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Archive for September, 2018


We had three full days in New Orleans, one of which would be largely given over to organised sightseeing tours, so we had to make the most of the remaining time.

Having ticked Pat O’Brien’s off our “must indulge” list, it was time on our first morning to sample the revered breakfast dish of beignets, deep fried doughnuts sprayed with powdered sugar. This would not have been my first choice – eggs, bacon, sausage and toast will always lay claim to that title – but we acknowledged that it was incumbent upon any new visitor to the city to try them at least once.

Mindful of the long lines that accumulate outside Cafe du Monde in the morning, combined with fact that, following the previous night’s drinking, we had not risen early, we decided to tuck into them at the first opportunity, which turned out to be Cafe Beignet on Decatur Street. Ironically, by the time we had reached the flagship branch later, there was no line at all, though a healthy crowd were being entertained by a lively jazz band.

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At Jackson Square, former military drill field, “Place d’Armes”, we explored both the magnificent St Louis Cathedral and the statue of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and previously military leader responsible for defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

One thing that struck me – though it really shouldn’t have – was the number of walking tours being delivered in the area, some well supported, others less so. There were several underway of the French Quarter, but this only scratched the surface as, amongst others, there were tours available to cover the New Orleans’s history, ghosts, voodoo, cemeteries, food and drink as well as for other parts of the city, for example the Garden District, home to the Lafayette Cemetery and dozens of monumental antebellum mansions.

There were several conspicuous reminders around the area that the city was celebrating its 300th anniversary.

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I called into the visitor centre and was greeted with that genuine, warm southern hospitality that we were already becoming accustomed to. Two delightful ladies of undoubted pensionable age directed me to the impressive, free official visitors guides to the city and state. As I turned to leave, they exclaimed in unison, “y’all have a nice day, now”.

After such a cheerful salutation, how could I not?

We wanted to make the most of the improvement in the weather (the sun had even made an occasional appearance), so decided against visiting any museums, much as we may have wanted to. These will have to wait for our return (for return we shall) on a later date.

And we were getting peckish again.

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One and a half beignets each was hardly going to fill us up, so we were, or rather I was, delighted shortly afterwards to spot the Central Grocery, home to the equally legendary muffuletta, a massive layered olive salad, meats and cheese sandwich drizzled with olive oil. We sat in the store and devoured one half of the half sized muffuletta (not cheap at $11.50) before moving on.

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We continued to stroll along Decatur Street until it met Esplanade Avenue, the boundary between the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny district. With light rain falling again, it was reassuring to discover the indoor French Market which ran alongside the riverfront.

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Given the number of jewellery, as well as craft, stalls available, it was only a matter of time before Janet purchased her first earrings of the trip.

Although there is no substitute to eating the fabulous food that New Orleans has to offer, just reading the menu boards, as at this stall in the French Market can be almost as satisfying – I repeat almost.


It certainly served to remind us that we still had half a muffuletta left, which we devoured in triangular shaped Latrobe Park after first having had cocktails at the Gazebo Cafe (we had fully sobered up by now), whilst being thoroughly entertained by another accomplished band playing a number of New Orleans classics.

Our intention all along today had been to saunter back along the riverfront, or “Moon Walk”, from the furthest reaches of the French Quarter, and we were not going to allow the steady drizzle to deter us. Our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, which is to feature so prominently on this trip, was framed by the Greater New Orleans Bridge.

The pretty red Riverfront streetcar pulled into Toulouse Station, evoking memories of those rattling, cranky vehicles in San Francisco that we had ridden so many times before (and sometimes seemed we had spent half our lives on). We planned to travel the three main lines here on our final day.

The riverfront amble also gave us the opportunity to compare the two paddlewheel steamboats that we had considered for our dinner jazz cruise on the next evening. As we approached, the Natchez, images of which, including a giant mural, we had already witnessed around the city was herding its latest group of passengers off the boat. It looked a little chaotic to be honest.

We had already booked the Creole Queen for the following evening, a decision that already looked vindicated. It appeared smaller and more intimate. The Mardi Gras character pictured below seemed to be promoting it too.

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A brief exploration of the Outlet Collection at Riverfront, including a coffee at another branch of Cafe du Monde, prefaced a return to the hotel, negotiating the noisy and substantial building works that were upgrading the area still further.

