New Orleans – much more than food and Bourbon Street

By | Category: Travel destinations
me in a Mardi Gras head dress

me in a Mardi Gras head dress

Stepping out into the steamy heat one August morning from our New Orleans hotel, we were shocked, and not only by the climate. Right outside the Sheraton on Canal Street, we stepped aside to let a small boisterous herd of burly men run by — wearing clingy red, sparkly cocktail dresses and running shoes. We soon learned that they were just a few of the multitude of participants in the annual New Orleans Red Dress Run. These runs, a charity fund raising (and fun-raising!) event, are held all over the world, but it’s widely considered that New Orleans hosts the biggest and best of them. We didn’t have to go to party-central Bourbon Street in the French Quarter to see the men and women in their red party attire, in fact all day we spotted them throughout the city (including one 200+ pound-plus guy in an evening gown on a scooter!.) No one seemed to blink an eye but us – after all, this is New Orleans!

It’s hard to believe that New Orleans, where anything goes and anyone feels at home, was once a bastion of rules and regimens. Under French rule, which ended in 1812 with the Louisiana Purchase, people had to sign papers stating that they were Catholics before being allowed to emigrate to Louisiana. If a resident refused to adhere to Catholicism, the government charged stiff penalties. Non-Catholic marriages were invalid, and in fact, without Catholic baptisms children were not considered people!

Today’s “Big Easy,” is happily booming in tourism, jobs and rebuilding after the devastation of horrific Hurricane Katrina, ten years ago. Katrina put 80 percent of the city underwater, displaced thousands and some estimate that up to 2,000 lost their lives. But this is a city built and fortified by resilience – and its residents and visitors are passionate in their loyalty.

And just why is New Orleans called the “Big Easy?” A local man explained it well. “No one is in a hurry here. We don’t take one day at a time, we take each hour at a time,” he quipped. Indeed, even the street people seem rather languid in ‘NOLA,’ as it is also affectionately called. “How y’all doing,” one called out affably to us one morning as we walked by him, on our way to stand in line for those “world famous” beignets at Café du Monde.

an historic mansion in the Charpentier district

an historic mansion in the Charpentier district

The city is now home to any and all, defying the naysayers who thought New Orleans would never recover. As our bus driver said to us during a recent trip, “You’ve got to be resilient to build a city in a mudhole.” Indeed, resiliency, diversity and a feisty spirit have described this city for centuries, but perhaps never so dramatically than since Katrina. “I like to compare New Orleans to a big delicious pot of gumbo,” a particularly verbose bellman told us. “We have so many cultures – African, Haitian, Spanish, Caribbean, Irish, Germans, and MORE!” Vietnamese people have moved to the area in large numbers since the 1970’s and I was bemused by the many Vietnamese women now working at the historic (since 1862) Café du Monde, fanning themselves with Chinese handfans while on break.

Besides the local diversity, tourists are abundant and you’ll hear snippets of many other languages. But thankfully, you’ll still hear plenty of charming New Orleansisms, such as “Where y’at? (how are you) and “How’s ya momma n dem? (how is your family?)

Katrina still works her anguish – with just about anyone who lived through it wanting to tell their stories, and yet not wanting to tell them. The trauma of having endured such a tragedy lingers and is movingly expressed at the ‘Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond’ exhibit at the circa 1791 Presbytère, part of the Louisiana State Museum at Jackson Square in the French Quarter. The lobby sets the somber mood, with colored stripes on the wall depicting the water levels reached by the rising waters, while the ceiling is hung with hundreds of aquamarine glass bottles filled with notes, in homage to the 1,500+ who perished, mostly by drowning. A placard speaks to the “spirit of resilience and a profound sense of place that has carried us through.”

