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New Orleans 2013
My original write-up of this trip befell the iPad equivalent of being destroyed in a fire so these notes are a less coherent summary of what we saw and enjoyed.
It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. When we told people we were going to be spending two weeks in NOLA most said we were crazy and a couple of days would be more than enough. How wrong they were; we left wishing we could have had another two weeks to explore more of this wonderful city.
First off, don’t take all the scare stories at face value, the city is generally safe.
the city is generally safe
Canal street is fine to walk, Rampart is ok during the day, crazy people don’t run up to you from every side. There are crazy people on the streets and rough neighbourhoods, the same as everywhere else, but generally people are friendly, love their city and enjoy life.
people are friendly, love their city and enjoy life
WWOZ.org radio – I listened to this on my headphones when I woke up early, gives you a good taste and flavour of the city.
Second Line – we were very lucky to see one at this time of year, someone had got married and arranged the parade as part of the celebrations, we were right place right time.
Kermit Ruffins‘s Speakeasy – Kermit had just got married so was off duty but we visited his place in the Treme anyway, he was a charming host and everyone in the bar made us feel welcome. We had hoped to get over to see him at Vaughans on our last night but other stuff got in the way and we ended up at home watching a great show at the Jazz Playhouse.
everyone in the bar made us feel welcome
Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse – conveniently located in our hotel! From what we saw this was hands down the best talent in New Orleans as jazz clubs go. Snug Harbor and Maple Leaf looked great but Mayfield’s is the whole package, night in, night out. This place has a great sound, the ambiance, and the musicians to lay claim to the title of Best Jazz Club in New Orleans. It’s is a superb upscale club, on Bourbon St. with surprisingly reasonable prices for the location and the talent. No cover, so it felt right to spend liberally but you could see top musicians for a $5 beer.
claim to the title of Best Jazz Club in New Orleans
We saw a few bands here including Irvine’s own band on the Wednesday, who were superb. James Rivers and his Movement band played on our last night, you won’t hear technically advanced jazz with this guy but you’re guaranteed a very fun night.
Preservation Hall – established in 1961 to preserve, perpetuate, and protect traditional New Orleans Jazz. It’s touristy and gimmicky but you get to see some great musicians and witness a unique New Orleans musical legacy being passed down from generation to generation.
witness a unique New Orleans musical legacy
Marie Laveau House of Voodoo – basically a shop, but contains a treasure trove of antique voodoo artefacts not for sale. There are signs of Voodoo and Ju Ju life all over the place.
contains a treasure trove of antique voodoo artefacts
d.b.a – on Frenchman Street, a nice club if a little pretentious, rude bar staff but a good venue to hear live music. We were lucky to catch Treme brass band and Walter “Wolfman” Washington whilst we were in town. TBB were a little raggedy but lots of fun, Wolfman’s band were really tight but the music, a kind of funky blues hybrid, left us cold, just not our thing (and he should hire a lead vocalist). The Truth Brass Band also play outside the club for free most nights.
play outside the club for free most nights
Harrah’s Casino at the top of Canal is absolutely massive, open 24 hours and seems to be packed at all hours of the day. Even if you’re not a betting person it’s certainly worth a visit.
National WWII Museum – Exhibits and interactive experiences paint the picture of a nation mobilised for war — those who served and those who supported the fighting forces by producing planes, ships, tanks and other machinery in unprecedented numbers. It’s certainly a stunning exhibition put together incredibly well.
stunning exhibition put together incredibly well
Beyond All Boundaries is the accompanying film showing exclusively in the National WWII Museum’s Solomon Victory Theater. A 4D journey through the war, it’s narrated by executive producer Tom Hanks and features dazzling effects, CGI animation, multi-layered environments and first-person accounts from the trenches to the Home Front read by Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Gary Sinise, Patricia Clarkson and Wendell Pierce. It wasn’t as “Go USA” as I was expecting and I’d definitely recommend it.
Fat Katz – big bar on Bourbon, free entry, The Connection play there most nights, very accomplished jazz funk covers band, their Cameo greatest hits was fun.
Cafe du Monde – a tourist must do but locals seem to enjoy it too after hours (its open 24/7). Coffee first came to North America by way of New Orleans back in the mid-1700’s. It was successfully cultivated in Martinique about 1720, and the French brought coffee with them as they began to settle new colonies along the Mississippi. The Cafe Du Monde Coffee and Chicory is traditionally served Au Lait, mixed half and half with hot milk. CdM is also famous for Beignets, which were brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. These were fried fritters, sometimes filled with fruit. Today, the beignet is a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar, served in orders of three. Very tasty.
a tourist must do but locals seem to enjoy it too after hours
French Market – just along from CdM, good for shopping for arts and crafts, jewellery and all sorts of locally made knickknacks.
Magazine Street – also touted as good for shopping, it was really just a street of mostly ladies boutiques and hipster hangouts.
