Before I visited it, I’d associated New Orleans with events – from the celebrations of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, to the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Now, having seen and felt it for myself, I have a better idea of what the vibe will be like at tomorrow’s Super Bowl. It’s a gutsy city, handsome and stoic, that isn’t afraid to eat, drink, dance, sing, and show you a really good time – whatever your mood.
New Orleans, or NOLA*, is a city that pulls you in by just ‘being.’ The architecture of its French Quarter, also known as Vieux Carré, is reminiscent of Europe. Its 18th Century buildings, brushed with a paintbox of bright colours and decorated with intricate wrought iron balconies and cascading boas of green ferns, live and breathe their Spanish character. The streets still show the hurt left by the not-so-recent hurricane’s whirlwind – gutted buildings are still under construction, uneven roads hug cracked sidewalks – but, if it’s fair to say, this restoration only accentuates the old city’s resilience and adds to its charm.
Upriver (from the Mississippi), the revitalization of surrounding neighbourhoods follows much the same sentiment. If the Terrell House Bed & breakfast on Magazine Street is anything to go by, this is what the city’s resurgence depends upon. This is gloriously renovated Italianate mansion in the Lower Garden District that whisks you away to another era while enveloping you in Southern hospitality. There was a real feeling of opulence, comfort, and Southern charm when breakfasting in the grand chandeliered dining room on traditional low maintenance fare: coffee, biscuits, and grits. While beautifully restored architectural details – a grand balustrade, the ornate wrought iron balconies – remain the focal points of the 1850’s home, the subtle modern day additions – WiFi, comfy bedsheets – only enhance its upkeep with the times. I think of it as comfort-in-elegance.
With this in mind, much of Magazine Street seems to have followed suit. This neighbourhood is filled with passionate entrepreneurs and a creative community who have set up shop in the neighbourhood’s historic architectural framework; where a milliner doesn’t look out of place amongst the many antique stores, a barber shop, vintage clothing stores, media agencies, cosy cafes, modern restaurants and bars.
The foodie, gourmand, and good-eater are well taken care of in NOLA. Menus offer the region’s traditional items: gumbo, po-boy, jambalaya, crawfish, Oysters Rockefeller, shrimp Creole, beignets, and the down-to-earth rice and beans. Don’t be deterred by the wild party reputation of Bourbon Street. Yes, it’s brightly lit and a little Times Square-esque, but it’s where we dined at the excellent Red Fish Grill; a casual restaurant that offers a twist on the originals such as Alligator Sausage and Seafood Gumbo, flash fried Oysters with a hot sauce spiked blue cheese dressing, and BBQ shrimp and Creole cream cheese grits with fried green tomatoes. Those dishes left a solid impression on me, as well as on my husband’s (picky) palate. “The best meal I’ve had in a long time,” are the words he’d uttered.
That said, the tourist must see, Café du Monde, known for its beignets topped with powdered sugar, left little to the imagination. What must have once been a classy spot now suffers from the perils of tourism. Think: powdered sugar and hungry pigeons, high on the white stuff, everywhere. The cafe’s chicory coffee, however, was tasty even when served out of a Styrofoam cup.
Mental note: We did pass by the French inspired Napoleon House that I continue to mull over. Having peaked through its doors, noting its old school bistro décor – I knew it was a place I’d love to come back to and dine in. But it was upon learning that this – the former home of mayor, Nicholas Girod – had been the place of refuge offered to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1821 in a plot to rescue him from exile – well, that was the lemon twist in my Sazerac. I’ll definitely be returning to NOLA…
When to Go: October was an excellent time to visit. It was manageably busy, the temperature was pleasant, and the sun was shining. Oh, and Halloween meant many a home was decorated with skeletons and pumpkins.
Stay: I highly recommend staying on Magazine Street or in the Garden District – an area known for its oaks, gardens, and stunning homes. At Terrell House on Magazine Street, the proprietors really take care to see that their guests are comfortable and feel welcome. Guest rooms look onto a brick courtyard – a beautiful spot to sit in, with its fountain and beautiful gardens, perhaps accompanied by the household’s sweet tortoiseshell cat.
Do: On this road trip, time was limited. We didn’t take a horse ‘n carriage tour to see the Cities of the Dead**, but getting lost in the French Quarter meant peaking into boutiques and jewelry stores, admiring the beautiful buildings, and passing by many bars decorated in Mardi Gras beads and serving Hurricanes (a rum, fruit juice, and grenadine drink served in a hurricane-lamp-shaped glass, and made famous here by Pat O’Brien’s in the 1940’s).
Jackson Square is a great spot to watch artists at work on their paintings, and to listen to jazz by a band-in-passing. Definitely check out the up and coming Magazine Street for that ‘new’ creative vibe.
*NOLA is short for New Orleans, Louisiana
**Cities of the Dead: New Orleans cemeteries. Because of the high water table, afterlife are buried above ground instead of six feet under. Elaborate monuments cluster together like small communities. www.neworleanscvb.com