Friday, March 18, 2011

New Orleans: Land of Gators, Gumbo and Tourists

So I recently got home from a week in New Orleans with my girlfriends.  Since long before Hurricane Katrina, I've always wanted to take a trip down and experience the sights and sounds of the French Quarter.  New Orleans is so much more than what most people experience.  On the surface it's a party town filled with drunken frat boys trying to get you to flash your boobs.  But if you make the effort, there is so much more to New Orleans than Bourbon Street.  Not that there's anything wrong with a good pub crawl along Bourbon Street ;)

The Swamps

If you ever go down to New Orleans, do me a favour and take an afternoon to head out to the swamps.  It's honestly something you can't experience anywhere else.  We did a boat tour and honestly at first I was a little concerned that it would be a let down.  When I arrived in Louisiana, my airport shuttle driver told me I was wasting my money going out there because all the animals were in hibernation and I wouldn't see anything.  Bulls&$@! buddy!! We saw DOZENS of gators.  Itty bitty baby gators and big ass 10 foot gators.  We saw turtles and cranes as well as bizarre hopping fish things that would jump out of the water.  Besides that, the swamps are surprisingly peaceful and beautiful with the calm waters and Spanish Moss covered trees.

Lafayette Cemetery 2 - New Orleans
City of the Dead

For anyone who doesn't already know, New Orleans has such a high water content in the soil that back when early settlers moved in they soon realized that they couldn't bury their dead without the coffins popping back up to the surface.  To solve this, they started building above ground tombs.  The cemeteries then, have become entire cities of these tombs, hence them commonly being referred to as Cities of the Dead.  Now I knew about these interesting cemeteries and at first I was hesitant to visit because I thought it was disrespectful to wander around someones grave and take pictures.  Once I got there I was amazed by the beauty of some of these old tombs and this history they outline.  Now some people even take guided nighttime tours of these cemeteries and listen to various vampire, ghost and voodoo legends.  Not this girl. Now despite these tombs being beautiful, they are incredibly creepy so the thought of being in one at night is a bit more than I could handle.  Honestly, I wouldn't even want to live near one or walk by one at night by myself.

Steamboat Natchez
Steamboat Natchez on the Mississippi River

If you've got the time, wander over to the riverfront and go on a lunch cruise up the Mississippi River on the Steamboat Natchez.  With lunch and a live Jazz Band, it's a neat way to see the Mississippi, learn some history and spend a relaxing afternoon.  The ride even takes you down to the 9th Ward where the destruction from Hurricane Katrina can still be seen.  Just do me a favour and don't forget your sunblock.  OH MY GOD did I get a sunburn.  And if you're super pale like me, save yourself the pain and go down to the French Market and buy yourself a big floppy hat.  You'll thank me later.  I promise.

Mansion in the Garden District
The Garden District

I swear I was a Southern Belle in a past life.  One of my favourite movies of all time is still Gone With the Wind.  For a $1.25 get your butt on the St.Charles Ave. Trolley and head out to the Garden District.  We spent a while just walking up and down residential streets filled with beautiful colonial homes that I could only dream of living in.  Street after street was filled with beautiful estates and stunning architecture.  Just be careful you don't get stranded out there ;)  We got stuck out in the middle of nowhere because they had shut the trolley down over an hour earlier than posted for an early St.Patrick's Day Parade.  After much grumbling, walking and limping we were finally able to catch a shuttle back to the French Quarter.

 Drinking, and Eating and Shopping OH MY!!

Entrance to The Dungeon
You can't go to New Orleans and not eat some Gumbo, have a drink on Bourbon Street or wander around the French Market.  Food is not cheap in New Orleans but the portions and quality make up for it.  If you ever go down there, check out the Court of Two Sisters on Bourbon Street.  They have an awesome brunch in a beautiful courtyard with a live jazz band.  Head to the Dungeon if you're adventurous and not frightened by loud rock music and heavily tattooed clientele.  Sit at the bar and try one of their house drinks like the Midnight Potion.  I don't know what's in it but it's purple and will knock you on your ass.  The good thing about the Dungeon is that it's surprisingly quiet.  Because of the goth/metal atmosphere a lot of the party girls and frat boys steer clear.  We got a good laugh out of the 30+ people we saw walk in, take a look at the place and do a 360 to get their asses back onto Bourbon Street. Wimps.

