After a later start, I decided to take a walk around the riverfront by the hotel I was staying at, the Hilton Riverside. The hotel is fine, and as Hilton card holders we get the points when we stay at a Hilton property, but the lobby always smells vaguely of Axe body spray. I had thought it was a lingering cloud from a guest (because let’s face it, all it takes is one) but no, that’s the smell they pipe into the lobby. It is adjacent to an indoor mall along the Mississippi that houses an adjunct Café du Monde.
Café du Monde (But Not That One)
Without thinking, I broke the number one rule of Café du Monde: don’t order “to go”. I was desperate for coffee and wanted a cup I could walk around with but completely forgot to mention that I didn’t also want my beignets to go, which meant I received a piping hot bag of dough and sugar. Still good though.
But don’t worry, I got a proper experience at the original Café du Monde on Decatur St. (twice!) during my stay. A chicory café au lait is definitely a unique experience to try if you’re a coffee drinker.
A Streetcar Named Perspire
I tried to go to the Garden District on the green line to see all of the fancy houses (including the American Horror Story: Coven house) and try a place a local recommended for brunch, DTB/Down the Bayou, but encountered some transportation issues. Apparently due to a marathon run taking place in the city, the entire green line was shut down. Myself and about 15 other people stood around in the heat and humidity for 20 minutes like gawking idiots before we were told by a passing man on a bike wearing a reflective vest what was going on, and that we should hop “that bus that’s pulling up right now.”
No one moved initially. After all, just about anyone can buy a reflective vest, who the hell was this guy? Eventually after he got frustrated no one was listening to him, he looked me dead in the eye and said “I’m telling you, the line is down, you’ll be waiting here forever. Go get on that bus if you need to go to the Garden District.” So I did (thank you, daily Jazzy Pass with unlimited transfers!). After sitting down, I thought that the whole point of me going was to experience the sights along the street car path and by sitting on a bus I’d be really missing out, so I got off and changed my plans. Good thing too, because while the bus did make a stop where I wanted, the end of the line was in Algiers, all the way across the river.
Since all my plans came crashing down, I figured I’d hop the red car to go to back to the French Quarter to visit some museums.
The Cabildo and the Presbytère Museums
On either side of the iconic St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square are the Cabildo and the Presbytère.
The Cabildo was the seat of the Spanish colonial city hall in New Orleans, the original of which burned down in the great fire of 1788. It was rebuilt, had its Spanish coat of arms removed, and had more American decorations of an eagle and cannonballs engraved into its façade. It’s also where Madame LaLaurie’s victims were said to have been taken for care once her dastardly deeds were discovered, using it as a makeshift hospital. Today, it’s a museum that has some artifacts from semi-modern New Orleans history (jazz, bars, food), as well as from the battle of New Orleans including items from Andrew Jackson’s troops and privateers like Jean Lafitte.
Built to match the Cabildo flanking the St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytère was originally intended to house clergy, but never did. It was used for commercial purposes until the mid 1800’s, when it was then used by the Louisiana Supreme Court. Today, it is another of the many fine museums New Orleans has to offer, and has a permanent exhibit explaining the history of Mardi Gras, which I found exceptionally fascinating.
I especially enjoyed that they had an exhibit dedicated to how Cajuns celebrate Mardi Gras, complete with their homemade screen door masks and standing on horses. My husband and I had watched one of Anthony Bourdain’s final episodes where he visited Louisiana and participated in this much more down-to-earth and boisterous version of the celebration most people are familiar with.
The Presbytère also is home to a Hurricane Katrina exhibit, which was both fascinating and incredibly, incredibly heart wrenching. Throughout my week-long visit, every good-natured and jovial local I met would subtly interject their own tragic Katrina story before going right back to maintaining the fun-loving ambiance they know tourists are looking for.
