Unlucky for some, but not for us, the thirteenth state we ventured to, Louisiana, is a place of spooky, languid swamps and sultry New Orleans jazz – it’s dizzyingly beautiful, indulgent and laid-back. We loved it.
The Big Easy, New Orleans, is without question an extraordinary place. Home to Jazz Funerals, gourmet Creole and Cajun cuisine, Mardi Gras; we had been avid watchers of Treme and keen to see – and taste and hear – the city for ourselves. We stayed within the French Quarter – which by the way is hilariously awful for parking and ruinously expensive too – in the beautiful Cornstalk Hotel. Beautiful from the outside that is – as you sit on the balcony it seems every single horse-drawn tour group will stop to snap the building – although a little bit odd and creepy inside…maybe it was haunted? Still, it was a great base to explore the French Quarter – the ornate balconies covered in Mardi Gras beads and lush gardens which spill into the streets. We took in Jackson Square where the striking St Louis Cathedral and spirited buskers and performers vie for your attention.
Naturally whilst we were here we sampled a famous sugar-dusted beigneit and cafe au lait which it strikes us could have been designed to cure a rum punch-induced hangover. We drank Hurricane cocktails and ate fried alligator. We enjoyed the most decadent, delicious Italian meal at Adolfo’s on Frenchman Street. We also walked, one night, down Bourbon Street – seemingly an international destination for stag and hen parties – and laughed with wide-eyed surprise at the extraordinary determination at which people were getting drunk. Not tipsy, but hammered. Here every other door opened into a bar or a strip-club and walking the length of the street without getting your butt slapped seemed an impossibility. Venture here at your own peril!
From our hotel we walked to the Central Business District and Warehouse District and spent a few hours at the fascinating, humbling National World War 2 Museum. The nuanced and affecting exhibitions presented the conflict really well explaining how it affected the men and women who took part in the war. The the D-Day Exhibition was exceptional and the ‘Beyond All Boundaries’ film narrated by Tom Hanks was truly unforgettable.
We ventured towards the Treme, the oldest African American neighbourhood in the city, and saw Louis Armstrong Park – a cultural landmark where enslaved people were allowed to congregate in Congo Square and play music together. We were wary as we walked around this part of the city having read every guidebook’s warning about staying safe (FYI they recommend: that while walking from the Quarter to the Marigny is usually safe enough during the day, it’s not a good idea to stray far from the main drag of Frenchmen Street. Wherever you are, take the usual common-sense precautions, and at night always travel by cab when venturing any distance beyond the Quarter.) We feel a bit silly now that our worries stopped us going to visit the St Louis Cemetry No 1 or the Backstreet Cultural Museum – so we’d advise you to be brave but do whatever it is that makes you feel comfortable. There are organised tours you can take too, if you like.
The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum is teeny-tiny but swollen with unique and bizarre cultural artifacts. It promises to take all the mysteries, the secrets, the history and folklore of rituals, zombies, of gris-gris, of Voodoo Queens and all that jazz, and putting it all in one place in the heart of the New Orleans French Quarter. It was a lot of fun and here we met and held a snake called Sammy (what’s not to love) but it wasn’t brilliantly curated and was at times pretty darn weird – and not in a good way.
As tourists it’s hard to know the legacy that Hurricane Katrina left upon the city. The category 3 hurricane struck southeastern Louisiana on August 29 2005, breaching undermined levees in New Orleans, causing 80% of the city to flood. Most people had been evacuated, but the majority of the population became homeless. It’s been estimated that more than two million people in the Gulf region were displaced by the hurricane, and that more than 1,500 fatalities resulted in Louisiana alone. Many people never returned. Having not been before we couldn’t tell if the city had managed to reclaim all that was lost. Still, it felt good to visit and spend our tourist dollars – the hope being that they benefit the less affluent areas of the east as well as the French Quarter. If you wanted to find out more the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans has a poignant new Katrina and Beyond exhibition which chronicles the city before and after the storm.
New Orleans’s local swamps – many of them protected areas just a thirty-minute drive from downtown – are full of natural beauty and a great contrast to the boozy excess of Bourbon Street. We went on one of Dr Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours, based ten miles north of Lake Pontchartrain, which ventured onto the delta of the Pearl River, a wilderness occupied by tiny turtles, alligators, as well as great blue herons and snowy egrets. The tour lasted a few hours, cost $23 and was absolutely exhilarating. It felt great to float through the spooky bayous and look out for the beautiful – although slightly scary – gators.
There are so many places we’d have loved to eat in New Orleans (how is it that we didn’t eat a single Po-Boy!?) and we’re still cross with ourselves that we neglected to make it to the Spotted Cat jazz bar or the Preservation Hall – but this is just one more destination that we’ll have to make sure we visit again.
Rate the State:
Good for: Drinking, eating, live music, nature-lovers, voodoo magic.
Bad for: Expensive parking in NOLA, some slightly scary neighbourhoods.