One of my funnier culinary stories from the entire trip is from my first day in New Orleans.  After getting up at 5am, spending hours at the airport and more hours on a plane and shuttle bus, I had finally checked myself into our hotel and had a shower.  Awake and clean I started wandering the French Quarter in search of a late lunch.  Not feeling very adventurous on my first jaunt out I grabbed some simple chicken fingers.  Everything was going well when the girl at the counter asked me if I wanted regular or spicy.  Spicy? I could totally go for spicy! Now I love spicy food.  Always have.  So I was a little insulted when the girl stared at me for a bit and said "Are you sure hun?"  which translated to "Please white girl,  this is Louisiana."  Now I have to admit.  Their version of spicy and our version of spicy are two different things.  After all this is the home Tabasco Sauce.  But I braved the spicy chicken fingers and only had to down one glass of water ;)

On another note, for $1 you can get a daiquiri at Cafe Maspero on Decatur Street.  Just be careful when they ask you if you want to upgrade to the large for only $3.  What they will hand you is a daiquiri that's about the size of a 7/11 Big Gulp.  All I have to say is BRAIN FREEZE.

For souvenirs head down to the French Market.  Everything from Voodoo dolls, Mardi Gras beads, masks, gator claws, handmade jewelry and shirts can be found at this daily flea market. 

Cafe Du Monde

I had to break this out on it's own because it deserves a place of honor.  Open 24/7.  Bignets.  Cafe Au Lait.  Best Hot Chocolate ever.  Don't question it.  Just go.  Just don't go during the day because you'll stand in line FOREVER.  Midnight, after a day of walking around and a night of drinking there's no better place to be.

Ubercreepy St.Germain House
 Haunted Tours

Between vampires, ghosts, voodoo, pirates and murderers New Orleans has a legend about pretty much everything.  The most haunted city in the US, there are tons of legends and stories that will keep you up at night.  One of the fun but touristy things to do is go for one of the guided tours that take you through the city and tell you all the grisly stories of the past.  Once dark hits, you will see dozens of these tours on every street corner  They're fun and the guides are great.  Just be prepared that even if you don't believe in any of it, there's a certain air about the place that can easily play with your imagination.  Buildings that during the day were beautiful will now be creepy and ominous and you'll never quite be able to look at them the same again.  Walk by the Ursuline Convent, St. Germain House or LaLaurie Mansion during the day and you'll just think they're pretty buildings.  Spend an evening being told about the murders that took place there and various haunting's and even the most hardened cynic will get chills when walking by them alone at night.  There's a reason why most of the locals won't go near these places at night.  Hell, apparently a lot of people won't go near these places during the day and go to great lengths to avoid them.

Bourbon St. at night
All in all I really loved New Orleans but I honestly wouldn't go back.  It's one of those places that once you've experienced it you're kinda done.  I saw everything I wanted to see and did everything I wanted to do.  I'm not a huge drinker and even if I was, I can  bar hop just as easily in Toronto.  The people were nice but the place is crawling with tourists, most of whom are drunk.  The city is beautiful but the sidewalks are falling apart and difficult to navigate sober let alone when drinking.  It wasn't uncommon for us to yell "HOLE!" to warn the people behind us of a massive pothole in the sidewalk that could break your ankle if you were caught unaware.  Bourbon Street is fun but in the light of day, the strip clubs are cheesy and despite the awesome job the city clean-up crews do, areas of the French Quarter in the heat can smell like a combination of murky water from the Mississippi, rotting garbage, horse manure from the carriage tours, spilled alcohol and various bodily fluids that I don't even want to think about mixing together in the gutters.  Trust me when I say that if you see a puddle.....under no circumstance should you step in it.  You don't know what's in there and honestly you don't want to know.