I personally feel that it’s important to understand that just because non-locals may not hear much about it anymore doesn’t mean that Katrina-related problems have gone away. It would do a visitor well to listen to those stories when they come up in conversation. Life’s not all Mardi Gras beads and rum drinks for the locals, and it’s all too easy to turn blind eye to the crumbling buildings and upset lives just outside of the party atmosphere of the French Quarter. Many have lost property, friends, and family, and feel left behind by FEMA. While it’s been 13 years since the storm hit, the impact runs deep and still feels fresh for some, if not many.
Visit the museum if you want just a glimpse into a fraction of what they experienced, but I really encourage you to talk about it with folks who want to share their stories. It’s really eye-opening if you’re like me and only saw what the news showed you.
After I got my fill of the museums, I received a text from a friend whose boyfriend was at the same work conference as my husband asking if we wanted to link up since she’d had the same idea to do a post-conference vacation. Heck yes!
Mardi Gras World
We met at the Drago’s in the hotel and split an alligator po’ boy and a plate of charbroiled oysters. She told me that our respective menfolk would be going to Mardi Gras World for their team building event and that she wanted to see it too. This was something not on my initial research list, and for that I’m ashamed!
Mardi Gras World is where they build and house all of the floats for Mardi Gras. Yes, all of them. After watching a short introductory video about the history of Mardi Gras and how each of the krewes (sub-groups that basically run the whole show) are organized, we got to taste King Cake, a traditional Mardi Gras confection resembling a giant seat cushion and tasting like a cheap grocery store cinnamon roll (Sorry, I think it’s gross). If you’re lucky, you’ll get a little plastic baby in your piece of cake, which if it doesn’t choke you first, means you have to bring next year’s cake and throw a party to boot. That doesn’t seem like a good deal.
We then got to tour the warehouse and see all of the build stations for the floats. Most are made out of Styrofoam and coated with papier-mâché, which is then painted and sealed. Some are fiberglass and made from molds, but they are significantly more expensive to produce (to the tune of thousands versus the hundreds a foam float decoration would be). To keep costs low, fiberglass decorations are often repurposed, changed, and repainted year after year.
If you’re looking for something iconically New Orleans to do, you can’t miss coming here. At $22 with free hotel shuttle pickup, you’d be seriously missing out if you didn’t. I just can hear my maker friends and burners getting revved up to buy their plane tickets. It’s a builder’s paradise, seriously!
More French Quarter and Dinner
I’m pretty lazy and not much of a walker, so these past 3 days of sauntering 3-6 miles daily at a museum’s pace to take in all of the sights was doing a number on my feet and back. The unfortunate thing is that outside of Jackson Square, there aren’t many places to sit in New Orleans that aren’t a bar, in which you are naturally expected to buy a drink per sit. Walking with my friend who had newly arrived and was freshly excited to tour the city was agonizing, but I tried to not let on so I didn’t ruin her time through my wincing.
We visited Southern Candymakers on Decatur Street to buy some of their award-winning pralines. We visited a high-end pen store, Papier Plume, where my friend (an artist working in the animation industry) fell in love with a blown glass dip pen that was buttery smooth to sketch with. I tried it myself but instantly got ink all over my hand, and subsequently everything else. I clearly can’t be trusted, so I leaned on the wall outside the store lest I become liable for any of the expensive goods within. It was there I encountered a gaggle of people dressed as southern dandy vampires stroll by. I thought about taking a picture but assumed they wouldn’t show up in the photo anyway.
Per the suggestion of one of my Twitter followers, we checked out the Court of the Two Sisters for dinner. What we initially thought was an empty dining room at peak dinner hour (a bad sign) was just a small fraction of what turned out to be a much larger restaurant, which opened up to a courtyard nestled among twisted vines and branches decorated with white lights that glowed like fireflies among the patrons. I know I keep saying this, but as a Californian who grew up with the Disneyland version of New Orleans and only just now experiencing “the real thing”, this scene was straight out of the Blue Bayou restaurant at the start of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
My Twitter contact had recommended the crawfish etouffeé, which in this application was placed atop an andouille grit cake (basically a thick, fried patty of creamy grits) and a fried green tomato. My friend is mildly allergic to shrimp but not other shellfish, which is unfortunate as the city is practically made of shrimp and shrimp-based foods. After some googling and deciding that since crawfish are basically tiny lobsters and not at all shrimp, she decided to chance it. Spoiler alert: she was fine, and it was totally worth it.
