Technically, I have been there before. In 1999, Kinko’s sent me there for training. It was the regional training area. We went from hotel to training, then back. On the second to last day, we went to the French Quarter…and an Applebee’s. So this was, in essence, my first time actually visiting.
Coming from Chicago, with time in Birmingham, I really didn’t understand the way New Orleans worked. See, while both cities have things tourists do, there is not a tourist district. The Quarter is exactly that. It is, with a few exceptions, entirely for the tourists.
And that is just weird.
So, we landed on Friday morning, and took a taxi in to the hotel – no shuttles. We got checked in, and headed out to see some stuff before the first walking tour. Of course, that meant the French Quarter. Which was really interesting. Lots of small shops selling all manner of things, well, mostly Cafe du Monde branded stuff, hot sauces, pralines, and your more tasteful souvenirs. Needing to eat something, we started by being in line for a restaurant, but that just wasn’t moving, so we changed course, and wound up at French Truck Coffee, for a small bite. Not bad. Much walking later (including seeing the Mississippi River), we started the ‘Voodoo & Cemetery’ tour.
First, the company Ghost Adventure Tours is amazing. They only hire subject-matter experts for their tours, so you don’t have some new arrival making crap up. This tour was led by Anna, who has not only lived in the parts of Africa where the sources of voodoo come from (and in Haiti), she has a PhD in anthropology. So, yeah, expert. Anyway, this was a lot of walking to get to one place, St. Louis Cemetery #1. Which is not close the St. Louis Cathedral, FYI. Thankfully, most of the walking was easy, the sidewalks being in ok shape. We then went through the cemetery, which was…not great. It is tight, and with the tour groups, stupidly crowded. You do see some really old tombs, and learn how they stack them in there. Which is also disturbing. Then a drink break (it is New Orleans), and some history of voodoo, from West Africa with additions in Haiti. This leads into the story of Marie Laveau. That went really well, and I suggest this tour, especially with Anna.
After the tour, we trudged back to the hotel to change for dinner with Tim & Heather.
Dinner at Palace Cafe
This is just an amazing place. With a really wonky service setup. The building itself dates to around 1850, while the restaurant opened in 1991. They split the service tasks between a drink waiter and a food waiter. Which did, for us, lead to miscommunication. That aside, the place is beautiful inside, and the food is amazing. I started with the turtle soup – something I had promised myself I would order as soon as I found it somewhere. It had a very familiar flavor, but I couldn’t place it. Delicious, and a nice peppery flavor. The entree was their 11oz filet mignon, served with duck fat hasselback potato, and sauce chasseur (like a mushroom gravy). Wow…perfect sear, and just melts in the mouth. Second best steak ever (best is still Ruth’s Chris). Dessert was bananas Foster – which is made tableside. Very tasty indeed. If you are in town, and want a nice dinner, you need to check them out. Well worth the money! We left Palace, and needing to walk some calories off, headed to the seedy part of the trip.
So, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not a big drinker. Or partier. Never was. Bourbon Street is the absolute antithesis of who I am. I expected the drunks. And that wasn’t that bad, actually. I didn’t expect the number of homeless. Or the smoke smell. A lot of cigar smoke, which was odd, and a whole lot of marijuana. So, pot isn’t legal in Louisiana outside medical use (and that is new this year). But this is Bourbon Street…and New Orleans as a whole…so the police let it go. After all, they literally cannot arrest everyone doing it. This led to the unhappy realization that, with full legalization coming in 2020 to Illinois, that is what downtown will smell like at any event. Not great.
Bourbon street was kind of the worst part of the trip. I was on edge the whole time, and not able to see any attraction to the scene. The specialty drinks seem to all be made with grain alcohol, either really low quality or absurdly high proof (probably both), so that is all you taste. I didn’t get any, but tried a couple over the course of the trip (one from a non-Bourbon location). I just don’t get it. We walked to about the end, then back to Canal Street (the southern boundary of the quarter), and back to the hotel.
Saturday Day & Evening
One of the things Heather wanted to do was the Bayou Bacchanal Carnival Parade. It’s a Caribbean festival, with a parade that, honestly, may or may not exist. See, there is evidence it did at one point, but literally no one we asked had heard of it. At all. The tour guides, concierge, locals, and so on. Even the carnival’s website barely mentioned it (and that change came late Friday / early Saturday). It seemed the parade was in a small park, and the carnival itself in another part of town. So, needless to say, we all skipped that.
