There are some places you’re pretty sure won’t make onto your short list of favorites, but you know you really ought to visit at least once. “NOLA” is one of those places for me. Not being a fan of humid weather, and with neither of us being big partiers, we knew we’d have to:
- A) Go in winter, and
- B) Avoid Mardi Gras.
When my husband had to spend a couple of days in Baton Rouge on business just after Fat Tuesday, it seemed like a perfect opportunity.
We flew midweek into Louis Armstrong Airport (set to open a beautiful new terminal later this year) in New Orleans and drove the easy seventy miles to Baton Rouge, then back for the long weekend.
We decided to use Marriott points to stay three nights in one of their AC properties, located on Carondelet St., just a block or so from Canal St. and the nearest streetcar stop at the edge of the French Quarter. Marriott’s AC hotels, popular in Europe, are smaller and have a trendier, more boutiquey feel than their more traditional properties. They are often located in older, historic buildings. Our room was comfortably furnished, though without the king bed we had reserved. The manager explained that due to the number of groups they accommodate, two doubles are much more frequently requested.
A little geography: New Orleans is situated in the “toe” of southeastern Louisiana, between the Mississippi River to the south and the enormous but shallow -except where dredged for shipping- Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Covering 630 square miles, the “lake” is actually a brackish estuary where salt water from the Gulf of Mexico mixes with river water. City elevation ranges from -6.5 to +20 feet, so if you’ve read or heard that in the French Quarter, you actually look UP to see the ships passing by on the Mississippi, it’s absolutely true.
It’s virtually flat, so it’s a very WALKABLE city.
Please DO be mindful of looking down occasionally for tree roots that have breached the topsoil, and for cracked, broken, uneven sidewalks – a common problem in cities with high water tables. (Trip-and-fall accidents are very common when people are away from their usual surroundings. When we are tourists, we tend to be looking up and around, rather than paying attention to where our feet are going.) A lovely stroll through the Garden District on Saturday morning, with its beautiful blend of architecture, including Victorian, Double-gallery, and Creole cottage style homes, was a very good reminder of that important life lesson.
Here are some other great modes of transportation:
(Mules are better able to withstand the heat and humidity than horses, we were told.) https://www.neworleanscarriages.com/
Included in the $40 French Quarter Royal Carriage Tour (link directly above) is a detailed tour of St Louis Cemetery #1.
We’d already wandered through a cemetery (as most people know, cemeteries here are above ground due to the water level) but it was good to get a guided tour, and the history behind the local funerary customs. Our guide (whose name I didn’t catch) was very knowledgeable; I did hear her introduction of her mule: Paul. He and the other mules we saw around the Quarter were so well trained that they didn’t really need instruction. He would slow at a yellow light, stop for red, continue forward on a green, and stop and wait if he saw interference coming…pretty smart critter.
Streetcar – an all day pass can be purchased for $3.
The local people we met, from our Uber drivers to shopkeepers and folks on the street were all very friendly. Aside from the friendly natives, our favorite thing about New Orleans was the food; details following.
(If you haven’t used Uber yet, here is a link. Our experiences with the service have been nothing less than wonderful. Have yet to find a taxi as clean as the average Uber car. Drivers are usually very friendly, and the rides are often much more economical than cab rides. We have heard equally good feedback about Lyft.) Uber
We weren’t dressed well for the unseasonably warm and humid weather; we’d read that late February temps are typically in the upper sixties, but this third weekend in February gave us highs in the 80s. We were glistening for most of the time.
Suggestion: Definitely take a cardigan, rain jacket & umbrella to New Orleans in winter, but be prepared for heat year round, with a few lightweight tees or tank tops as options. If it’s chilly, they’ll make a great extra layer. Think “breathable fabrics.”
The high point of our weekend was a short concert at the venerable Preservation Hall. Every music lover visiting New Orleans should make time for a one-hour show, and there are five each night – hourly, from 5-10 PM. This iconic type of jazz music practically defines the city’s culture. Cost of admission is $20 per person, CASH ONLY.
Be prepared for a parade to break out in the FQ at any moment. Every time we saw blue lights and heard a warning syllable from a siren, and turned to look, expecting trouble, it was just a police officer clearing the way for a small, private parade. Although they appeared to be impromptu, these “second line parades” do require a bit of advance planning. They’re called “second line” because of the people who fall in behind the band and join the parade. The “first line” is the honored person(s) and the hired jazz band. We saw a couple of wedding parties with jazz bands and what appeared to be all the guests, waving hankies, and another for a birthday. We’ve probably all seen those jazz funeral processions from New Orleans on television, where first a dirge is played by the band, and then they all break out into “happy.”