We loved the food in NOLA but that’s because we love all that bad stuff, fried n grilled. Lots of butter, but you can eat healthy too, especially in the Garden District and the French Market. A few places we really enjoyed;
We loved the food in NOLA
K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen – celebrity chef open for deli style lunch, traditional NOLA dishes with his own twist, very well done, great value and a must visit. Go for dinner too if you have enough $$$$$ (we didn’t). This was voted our best venue for lunch.
Deanie’s Seafood Restaurant – typical Louisiana Cajun food well done, offers crabs, crawfish, shrimp, oysters, fresh fish, gumbo and other New Orleans favourites. The charbroiled oysters with fried French bread were the best we found and were voted our number one dish in New Orleans.
voted our number one dish in New Orleans
Mothers Restaurant – home of the Famous Ferdi Special, a foot long sub po’boy with their home cooked ham, roast beef, debris, two mustards, mayo and dressed with fresh cabbage, pickle and tomato. A good lunch to get you through to late. Personally I’d get the ham and debris but hold the roast beef.
Camellia Grill – the NOLA version of the American Diner, great home-made burger patties and the servers banter with you and each other like you’re in a barber shop. Good food and good fun.
Mr.B’s Bistro – part of the Brennan empire, upmarket but you can eat for a reasonable price at the bar, the barbecue shrimp were voted our second best dish in the city. A healthy menu and food without the fry.
the barbecue shrimp were voted our second best dish
The Praline Connection – began as a home delivery service targeting career women who were too busy to prepare home cooked meals for their families. Cecil and Curtis opened this restaurant on Frenchman Street in 1990 and serve “down-home” cajun-creole style soul food at affordable prices. A must visit.
Oceania Grill – typical NOLA food, fried shrimp and oyster po’boys etc. at good prices, there’s always a line waiting for a table.
Acme Oysters – Similar menu and pricing to Oceana but with a bit more history, this restaurant has been open since 1910. They get through about 4 million oysters a year. Their Banana Fosters Cheesecake (a take on the famous Brennan’s desert) was the best pie I tasted in the city. Another place that you have to wait on line for a table.
They get through about 4 million oysters a year
Olde NOLA Cookery – a basic restaurant but open until gone 2am and sells very good grilled alligator tail. Perfect for on the way home after a night on the tiles.
La Bayou – Another Bourbon St restaurant, a touristy place across from the posh Galatoire’s (no prices on the menu), La Bayou is much better than it seems. They stay open until 1 a.m. or later at weekends but ONC opposite outlasts it during the week. Good gator here too.
We had the Garden District on our list of places to explore but we found so much to see and do at the other end of town we never really had the inclination to spend time here. We did ride down St Charles Avenue, one long street of splendid houses, and the park was nice. There’s a world class zoo up this end too but again not really our thing (I prefer to see animals running wild or on my plate).
We did do the tourist trips, and a few trips off the normal tourist radar.
Most interesting was seeing the Treme district and the Katrina-hit Lower 9th Ward. Although about 80% of the city was underwater post-Katrina the Lower 9th took the worst of the damage and unlike most of the rest of New Orleans is still to fully recover.
I won’t go into the theories about why the area flooded and the resultant social engineering of the population, but plenty of people we met were happy to give credibility to this line of thought.
We also had a walk around St Louis Cemetery #2 and Congo Square. St. Louis #2 is located some 3 blocks back from St. Louis #1, bordering Claiborne Avenue. It was consecrated in 1823. A number of notable jazz and rhythm & blues musicians are buried here, including Ernie K. Doe.
Also entombed here is the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte who assisted in the defense of the city against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Andre Cailloux, African-American hero of the American Civil War is also buried here.
The cemetery received minor flooding during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and its tombs seemed almost untouched by the storm when the water went down, aside from the brownish waterline visible on all structures that were flooded, still visible today.
Congo Square is an open space within Louis Armstrong Park, which is located in the Treme neighborhood just across Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. The Treme neighborhood is famous for its history of African American music.
is famous for its history of African American music
In Louisiana’s French and Spanish colonial era of the 18th century, slaves were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They were allowed to gather in the “Place de Negres”, “Place Publique”, later “Circus Square” or informally “Place Congo” at the “back of town” where they would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music.
The tradition continued after the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. As African music had been suppressed in the Protestant colonies and states, the weekly gatherings at Congo Square became a famous site for visitors from elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, because of the immigration of refugees (some bringing slaves) from the Haitian Revolution, New Orleans received thousands of additional Africans and Creoles in the early years of 19th century. They reinforced African traditions in the city, in music as in other areas.
In 1819, the architect Benjamin Latrobe, a visitor to the city, wrote about the celebrations in his journal. Although he found them “savage”, he was amazed at the sight of 500-600 unsupervised slaves who assembled for dancing.
500-600 unsupervised slaves who assembled for dancing
As harsher United States practices of slavery replaced the more lenient (it’s all relative of course) French colonial style, the slave gatherings declined. Although no recorded date of the last slave dances in the square exists, the practice seems to have stopped more than a decade before the American Civil War.
