The past 10 years have brought the reality of work and household responsibilities; and thus, a fondness for the long weekend excursion -- leave on a Thursday night and come home on Sunday afternoon. It's much easier to catch up on one day's worth of backed up work rather than five! One of my most recent jaunts? New Orleans.
Let it be known that before a month ago, my experiences in New Orleans were two fold:St. Patrick's Day parades (circa late grammar school) with my family and dinner and "clubbing" in the Quarter on my seventeenth birthday with best friends -- moms in tow. Despite my relatively sheltered exposure to all the trouble one can find in NOLA and the city's P.R. efforts to make sure it was presented as a family-friendly destination, I was somehow keenly aware that it was the perfect location for a proper bachelorette-style weekend with friends (insert head in toilet and hand over the early A.M. Bloody Mary to wash down two-to-four Advil). Must be the power of word-of-mouth....
As I dug into options for my trip by scouring the Web, three personalities emerged for the city -- one I knew about and two that surprised me. First, there was the given: "Party Girl" persona. This one requires that you stay in a safe but inexpensive hotel, wear the shortest skirt you own, and let the freak show. Second was that of "The Great American Tourist" -- strap on the fanny pack and keep cash close to your body.... Make sure to hydrate and ask for the CVB's discount before buying ANYTHING. Read all of the tour reviews before making your final selection. Needless to say, number one and two weren't up my alley.
Blogs, elite travel guides, and the recommendations of friends led me to discover the side of city where I would spend time -- the "sophisticated, low-key, refreshing, and full of rewarding fun" parts of NOLA. Getting to know this side of the Crescent City was so thrilling that I could hardly wait to get home and share them with you! If you haven't been to New Orleans in a while, YOU MUST GO SOON (heeding the instructions below, of course)!
The Drive In -- What can I say? I am fascinated with the beauty of the bayou. For me, it all started with the artful and award-worthy intro to HBO's series about vampires in Louisiana, TrueBlood. The murky water populated with weepy trees, flatboats, amazing shacks on stilts and people that speak the most amazing Cajun dialects. The mystery and creativity of it all.... What's not to love? Good news! You can visually "eat it up" on the drive into New Orleans from Mississippi. At least 20 miles of highway outside of the city is pure swampland delight! Soak it in and be sure to tune into a Cajun radio station as soon as you can pick one up.
The Accommodations -- There are lots of destinations that merit scrimping on the room -- New Orleans is NOT one of them; especially if you aren't interested in vacationing with "Party Girl" or "The Great American Tourist". To get the true sense of New Orleans culture, you need to stay in someone's home -- otherwise you miss out on the hospitality, the courtyards and the day-to-day charm. Problem? Not all of us have friends that live in Quarter. Or do we? I couldn't have been more pleased with our stay at Soniat House. It's like visiting your rich and incredibly tasteful aunt's city home. Antiques at every turn, exquisite tapestries, rugs, and draperies. Freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, and homemade biscuits with strawberry jam and butter served on silver and china. If the ownership and regular use of fabulous linens are any indicator of a woman's status as a lady, proprietor Frances Smith ranks number one on my list.
The Food and Drink -- Food in New Orleans seems like a no-brainer, but it's not. If you aren't careful, you can spend your hard-to-come-by appetite and lots of money at overly exposed "staple" establishments and miss out on the truly cool spots. My eating adventures for this trip were guided by local foodies. Most places were not in the Quarter, but rather the Central Business, Garden, and Warehouse Districts, and each provided a stellar experience. Below are the places you shouldn't miss:
Cochon Butcher and/or Restaurant -- a wonderful "New South" dining experiences. The chef takes old southern recipes and ingredients and adds a new, hip spin. I tried lots of things -- you can't go wrong, but the items I MOST enjoyed were those recommended by the chef.
If you follow me on Facebook, you are aware that I am now obsessed with the "Pressed Pig" sandwich at Luke -- best enjoyed with fries and a beer. If you can manage a seat in the back near the kitchen, do it. I was amazed to see how efficiently the staff works in such a small space -- it seems like the perfect marriage of art and good engineering.
Stanley is a great place for brunch (make it boozy if you wish) or a mid-afternoon treat of house made ice creams and sorbets.
Oh, what to say about Domenica? "Mummm" just doesn't seem sufficient. Not if, but WHEN you go there you'll be impressed with the wait staff -- they can tell you anything you want to know about the food's heritage and origin. The signature drinks are amazing, the antipasto platters authentic, and the pasta dishes...inspired.
There is one NOLA food staple that can't be neglected...the soft shell crab at Galatoire's.
The Touring -- I named this letter "New Orleans Sans Bourbon" not because we hate the drink (we actually LOVE it), but because, for the most part, the Street is vile. There is SO much to enjoy about the city beyond this stretch of stench and drinking frenzy. For example:
Frenchmen Street. If you're like me, this is news to you! I had never heard of Frenchman Street, but quickly fell in love with the local charm of this area. It's sort of "biker meets cyclist dining on boutique pizza, American draft beer and eggs benny". It is a hub of small clubs for those who love music.
Ditch the walking shoes and horse drawn carriage and hit the streets on a bicycle. This is the best way experience the flavor of each neighborhood in the Quarter quickly, without wearing yourself out. My advice? B.Y.O.B. There is a rental company, but I was NOT impressed with the quality of the gear or the customer service. My party had two flat tires in one day. On-site repair service? No way. We were stuck schlepping it back to the bike shop, which was MILES away. When we finally made it back to the bike shop they acted like they were doing us a favor fixing the bikes "for free". Gimme a break!
Spa day! When it rains in New Orleans, the first instinct might be to say "bummer". Look on the bright side and visit the Spa at the Ritz-Carlton. Try one of the Bathing Rituals -- maybe even the signature Voo Doo Love Bath!
Want some shopping? The Garden District section of Magazine Street is your place. Blocks and blocks of cool, locally owned boutiques and interior design offices. I suggest using the city bus up and down the street so you don't wear yourself out walking. There are tons of great restaurants along the way. If you need a drink, just stop into one of the wine stores and grab a cold one out of the fridge. I brown bagged it while shopping (gotta love the laws in NOLA)!
Okay, so this should be a good start. Whether you're going down for a Saints game or just need a quick weekend away, include these places on your itinerary and you'll be on the way to getting to know the best side of this famous southern city.