March 11, 2015 – March 14, 2015
I can’t think of a better way to characterize New Orleans than as Disney World for adults. Perhaps in doing so I’m not doing the city justice, in that Disney is in many ways the corporate epicenter of the US, while New Orleans oozes with its own unique brand of authentic charm. However, whether you’re interested in Disney World or would like to be as far from it as possible, you may appreciate New Orleans as an adult as a child would Disney parks. I can’t imagine a better place to completely let loose, indulge in comfort food and beverage, and revel in the hilarity, spirit, and general ridiculousness of humanity. New Orleans may be the only US city in which you can receive a permit to stage a parade celebrating just about anything your heart desires, including, but not limited to, birthdays, engagements, funerals, professional achievements, and holidays. During my visit I had the privilege of observing a Biochemistry Parade, because, why not? The French Quarter is a bit like the fourth of July on steroids. In New Orleans there aren’t any laws banning liquor consumption in public, so you can just stroll along Royal Street with a Piña Colada. While you’re at it, have your tarot cards read, stop into a few galleries if you promise to be careful, and enjoy the sites and sounds. My trip took place during the last month of legal smoking in bars before a ban went into effect, so it was a bit like stepping into a time machine back to the 90s. I don’t smoke, but it was amusing nonetheless.
Before any more gushing about New Orleans’ vitality, it’s important to recognize that Hurricane Katrina completely devastated the city. Particularly outside of the carefully maintained French Quarter, the city continues to struggle as it works to rebuild and heal. My experience visiting primarily involved the French Quarter and the Garden District, and although I’ve described the celebratory air I don’t in any way want to minimize the poverty and damage that continue to challenge the city in the wake of the hurricane. The disaster resulted in tragedy and the impact is tangible. However, the optimism of the people of New Orleans and the city’s overall brightness and charm are a testament to its strength. I found New Orleans vivacious, flavorful, and resilient, and I left feeling truly inspired. I have a certain soft spot for places in which magic and superstition are prevalent, maybe because my hometown is so close to Salem, Massachusetts. For that reason New Orleans had been on my travel radar for years. With centuries of rich history, voodoo influence has continued with strength into 21st century NOLA. When I finally made it to New Orleans this year, I was surprised to learn (at the city’s official Voodoo Museum) that the Pope, similar to his predecessors, has endorsed voodoo practice as it is inspired by, and closely resembles, Catholicism. French influence and religious control in Haiti prompted the merger of traditional African spiritual practices with the Catholic belief system, and the influx of Haitian and other Caribbean slaves in New Orleans in the late seventeen hundreds laid the foundation for voodoo as we know it today. Voodoo has evolved from something feared to something powerful and celebrated, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of visits paid each year to the grave of Mistress Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ voodoo queen.
I invited a friend from college with whom I spend a lot of time laughing and eating to join me on my trip, knowing that she’s always up for an adventure. She shares my love of travel, festivals, pastries and music, making her the perfect New Orleans companion. She’d had positive experiences with Airbnb, and the options were abundant near the French Quarter, so we chose Airbnb over comparatively expensive hotels. We ended up staying in the Central Business District, not far from the French Quarter, in a nice apartment owned by a man named Russell. We picked this spot on Commerce Street because the apartment appeared to have a nice layout, really great reviews (on Airbnb both accommodations and guests are reviewed), and Russell seemed to be organized and helpful. He provided a very detailed house manual that included apartment codes, wifi details, recommendations for activities in the area, and food and music recommendations. As a detail-oriented planner, I definitely appreciated the specifics. I also like that he had suggestions for spots to catch live jazz, as it was definitely on our list of priorities.