If you’re going to NOLA and have always wanted to throw a parade, here is all you need to know:
Another outstanding cultural experience the city offers can be found at the enormous, informative, and very well-designed National WWII museum. In addition to a multitude of traditional exhibits and a history of the many events leading to the war, there is an outstanding 4D cinematic experience narrated by Tom Hanks.
Impressively, TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards named this the second most popular museum in the world in 2017.
Cost of admission was $32 with a AAA discount.
Now for another big attraction to New Orleans – the food. As most people know, the big draw is the seafood – deliciously sweet (and enormous) shrimp, crab, briny oysters, red fish and speckled sea trout from the Gulf, and crawfish/crawdads/“mud bugs,” (not technically seafood; they are fished from the bayous).
There are many inexpensive options for dining in the city; it’s full of restaurants at a wide variety of price points. There are plenty of small grocery stores, even in and around the French Quarter. It seemed that we saw either a CVS or Walgreen’s at many corners, for basics like water, milk, and for snacks. Small pub-like restaurants such as Daisy Duke’s were plentiful, and there are lots take-aways, including Brothers’ Food Mart.
On the first night of our stay in the city, we were fortunate to get a reservation at the well-known Commander’s Palace, despite our lack of adequately early planning. Though our 9 pm seating was hours later than our preference, we were glad for the chance to see what all the fuss was about. The bright turquoise cobbled-together Victorian building stood out, even in the darkness. Having overestimated the time it would take to reach the restaurant in the city’s Garden District from the hotel, we arrived nearly an hour early, and were led through the kitchen (it’s always interesting to observe the organized chaos in a commercial kitchen) to the tiny bar area to wait. There was only a stand-up bar, and a couple of chairs stuck off to one end of the area. We waited there, watching the bustling servers pass through to the dining area, trays held aloft, until close to 9. We were amazed count EIGHT dome-covered entrees on one tray, carried with one hand. Give that guy a raise!
When we were finally led through a labyrinth of linked dining areas – some with outdoor exposure, and one enclosed room with a large tree growing up through the roof – and seated, our server Janel introduced us to her “team.” Even though there were three people attending our table, the process took time – the restaurant apparently manages their high volume via careful pacing. Even though we knew fairly quickly what we wanted to order after receiving the menu, Janel had a procedural order to follow, so we just rolled with it. Water, bread, an offer of additional drinks, then the order was taken. We both ordered the gumbo appetizer, made with the traditional dark roux. It was an almost totally smooth soup; I thought there might be some texture from okra or other vegetables. There were only a couple of pieces of crawfish in mine, and the soup was very heavily salted. My husband had a pecan crusted “gulf fish” (species can vary seasonally) which he enjoyed. I ordered Maine scallops, typically just seared, but my request to cook them a minute longer was politely granted. Perfectly cooked, the scallops were also overly salty. We sampled several sides – spinach, creole smashed potatoes with mustard (surprisingly delish) and our favorite part of the meal – a dish of crabmeat that had been poached in Prosecco. It was sweet and tender, as seafood should be.
Three different people had told us to pre-order the bread pudding soufflé, so we did, as well as the strawberry shortcake with local strawberries, a fluffy homemade biscuit, and Chantilly cream. We shared them, and they were delicious.
While our meal at Commander’s Palace was the most formal and pricey one of the entire weekend, it was also our least favorite. It wasn’t awful – it just was way overpriced for the quality.
As darkness fell on the French Quarter, especially in the area closest to Bourbon St, the atmosphere changed to one that made us uneasy, so we decided to leave the area for dinner. We had read glowing reviews about Deanie’s Seafood, just a couple of (quieter) blocks closer to our hotel, and decided to try it. There was a 90 minute wait, but there were a few available seats near the bar, so we made ourselves comfortable.
We were called via PA system in half that time. It’s great to manage expectations and then surprise a customer with better service. We’d had a chance to look at a menu while waiting, and our server took our orders shortly after we were seated.
We thought at first that a generous bowl of red bliss potatoes had been delivered in error, but it’s a complimentary side given to every table. They were great – boiled in Old Bay or creole spices, and a really nice addition.
The hubs ordered a house salad and BBQ shrimp. NOLA barbecued shrimp are unique, cooked just with butter and creole spices. We both liked this style of preparation better than any with barbecue sauce, because it didn’t hide the delicate flavor of the seafood . The shrimp we had were the biggest we’d had anywhere, and this dish was a 6” cast iron skillet packed full of them. (You might ask for extra napkins, and tuck a couple into your collar. The pan is full of butter dyed red from all the spices, and would be ugly to try to remove from a shirt.) He was a happy man.
