EZ in the Big Easy

26 Dec

The first thing you notice on arrival at the airport are signs in French – along with English and Spanish of course! Other than that, the airport is all but dead and doesn’t quite live up to the reputation of the man it is named after – the Reverend Satchmo!

Probably your best introduction to the city of New Orleans, Louisiana or NOLA for short, is to hit its most famous Bourbon St as soon as you get there. And once you’ve done so, you’ll probably have little reason to return there, save for the cheap alcohol and a never ending selection of strip clubs – if that’s your kind of thing!

Bourbon St is to New Orleans what Times Sq is to the Big Apple – the same amount of neon and tourists, minus the skyscrapers. What sets Bourbon St apart though is not just the availability of cheap alcohol but also the fact that it is perfectly alright to drink out in the street – a pleasant change when you’re coming from over regulated NYC!

Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon, an old pub with a lively courtyard, is credited with the ‘Hurricane’ – one of two trademark drinks from this city. The other being the ‘Hand Grenade’, which, from experience, I would not recommend to anyone looking for a long night of drinking! End with it, if you must, but don’t make the mistake of starting with one!

Far from the madding crowd and a better place to watch them from are one of many balconies that are typical of this street and the neighbourhood it sits in. A lot of these belong to eating & drinking establishments, situated below in the same building, and others to home owners. Either way, they’re almost all available for rent during Mardi Gras!

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Bourbon St is lined with scores of eateries, bars, karaoke rooms and jazz clubs – almost all of them catering to the white American tourist. If you must eat, drink or listen to music (the 3 things one does in NOLA) on Bourbon, then you really have to be selective about where you go. As far as eating goes, we lucked out with some fairly good ‘Jambalaya‘ at Remoulade which was to be our first meal in the city. 

Bourbon St sits in the very charming French Quarter and as you walk east, further away from the crowd, you get to see some of it. The foot traffic is much less, the houses a lot prettier and of course the noise levels down to a minimum.

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On the intersection of St.Phillip and Bourbon is one such tranquil corner – Lafitte’s – a late 18th century Blacksmith shop converted into a pub. We pick up our drinks and head to the back, where lively music emanates from. The lighting is mellow, the crowd more local and a grand old black man, with a voice reminiscent of Satchmo himself, plays a piano and belts out many a hit, including my dad’s favourite, ‘What a Wonderful World’. 

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India House‘ is the backpacker’s hostel where we were staying and a most charming place in its own right. The front desk staff (available 24 hrs) are a friendly lot, the interiors warm and homely and the spacious courtyard, which includes a bar and swimming pool, is the perfect place to just lounge around for as long as you wish, and for the more social amongst us, mingle with other guests from literally every corner of the globe!

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Indian House is, however, far away from the action, so to speak, but a short 10 minute trolley (or tram) ride gets you downtown and right into the French Quarter. The city operates 3 trolley lines – Canal St, Riverfront and St.Charles – all of them recently restored after Katrina. Fares are $1.25 and you should have change with you. For an additional quarter, you get a transfer to another line. The trolley system in New Orleans is 115 years old today and boasts the largest vintage trolley fleet in the United States. Needless to say, each ride for me – and I took plenty – was a delight!

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Canal St is the main thoroughfare of the city for all purposes tourist! It runs north to south – or more accurately northwest to southeast – ending at the Mississippi River. Unless you’re south of Interstate 10, walking along it is not recommended – by day or night – and unfortunately this holds true for almost all of NOLA’s non touristy parts, which actually make up a bulk of the city!

On the eve of my departure from New York, I learnt that New Orleans has the infamous distinction of having the worst crime rate in the country. The reasons are plenty but obviously the post Katrina scenario has played its part to. All along Canal – we did actually walk once – are hundreds of boarded up homes and complete apartment blocks. Sale and lease signs are everywhere, damage from the hurricane still visible and on the whole the area looks largely abandoned and depressed. We were told by the folks at India House that there are other parts of the city which are much worse.

Once you’re past the I-10 though, things start to look up – figuratively and otherwise. Hotels pop up from almost nowhere and suddenly begin to dot every city block, interspersed ever so often with churches. In fact, I haven’t seen more hotels and churches per square mile anywhere in the US – except Hotels in Vegas perhaps – as I did in the Big Easy.

A view down the prosperous section of Canal St., from a streetcar looking south, on a very clear day, looks something like this.

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On Canal’s east side lies the French Quarter and on its west side, the Financial Dist. The latter has easily the ugliest skyline I have seen in any downtown area of the US – in sharp contrast to the beautiful French Quarter that sits practically opposite it.

The Warehouse Dist, which lies further west / southwest of the Financial Dist. fares a lot better with mostly low height construction and far more interesting architecture. The district is dotted by a plethora of art galleries and museums, none of which charge an entry. One can easily spend half a day on foot wandering about this recently rejuvenated and repurposed neighbourhood.

St.Charles Ave is another city thoroughfare which starts at Canal St and then runs northeast towards the city’s outskirts. The prettier parts of the avenue are characterized by massive oak trees, gorgeous old mansions and of course vintage streetcars running on the central verge.

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Columns Hotel on St.Charles Ave & Peniston St. is an ideal place to stop by for a late afternoon drink in its lovely old verandah, characterized by, you guessed it, high columns!

A section of St.Charles Ave forms the northern border of the very picturesque Garden Dist and the area is aptly summed up by the Wiki as “the best preserved collection of historic southern mansions in the US”. Suffice to say that the neighbourhood boasts some of the prettiest and most well kept houses (sorry mansions!) I have seen in this country and just like homes in the French Quarter are characterized by their fabulous wrought iron balconies, the ones in the Garden Dist are known for their sun drenched porches or verandahs. The residents of New Orleans certainly love their outdoors!

