New Orleans is one of America’s best places to eat, drink and be merry, and we spent a long weekend soaking up as much of the city’s food, music and history as we could. We met my brother Matt at the Place d’ Armes Hotel just off Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral.
After lunch we set off on a Segway tour. Hector and I had always ridiculed how dorky people look on Segways and were a little sheepish about now becoming those people. But our tour guide, Cathy, was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the city, and once we got the hang of moving smoothly on the machines, I have to admit that it was a fun and easy way to see the city.
Our tour took us past highlights in and outside the French Quarter that we would later explore in more depth on foot. Cathy showed us the Katrina rescue team markings on a building in the Tremé District. Sitting on higher ground than many of the surrounding neighborhoods, the French Quarter was largely spared the flooding and devastation that Katrina wreaked elsewhere in the city. We also zipped over to Frenchmen Street in the eclectic Marigny district, which offered a quieter, more local alternative for live music than the raucousness over on Bourbon Street.
We had dinner at the legendary Pat O’Brien’s and had one of New Orleans’ legendary drinks, the Hurricane, and stuck around for the entertainment in the piano bar. Of course it was full of tourists, but, being tourists ourselves, we fit right in. Not wanting to wait for breakfast to have the city’s signature beignet donuts and chicory coffee, we ended our evening at the 24-hour Café Du Monde for a plate of powdered sugar heaven. Apparently our idea wasn’t very original, because the outdoor patio was two-thirds full even after 10 p.m.
The next day we went on a walking tour of the historic Garden District, with homes built between about 1830s and 1900 in the Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne architectural styles. Most homes took up quarter-block lots, and in their day people took great pride in showing off their ability to buy imported furnishings from Europe. We were able to go inside one home now owned by the Opera Guild. We strolled past homes owned by assorted celebrities, including Peyton and Eli Manning’s home, where their mom got into her car waved at us as she drove off. It was hard for us to keep style elements apart by memorizing architectural details, despite how much our guide quizzed us.
We ended our tour with a visit to the Lafayette Cemetery full of above-ground tombs. The family tombs sit above rather than below ground to save space (you can fit more bodies into them) rather than because the water table is so high the caskets will float to the surface, which is the explanation you hear more often.
We made a quick stop in at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve visitors center in the French Quarter for a little background on the history, language, music and people of the Mississippi River Delta. I have a good handle on who the Cajuns are (French-speaking Acadians from Canada), but the term creole is used in so many different ways by different people that I still couldn’t confidently define the term without someone correcting me.
On our food list was the po’boy sandwich, which we found at the no-frills Johnny’s, a New Orleans favorite since 1950. Fueled up for the afternoon, we zigzagged our way through the French Quarter to admire the beautiful buildings and their wrought-iron balconies, many of which still displayed Mardi Gras decorations from the week before.
We stopped in for a beer in the oldest bar in New Orleans, Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, and later had fresh fruit daiquiris in the French Market before wandering over to Frenchmen Street for a plate of char-grilled oysters as we caught the last few songs of a local blues band before they went on break.
Back in the French Quarter, we listened to assorted street musicians along Royal Street, which is closed to car traffic during the day. The buskers here are unbelievably talented. I don’t know how much they earn in tips, but they deserve a fortune for the vibrancy they bring to this city.
Later in the evening we made our way to another New Orleans musical institution — Preservation Hall. This, too, is a no-frills place into which they pack an audience of 100 or so people for each jazz concert. Those with VIP tickets (like us, thanks to Matt!) sit on wooden benches, and the rest of the crowd stands in a long line outside only to sit on floor cushions or stand in the back for the 45-minute show. The trombone player was out of this world, but the trumpeter, sousaphone player, two saxophonists and two drummers were not far behind. Whether you’re a big jazz fan or not, this really is a special place where you can feel the spirit of the many talented jazz greats who have played inside these walls since 1961.
Not having had quite enough of the city’s music and food for the day, we had a late-night dinner at Pere Antoine’s and went to Bourbon Street to find some live zydeco music. Bourbon Street is closed to car traffic at night, which is a good thing because we had to weave our way through throngs of tipsy tourists and colorful locals that would not have fit on the sidewalks alone. We went to the one remaining club in the French Quarter where they still perform live zydeco. A decade ago you could find a handful of such places, but for some reason, despite the association most people have of New Orleans with this upbeat, jaunty musical genre, almost all of the live music is blues, jazz or rock covers. I find that a real shame. In the band we saw, the scrub-board player’s fingers zipped up and down with abandon and the keyboardist did more than tickle the ivories — he had them in stitches!
New Orleans is such a bustling place that one blog post can’t do it justice. Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon!