjacent to some residences? These structures were formerly slaves’ quarters and have since been converted into bed and breakfasts and homes. If you walk down the street past an iron gate, peek inside: you’ll likely see the beginnings of a lush courtyard of greenery influenced by the Spanish.
3. INDULGE FIRST CLASS
Dive into New Orleans cuisine at NOLA Restaurant, one of the Quarter’s best examples of refined southern fare. Try the “best Caesar salad you’ll ever have” for a start and stuff yourself silly with the Garlic Crusted Drum, dressed with mushroom and bacon, slow roasted to perfection. Or be tempted by the Buttermilk Fried Breast of Chicken: there is nothing quite as mouth-watering as this artfully seasoned classic with bourbon sweet potatoes. NOLA’s is owned by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, whose fame has not oversold this menu. The name doesn’t bring you in; it’s the aroma.
4. FOR YOUR EARS ONLY
Meander over to Frenchmen Street, and follow your ears to whatever strikes your musical fancy. Many venues bring in a show of two or three bands on the weekends, and if you’re lucky, you’ll arrive early enough to avoid the cover charge. If you’re really lucky, you’ll pick a place that’s in between sets – where the crowd’s low attention span opens up a pair of barstools. If you end up at The Spotted Cat Music Club, order a drink from some of the friendliest bar staff in the city, and settle in for the next show. Remember to tip the bartenders but also the band!
5. MIDNIGHT MARKET
Just past the revelry of the Frenchmen Street jazz bars is the Frenchmen Art Market. Nestled under the crisscross of rustic globe string lights, you’ll find local artists peddling their unique and useful wares at modest prices. Jewelry, candles, canvas art, and leather goods are just a sampling of what this hidden gem has to offer. Pick up a gift or stop and have your palm read. Take a stroll through when you can; the market is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 7:00pm until 1:00am, and Sundays until midnight.
6. AVOID THE LINES
The Café du Monde is a New Orleans institution: a rite of passage for anyone who walks into The Quarter. Open 24 hours a day, the Café serves French coffee and beignets – deep-fried pastry puffs smothered with powdered sugar, served hot and fresh right to your table. Stop in at this hour to satisfy a late-night sweet tooth: you’ll avoid the perpetual long lines that form everyday and remain from dawn until dusk.
7. CAJUN LEARNING
At the New Orleans School of Cooking, join Ms. Harriet or a fellow instructor as they impart their down-to-earth cooking knowledge unto an eager and hungry class of 30 to 60 students. Harriet, a pint-sized Louisiana native; teaches while standing on a box behind the counter, tells rich and relatable stories of both New Orleans’ history as well as her own family’s. Under an angled mirror, she shows the class how to make gumbo, jambalaya, and for dessert, pralines: three classic southern recipes that have been passed down through several generations. After each dish is prepared, it’s shared with the students along with pitchers of Abita beer. For a mere $27, you’ll learn how to recreate your Louisiana dining experiences in your own kitchen, and leave with a full and happy stomach. The menu changes regularly, so check before booking (http://www.neworleansschoolofcooking.com/). Before you leave, pick up some spices, sauces, and cookbooks from the School’s General Store.
8. A WORLD OF HEROES
Perhaps an unexpected detour, New Orleans houses one of the greatest World War II Museums in the world, thanks to its founder and visionary, author Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose, a successful professor, producer, and historical consultant, spent decades collecting World War II artifacts to create this national museum that contains over 100,000 pieces of history, including Boeing fighter planes of the era. Admission is $22, but for an extra $5, get access to “Beyond All Boundaries,” a 50-minute film narrated by Tom Hanks that immerses you into the World War II experience. It’s a 4-D production: you’ll feel snow, wind, and your seat rattling as you watch a panoramic screen pull you into this riveting time. Sobering yet fascinating, it’s a celebration of American freedom, soldiers, and country.
9. SEA FARE
Build up your strength for another night out at GW Fins, where you’ll find some of the best seafood in the Quarter – bring a friend and share everything. Start with the Lobster Dumplings and the Blue Crab Potstickers, and then venture into the American Red Snapper sautéed in lobster butter. Feel confident in ordering the Wood-Grilled New Bedford Sea Scallops over wild mushroom risotto or the #1 Yellow Tuna, seared with an Asian flare: both are superb. You really can’t go wrong here.
