A NEWBIE IN
Maz Marek Nusl
New Orleans or NOLA as it’s also known, needs little introduction. Recently celebrating 300 years since its founding by the French in 1718, but this is only one party amongst many. The city’s vibrant atmosphere is well documented so whilst I may have missed Mardi Gras, does that mean I’ve missed the party?
Duration: 3 days min
Cost: In this city it can be what ever you want.
When: Best to avoid hurricane season
Doinit Factor: Laissez les bon temps rouler!
After a long flight we’re in town in time for a late dinner. We’ve based ourselves in Royal Street in the Marigny district, just east of the famous French Quarter. It’s a quiet neighborhood only about 15 minute stroll from the famous French Quarter.
As soon we hit Frenchman Street, the city comes to life! It’s a cliché to say, but I’ll say it anyway, it’s intoxicating. Live music billows out from the bars, crowds dance to musicians energetically playing on the street, the smell from that good ol’ fashioned southern cooking wafts through the air; I think I’m going to like it here. We head towards B.B. King's Blues Club if for no other reason than it sounds ‘New Orleansey’. The rest of night is spent here listening to some live blues as we feast on a platter of Southern fried fishy goodness.
Day 1: Getting orientated in New Orleans
It’s a foggy morning, which has given the city a rather ghostly feel. We’ve walked over to the French Quarter, to the Washington Artillery Park, just opposite Jackson Square with the striking St Louis Cathedral standing proud. Looking-out towards the Mississippi River, the water is still, with the surface gradually fading out of sight into the thick fog.
On the agenda this morning is a ‘free’ walking tour (tipped). We meet our guide by the statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback. The first 20 odd minutes we are given a history of NOLA; We’re told how the French and then the Spanish settled the area, the difference between Creole and Cajan, about how hurricane Katrina devastated the city, but how the people have bounced back and revived their communities and kept the spirit of New Orleans very much alive, and living up to its motto – ‘Laissez les bon temps rouler’ - let the good times roll.
Top places to eat and drink
These to almost to many to mention, but try these:
Cafe Beignet - Jax Brewery
The Funky Pirate Blues Club
The Spotted Cat Music Club
Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral.
The LaBranche House, the most photographed building in NOLA.
Over the course of a few hours, we’re taken through infamous Bourbon Street, shown where to get the best Daiquiris, told about the architecture (I now know the difference between a Gallery and a Balcony) as well as hear about the city’s history. It’s a worthwhile tour and a decent tip is well earned as we finish the tour in the French Market. The market is a great place to get some souvenirs; I myself need a baseball cap. It’s also a great place to grab a bite to eat and I simply can not resist the call of the Alligator sausage on a stick.
By now the morning fog is has lifted and the sky is bright, with our tour leader’s job done for the day we’re left to explore ourselves. We stroll through Louis Armstrong Park, where in the Congo Square in the afternoons crowds gather to listen to Afro-Caribbean performers keep their musical traditions alive.
Afterward it’s back to the French Quarter, grabbing some Daiquiris and Po’Boys (local baguette sandwich) as we bounce from establishment to establishment in the groove of the music, catching a different blues or jazz band along the way. Truth be told the most famous street in Nola appears to have become bit of a tourist trap with locals suggesting to us that Frenchman Street is more authentically New Orleans with several great music venues.
Congo Square in full swing.
Musicians playing on the streets for tips.
Day 2: A touch of culture and a pinch of swamp
Much like the previous day, a walk around the French Quarter is how we start out day. NOLA is certainly one of those places where you can just wander day after day and not get bored; the streets remain the same but the sounds of the street are different. We visit the Historic New Orleans Collection, this small museum is hosted in a collection of buildings with a lovely court yard. The museum has an interesting collection of portraits, maps and literature celebrating the multicultural stories of the region.