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The southern extent of the Garden Dist is the very lively Magazine St., full of shopping and dining options and an electic collection of store front signs. Ignatius (4200 Magazine St) is a great spot for lunch where, for the first time, I tried Alligator sausages – they were gamy and yum – and then Shrimp Creole as the main. Interestingly enough, Abita, the locally brewed beer is served here in brown paper bags! For desert, walk a little further east, along Magazine till you hit Sucre. Their coffee is great and their bread pudding – a local favourite – outstanding.

At 49 bucks a pop, the Swamp Tour certainly sounds expensive but once you’ve done it, you will realise that it was totally worth your time, effort and money. The 50 minute or thereabouts ride from the city to Honey Island Swamp is equally riveting – you get to see a lot of the Katrina damage en route, you travel on one of the longest east-west highways in the US (the I-10), which includes the longest bridge in the US over water – the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway – taking a full ten minutes to cross! 

Honey Island Swamp is a 250 sq mile protected habitat and gets its name from honeybees that once inhabited the area. The swamp itself is located in the Lower Mississippi basin between the East and West Pearl Rivers and a five minute sprint down that watercourse gets you right in to the thick of it – moss and Cypress trees et al.

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Some of the older trees in the swamp date back to almost 600 years and have served as props for many a Hollywood film including the famous chase sequence in the James Bond flick Dr.No. But the real stars of the show, and one that we had traveled all this way to see, were the Gators themselves! We saw four in all, with this four footer being the youngest of the lot.

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Despite Katrina and pretty much a major hurricane every other year, people still continue to live in these marshlands or Bayou‘s as they’re referred to locally. To show their resilience, some houses have since been propped up on stilts, while others continue to retain their post Katrina look.

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Due to the city’s low lying nature and knack for flooding, New Orleans is also known for its cemeteries which feature above ground tombs, often referred to as ‘cities of the dead’. Some of the tombs, and in many cases mausoleums, are beautifully sculpted and very rich in their design and warrant more than just a fleeting glimpse. At the other end of the Canal St trolley line are three large cemeteries – Greenwoods being one of them.

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French Market, on the south side of the French Quarter, bordering the Mississippi, is a bustling part of town. Decatur St is where all the action’s at and a good place to start is Cafe Du Monde – the 146 yr old French Market coffee stand – where a plate full of Beignets and a steaming Cafe Au Lait are par for the course. The nearby Market Café is located within the second oldest building at the French Market and has a large porch with plenty of seating. It was raining that evening and being outdoors felt a tad chilly, so we got ourselves a hot bowl of ‘Gumbo‘ and washed it down with a Hurricane, all the while listening to a wonderful Jazz band performing at the same venue.

Next we stopped at French Market Café, where the aroma of fresh sea food lured us in. The char gilled oysters were some of the best I’ve eaten, not that I’ve eaten too many, but for whatever it’s worth! Not far from all these lovely eating spots is Jackson Square, which faces the river on one side and has the impressive Cathedral of St.Louis on its other side. While I’m easily drawn to striking architecture, of which the city has plenty, on this rainy evening in the French Quarter, it was a couple of stately looking horse drawn carriages that garnered my attention. 

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BMC or Balcony Music Club (1331 Decatur St), on the southern periphery of the Quarter, is another fine jazz spot where we thought we’d stay for a few numbers but ended up staying for a full hour. In a jazz band made up mostly of men, it was the exceptional voice of a female vocalist who dominated the evening’s proceedings.

Frenchmen St. derives its name from back in the day when the French drove out the Spanish in these parts. Today, the street is a haven for lovers of not just jazz, but music in general, dotted with several music clubs – DBA, Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor, to name a few – and no dearth of talent on the street itself. 

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In keeping with the New Orleans tradition of eating non-stop, we made a final pit stop for dinner at Praline Connection (542 Frenchmen St) where some more Gumbo was imbibed along with Cajun wings, and finally some Pear Cobble for desert, which was exceptional.
 
The Mississippi at New Orleans is a busy waterway with traffic ranging from large ocean going liners to tiny river ferries. A sun soaked promenade (or ‘moonwalk’ as its referred to) runs along the riverfront from the French Market to the Canal St pier, a distance of about a mile. Serving as a backdrop to all the passing ships is an impressive Cantilever bridge (the 5th longest in the world) also known as the Crescent City Connection, which carries US Route 90 across the river. In the foreground and just off the promenade are parked several tourist boats, of the paddle steamer variety. The Natchez is one such stern wheel paddle boat, where, as I was walking past, a conductress performed a symphony, ahead of the boat’s departure, using the boat’s own steam whistles! 

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Charming as it is by night, the French Quarter has a whole different vibe to it by day, where even the touristy bits of Bourbon seem sane. Each street or ‘Rue’ as they say in French is unique in its look and feel – some of them dotted with art galleries, others with cool curio shops and some simply sporting musicians and street performers – from marionette artists to magicians. The one thing that stands out across them all though is the stunning architecture of the buildings – commercial and residential alike – and of course their iconic wrought iron balconies, which somehow, I just couldn’t get enough of.

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At the end of this exceedingly long blog, I leave you with one last image – one, that I feel, best surmises the easy going sprit and laid back nature of this very special city. As the saying goes, if you want to go easy, go N’awlins 😉

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A full set of pics is available here

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One Response to “EZ in the Big Easy”

  1. Mohan January 6, 2009 at 6:43 am #

    Terrific! Reminds me of my own visit to NOLA back in ’89 and a cruise up the Mississippi and into Cajun country. One of only two cities I visited in the US that I liked at first sight!

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