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Although we had already spent four nights in Louisiana, the road trip only began in earnest on Saturday morning as we queued up for our booked hire car at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I say “queued” because that is what we had invariably been obliged to do on most occasions in the past.

But not this morning.

The most extraordinary thing about the rapid transaction was that we weren’t offered an upgrade from our standard SUV (which we were more than happy with anyway).

We were on the I-10 heading towards our halfway pit stop in Baton Rouge within minutes under a leaden sky.

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And yes, we were Texans for the next two weeks!

After the customary familiarisation with the car’s controls, it was time for the all important search for the Grateful Dead Channel on Sirius XM. It took a while, but once we had safely negotiated our way through all the Hip Hop, Sports and Christian channels, not to mention right wing”shock jocks, we were able to “settle down easy” with our favourite station.

We had not had breakfast, so planned on finding a roadside eatery between New Orleans and Louisiana. That was easier said than done. We left the road at at La Place and Gramercy Lutcher to follow the signs to the “services”, but on both occasions found ourselves driving several miles with no Subway or McDonald’s in sight!

We did, however, pop into the Gatorville Cajun Village which boasted several exhibits and stores dedicated to……well, you guessed it, Cajun culture. There was an attractive looking restaurant which offered breakfast, but the line to even sign up, let alone get in, was too long.

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Eventually, at Donaldsville, we pulled outside McDonald’s.

Now, this is where I insert rule number one about taking a road trip. You are only allowed to eat cheap, “rubbish” food. No more of them fancy oyster things, or crawfish, or even jambalaya, but proper “rubbish” food.

Egg McMuffins and coffee were the order of the day, and although they were smaller, disappearing in a couple of bites, than i recall from when I last had one in the previous century, they “filled a hole”.

And, boy, was it cheap. Whereas, with tip, we had spent $80 on breakfast in Brennan’s in new Orleans the previous morning, We had been impressed too with the standalone digital ordering screens that greeted us. Our meal was, however, deliver by a member of the human race, and a pleasant one at that.

We arrived in Baton Rouge, the state capital, at lunchtime and were astonished to find so few people about the streets. Of those that were wandering aimlessly about, most were wearing either Ole Miss Rebels or LSU Tigers football colours. They were due to take up arms against each other that evening (they had a long wait). For the record, the home team, LSU, won convincingly 45-16, so perhaps Baton Rouge came alive then.

But it was clearly an important city as it had not one, but two, state capital buildings. The Old State Capital below was certainly the more architecturally appealing.

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The absence of traffic as well as people made it all the easier for us to take a stroll around the riverfront and downtown areas. Janet did, however, come across a couple of old timers who willingly posed for a photo with her and their pride and joy.

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Baking heat and unforgiving pavements made the amble around the Spanish Town more arduous than it might have been, but there were some beautiful homes to drool over.

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With Halloween at the end of the month, we were increasingly coming across houses decorated for the occasion.

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We left tranquil Baton Rouge for Lafayette in western Louisiana, arriving half an hour before the scheduled check in of 3pm.

We had selected Lafayette over Baton Rouge as our first overnight stop because the town is regarded as the place of pilgrimage for lovers of Cajun and Zydeco music, a raucous fusion of blues, rhythm and blues and African-derived styles which makes much use of fiddle and accordion.

And remember, this whole trip was about the music.

In particular, the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House, a few hundred yards from our hotel, is renowned throughout the world as the best venue to witness live music in this style. It is also a youth hostel, described by its owners as “a home-grown honky-tonk where all kinds and sizes are welcome”.

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With tonight’s gig at the Blue Moon not scheduled to start until 9pm, we were not planning to eat until around 7.30pm. So, as Pooh would have so eloquently put it, it was “time for a little something”.

One southern “delicacy” that we had still not sampled was a Po’ boy, a traditional sandwich from Louisiana. Given their size, it would have been uncharacteristically greedy had we consumed a full one, so I plumped for a half-sized version of the Crawfish Boil Sausage Po’ boy.

Delicious.

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We ate at the Sainte Marie restaurant, where we shared another popular dish of the region, fried green tomatoes (with shrimps), which, needless to say, we’re scrumptious. I followed up with crawfish étouffée, a thick soup-like dish with rice. Not only was the food outstanding, but our young server, Taylor, kept us enthralled with her energy and attentiveness,

And now to the reason why we were in Lafayette – the music at the Blue Moon.

After paying our $10 cover charge, we took up our seats on a back bench (the place is essentially a shack), and ordered our drinks. Everyone there was drinking out of plastic glasses, but for some reason, the barman, rather conspiratorially, explained to me that I could have a real glass for Janet’s gin and tonic, provided she “looked after it all evening and didn’t break it”. A whiff of that voodoo atmosphere we encountered in New Orleans returned to haunt me.

