New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michener
New Orleans is one of those iconic ‘must’-see’ cities, and a great taster of the fascinating and varied culture of the southern states. Settled in the early 1700s by the French, today it is a melting pot of French, Spanish, Brazilian, Haitian, European and American amidst fabulous historic architecture older than many other cities in America. Following the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the city has bounced back and once again offers visitors an unforgettable experience.
Let’s start with Bourbon Street, a heaving mass of bars, people, booze, jazz and blues that never stops, it’s a lot of fun but past a certain point it gets messy. While New Orleans is a hub of fun and freedom, step away from the main drag down the wrong street and you can find yourself in the wrong part of town. Underneath all that fun sits poverty and crime and it’s advisable to keep your wits about you.
New Orleans is a wandering city; you can wander around for hours and still be inspired to go one extra block. There are Voodoo museums – fascinating; the Mississippi River – worth a paddle boat tour; architecture – stunning; independent crafts and boutiques – unique; beignets – delicious. Cafe Du Monde are most famous for their beignets, delicious little pockets of fried dough and icing sugar that must be tried. Cafe Du Monde often has queues around the block so look for any cafe that offers them and save yourself the time.
New Orleans has some fantastic restaurants serving the local specialities of fish, steak, cajun and creole cuisine. There’s a great mix of posh restaurants as well as little side street vendors. The only place that I found was hit and miss was Bourbon Street, it seems restaurants can do well there regardless of service and food quality. It also seems the posher the restaurant, the colder it is; one was so cold I was slipping into hypothermia, so take a winter coat with you and avoid seating under the air conditioning vents.
This raises the bigger issue of sustainability within the city which is the worst I’ve seen. Strings of plastic beads are strewn everywhere – over trees, electricity lines, round peoples necks and practically all the bars on Bourbon Street serve drinks in plastic cups. The city really needs to work on its eco credentials.
To the west of New Orleans is Audubon Park where I headed for a pre-wedding meet and greet. I took the tram from Canal Street out through residential suburbs to the park, lined with ancient oaks dripping with the iconic southern hanging moss. A BBQ was held in a picnic area, tables groaning with huge boxes of sautéed shrimp set up as a ‘peel and eat’ station. The humidity exasperated by the recent rain shower only added to the experience.
For me a trip to the south isn’t complete without going out into the country. So on this trip I ventured down to the bayou for a swamp tour. The bayou is an area of rivers and inlets which are home to a few simple wooden off grid houseboats and summer houses, interspersed with swamps that are home to alligators and wild boars, and we saw plenty. Our boat penetrated the inlets as we cruised under trees with hanging moss – remember the iconic scene from The Notebook? It’s similar to this, just beautiful.
Finally, the day of the wedding was topped off with a classic New Orleans street parade. The wedding party had a police escort front and back, blue lights flashing, as we danced our way from the Federal Ballroom – a fantastic reception space complete with a renovated bank vault . The wedding parade was led by a jazz band and we danced behind waving napkins in the air as is customary. Passersby clapped and danced with us so the party grew ever bigger until we reached our hotel on Dauphine Street. I looked into one of the police cars to thank the officer only to see a silhouette of him, brimmed police hat on, smoking a fat cigar gifted by the groom. I guess no further thanks were necessary!