48 Hours In The Big Easy

“Let’s go to New Orleans,” he said. “It’ll be fun,” he said. “We can leave on a Friday evening and be back Sunday night,” he said.

“Well, okay,” I said.

“Oh, by the way, I’m working all weekend,” he said.

“Wait, what?”

And that, readers, is how I found myself wandering around New Orleans over the course of a weekend. A whirlwind tour of the Big Easy, where I got to see both some really cool things and absolutely nothing at all.

J.D. had a trade show to work that weekend, but somehow he managed to convince me to come along for the ride. I had 48 hours to cram in a NOLA experience. I was flying solo, with no transportation. Easy, right?

Thankfully, the concierge at the hotel was a charmer. Eddie was a fast talker and an even faster tour planner, spilling knowledge about the city he obviously adored as if his cup runneth over. Between jokes, he managed to get me on a bus tour of the city that would take me farther out than I would have been able to cover on foot. The bus would even pick me up in front of the hotel, so I wouldn’t have to wander around blindly for the tour company.

Now, generally speaking, I love poking around and exploring on my own. You find a lot of interesting things and meet really great people just by hoofing it around town. (Charleston, South Carolina is a particular favorite for wandering aimlessly–just make sure you take good walking shoes, because the historic town does still have cobblestone streets that can wreck your ankles if you’re not careful.) If you just zip around in a car or a bus, you tend to lose the little details of a place that make it special. But in New Orleans, time was not on my side. So I folded and took the bus.

Day One: Tourism

It’s kind of weird to take these driving tours when you’re on your own, because all the seats are in sets of two and most of the other people on the tour with you are in groups. If they’re not paired up, they have a family group all traveling together. I managed to snag a seat in the front, where I thought I would be out of everyone’s way. I was wrong.

The tour itself was great. We zipped along the streets as the driver narrated the history of the city, explained the architecture of a Creole Cottage, and explained how the geography of the area has affected its culture. Canal Street being the dividing line between the historical American and French settlements, the difference between Creole and Cajun culture and cooking, and why New Orleans cemeteries are so distinctive. (Hint: it has something to do with the high water table.)

The sign says “morning,” but they’re open 24 hours.

In City Park, we stopped for a snack at a cafe that has been in business for 150 years. Morning Call Cafe is in the middle of the park, close to the New Orleans Museum of Art and across the street from a lovely sculpture garden. If you ever drop by, make sure you’ve stopped at the ATM first. Morning Call does their business cash only, and do not accept debit or credit cards. They also offer more than just coffee and pastries, so if you’re interested in something more like lunch, you’re covered. As for me, I was good with a cafe au lait (with milk in) and picking up some beignets to share with J.D. once he was done with work.

We found out after the fact that Morning Call’s claim in City Park is in jeopardy, which seems a great shame to us. Hopefully they will be able to resolve the situation with the park.

My great disappointment was, while the bus did take us through Metairie Cemetery (to my delight), I had to take all my pictures through the bus window. I had been so hoping to be able to get off the bus and explore the City of the Dead, but that was not in the cards. Only later, when I was reading a book I got from the VooDoo shop, did I realize that there may have been a reason for that. Apparently there have been reports of people robbing tourists in the cemeteries, where the above-ground crypts present plenty of places to hide. By keeping us on the bus, the tour company managed to show us the beauty of the place while limiting their liability. Kudos to them on that.

One of these babies can run you a MINIMUM of $10,000. Better start saving up now.

After the sun went down and J.D. finished up at the trade show, we managed to join a walking ghost tour. Before you laugh at the idea of ghosts wandering the streets alongside the living, let me say this–even if you don’t believe in them, a walking ghost tour is a great way to see the city at night. Tour guides know where they’re going better than we do (thank goodness), and there’s safety in numbers. Not only that, but you get to hear great stories about the history of the place and the local legends. Even if you’ve never had icy fingers grab your hand in the dark and felt those hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, these tours can be a lot of fun. And they’re offered in many cities in the United States (you can ask at your hotel or do some internet searches to find them).

There’s a reason they call them “cities of the dead.”