We just wandered around a lot. This was a cool thing, getting to see Jackson Square – a sort of open art gallery, street fair, performer thing. Congestion there led to us detouring into St. Louis Cathedral, which is just stunning. And despite the noise and chaos outside, amazingly peaceful inside. We kind of meandered about, heading to the French Market, which we didn’t really see properly. The structure is part of it, and I misread the maps, and thought that was it. No, there is more. It is on the opposite side of the street, and down…so we saw less than half the total French Market. Well, that’s one for the next trip. We also did the coffee and beignets thing at Cafe du Monde. Which was pretty good, if hard to order. So, to get a to-go order, you stand in the line from hell. To eat there, you sit, and when ready to order, tip over the napkin dispenser. Which no one tells you about. Anyway, all they serve is dark roast coffee with chicory. The ‘traditional’ method is to have beignets with cafe au lait (with milk). That makes the chicory less noticeable. Or something. The beignets were good. They have been at it since 1862.
After that, we walked down a lot (mile?) to Mulate’s Cajun. Tammy and I met Mike & Megan for dinner. I got to have some alligator again, which was great, and a muffuletta for dinner. Tammy liked the gator too, so bonus! Then, rather than walk a mile back to do another tour, we took a Lyft back to catch our next event, with Tim & Heather.
This is another walking tour by the same company behind the voodoo tour. Matt, the guide this time, is a former history teacher, so that added to the flavor of the tour. This is another good one to get into. And while stops at ‘haunted’ bars is part of it, there is a lot more.
We gathered at the 160 year-old Tujague’s, where the free drink was provided (a hurricane, of course, but using an older recipe). We then headed to several stops, with stories of hangings, murder, and the like to keep us entertained. The stops included Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (bar), named for the pirate Jean Lafitte. Built in the 1770s, this is considered the oldest building in the US to be used as a bar.
We also went past LaLaurie Mansion. The inspiration for the setting in a season of American Horror Story, the mansion is not open to tours. So here is where things get weird. The story told about the LaLaurie family included horrific mutilations, murders, bodies everywhere, and so on. These stories have been embellished over time, with the most lurid coming from a remarkably unsourced book written by a haunted tour company owner (not this company). So, while the events there are, no mistake, horrible, they are not as awful as made out to be. Oh yeah, the house itself was torched after the mutilated slaves were discovered…the one you see was built on the same lot, and is a story taller.
For a contemporary account of the whole thing, click here.
The tour ended near a police station, and we got to say hello to a pair of police horses outside the station.
Sunday, The National WWII Museum
This was a conflicting experience for me. On the one hand, it is really amazing, with a lot of things to see. On the other hand, it is far too spread out to be truly enjoyable, leading to a thinness of exhibits. On the gripping hand, it combines a style of museum I really like with one I really have grown to hate, so I am left feeling just ‘meh’ about it all.
Positives include a lot of things to see, and not only bits of kit or uniforms. There is a whole home front exhibit that includes a period kitchen and front room, with appropriate appliances and such that is neat. There are a lot of vehicles – and a lot of airplanes – which is also neat, especially when it lets you see scales right in front of you. That gives you a great feel for how various parts of the war interacted – especially when you have a P-51 Mustang next to a B-17 Superfortress. It really is interesting to see all these things.
Negatives for me were the Home Front section as a whole – it ranged from the isolation vs engagement arguments, to Pearl Harbor, to factories, to the Manhattan Project. And went on for, to me, just too long. The other problem I had was that things were all over the place. You have the Home Front in the main building, the two theaters share a smaller building, the airplanes are in a third, and the special exhibit hall (didn’t have time to do that) is in a corridor between two buildings. There is a third building we didn’t even see until we were leaving at close. And another planned for 2021. It is just too much space for too few items. I also don’t get the plan behind the war itself being in the smallest building – that would seem to be the thing most people were there to look at.
The design deserves some thought too. The exhibits are laid out in a modern manner – that is, it is petty linear, you can’t bail in the middle. The interior itself is sculpted to reflect the location – so when they are displaying the island hopping campaigns, there are jungle plants, rougher floors, and so on. Naval campaigns are like ship interiors, there is a snowscape for the Battle of the Bulge, you get the idea. I first saw this at the 1st Infantry Division Museum in Cantigny Park, and really like it. It adds something to the experience, more than plain concrete would.