The music was great, though the second band did not come on stage until nearly midnight. And the evening wasn’t wholly satisfactory.

It appeared that the event was being used as an excuse for a school or college reunion, as a large group of twenty somethings appeared more interested in catching up with each other, and doing a lot of hugging, than engaging with the music.

And I could write another piece on the personal and sexual politics that were being played out before our eyes while we tried to peer over their heads to see the bands!

But it was an experience.

 

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Continuing the theme of following recommendations from friends who had visited New Orleans before, we took breakfast on our final full day in town at the legendary Brennan’s restaurant on Royal Street. It had undergone a huge renovation in 2014 and been restored to its former 1940s glory.

And a delightful experience it was. Southern hospitality was taken to a new level as we were greeted and served by what was described as a “team” of servers, all of whom could not do enough for us. Moreover, they were dazzled by the details of our road trip.

Although you might not have guessed it from his appearance (a smart suit took the place of a tie-dye shirt), the Maitre D’ was a Deadhead and had seen many of the Dead and Company concerts on their recent summer tour. We agreed that whilst John Mayer was not Jerry Garcia, he was a great interpreter of the music and an amazing blues guitarist.

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The beautiful decor and attentive service were matched by the outstanding food (I had a delicious eggs benedict) and the best coffee we had drunk so far.

As we walked back towards Canal Street we stumbled across the Magnolia Praline Company premises, a vibrant and enticing emporium selling hot sauces and pralines. The murals that adorned the walls were as entertaining as the samples of their produce were mouthwatering.

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We were so enamoured of the hot sauce samples that I posted a photograph of a couple of bottles on Facebook. This led to an order from a restaurant owner in our hometown of Folkestone! Whilst I was only too pleased to buy the two bottles, I did wonder how many t-shirts I would not now be able to purchase because of the increase in weight of our baggage on our return home (only joking, Fiona!).

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But enough of food (for now at least).

The primary objective of the day was to ride the three main streetcar lines, both to experience this quaint and old-fashioned mode of travel (we love riding the cars in San Francisco), and to see other parts of the city at little cost and without wearing ourselves out.

We purchased our “Jazzy Passes” (what a great name) for the exorbitant (sic) cost of $3 each for the day and boarded the Canal Street car bound for City Park.

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Given that they tend to move in a sedate fashion, streetcars nowadays are viewed more as tourist attractions than a way of getting quickly from A to B. But they are redolent of a slower, more graceful age.

They also invariably provide the theatre for some of both the most humorous and unpleasant examples of human behaviour. Our streetcar was no exception as an elderly man contrived to fall through one of the seats, necessitating a visit from a clearly disgruntled driver who insisted, on putting it back together herself.

The fact that New Orleans is technically below sea level, and that deep digging is not permitted in some areas, people are usually buried above ground rather than below. A visit to the city would not, therefore, be complete without a visit to one of the extraordinary cemeteries found throughout.

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The Canal Street car brought us to the Cypress Grove cemetery which we wandered around for an hour. The images here are just a sample of the many stunning tombs, large and small, that inhabited the park. Unfortunately, the spectacular St Louis cemetery appeared to be closed.

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On our return to the city, we had an iced coffee in Starbuck’s in the Sheraton hotel lobby before searching for the nearest St Charles Streetcar which would transport us to the Garden District.

Unlike the Canal Street cars, which ran every couple of minutes, it was immediately apparent that this was a more infrequent service. It was twenty minutes before we were able to board, along with around thirty other people. Fortunately, we managed to get seats. With each succeeding stop, more passengers got on, rendering it a slow and uncomfortable journey to Washington Avenue when we squeezed ourselves through the hordes to get off.

We had had our fill of cemeteries for one day, so decided to walk back to our hotel (a punishing journey in the heat) rather than pay a visit to the famous Lafayette Cemetery that lay in front of us.

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The Garden District, which was developed in 1832 on the Livaudais Plantation, extends over much of the city and was founded by the settlers who built houses and commercial properties here.  Wealthy bankers, merchants and planters built grand mansions surrounding by luxuriant gardens.

As we strolled along this avenue of extravagance and opulence, I could not help feeling a pang of uneasiness that these gorgeous buildings had been in many cases created by slave labour. It would not be the first or last time that this response would, if only momentarily, overcome me on this trip.

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After packing we went out again at 7pm, intending to take the Riverfront Streetcar to the French Quarter. The drizzle that had characterised much of our stay in New Orleans had returned to annoy us again. At least we managed to get under cover for the twenty minute wait for our car.

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And then, as we approached Toulouse Street, only half way on our journey, the driver informed us that, due to some filming going up ahead, we would have to leave the streetcar.

