Here are some highlights from our seven day stay in New Orleans. This is by no means a definitive guide. Look for a slideshow of our best pictures from the week soon.
Situated in north-central New Orleans is City Park, one and a half times larger than New York’s Central Park and shaped similarly. City Park is home to the New Orleans Museum of Art, the New Orleans Botanical Garden, a golf course, an arboretum, various stadiums and sporting venues, many bodies of water, a flock of hilarious if not exactly authentic water birds, and the creepiest “theme park” you have never heard of, Storyland. Admission to this historic and beautiful piece of land is free. Perhaps most memorable from a trip to City Park is the presence of the largest collection of live oaks in the world. Their massive, gnarled, drooping, moss-covered branches are a powerful visual symbol of life just off the bayou, and we spent most of our time just walking among them.
The original city center, the French Quarter is an American historical treasure. Some buildings date from the late eighteenth century and aesthetic changes to building exteriors are all subject to approval by a committee whose purpose is to preserve the authenticity of the French Quarter. It is actually a mixture of French and Spanish influence (as the city was under the control of each during different periods), punctuated by courtyards, exquisite iron trellis surrounded balconies, and boldly painted storm windows. Running the length of the Quarter through its heart, Bourbon Street is a constant party; the music, drunken debauchery, and other hilarity that ensues there is an entertainment all its own. Go a block in either direction and things are a bit calmer, a bit quieter, and a bit more surreal. With bars, art galleries, and amazing architecture galore, the French Quarter is obviously a can’t miss for a visit to New Orleans, even if all you do is walk around.
Billed as “like Bourbon Street, but with fewer obnoxious tourists,” Frenchmen Street lies just a block northeast of the French Quarter in the neighborhood of Marigny. We started off our night on Frenchmen Street with friends (thanks for all the NOLA tips, Dez!) at a little restaurant called 13 Monaghan. The inside was modern funky, though not arrogantly so, and they had some great vegetarian options, including Tater Tachos – if you haven’t figured it out from the name, think nachos with tater tots instead of tortilla chips. We grabbed a couple beers to go and wandered up and down the street, popping into a few different bars for drinks and to check out the music scene. The last and most permanent stop of the night was a place called The Spotted Cat for some live jazz. Here, Brie was able to earn us a solid $5 by guarding the door of the womens’ restroom for a gentleman celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary who didn’t want to wait for the mens’.
Do not ever go here. We stumbled in by mistake, trying to find our way back to Canal Street after waiting for a ferry that apparently wasn’t in operation (not our best day). After accidently walking in the doors from a small park on the Mississippi River waterfront, we figured there must be an exit just around the corner ahead that would put us back out on the streets. Walking around the first corner, we realized said exit wasn’t there, and once again figured it must be just around the next corner. Repeat what seemed like sixteen more times along with countless “What the…?”s and at least one “Does this place ever end, or are we stuck in some kind of hell for people who hate malls?”, and finally we were able to make it outside, only to find ourselves at the top of a thirty foot set of stairs leading us to the middle of a gigantic gravel parking lot. Again, do not ever go here.
Lafayette Cemetery #1
New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries, both for their age and for the fact that almost all burials in the city have been above ground. Seemingly all walks of life are represented (except for, ya know, slaves). Lafayette Cemetery #1 was founded in 1833, talking up one square city block. A nine foot wall surrounds all four sides, with a metal gate in the center of each side. Here are housed Civil War heroes, businessmen from days gone by, and entire families felled by yellow fever epidemics, in tombs ranging from slowly crumbling marble to simple concrete. The haunting beauty of this elegant decay is matched only by the intrigue of the stories one can piece together from the information found on the placards.
Nestled between Lake Poncha-choo-choo and Lake Borgne is Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Though Hurricane Isaac had left some areas flooded, some areas with leveled foliage, and displaced a large percentage of the usually abundant bird life, we made the twentish1 mile journey northeast to check out the scenery and the boardwalk. A couple herons, a few cormorants, and a flock or two of egrets hung about, but the air and water were both fairly quiet on this day. The presence of lizards, as everywhere in New Orleans, was unending. Hoof prints and destruction from wild boars gave just enough hint of their existence to send us springing a few millimeters into the air each time a rabbit took off through the underbrush. With no other visitors to be seen, Bayou Sauvage was a fun peaceful stroll through a hint of life on the swamp/marsh/bayou, even if the aftermath of Isaac had left us with less than optimal conditions.