Local celebrity Fats Domino’s piano is displayed upended here, as it was found after the flooding – a baby grand Steinway, destroyed beyond repair. As visitors continue, dramatic footage, artifacts, survivor testimonies and photographs tell the story of Katrina, Rita and other hurricanes that have battered Louisiana. We never met any locals who wanted to see the exhibit – they all said it’s too visceral a memory in their own minds already.

a Cajun band at Mardi Gras time

a Cajun band at Mardi Gras time

But again, New Orleans is reborn, in many ways. During our visit, we were entranced by the constant surprises. Music is everywhere – while the countless jazz and other clubs and lounges are outstanding, just a stroll through the French Quarter is a mélange of music – street performers on just about every block, many of them fabulous. This city is a music-lover’s haven, so much so that one local told us, “In New Orleans, there is too much soul out of control!” Strolling past a jazz club, I was astonished to hear my husband, who has never sung a note during our entire marriage, singing along to a tune being played. Now that’s what I call a city of music – it inspires everyone.

After a haunting visit to the post-Katrina exhibit at the Presbytére, we stepped out on Jackson Square to see the working artists displaying their work, and were delighted to discover the very energetic Free Spirit Brass Band, an 11-piece jazz band which plays in front of the museum daily, just for tips. Enjoying breakfast in the tropical greenery of the patio of Café Beignet one morning, we stopped chatting to listen to the incredibly talented saxophonist playing on the sidewalk just beyond us. One night, when we couldn’t find an empty table at the clubs on the hipster Frenchman Street, we ended up standing on a corner enjoying yet another street band. A don’t miss spot is Congo Park, on the edge of the French Quarter. Here, jazz is said to have .been born, under the blissful shade of the enormous live oaks, where there is a centuries-old history of slaves, free blacks and later, musicians meeting on Sundays to congregate, sing, dance and play music. Now renamed Louis Armstrong Park, for the city’s most beloved native son, it is still an important venue for music festivals, and a community gathering place for parades, marches and drum circles.

The French Quarter is a must-see and do. A crazy hedonistic hodgepodge that contains breathtakingly beautiful architecture, hidden courtyards, classic statuary and gardens, the French Quarter defies definition as a neighborhood – it’s one of a kind. Restaurants, hotels and shops range from the most elegant to some of the most down-and-dirty dives you’ll find anywhere. The most bohemian and let-loose mentality is on the infamous Bourbon Street – so if you’re not into those frozen daiquiri bars and exotic dancers beckoning to you from entryways, venture onto quieter streets.

While the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter (also known as the Vieux Carre) are well-known, many are not aware that New Orleans is home to other gorgeous architecture styles, such as Creole Cottages and Townhouses, Shot Gun and Double Shot Gun houses, Double Gallery homes and Greek Revival mansions. The upper class Garden District has been the go-to place for home and garden viewing for nearly two hundred years, but now, other areas such as Uptown and Bywater are popular for viewing as well. Magazine Street, at the edge of the Garden District, is up-and-coming stylish, with new boutiques and bistros opening constantly. Just about everywhere, look up and you’ll see Mardi Gras beads hanging on lightpoles, tree branches, and power lines. After all, the wondrously festive Mardi Gras is yet another defining feature of New Orleans.

costumes at the Mardi Gras Museum

costumes at the Mardi Gras Museum

If you are not visiting during the raucous insanity and full-out fun of pre Lent Mardi Gras festivities, be sure to take in a visit to the permanent Mardi Gras exhibit, also at the Presbytére. With extensive displays of costumes, floats, history, accoutrements, etc., dating from the early 20th century, one could easily spend an hour or two mesmerized by the extent of involvement in a one-week festival that takes a full year to plan and prepare. It’s so big in Louisiana that in most areas, schools are closed for Mardi Gras week – even some universities. For those who want even more, take in Mardi Gras World, a cavernous showplace of Mardi Gras floats, costumes and regalia from decades past. Another small but well executed museum, the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, is on the second floor of Arnaud’s, a classic restaurant (since 1918) in the Quarter with stellar, exceptional cuisine and service. The museum features costumes and regalia of the original owner’s daughter and other family members, and is free to enter – even to those who are not clients at Arnaud’s (but why wouldn’t you be??)

2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, which brought closure to the War of 1812 between the British and the United States. There are events and festivities going on all year to mark the unity brought about by this battle at Chalmette Battlefield and the adjoining Chalmette National Cemetery, part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve of the National Park Service. The Cabildo, part of the Louisiana State Museum at Jackson Square, also has a special exhibit about General Andrew Jackson and his troops, who brought victory to the tired American forces during the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson’s actual coat worn while in battle is displayed as well as his famed portrait.