We had planned to eat at the House of Blues on Bourbon Street, but en route we passed, or rather didn’t pass, BB King’s Blues Club, which had been another friend’s recommendation.

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We arrived shortly before the first band ended their set. We sat upstairs with a passable view of the stage as the second band entertained us with a mix of soul and funk. Catfish and shrimp, accompanied by two cocktails, was our final and tasty meal in New Orleans.

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Our first visit to the city was now effectively over. Whilst we had crammed as much was we could into our three days and four nights, there was still much to see and experience. Most great cities need at least a week even to begin to embrace their heart and soul.

We will be back!

But for now, the road beckoned!

 

 

 

 

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Day two of three in the Big Easy was going to involve a lot of water. Firstly, we had booked a four hour swamp and bayou sightseeing tour.  And in the evening, we had made a reservation on the three hour dinner jazz cruise on the Creole Queen paddlewheel steamboat, a staple on the Mississippi since 1983.

Although we were unlikely to get wet during either event, the weather gods had lived up to the previous evening’s predictions by unleashing torrential rain upon us as we embarked upon the ten minute walk from the hotel. With characteristic British stiff upper lip we had made a conscious (and doubtful) decision not to purchase an umbrella, relying on our waterproof jackets.

With near ninety degree temperatures dictating that the rest of our attire need not consist of more than t-shirts, shorts and sandals, it was inevitable that we would still get drenched, standing for nearly half an hour waiting for the feeder bus under the wholly inadequate cover afforded by the ticket booth.

The Cajun Pride launch point from where we were to take our boat was a thirty five minute ride away. By the time we pulled in alongside the lush Manchac Swamp in Laplace among the South Louisiana bayous for our 12.45am start, the rain had abated and was to stop altogether once we were on the water.

As we stepped onto our boat we were greeted by one of the locals with some timely advice.

Within minutes the senior residents of the swamp introduced themselves. These were American Alligators, whom it transpired, were particularly partial to marshmallows.

Or not.

I think it might just be a droll way to entertain the gullible tourists.

The moment our boat captain, Danny, rustled in his bag of marshmallows and hurled them overboard, the alligators tucked in.

“Captain Danny” proved the most knowledgable, amusing and skilled tour guide imaginable. His deadpan southern drawl only added to the appeal. And he never drew breath throughout the tour, except to answer questions.

 

The most fascinating story involved the legendary voodoo queen, Julia Brown, who would sit by the bayou frightening anyone who passed. On the day of her funeral in 1915, she could be heard wailing over and over again “One day, I’m gonna die, and I’m gonna take all of you with me”.

Shortly afterwards, a devastating hurricane wreaked havoc in the area, completely destroying three villages and killing hundreds of people. There were reminders of the event on the swamp.

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Whilst the alligators were the stars of the show, we saw other wildlife, notably a colony of raccoons, who wandered down to the bayou’s edge as we passed. Soft shelled turtles, egrets and squirrels also made periodic appearances.

But the highlight of the ride was the opportunity to handle Bruce, a baby alligator whom Danny plucked from a large cool box towards the end of the tour. Although Bruce was still young and remarkably well behaved, his gnashers were still sufficiently sharp to inflict damage on a human, hence the muzzle.

The tour was one of our most enjoyable, informative and entertaining. Even the sun eventually made an appearance.

But light rain had returned by the time we were required to check in on the Creole Queen at 6pm for our dinner jazz cruise, scheduled to commence an hour later. However, probably because of the inclement weather, we were welcomed on to the boat and into the elegant dining room early. We were already demolishing the first plate of our Creole buffet when the majority of diners were ushered in.

Jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, seafood pasta, meats and cornbread all featured on the menu. I cannot report what the dessert might have been as we never got past the main course. On reflection, it was the least satisfying of the four evening meals we consumed in New Orleans, but that is not intended as a criticism. Whilst I can’t claim I lose my appetite at buffets, I do wish I was able to take more advantage of the unlimited food available and get full value for money.

The boat moved away from the dock promptly as dusk, unveiling fine views of the Mississippi riverfront.

As the dining room filled up, and we became surrounded on all sides, we retired to the upper deck with our wine to enjoy the local Dixieland jazz band in the balmy evening air. Every song you would associate with the city was played, and the drummer and lead singer was also an engaging raconteur.

As we approached the dock at the end of the cruise we went in search of our server as we hadn’t yet paid for our food and drink! Moreover, once we had tracked him down, he seemed unconcerned, even surprised that we had sought him out after everybody else was a-pushin’ and a-shovin’ to disembark.

It had been a long day surrounded by water – from above and below – but a satisfying taste of Louisiana history and culture. With another busy day planned for tomorrow, we returned to our hotel for a gin and tonic at the bar.

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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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