When we arrived to Russell’s I was surprised to learn that he would be sharing the apartment with us, but that was simply my mistake and a detail I’d overlooked in planning. Apparently owners specify whether or not the accommodation will be private or shared, and I just hadn’t realized this about Airbnb. We took a taxi from the airport to the apartment, and had a chance to meet Russell before setting out for our adventure. He had a friendly, professional demeanor and informed us that he wouldn’t be around much due to his busy work schedule. The apartment was beautiful; we had our own little suite with our own bathroom, and were granted full kitchen and living room access. Soon after settling and shedding some layers from our flight in from NYC in anticipation of the southern heat, we headed out. Here are some (but not all) of the things we loved best about NOLA:
- Beignets – Beignets are small squares of fried dough covered in piles of confectionary sugar, and they are done best at Café Du Monde. Café Du Monde accommodates thousands of customers each day, and they have a streamlined process for getting you delicious pastries as quickly as possible. Café Du Monde has a prime location right on the water, and is also just across the park from the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral. During our multiple visits we observed that the café has excellent management and extremely friendly staff, and I wish I could teleport the entire café back to New England. Get a café au lait, if ever you’re there.
- Royal Street – This was the first street we explored in the French Quarter, and we kept coming back throughout the trip. Royal Street is filled with galleries, street music, and beautiful antique stores. The streets of New Orleans are interspersed with an unusually large number of gas lamps, which contribute to the city’s charm, and strangely every antique store seemed to be filled with ornate chandeliers. Perhaps chandeliers are in higher demand in New Orleans than in New England.
- Buildings in the Garden District – The Garden District is home to many beautiful estates with exceptional gardens. It’s not hard to understand why New Orleans is a hub for literary achievement when you’ve explored the ethereal streets of the
Garden District. Truman Capote, Ernest Hemmingway, Mark Twain, and Tennessee Williams all derived inspiration from New Orleans, and the Garden District in particular has been home to many successful authors. A nice way to reach the Garden District is by trolley, but it is within walking distance of the French Quarter. Supposedly Beyonce and Jay-Z just bought property there.
- Friendly People – In New Orleans, people will apologize for almost brushing against you on the sidewalk. The people of New Orleans are refreshingly friendly and incredibly charming.
Great Restaurants and Bars – The Napoleon House (Creole food and drink), LaFitte’s (oldest bar in the country), Café Du Monde (beignets and coffee), The Spotted Cat (bar), Carmo (fresh, vegetarian food), Grand Isle (seafood), The Gumbo Shop (Creole staples), and more
- Frenchmen Street – On Frenchmen Street there are lots of great venues for live jazz, many of which don’t have cover fees. There is also an outdoor art market (right next to The Spotted Cat) that opens every night and is full of amazing handmade jewelry, sculpture, paintings, photography, and plenty else.
- Museums – We visited the Louisiana State Museum (which is located to the right of the St. Louis Cathedral), the Voodoo History Museum, and a private museum commemorating Andrew Jackson and detailing the city history. We loved the Louisiana State Museum’s informative Hurricane Katrina exhibit, which provided some valuable history and insight regarding the disaster and its impact, and we also liked visiting the Mardi Gras exhibit on the second floor next to curb the intensity of the former. Though a bit challenging to navigate (and also slightly hokey), the Voodoo History Museum was worth visiting for some background on one of New Orleans’ most alluring topics. The volunteers at the Andrew Jackson museum we stumbled upon were enthusiastic and well meaning, but we weren’t enthused about celebrating Andrew Jackson.
- Graveyards – New Orleans is most definitely haunted, and the graveyards here are particularly spooky. Many properties currently on the market throughout the city are labeled “Haunted” or “Not Haunted”, accordingly. Graveyards in New Orleans are unique in that all of the graves are above ground. This is because early in the city’s history, it’s residents discovered the hard way that anything buried in swampy New Orleans would unfortunately resurface. As a result, graveyards in New Orleans are like beautiful communities of tiny stone and marble buildings. Most city tours involve cemetery tours.
There are very few things I disliked about New Orleans, and my only regrets include all that I didn’t have time for. I wish we’d had time for a swamp tour, visited Louis Armstrong Park, and had a chance to explore Louisiana just outside of New Orleans. I felt totally embraced by this city and its people, and my travel partner had a similar experience. I can’t pinpoint the precise quality – maybe it’s perpetual celebration, maybe it’s the smell of gumbo, maybe it’s the thick air that wraps you up and begs you to stay. Whatever it is, I’m going back.