On a lighter note, but maybe not for those with arachnophobia, the Audubon Society’s Insectarium offers a different world from that found outside – or maybe just enlarged. The Insectarium is the largest museum of its kind in the nation, and has excellent interactive displays well-designed for all ages, as well as a large butterfly pavilion. Everyone is offered a chocolate “chirp” cookie (replete with dried cricket baked into it) at the café, and screeches from the squeamish are heard throughout. I found the tongue in cheek timeline poster depicting “a roach’s history of New Orleans” especially entertaining. For example, it says when the Beatles performed in City Park, “several hundred roaches are injured when screaming fans rush the stage.”

Just a block away, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas beckons – there are long lines to enter, but it’s well worth it. One of the nation’s most acclaimed aquariums, it features an enormous water tunnel filled with rays and large schools of glittering silver fish, an expansive Amazon “tree-top loop” with a birds-eye view of the Amazon-Orinoco rainforest, and many other exhibits. One can also view the 35 member penguin colony, or interact with a couple of them by obtaining one of the popular Backstage Penguin Passes ( additional fee, Thursday- Sunday.) Everyone can gaze at the adorable rescued sea otter, a rare white alligator, large and varied jellyfish exhibits, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries display,exciting touch tanks of manta rays, and a huge tank filled with many sharks, eels and very large fish, in front of which we spent a long while being mesmerized.

a steamed crayfish platter

a steamed crayfish platter

New Orleans well deserves its reputation for being a culinary capital – with influences from French, Cajun, Creole, African and many other cultures, and some of the best loved chefs in the world calling it home. Visitors will be letting those belts out a notch or two, whether dining on Trout Almondine or fresh oysters at one of the elegant classic establishments like Antoine’s or Arnaud’s, or scarfing down hefty po’boys and spicy gumbo at any of the more downhome cafes throughout the city.

What better place than New Orleans to host The Southern Food and Beverage Museum? Its new location on Oretha Haley Boulevard opened in an old open market building in September of 2014. The non-profit, private museum celebrates Southern food, state by state, and sometimes, specific foods and/or beverages are singled out, such as the intriguing absinthe exhibit. Each Monday at 11, demos are prepared, offered and devoured – typically Shrimp Remoulade, Jambalaya and Bananas Foster (additional fee.) During our visit, we were pleasantly surprised when, while perusing the exhibit on Antoines, one of the city’s oldest and most beloved restaurants, the 5th generation current owner appeared in person – apparently checking out the exhibit himself. Antoine’s, I was delighted to learn, was the venue for that unforgettable scene from “Gone With The Wind,” in which Rhett took Scarlett to stuff herself, unabashedly, with gourmet cuisine. If you’ve forgotten it, that vignette from the film plays on a continuous loop DVD in the Antoine’s exhibit area.

and a fried crayfish po'boy sandwich

and a fried crayfish po’boy sandwich

The National World War II Museum is regularly listed as the top attraction in New Orleans by Trip Advisor readers. Founded by author and historian Stephen Ambrose, the enormous facility tells the story of America’s involvement with World War II interactively and creatively, through film, models, posters, weapons, letters etc., in an exemplary set of permanent and temporary exhibitions, such as the current display honoring the Tuskeegee Airmen and Black Seabees. Be prepared to spend at least two hours, hopefully more, but one can take a break at the facility’s Soda Shop and enjoy a Creole Cream Cheese or Coffee & Chicory ice cream cone!

There’s so much more to do and see – the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, City Park, plantation tours, swamp tours, music venues like the intimate, no-cover Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, antiquing on Royal Street … the list goes on and on. There is simply nowhere else like New Orleans – where just doing nothing feels like doing so much!

“It’s a little city with a big attitude,” said Albert Francis, our taxi driver, who escaped Katrina’s wrath by snagging a cab fare who paid him to transport his family to Atlanta. “We stayed in contact for years,” Francis recalls. “God gave me that fare,” I’m sure. Albert came back to his city, his home. He asked, upon being questioned, “Why would I leave?,” Certainly, we can’t wait to go back.

www.neworleanscvb.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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