As we admired the French Quarter in the dim light of evening, we were regaled with tales of pirates, epic fires that wiped out entire blocks of the city, and the dramatic horrors of the LaLaurie Mansion on Royal Street. The tour guide stopped in front of a house just at the end of a street and proceeded to tell the tale of Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a socialite who held some of the glitziest dinner parties in the city of New Orleans. Madame LaLaurie, who would sometimes disappear in the middle of her own party and reappear hours later in a different dress, to the astonishment and jealousy of her guests, who couldn’t afford the expense of going through two party dresses in a single evening. Madame LaLaurie, who chased a slave girl over a balcony to her death and kept people chained in the attic where she proceeded to perform macabre, bloodthirsty experiments upon them. Madame LaLaurie, who escaped in a carriage when the angry mob appeared outside her home and disappeared to history.

There are claims that the souls of the people who were tortured and killed in the LaLaurie house have never left–that after Madame LaLaurie made her grand escape, there were more people left to die chained in a basement. Nicholas Cage apparently owned the house at one point, I think claiming it as “research” or “inspiration” for a film he was working on. He doesn’t own it anymore, and it appeared to be pretty quiet as we stood outside looking up at the windows of the third floor.

We didn’t see any ghosts that evening, but we did come away filled with stories of the people and history that makes New Orleans such a unique city.

Day Two: Foodie-ism

The next day, I dropped off the luggage with J.D. at the Convention Center while he sat at the company booth for the last day of the trade show. While he guarded our bags, I set off once again for the French Quarter. With the remaining hours, I was determined to be able to say that I’d walked Bourbon Street.

The unique wrought iron galleries are very distinctive in the French Quarter. If you value your life, don’t call them “balconies.”

Reverend Zombie’s VooDoo Shop is half a block away from Bourbon Street, and chock-full of all kinds of oddities. Between shelves of candles bearing pictures of saints, voodoo dolls hanging from the walls waiting for someone to breathe life into them, incense sticks, and the makings of traditional gris gris bags, there is a worn-looking, sad little leopard head in a glass case with a note–“Yes, I am a real leopard. No, I’m not for sale.” There is an altar in an alcove in the wall with offerings to the spirits. If you go towards the back of the shop, you can have a psychic reading with the in-shop psychic (for a price, of course).  

At the corner of Bourbon Street, just down the block from Reverend Zombie’s, is Cornet. Unassuming on the outside, this little bar pays homage to the jazz history of New Orleans. I sat at the bar, doors wide open behind me to invite passing tourists in, and listened to Louis Armstrong records while I had lunch. Not only does the bartender there make an exceptionally well-balanced Hurricane, but the red beans and rice plate is spectacular. Served with a corn muffin, just the right amount of heat, and delicious.

(It was so good that I tried to replicate it in my kitchen after we came home. Theirs was better–perhaps I should have put on some Louis Armstrong while I cooked. Might have helped the flavor.)

A brisk walk down Bourbon brought me to my ultimate destination. I had seen Spirits on Bourbon featured on an episode of Bar Rescue, and I had made up my mind to have a drink there at the very least. Spirits on Bourbon is where I was hit on by a stranger who appeared very interested when I lifted my drink and my wedding ring flashed in the light.

I almost walked past it, but Google stopped me first.

“Oooh, girl, someone said ‘I love you’ in more ways than one!”  He hit the words “more ways than one” with great emphasis, like striking a gong with his voice on each syllable.

“That’s right. I’m in town with my husband.”

“Where’s he at?”

“Working today.”

Of course, if he had a lovely wife like me, he wouldn’t let her go to Bourbon street by herself. But he doesn’t. And I left soon afterwards, because I’m awkward like that. The signature drink of Spirits on Bourbon is called the Resurrection–a very blue concoction served in a skull-shaped mug with LED lights that flash and draw attention as you walk down the street with your drink in hand. While it’s a tasty beverage, the blue coloring does quick work staining your mouth.

With the last hours of my afternoon, I brought J.D. lunch. Cornet does plates to go, thankfully, so he also got a lunch of New Orleans red beans and rice, sans Hurricane cocktail. And then, just like that, it was time to head to the airport.

New Orleans is a complex, intricate kind of place with a special history and cultural richness that is unlike anywhere else in the world. Next time, I’ll actually have a game plan in place before I let J.D. drag me off on a whirlwind weekend. A bientot, NOLA. The next time we see you, we’ll do you better.

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