I had a fresh and beautiful garden salad with artichoke vinaigrette (and chunks of marinated artichokes) and BBQ shrimp pasta.
Dinner at Deanie’s cost less than half what we’d paid the night before, and was a much more memorable and delicious meal. I highly recommend this place. If we’d known then what we know now, we might have gone there two nights in a row.
No dessert. (We had tasted our first-ever beignets earlier in the day!) https://deanies.com/m/
So . . . about those beignets . . .
When we were kids,there was a treat popular at northeastern carnivals called “doughboys.” They were deep-fried discs of yeasty dough, sprinkled with powdered sugar. I think I finally ate one as a teenager.
I’d always assumed that a beignet was just a teensy version of a dough boy. But…when in “Rome,” one must visit the Café du Monde, have a cup of chicory coffee, and try a beignet. They come in orders of three.
Oh. My. Goodness.
These airy little pillows of heavenly deliciousness would be the death of me if I lived there. The dough is not sweet at all, and amazingly, the fried puffs aren’t greasy. They are more than generously sprinkled with powdered sugar, much of which can be knocked off prior to consumption if you’re so inclined. What remains is just enough to give a nicely balanced sweetness to the hot, chewy little treats. There is a trail of confectioner’s sugar within a 20 foot radius of the café, and it’s all but piled up under all its tables. You can tell who’s eaten there by the white dust on their dark clothes. (Suggestion: avoid black clothing if you plan to go.) And if you’re tempted to get an order to take away for later, just know that once they cool, they become something else altogether. The puffiness disseminates, leaving an oddly hardened crust around an empty hole in the middle. All the airy bubbles that were once evenly distributed throughout the dough get together and make one big hollow. So if you want another, just eat them fresh and hot, and skip your next meal.
We had a wonderful breakfast one day at one of several Ruby Slipper restaurants in New Orleans and in other parts of the Deep South. https://www.therubyslippercafe.net/
They are apparently well known for their southern spin on upscale breakfast classics like eggs Benedict, and came highly recommended by my husband’s colleagues in Baton Rouge, where there’s another site. He opted for a southern breakfast platter that included grits, applewood smoked bacon, fried green tomato, and other typical breakfast elements. He was very pleased. For me, the choice was steel cut oatmeal, which came that day with cherry compote and a ramekin containing nuts, raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon. The serving of oatmeal was so big I couldn’t finish it. The juices and ice coffee we ordered were all outstanding. (The only table available was outside, and due to the heat, iced coffee, which I’d never had at breakfast, seemed the most logical choice, and it was perfect.) The one we patronized was on Magazine St. in the Garden District, after we had done a bit of shopping at nearby children’s store Pippen Lane. http://www.pippenlane.com/
Side note: Magazine Street has lots of interesting boutiques and shops, and is a fun street for a stroll. The Garden District is full of beautiful, stately homes and Victorian architecture (interestingly, sometimes interspersed with well-maintained little shotgun houses).
It’s an area well worth exploring on foot.
Safety Suggestion: Look down frequently. Some of the sidewalks in the city have been breached and broken up by overgrown, shallow tree roots or water damage. You don’t want your vacation to be ruined by a face-first fall onto broken concrete!
But I digress. We arrived at The Ruby Slipper at about 10:30 on a Saturday, and it was packed, with a long line out the door. The line never really diminished for the whole time we were there.
Sunday afternoon we went to Muriel’s for the famous jazz brunch. Located near Jackson Square in the French Quarter, it’s housed in a beautiful and well maintained Victorian corner building, one of two “Pontalba Buildings.” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontalba_Buildings
The food was great, and the music, by a trio comprising a guitar, upright bass, and a clarinet, played classic New Orleans style jazz tunes, including “The Saints Go Marching In.”
By this point, both of us needed a break from seafood, and we ended up choosing the same strawberry salad and entree, a maple and apple glazed pork chop with collards and sweet potato with pecans. We were both happy with the choice. The aforementioned salad was just berries, greens, and pecans, but with a really interesting vanilla bean dressing. It wasn’t a sweet dressing, and I was glad. It was creamy but light and somewhat translucent, and zesty, with just enough vanilla bean to add a bit of intrigue. It was a nice balance for the strawberries.
We ended up having a REALLY nice time in New Orleans, and while it may not be a destination for everybody, we found that if a visitor is careful about where they go in the city (and WHEN they go there) there is a lot of beauty and great culture to be enjoyed.