1. I am starting a campaign to push this word into common use.
Two pieces of advice:
- Carry cash if you plan on spending any time in New Orleans; a lot of places have a $10 minimum for cards.
- Upon ignoring Piece of Advice Number One, try heading to Terranova’s Super Market just off the entrance to the New Orleans Art Museum in City Park2.
Terranova’s is one of the numerous neighborhood stores, which, along with corner dive bars, seem to replace the normal American staple of supermarkets and chain restaurants in the city. First trip, we only wanted to buy a $1 tube of sunscreen, but had no cash. Even after we told them we were from out of town, the mother-daughter duo at the front sent Brie out the door with a “Just take it, honey, you’re going to burn out there.” Second trip, later that day for groceries and beer and the phone lines were down (another Isaac artifact), so we still couldn’t use our card. Again, they laughed it off and sent us away with our supplies, keeping an IOU behind the counter. Finally, on trip three a couple days later everything was in order, and we were able to thwart their plan to keep us in New Orleans forever.
2. But only if you promise to go back to pay up.
New Orleans street car system isn’t expansive (there are only three lines), but the cars seem to be in impeccable condition for public transportation. One of these lines, the St. Charles Avenue line, started service in 1835, and is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. Candy apple red, they run regularly along several main veins through the city. A trip on the Canal Street line to the French Quarter was a no-brainer; our place was only three blocks from the nearest stop and rides are only a buck fifty a pop. Don’t expect to get anywhere particularly fast – the cars obey all regular traffic laws – but do expect a picturesque and leisurely excursion (unless, of course, it’s rush hour).
Café Du Monde
Seemingly recommended by visitors and locals alike, Café du Monde is famed for its beignets (fried sweet dough generously covered in confectioner’s sugar) and café au lait (a mixture of chicory, hot milk, and coffee [or espresso in the Continental version]). Established in in its current location on the corner of Jackson Square in 1862, Café du Monde is sure to be crowded during the day and filled with noisy tourist types, but it’s hard not to recommend such a tasty and storied establishment, especially at $2.42 for an order of three beignets.
Original home of the “World Famous Hurricane,” Pat O’Brien’s on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter serves up these secret red concoctions in gigantic souvenir glasses for eight bucks. Couldn’t do it. We grabbed two Abitas (see below) caught a few rounds of the dueling pianos, then headed back into the street. It may be a French Quarter stalwart, but between the overpriced drinks and never-ending stream of uniformed employees with walkie talkies we couldn’t help feeling like sheep.
New Orleans has a lot of dive bars. Except for the tourist centers, you would be hard pressed to find a bar with a name you might recognize or without a $2 beer special. It seemed like there was one on nearly every city block. Most are old, most are dingy, and most have some version of “free live music” every night, but all were relaxed, welcoming, neighborhood melting pots. Three more notes about bars in NOLA:
- Many establishments are open until 4:00am and a few are open around the clock. At least one of the latter has a happy hour around the time early birds are rolling out of bed.
- Most places have $2 PBR or Miller High Life Light specials. To blend in, stick with the Champagne of Beers.
- You can order a beer to go pretty much anywhere. They’ll put it in a plastic cup and you are free to walk out the door.
Our lovely hostess provided us with our first taste of the local flavor, leaving us some Abita Satsuma on the table for our arrival. Abita is brewed in Abita Springs, Louisiana, and Satsuma was a good, light, citrusy summer beer, pretty solid in the heat and humidity that we were in for. We were also able try their amber ale and pale ale during our stay and both were solid, if not particularly memorable affairs. The real treat came in the form a strawberry beer; both Abita and Covington Brewhaus have a version of this spring seasonal. At least one of us has a great appreciation for Reinheitsgebot, and hesitates to call anything brewed with fruit as beer, but these brews were both exceptional. Think Captain Crunch crunch berries.