But there were too many movies. That’s a complaint about modern museums, not this in specific. Every five steps was another damn movie, or loop. It just was too much. I would have preferred more artefacts, fewer movies. That’s just me though.
The movie experience, Beyond All Boundaries, was interesting. It’s ‘4D’, which means the seats vibrate, there is a lot of props coming up from the stage or down from the rafters, etc. Not bad. Tom Hanks narrated. I do suggest seeing this if you visit. And I do suggest visiting. This was just my impression of the museum – the fact that it is laid out like this, and all the things I complain about, is how it is suggests I am not the average visitor. It is well worth the visit.
We rounded out the day with dinner at Parkway, a local place known for their Poor Boy sandwiches. That’s their spelling. Anyway, they have been open since 1911 and make a mean sandwich. I had the BBQ beef, Tammy the Surf & Turf (roast beef & shrimp). That was really incredible. We were hosted by the local chapter of The Royal Manticoran Navy – Steven, Ashley, Jerald, and Ed. It was a good time to chat and meet new friends with great food. I highly suggest this be on your list if you visit – it’s far enough away from the tourist places that you see some actual New Orleans.
That was it for us, though, as we had one more day, then a late flight out.
We got packed up, stashed the baggage with the bell captain (yeah, that kind of hotel), and headed out to try to find a streetcar to get to the next thing, a walking tour of the Garden District.
That was a hard fail. They were working on the line, and the St. Charles streetcars were running for like four blocks, more than two miles from us, and a mile past the tour location. So we got to ride a bus instead.
The tour itself was…ok. This was, again, the same company as the previous tours (yes, I recommend them). The specific tour was Garden District & Lafayette Cemetery #1. The only problem is that the cemetery (which looks far nicer than St. Louis #1) is closed. There is no reopen date. So, you can look inside through the gate, but that’s it. The other thing to know is that the Garden District is not a unified architectural district like the old homes in Chicago’s Gold Coast. It is an eclectic collection of styles from Grecian Revival to Gothic to modern – sometimes in the same house. That is not to imply it isn’t interesting, just chaotic. The tour reflected that chaos. The guide didn’t have a plan, and while entertaining, had the really bad habit of stopping and talking well before the group reformed. So we missed chunks of things. The district is also in dire need of infrastructure repair – the sidewalks look like there was an earthquake. It is not a smooth walk by any stretch. There are some beautiful houses, and some neat features. I was just distracted by the terrain (come on the house tour, look down to avoid death at all times!), the guide not being very good, and trying to keep with the group. In future visits, I’d just go on my own, and see it that way.
Ok, this needs to be added. At the end of the tour, before he booked it out of there, the guide told us there was a streetcar stop where we were (true), and that the streetcar would be by shortly. Not true. When Tammy and I told him that they were not running, only busses, he responded that the busses were the streetcars. No, no that isn’t how it works. For a local, maybe. I get how a local might see it that way. But a tourist won’t – they hear streetcar, they don’t think city bus. Telling people there is something coming that is never going to be there is not only dishonest, but a sign of someone who maybe needs to take a break from being a guide. In fairness, the closures started that day, so not knowing is more excusable. Not fully, since this is your job, but I am able to let that go. Since he seemed to know, and think we were ok equating streetcars with busses…no, that is not excusable.
So, we bussed back to the Quarter, and did some last-minute souvenir gathering. We stopped for a bite at a Cafe Beignet – this is where the locals go, not Cafe du Monde. The beignets were better, and I got some gumbo too – they serve actual food there. It was a really nice cap to the trip, and a good way to relax before heading to the airport.
New Orleans is not like any city I have been to before. Like I mentioned at the beginning, I have been to places with tourist spots, but never an entire neighborhood dedicated to parting tourists with money like the French Quarter. What I saw, in short order, was that the Quarter is, and is not, New Orleans.
The Quarter is sort of the heart of the city. It is the oldest section, and it’s existence gives the city identity. It is also the outlier, the place where you don’t go if you want to see the modern New Orleans. It’s weird.
Getting out to Parkway was, in ways, the best part of the trip. We were with residents, in a place that was very New Orleans, without being very touristy. Hell, it closed at 10…unlike much of the Quarter, which never closes. It was a good grounding experience.
We plan to go back. There is still too much unseen. And it is a nice place in the fall or early winter – the summer maybe not so much. So, in the final analysis, this was a good trip, and we found a place we really like to visit. If you haven’t been, and can do a lot of walking, this is somewhere you might really love.
All photos from the trip that I took are here.