Southern Comfort Blues
I wasn’t planning on drinking but I’m easily convinced in a place like this. I forgot to write down the exact ingredients this restaurant used, but googling “Southern Blues” or “Southern Comfort Blues” shows up with equal parts Southern Comfort and blueberry schnapps. You can even add SoCo peach if you’re feeling fancy.
I hate bananas, which is a sin in the city that was once home to the Scarface of bananas, Sam the Banana Man, but Bananas Foster is a thing you have to try in New Orleans. They were actually invented at Brennan’s, the restaurant I visited on Day 2 for a friend of the Brennan family and chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission, Richard Foster. Bananas Foster consists of bananas that have been caramelized and flambéed tableside in a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, banana liqueur, and rum served over vanilla bean ice cream. My friend commented, “If your back and legs are cramping up, bananas are supposed to do wonders for that. I think we should get Bananas Foster. You know, for your pain.” Like a good patient, took my medicine, and wouldn’t you know it, my back felt a little better. I’m sure the booze helped too.
My friend asked me if it were between having to make tableside guacamole or Bananas Foster, which would I choose. Avocados don’t tend to set people on fire on most days, and I’m clumsy.
I did end up having them at Brennan’s (as a breakfast dessert, no less) and I would highly recommend getting them there to hear the history of the dessert and to say you had the original.
The Quarter at Night
My friend and I decided to call it a night and wander back to the hotel, but she wanted to stop by Bourbon Street on our way back just to say she’s seen it. Throughout my trip, I ended up on Bourbon Street far more times than I would have liked, as it’s one long party avenue that reeks of pee and vomit, but it is a spectacle worth seeing and all of the good restaurants and bars flank it. After three blocks of wandering through pre-Halloween revelers, street performers, and shoe shine scammers, we decided we had enough sensory overload and headed back. On one of the quieter, darker streets, we encountered a drunk man who was swaying aimlessly to and fro. Not sure which direction he was headed, my friend put her arm across me to hang back to see what he was about to do. Just as he leaned away providing a passage for us to pass, she whispered “Go…go go go go” as we zoomed past him.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he called after us.
We picked up the pace.
I mention these encounters not to dwell on them or scare anyone, but to hopefully illustrate to the ill-informed just how prevalent they can be for many women despite having an otherwise perfectly ordinary day. Before my trip, a male friend had responded to my apprehension of traveling alone that he hated traveling solo because it was lonely and boring. It wasn’t until I mentioned my worst fears of traveling alone in a strange city that he realized our experiences are very, very different, and acknowledged he hadn’t considered darker alternatives because he’s never had to. That’s really all I’m hoping to accomplish by including these incidents in my write-ups. And while crime does exist in New Orleans, if you follow common sense rules of thumb like you would in any major city, you should be fine.
For the record, I didn’t have any other encounters in the days after when my husband was with me save for one when I waited outside a drug store while he went inside to use the restroom. A man approached me to say “How ‘bout it, beautiful?” He was referring to me giving him cash for the street performance he had apparently been doing close by. Seriously?
The following week and remainder of my vacation was a blur of steamboats, fan boats, alligators, more food, more booze, and of course the delightful chaos of Halloween. While I don’t plan to write up every day of my trip, I will put together a list of the places, sights, restaurants, and bars I researched before my trip and add comments based on my experiences so you can plan your own unforgettable New Orleans experience should you choose to come here, which I highly recommend that you do. Laissez le bon temps rouler!