Friday, August 20, 2010

Trip Report: New Orleans

In mid-march NoVA Travelers descended on New Orleans. It was the first time I had visited the city and I arrived with great prejudice. For me, New Orleans represented a city chock full of stubborn or possibly ignorant residents who put themselves in grave danger by opting to live in a demonstrated flood basin. I’m a big believer in relocating geographically to better one’s life. If you’re not finding the resources you need to build a successful life in a community; if you’re not able to find work; you move to greener pastures. I did this (twice) in my own life and have little tolerance for folks that complain about their circumstances but refuse to move. How much more important to be mobile minded when your life is at risk in a deadly flood plain!

Still, New Orleans is the enclave of historic grand buildings and famed French culture, and as such demands at least one visit.

After our flight, we transferred to our hotel: Le Pavillon. Beautiful decor, friendly staff and a rooftop pool provided a friendly welcome.

 

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Le Pavillion

 

We made a quick lunch of Thai cusine at Singha Thai Cafe (best Thai food I’ve had outside of the DC metro region) before drifting down to Bourbon Street to tour the French Quarter. The quarter is awesome: like Freemont street in Vegas but planted in Savannah. During our daytime walk through the neighborhood we happened upon a jazz jam, several charming candy shops and a whole bunch of sports tourists (NCAA championship game was being held that weekend in the city) drinking all day long. Despite New Orleans strong Catholic leanings, the only thing the residents seemed to be giving up for lent were their sobriety and pants.

 

impromptu jazz jam

 

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nowhere else can you get pralines, dolls, and voodoo all in the same shop but New Orleans

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three scenes from the French Quarter

 

We had a relaxing dinner that evening at the Oceania Grill. They’re highly regarded for their Cajun cuisine and the group really enjoyed the food. Well, except for me, because I don’t like Cajun food, but I gave it a good try anyway thinking that perhaps if I tried *authentic* Cajun in the home of *authentic* Cajun it might be better. When I couldn’t stomach the taste I put the onus on me and my funky tastebuds.

 

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Tanja and Sarah relax at Oceania Grill

 

Walking back to our hotel through the French Quarter we were bombarded with flashy, brightly lit naked lady billboards advertising the Hustler peep show clubs. Probably at least six clubs in the span of four blocks. I suppose it adds to the ambiance. We also came across two young naked ladies that had fashioned body paint as impromptu pants. They had a gaggle of college aged men literally chasing them down the street. Sort of like the pied piper leading the rats out of town only we wondered aloud what their plan was for the rats when they tired and wanted to stop the game.

 

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Jenni poses with a fellow tourist on Bourbon street

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parade down Bourbon street. Notice the blue dog championed on multiple signs.

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a fellow tourist who must have gotten dressed in a hurry as she forgot her pants. err. um.

Our second day in the city began with a hot breakfast at Café Fleur-de-Lis. The place is well known for their southern cuisine and it did not disappoint. I ordered the biscuits and gravy which elevated the breakfast experience to a spiritual level.

The rest of our morning and afternoon were spent outside the city, touring plantations and the bayou with Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. We were picked up by a well meaning but slightly crazy bus driver with a snappy attitude who shared her opinions during the drive on the federal government (corrupt bastards that don’t care about New Orleans), the mayor (incompetent racist idiot that makes the whole city look bad), the storm (worse than anyone expected),  and the Russians (evil). She was quite entertaining. At one point I asked her to explain the blue dog we’d seen painted on buildings and signs all over the city. “He’s the ghost dog”, she advised. “Why is he the ghost dog?”, I asked. Her response: “DUH, because he’s dead”. As it turns out the dog was the beloved companion of a local artist who took to painting him all over the city.

The driver dropped us off at the Cajun Pride property. Here we were escorted via boat through a large swamp to observe the native wildlife. Our first encounter with the local wildlife were the swarm of feral cats wandering the property. Interesting, but not the species we came to see. As we progressed through the swamp we were met with several varieties of birds and a lot of alligators. The tour company has actually deeded their property over to the federal government because they (the company) could not adequately patrol and restrict trespassers who were vandalizing the property and disturbing the wildlife. Now that it belongs to the feds (with a lifetime lease for the company), law enforcement is Johnny-on-the-spot anytime trespassers show up and incidents of vandalism and mayhem are few and far between.

 

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birds of the swamp

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gator stare down

 

After the swamp tour, we transferred to Plantation lane where we toured the Laura plantation (directly across the street from the mighty Mississippi) and it was like nothing I’d ever seen in the United States before. Bright Caribbean colors with a tropical ambiance that reminded me of Caye Caulker in Belize. We learned the history of New Orleans; the differences in Creole versus American (of English descent) culture; the ramifications of a justice system sans common law. It was on this tour that I was able to make peace with the logic of those that call New Orleans home and would rather perish than leave their city. To be raised in New Orleans is to have a thirst for a unique cultural experience birthed by historical circumstances that cannot be quenched anywhere else in the world.

 

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Laura plantation

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Oak Alley plantation

 

Back in the city that evening we had a fabulous Italian dinner at Mona Lisa in the French Quarter and then went jazz bar hopping to round out the night. Jazz in New Orleans is not like the jazz I’ve heard anywhere else; it’s happier. We ended up in the audience of a 98 year old musician who hold the record as the longest performing jazz man in the United States. He was phenomenal (wish I could remember his name).

 

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98 yr old jazz legend

 

Passing along Bourbon street again on the way to our hotel our entertainment this evening was a stripper spanking a man on his balcony as part of his Bachelor’s party, festive crowds, sampling blow jobs (a cocktail) on the street and dipping into several of the bars to watch the karaoke action.

Once back at the hotel we took a dip in the rooftop pool and hot tub and then descended on the lobby to nibble on the famed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (served with hot cocoa).  The story goes that long ago an important businessman who was staying at the hotel requested the sandwiches and cocoa every evening because it was his tradition at home to enjoy such with his daughter and he missed her. The hotel has been serving it up every night ever since. Unfortunately for us, we arrived after they’d already stowed the goodies away, so I had to bribe the sweet hotel staffer with flattery and flirty smiles to sneak us some out of the kitchen. Tasty little treats and off to bed we went.

We began our final day in the city waiting in line for the delectable beignets at café du monde (so delicious- but my advice is to go to the location in the riverfront mall instead of the overhyped and overcrowded location in the French Quarter).

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beignets (yum yum!)

 

After breakfast we attended mass at St. Patrick’s Church. While none of us are Catholic, all of us were interested in participating in Latin mass. Based on my father’s description of the beauty of the Latin mass I expected to be immersed in a life-changing, spiritually-transforming experience, Really it was just like attending any other mass except I had trouble following along since it wasn’t in English (conclusion: Latin mass is overrated and while it provides a unifying experience for Catholics traveling worldwide it shuts out the newly converted who don’t know the routine).  We spent the rest of the day walking the garden district (so pretty), touring the city park (home of the dueling oak trees), and enjoying dinner at Chef Emeril Lagasse’s Nola.

While I can’t recommend New Orleans as a family friendly destination (a little bit too much licentiousness for that) it’s a fascinating study in culture and cuisine and every adult should experience it at least once.

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