We returned to the French Quarter in the evening, enjoying another outstanding seafood meal at Oceana on Conti Street, a few yards from the intersection with Bourbon Street. Bypassing the growing drunkenness and debauchery infecting the whole area, we returned to the Red Fish Grill where we had eaten the previous night, for a nightcap in their quiet, civilised bar.

Tomorrow would be a different day with water having the starring role. We had booked a swamp and bayou sightseeing tour for the morning/afternoon and the aforementioned jazz dinner cruise in the evening.

And the weather forecast was for heavy rain and thunderstorms!

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We arrived in New Orleans in mid-afternoon after a smooth internal flight on United Airlines from Newark, New Jersey.

On crossing the threshold of the Cambria Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street in the increasingly upmarket Warehouse District, I was thrilled to discover in the entrance corridor a series of fifteen wooden slatted artworks celebrating many of the great bluesmen and jazz musicians of the Delta and beyond. I will confine the photographs to three of my particular favourites.

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They are the work of Connie Kittok, a Louisiana contemporary folk artist inspired by her Southern roots. Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, the entire collection is entitled Road Tripping: a journey to discover the heart of the blues. The thirteen year wait between our original plan to take this trip and actually making it suddenly seemed worth it.

An incredible collage of immaculately polished jazz instruments also adorned another wall adjacent to reception.

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We decided to unpack and get dressed to ignore the rain and have dinner early.

We were staying less than fifteen minutes walk from the French Quarter, and wanted to experience Bourbon Street at first hand. After forgetting momentarily that I was not in San Francisco when I bought a Grateful Dead bandanna at the Hippie Gypsy store on Canal Street, and then elegantly dodging a streetcar after looking the wrong way, we ventured into the fabled thoroughfare.

Even though it was still early in the evening, there was a boozy and boisterous buzz about the street.

We walked as much as possible beneath the balconies, from which there was a distinct lack of falling bead necklaces (Mardi Gras was, of course, still months away). There was a considerable amount of noisy and unsightly construction underway. At regular intervals, young children were sitting on the kerb drumming on upturned buckets with astonishing rhythm and dexterity. We were confronted on several occasions by drunks attempting to foist beads on us before demanding money, but we managed to deflect their tiresome attentions.

As this was our first visit to the Big Easy, we were determined to try as many of the  essential NOLA dining experiences as possible. Given that we were in the heart of the French Quarter, it was incumbent upon us to begin our exploration with a Hurricane cocktail (rum, passion fruit syrup and lime juice with an orange slice and cherry garnish) at its original home, Pat O’Brien’s.

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We had drunk many in the past at various Margaritaville and Hard Rock locations, but this was where it was first served. It was no less powerful than what we had become accustomed to, even though we declined the signature glass option. We sat at the bar and chatted with the big bearded barman before stepping out to select our dinner venue.

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We had already been struck from the outside by the appearance and enticing menu of the award winning Red Fish Grill, and decided to eat there. We were not disappointed. A handsome and attractive dining room and pleasant staff complemented superb seafood. My Cajun Jambalaya Risotto in particular was divine.

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The persistent drizzle failed to dampen the spirits of the early evening revellers. Live music spilled out of most of the bars – a cacophony of jazz, blues, hard rock and even country as an inevitable accompaniment to bull riding. With an abundance of choice available, we plumped for the Famous Door, a legendary live music venue where the excellent band ran the gamut of seventies and eighties American rock music – from Jackson Browne and Carole King to Foreigner and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

By this time the potency of the Hurricane, upon which by now we had piled cocktails and double gin and tonics, was beginning to take its advertised and insidious effect. I am convinced, however, that the periodic movement, as if across a ouija board, of our (plastic) glasses was not solely attributable to our mushrooming inebriation. After all, we were in the home of voodoo with many haunted locations close by, so it should be no real surprise that glasses should be sashaying around the table. In an even spookier twist, they stopped abruptly at the table’s edge, thankfully, saving us from having to order another, ultimately lethal, round.

Two flights, of eight and three hours duration respectively in the space of twenty four hours, combined with the alcohol, were beginning to take their toll and we returned, a little unsteadily, to our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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