Beignets, Brass Bands, The Bayou & Baron Samedi: The International Playgirl’s Guide To New Orleans!
New Orleans is such a beautiful, magical city. On every corner, there is another crumbling building, another iron balustrade. The streets are dotted with turquoise gingerbread houses, & the water covers are emblazoned with a moon & stars. There are voodoo & esoterica shops tucked into tiny storefronts, & sugar-dusted beignets are available at every hour of the night.
I was so excited last week, when I boarded a plane bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. It was my first time in the real South (am I right in thinking that Austin & Orlando, while wonderful, don’t count?!). I had wanted to visit New Orleans ever since I was a young kid obsessed with Anne Rice & Poppy Z. Brite, & just like any compulsion you have in your adolescence, the fascination never quite leaves you!
I was incredibly lucky because for my first visit, I had the most fantastic tour guide I could imagine: my friend Jess. Even though Jess is from Australia — & in fact, we met when we both lived in Melbourne — she has somehow managed to visit NOLA about 8 times! She was determined to show me the best time possible, & she succeeded. In case you’re thinking of making the trek anytime soon, here’s what we got up to…
We stayed in the French Quarter, in a fairly unglamorous hotel. A lot of people advised against staying in this area, & encouraged me to stay in the Garden District, for example, but I’m really glad we stayed where we did. Why? Because it gave us instant access to everything we wanted to do. Yes, it was tourist central, but for a first time, the French Quarter (or Vieux Carre) is where you want to be. Next time I go back, I will probably stay somewhere else, but the French Quarter is where it’s at for any NOLA virgin!
Our trip spanned Tuesday to Saturday, which was perfect. Any longer & we might have been wondering what to do next; any shorter & we wouldn’t have had enough time to do everything. I was also really glad we left on Saturday afternoon! Friday night on Bourbon Street is pretty revolting, very Fear & Loathing! I think another night of that would have driven up me the wall. (I understand that some people go to NOLA for a debaucherous weekend, but I am not one of those people!)
Every single day was action-packed, but in a wonderfully laid-back kinda way. The weather was perfect, warm but not too humid, & my suitcase full of tank tops, skirts & boots turned out to be ideal.
New Orleans is a fantastic city to walk around & explore. It’s like New York City in that way: you could take a cab, or stick to one area, but you’d miss a lot. At the same time, there are some parts of NOLA that are unsafe. It definitely helps to have a local with you, just to make sure you don’t get into trouble.
If you’re planning on visiting, be sure to throw some comfortable walking shoes in your suitcase, & unless you’re going to have a super-fancy meal, I’d leave the heels at home. Cobblestones, mass public drunkenness & stilettos are always a bad combination!
We had a marvellous time walking (& occasionally driving, thank you so much, Bob & Lorin!) along Magazine Street, which is a super-cool shopping district mixed in with residential living. We especially loved Sucré, Trashy Diva & Armoire.
Oh, how we ate. We had breakfast at The Camellia Grill, a Pepto-Bismol pink diner where everyone sits at the counter & is served by a sweet man in a bow-tie. Our server, Ricky, had a name tag that said, “Everything is Beautiful.” Another server, Penut, had a name tag that said, “As we say down south, ya heard?” Ricky gave us chocolate pecan pie on the house, & Penut called us “super-fucking-models” & flirted outrageously.
We didn’t have a single bad meal. In fact, even a last-minute emergency nacho stop was — we both agreed — inexpensive, easy & satisfying.
I fell in love with crawfish in New Orleans. This is somewhat of a miracle, since I am a fussy eater at the best of times, & never very keen to try anything new. But it’s different when you’re with someone you trust, who you know will only recommend things they genuinely believe you’ll like. Jess is a major foodie, & I took her suggestion & tried gumbo as well as crawfish étouffée. What a revelation! NOLA is absolutely worth visiting if only to get your nosh on.
My favourite meals were as follows:
Elizabeth’s / Redneck Tomatoes: Fried green tomatoes with eggs, hash browns (or grits) & a side of praline bacon. I MEAN. Best meal, hands down.
Ruby Slipper / Eggs Blackstone: Poached eggs on a freshly-baked biscuit, with bacon, fried tomatoes & hollandaise. LAWD HAVE MERCY. Jess said her grits were the best she’d ever tasted, & the waitress told us the grits came all the way from Tennessee!
Desire Oyster Bar / Fried pickles, gumbo (shrimp & sausage) & crawfish étouffée. This place looks like a tourist trap, but the food is excellent.
Cafe Du Monde / Beignets & coffee… Of course.
Yo Mama’s / Burger topped with bacon & peanut butter. This was completely off the hook.
The Praline Connection / Most insane fried chicken of my life (though the service wasn’t amazing — next time, I’d go to Coop’s Place).
…Told you she fed me well!
Of course, it is impossible to talk about New Orleans without mentioning Hurricane Katrina in the same breath. I really didn’t know what to expect. I thought maybe the New Orleans of today wouldn’t be the way it used to be. I thought maybe the vibe of the city would be different; that I was too late. I was delighted to discover that I was wrong. Of course, it’s not perfect: the city is still recovering. But the people of New Orleans are so strong, & the spirit of the place is so powerful. You get the feeling that this place, & its population, will never be defeated.
It was shocking to be there & actually come face-to-face with some of the lingering damage. A lot of houses still bear their FEMA spraypainted crosses, though I was told that the crosses were a point of pride for some, almost a badge of honour. Hurricane Isaac had recently blown through the city & we saw plenty of roofless garages & blue tarps to provide temporary shelter.
The tourism industry in New Orleans brings in $5.5 billion a year, contributing about 40% of its tax revenues. I’ve heard that tourism has dropped off since Katrina, though it is coming back slowly. It felt good to go there, pour some money into the local economy, & help support small businesses owners. I adored New Orleans & was so happy to contribute any way I could, no matter how teeny-tiny.
If you have ever considered visiting the city, I would strongly encourage you to do so! I am sure you will be just as enchanted as I was, & even better than that, you’ll help so much.
New Orleans is such a fascinating place, with a rich & wild history. As we walked around, Jess told me about ghosts & murderous socialites, drunken pirates & French vampire girls sleeping in caskets at the Old Ursuline Convent. I learned about quadroon balls, Congo Square & the illicit goings-on of Storyville.
Most of all, though, we soaked up the magic. We tried on magnificent hats at Fleur De Paris, & knelt at the grave of Marie Laveau (XXX). We enjoyed lagniappe at La Petite Grocery, Camellia Grill & Sucré. We danced to Kermit Ruffins at Blue Nile & gave singles to the Sweet Street Symphony, who were playing in the middle of the road. I discovered my new favourite newspaper — The Weekly Jailer — in a city where the actual newspaper is about to stop printing a daily edition.
I had a tarot reading at Bottom Of The Cup with Otis (who is lovely), visited multiple voodoo shops, delighted in Southern manners, took midday beignet breaks, grinned at trumpet players, photographed gorgeous architecture, & lay around in bed with Jess discovering fabulous/terrible late-night shows like Prom Queen & Love & Hip Hop.
Basically… It was the perfect vacation.
Of course, no city is fun if you go with someone who is difficult or grouchy. I was so lucky to be with Jess, who is the perfect travelling partner. I love you, girl, & can’t wait to see you again soon!
P.S. If you want to see my impromptu travel snaps — of which there are plenty, since I am absolutely incapable of sitting still — be sure to follow me on Instagram! My username is galadarling… Of course!