My husband had a business trip in New Orleans close to Halloween, so we decided to cross this bucket list item off our list and extend the stay to a week! Halloween in New Orleans (Hallorleans?) was surely going to be an unforgettable time. Unfortunately, with my husband’s work conference and our travel schedule, this meant I would spend the first 3 days in the city all by myself.
I admit it. Beyond the initial excitement of planning this trip was the nagging worry of overall safety. After all, being a lone woman traveling in an unfamiliar city can, and sadly often does, end in becoming a tragic trending hashtag on social media, allowing strangers to admonish your still-warm corpse for your stupidity for daring to exist outdoors after dark.
But I was determined to not live in fear and just stick to the common-sense rules of travel that every woman (hopefully) already knows:
Stay in well-lit areas
Stick to populated areas
If you turn down a street that looks like you shouldn’t be there, you’re right
But thousands of people travel to New Orleans without incident, the majority of which are drunk out of their skulls (if the rich…um… “patina” on Bourbon Street that is rinsed off nightly is any indicator), the odds are in my favor as long as I play it smart.
That’s why I decided to book a tour. Safety in numbers, a predetermined group to travel in at night, plus I have the added bonus of getting my bearings within the city for my week ahead.
But first, dinner.
First Meal in New Orleans: Drago’s
In my preliminary research when scoping out places to eat, Drago’s kept coming up as one of the must-try places in the area. A local chain, Drago’s specializes in seafood, more specifically their oysters, and even more specifically, their charbroiled oysters.
Staying at the Hilton Riverside, they conveniently had a Drago’s attached to the hotel, so I decided to grab a bite here before I set out for the evening.
Half-Dozen Charbroiled Oysters
Drago’s signature item, the oysters are brushed with garlic, butter, and herbs and dusted with a blend of parmesan and Romano cheeses before cooking them on a hot grill. They look breaded (to my surprise as they are listed as a gluten free item) but it’s just the blend of hard cheeses. They were reminiscent of Oysters Rockefeller in mouthfeel, but were amazingly savory and absolutely dripping with garlicky butter sauce (the better to mop up with your baguette!)
Shrimp and Corn Bisque
Being in the land of gumbo, I thought about going bold and getting some here. But the siren song of the bisque called to me, so I asked my waitress for her opinion. Her default service staff demeanor gave way to inherent personal joy as she looked over her shoulder and said with a thick Cajun accent, “Get the bisque. The gumbo here is…it’s okay. But they don’t use the traditional recipe, and in my opinion, too much tomato. There are millions of places around here to get gumbo, but the bisque is good.” That’s enough of a recommendation for me! And it definitely paid off. The bisque was more like a thick and hearty stew of corn, shrimp, and crab bits all simmered together with a satisfying spicy bite at the end. I regret that I only got the cup, I could have polished off a bowl, maybe even a trough.
A hurricane is one of the signature cocktails of New Orleans, consisting of rum, rum, rum, and fruit juice. While THE place to get it is at its birthplace, Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter, this was on special this evening. This was my first sampling of how strong the folks in New Orleans make their cocktails though, as one of these could have put me to bed. But the city awaits!
The French Quarter
I took my Lyft to where my tour was scheduled to meet, but found I had more than an hour to kill. Immediately the general vibe of the area felt within my acceptable limits of safety, so I decided to walk around to pass the time.
My tour company’s proprietor, Voodoo Bone Lady, has her own shop right near the meeting location, so I decided to go inside. The shop prohibits photos, so I have nothing to show here, but it’s a small shop with informational plaques on what voodoo is and what it isn’t, ensuring you that you’re entering into a safe space that you are welcome. I browsed through herbs, trinkets, voodoo dolls. It’s a common misconception that voodoo dolls are used to harm, but it’s actually the opposite; they’re used to lure positive vibes towards yourself or wish them on another person. There are multiple voodoo shops within the French Quarter, and if you are like me and enjoy the general vibe of metaphysical bookstores, they’re fun to browse.
I suddenly heard the sound that every movie featuring New Orleans has trained my ears to understand as the audible cue for the setting, a second line parade. So, quick factoid I learned: the “main line” or “first line” is the brass band itself that leads, while the second line is anyone that follows them, forming a parade. In short, they’re a jazz funeral without a body. These parades are a daily occurrence, because anyone in New Orleans can have the cops block off a portion of the street so they can have their own parade, for a nominal fee of course.