For lunch we’ve been recommended to try Antoine's, a New Orleans institution as its reputably told oldest restaurant in NOLA, as well as one of the oldest family-run restaurants in the USA having been established 1840. A set three course lunch time meal with cocktail come to a reasonable $20. The place has an aura of elegance around it and I defiantly feel a tad under dressed. The establishment is composed of 15 dining rooms and galleries, as well as boasting a wine cellar holding 25,000 bottles. Patrons are welcome to wonder the galleries containing Mardi Gras memorabilia among other historical paintings and artefacts.
One of the many rooms at Antoine's
The classic Bourbon Street
In the afternoon we’ve booked on one of many swamp tours which take visitors to the one of the many rivers, swamps and bayou which surround the city. Cajun Encounters have their meeting point in the French Quarter, taking you on an informative 45 minute ride to the Old Pearl River, where the tour really starts.
We jump on board the metal raft like swamp boat, they can hold about 20 people and when they go, they really go. I was expecting a slow lazy cruse but ended up holding on my cap to stop it flying off into alligator infested waters! The boat stops and our captain throws some protein pellets into the water and suddenly we notice a couple of alligators swim up to the boat. It’s remarkable to get up so close to these creatures in the wild. Not far from us is another swamp boat and we witness an alligator jump up from the water to grab some food their captain teases the animal with.
The trip continues to Honey Swamp Island where our boat appears to forge its way through the greenery of the swamp; it feels like we’re being engulfed by the ecosystem. It’s a rather spooky experience; everything is so calm and still, very different from the city from which we’ve come. Only a few meters away we see a black and white hog as he searches for food in the water, above us are a pair of racoons, and not far off a some vibrantly red coloured birds. It’s a relatively short tour of about two hours but well worth it; I feel like I’m on a completely different planet.
The evening is spent back in the French Quarter, once again in the bustle of Frenchman Street as we enjoy some of the best music, food and cocktails NOLA has to offer.
Day 3: A sweet bite to eat followed by a walk in the Cemetery
Like so many things in New Orleans, no visit is complete with grabbing some Beignets from one of two establishment either side of Jackson Square; Du Monde and Cafe Beignet. We visit the latter as we’re told these are made fresh to order and are arguably a more authentic. Beignet’s are deep fried dough pockets (made from choux pastry) topped with powdered sugar; I find they go super well with an iced coffee.
Satisfied I’ve ticked off another ‘must do’ it’s time to hop on the iconic St Charles Streetcar (tram) to the Garden District to visit Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Due to flooding, cemeteries in New Orleans tend to be the form of above ground tombs and mausoleums, often containing multiple family members. Dating back to 1833 and still in use today this cemetery is of significant architectural importance and is part of a conservation project. It has also served as a set for several Hollywood films.
The Garden District was once home to several plantations. It’s peaceful, green and leafy, and with mansions lining the streets it provides a strong contrast with the French Quarter. There is an awe of wealth in the air as we follow a route with suggested points of interest we’ve downloaded, highlighting past famous residences of these well kept properties; truth be told I had not actually heard of any of them, but it still makes for a nice walk.
From the Garden District we continue the St Charles Streetcar to Audubon Park. It’s a long but pleasant stroll alongside the duck ponds. As we take a break, with little idea where to head towards a local gentleman takes an interest and suggest a spot on the river bank of the Mississippi where it’s nice to relax and watch the sunset, so we take his advice. He’s not wrong; tired after a lot of walking we drop onto the grass close to the river bank. It’s not long before we’re joined by the local college students from the nearby universities who have brought a few beers with them. They clearly know this place well. Gradually more and more people turn up, some laying on the grass, others playing frisbee as the sun begins to set over the Mississippi, our view only occasionally obscured by large container ships sail along the river.
It’s a great spot to reflect on my time in New Orleans. What can I say? New Orleans is simply one of the best cities I’ve visited. In a way it’s exactly what I expected; the music - the party vibe was electric, the food was almost needlessly indulging. But there is more here, the history, the architecture, the culture as well as the nature; all perhaps something that is not immediately thought of when one says they are going to New Orleans. Above all, the people I’ve encountered are amongst the friendliest I’ve come across. Truth be told, I’m sad to be leaving, but at least I’ve one more night in the Big Easy!