10. THE BAND PLAYS ON
For another energetic night out, head over to Tipitina’s on Napoleon Avenue, and get tickets to the evening show. Without fail, you’ll hear some of the finest local musicians cranking out blues and southern R&B until the wee hours of the morning. On occasion, don’t be surprised if a headlining Grammy winner graces the stage. The best seats in the house aren’t seats, but rather spots along the railing; get your position early with a drink in hand. Listen to the music and enjoy the vibe.
11. HANGOVER DIET
Prevent an early morning hangover by popping into The Camellia Grill on Chartres and Toulouse Street before you call it a night. Open until 3:00am on the weekends, Camellia’s in the French Quarter is a classic diner and throwback to all good things of the 1950s. Prices reflect the era, too. Indulge in a bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg, or one of the massive po’ boys that you’ll promise yourself you’ll only eat half, and then waddle out the door after devouring the whole thing. The chaps behind the counter are lively and engaging, and will even laugh and high-five you when you roll with their sarcastic punches. Great food, great staff, great spot.
12. BRUNCH TIME
Perk up and wander down to Eat on Dumaine Street for a brunch that will delight your senses. The mouth-watering dishes aside, the atmosphere is farmhouse cozy with a bent on hipster green. Bring your own bottle of crisp, white wine; BYOB is encouraged and free for the first bottle. Settle in at a picture window seat and watch the lazy Sunday of New Orleans begin to stir. The Eggs Cochon can’t be beat – pulled pork over eggs and creole hollandaise and you have good ol’ fashioned Louisiana goodness. If it’s too tough to decide, order The Trio: a cup of gumbo, a cup of red beans, and a roasted stuff pepper with rice. Catch your breath while you dine: the staff is polite as can be, and won’t rush you out.
13. DEATH’S FRONT DOOR
A visit to New Orleans is not complete without a stop at one of the grand, above-ground cemeteries, particularly Lafayette #1. The oldest New Orleans cemetery still in existence, Lafayette is home to 7,000 resting souls in over 1,000 tombs. In New Orleans, bodies are buried above ground to maximize the effects of the local climate. In the summer heat, these tombs reach several hundred degrees and, according to local lore, after a year and a day, the bodies turn to dust and there’s room for another. One local historian wryly observed, “When a family member died, it was quite the imposition for another to do the same within a year. Frankly, it was just rude.”
14. ULTIMATE SOUVENIR
Skip the shot glass and take home a spell or, if you dare, a doll from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. An iconic New Orleans character, Marie Laveau along with her namesake shops have bewitched and intrigued the masses for centuries. Madame Laveau was labeled as everything from a priestess to a witch, and an 1881 article from The New York Times labeled her as “a person to be dreaded and avoided.” But for locals and visitors alike, today Marie Laveau and her craft are celebrated in this voodoo town.
When You Go
A word to the wise: as tempting as it may be, do not let your first visit to the American Mardi Gras headquarters happen during…Mardi Gras. Crowds, excess, parades, and copious amounts of alcohol above and beyond the already plentiful amounts of alcohol will leave you dizzy and wanting. You’ll experience a mass of tourists, not New Orleans. It’s noise, not music. Go during the offseason, when you can enmesh yourself with the local spirit, and savor the flavor and soul: the two aspects of this town that a devastating hurricane could never crush.
At the airport, take a taxi to your hotel, and get your bearings as you drive through The Quarter. And bring cash: although drivers are technically supposed to accept credit cards, and the swipe machines are present, both taxi rides I took proved otherwise; I was told they were “broken” and that I’d have to pay cash – stopping at a cash machine if I needed. Save yourself the headache and just pay cash. Also, the price is per head, so there’s not much savings in sharing a cab with strangers if you’re not up for it.
Check the weather. My visit happened when the temperature dropped to record lows – 18 degrees that far south! – but got back to the normal humid 60s by the weekend. It’s a walking town, so dress appropriately to be comfortable. It’s casual too; mini-skirts and stilettos are not necessary in any of the jazz clubs we visited. Jeans are fine.
Where To Stay
Centrally located on Conti Street is Hotel Le Marais, a contemporary boutique hotel housed in a former brewery and renovated in 2011. Request a room with a balcony to get a bird’s eye view of the never-ending NOLA party. Rooms start at $189.
With 166 swanky and sexy rooms, the newly opened The Saint Hotel on Canal Street offers a modern vibe in a building constructed in 1909. Helpful and accommodating staff round out the experience. Rates begin around $150.
The Southern Comfort Bed & Breakfast provides an intimate peek at a New Orleans home: the three-room establishment welcomes you to peruse the bookshelves and lounge in the overstuffed chairs. A resident kitty will gladly purr in your lap. Pet friendly with rates starting at $175.