As I walked, I found myself near Jackson Square and suddenly…alone. I put my back up against the wall of a tavern and flipped out my phone to look at my map. The second the soft blue glow of the screen hit my face, a man emerged from the shadows of the square and immediately started towards me. Noticing him, I put my phone away, to which he commented, “Aw, I can’t use your phone then?” “No, sorry.” Why did I say sorry? I walked on, keeping an ear out to see if he followed but staying well within the view of the bar patrons who were inside facing out the windows. I found a mother and daughter walking the opposite direction with their standard poodle, so I joined their flock and followed wherever they were headed just to put some space between myself and what other surprises lurked in the square.
When I took a closer look at my surroundings, I saw that Jackson Square was populated by little pop-up fortune telling booths. Lone tarot card readers, fortune tellers, and voodoo practitioners had set out small folding tables covered with table cloths and tea light candles to read the palms of tourists and passersby. I noticed that the guy who had talked to me had found another (male) tourist to occupy his time who actually seemed to be eating up everything he was saying. He then leaned down and put toothpaste on the tips of each of the man’s shoes, saying, “There. You’re in New Orleans now.”
Because it’s me, my first tour had to have a haunted slant to it. I chose Voodoo Bone Lady’s 5-1 Haunted Tour where you learn about ghosts, pirates, vampires, witches, and voodoo. Our tour guide, Brian, is like a human megaphone, which was especially useful to hear the tour information over the din of drunken revelers and bar music. As we began walking at night in the French Quarter, I became keenly aware of how many haunted and night time tours this city has to offer, with every corner busy with a different tour group. This mishmash of haunted lore right within earshot allowed me to indulge in my guilty pleasure of eavesdropping.
“…And everyone was bleeding from the mouth…”
“Back in the day they didn’t have many surgical options available, so they’re going to tell you that that arm has gotta come off!”
“Bonafide! Prison! For vampires!”
That last one was a story about the history of the Ursuline convent, which if you take the time to look it up, is like a combination of an Anne Rice novel and a Seinfeld episode.
We learned about how you can dine with the ghost that haunts Muriel’s restaurant and other haunting tales, but the stop I was really looking forward to learning more about was the LaLaurie house. Owned by socialite Delphine LaLaurie in the mid-1800’s (and more recently, actor and all around NOLA superfan, Nicolas Cage), it is known as being the most haunted house in all of New Orleans, and for good reason. Madame LaLaurie tortured her slaves in unspeakable ways in this house, and it was found out about in the middle of one of her lavish dinner parties when one such slave intentionally set the stove on fire to alert the authorities. No “it was said”, no “legend tells”. This was real, and it is on court record.
I’m a fan of American Horror Story: Coven and loved Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Madame LaLaurie, but even the fantastical depictions of what went on in this house doesn’t hold a candle to the truth (warning, not for the faint of heart). It’s now owned by an oil man who uses it as his vacation home maybe twice per year. In my opinion, if you buy a notorious haunted house, you go all in, you don’t dip your toe into the curse pool and go “Woo that was refreshing!” What a waste of a good haunted mansion.
Alone in NOLA
The next stop was Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, founded by the pirate and bad boy hero of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte. It’s the oldest continually operating bar in the U.S. (yes, even during prohibition. Pirates gotta pirate, apparently), and their signature cocktail is the Voodoo Daiquiri, aka: “Purple Drank” because it tastes like grape Kool-Aid. I didn’t partake, but instead waited at the spot our tour guide indicated. And waited. And waited.
I kept looking around and my tour guide, nor the tourists I was with, was anywhere to be seen. I saw a gutter punk wearing Little Ceaser’s Hot-N-Ready shirt singing Sex Pistols songs on a grungy acoustic guitar to another gutter punk with a broken leg, literally sitting in the gutter. I saw an 8-year-old kid wildly tugging along a small pitbull mix named Po’Boy yelling at him “Stop pulling, you little asshole!” I saw a man who was somehow wearing every article of clothing imaginable, including a pith helmet with rubber ducks glued onto it, but somehow lacking shoes. But I didn’t see my tour guide.
This is it. I’ve been ditched. My worst fear has come true. I’m alone at night in a strange city, far away from my hotel and not sure what to do next. I called the tour company and they gave me the next stop via walking street directions to meet my group. They’re not there. I call back, the tour had apparently ended and I wasn’t on it to see the rest! After some talking and apologies, I was promised a complimentary tour the next day for my trouble, a gracious make good offer, but what do I do now?
Oh, right. It’s 2018. I called a Lyft.