We took a trip to the Laura Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation. Oak Alley was a beautiful property framed by a passage of 28 oak trees from the Mississippi Road down to the house, but the Laura Plantation gave a better feel of how things really were. Guillaume Duparc’s sugar farming complex was originally called l’habitation Duparc, then, years later, renamed the Laura Plantation.
beautiful property framed by a passage of 28 oak trees
At its largest size, it was approximately 12,000 acres, which included properties amassed over time. In 1804, Duparc, a French naval veteran of the American Revolution, acquired the property. Construction of Duparc’s manor house began in 1804 and completed 11 months later. Some 600 feet north of the manor house flowed the Mississippi. A wooden pier allowed docking for boats of all sizes. Along the riverbank, ran a 4-5 foot-high levée that afforded protection from spring flooding.
Approx. 400 ft. behind the house was a road, going south, perpendicular to the river, lined on both sides with slave cabins, facing the road and stretching a distance of 3.5 miles. This was always referred to as the “back” of the plantation, where enslaved laborers resided, distant from the area nearer the river, called the “front” and separated from the front by a high fence and muddy swale than ran parallel to the river. Each slave cabin held two families and each had a chicken house and/or pigpen and vegetable garden just outside the cabin. In the decades before the Civil War, the slave quarters consisted of 69 cabins, communal kitchens, a slave infirmary, and several water wells stationed along the same road. One mile behind the manor house stood the sugar mill. The mill was surrounded, as everything else on the farm, by sugarcane fields. By the 1850s, the Duparc Plantation was the workplace for 100 mules and 195 humans, 175 of them slaves.
After the War the Laura Plantation was sold, as was the Oak Alley Plantation. Our guide at Oak Alley seemed genuinely sad for the owners that they should fall on such hard times that they were forced into such a predicament. Whilst it was fascinating to look around the place I did feel uneasy. It was like having a tour of a concentration camp and marvelling at the architecture.
On the way back from the plantations our driver pointed out a nondescript block of electric plant buildings. Without any hint of irony he announced that “this is American nuclear power generation at it’s very best”. I just wanted to get he hell out of there.
this is American nuclear power generation at it’s very best
We also took a drive to the Honey Island Swamp, one of the few remaining preserved wetlands in Louisiana. It was a great tour and we got a very intimate feel of the surroundings, being able to see alligators, turtles, and pelicans just feet away. When a gator jumped out the water at our boat to take a bite, the girl sitting next to me let out a shout of “hot diggity dog”! I never knew people actually said that in real life.
It was also fun to learn that gators view the colour white the same way that a bull views red, especially as Mrs B and I were both wearing white shirts that day!
A trip down the Mississippi on a steamboat was good fun. We got a bit of cooling rain on the river but managed to avoid the storms that were tipping down back in town.We also stopped off at Chalmette, the scene of the Battle of New Orleans where the British troops were led through swamp and mud up to their waists and then to their slaughter. The Mississippi is magnificent.
The Mississippi is magnificent
Last on the list, we went to the IMAX to see Hurricane On The Bayou, a documentary directed by Greg MacGillivray. While it does indeed depict Hurricane Katrina in both actual footage and some recreations, the crux of the film deals with the wetlands and how man-made progress has contributed to their erosion over the years and continues to do so.
MacGillivray provides some beautiful footage of many of these wetlands as we get a literally moving point-of-view. There are comments spread throughout by musicians Tab Benoit and violin prodigy Amanda Shaw about their experiences before and after the Katrina. Hurricane on the Bayou shows how New Orleans, and its people, despite its disastrous setback, keeps on keeping on.
Before we set out on our trip I was kindly given lots of tips on where to go and what to look out for by two NOLA ex-pats. The advice included the following;
“did i mention that new orleans is f-ing dangerous and there are punk kids with guns? watch your back at all times and do not walk around at night away from the crowd if you don’t know where you are. in a crowd, keep your eye out……..watch the weather predictions closely and take storm warnings seriously. a heavy thunderstorm can flood many streets. if a tropical storm or hurricane is coming, get a plane the hell out of town as fast as you can”.
All good advice but as long as you have your wits about you and stay streetwise you’ll be fine, at least that was our experience; the rougher areas are no worse than those in London (or Miami or New York). We did have one heavy tropical storm and the street was a river within 5 minutes. An hour later and you wouldn’t even have known it had been raining. Buy a $2 Saints poncho and you’ll stay dry and have a corny souvenir to take home.
Hotel Royal Sonesta - New Orleans
Finally a note about where we stayed; the Royal Sonesta right slap bang in the middle of Bourbon Street with a strip club immediately opposite the front entrance;
It could have been a disaster but the hotel was superb, an oasis of tranquility from the madness going on outside. As well as hosting the Jazz Playhouse they also have a great open air pool (I visited every day we were there), a lovely green courtyard and loads going on; Bobby Brown was staying during the Essence Festival and they hosted a fair few events for the annual Cocktail Festival. It was actually a really great place to lay our hats for a couple of weeks and having had a good look around the city I don’t think we could have done much better.
the hotel was superb, an oasis of tranquility from the madness going on outside