When I think of my favorite U.S. cities, New Orleans is always near the top of that list.
The food, the music, the architecture, the culture and the welcoming people all keep me coming back, and every time I’m there, I discover something new and wonderful about the city.
This time, I brought along 28 Pioneer Press readers on a five-day guided adventure during which I learned more about the city than I did on any of my other visits.
Our tour, hosted by travel company Collette, took us through but also out of the French Quarter, into the world of Mardi Gras and into the impossibly beautiful swampland outside of the city.
If you’ve never been, what are you waiting for? Here’s a rundown of what we did, but I’m here to tell you there’s much more to see and taste — so much more that I’m already plotting my return.
We arrived in the late afternoon, and stepping out of the airport, we were hit with a very southern wall of heat and humidity.
After checking in to our historic Bourbon Street hotel, the Royal Sonesta, we headed out for dinner. I wanted somewhere close to the hotel in case our flight was delayed, and GW Fins, a seafood-centric restaurant around the corner, was an excellent choice.
The white-tablecloth restaurant features a pretty bar and an attentive waitstaff and the menu includes a dizzying array of seafood and fish dishes. Our table shared a few hot appetizers — decadent lobster dumplings in a creamy lobster butter sauce and the fancifully plated fin wings — basically the entire fin of a fish, also known as the collar. The fin is often discarded with tasty bits of fish still attached to the bone, so this is an ingenious way of using every part of the fish. The “wings” are tempura battered and coated with a sweet and slightly spicy Korean glaze and served atop a crispy Asian-inspired noodle salad. Even the pickier eaters at our table really loved them.
The menu changes regularly, but we enjoyed all the entrees we tried, including an aged swordfish; spearfished barracuda, served with a sweet potato hash and a fun pineapple basil glaze; and parmesan-crusted sheepshead, which the gluten-free member of our party raved about. She’s really been missing crispy fish since having to cut out flour, and the dish fulfilled her craving.
We ended the evening with a sazerac (a whiskey drink invented here that includes a hint of anise-y absinthe) at the historic Carousel Bar & Lounge at Hotel Monteleone. The bar itself, which slowly spins around a gorgeous, antique carousel, was full, but we found a seat nearby to enjoy our drinks. It was a lovely way to end our travel day.
We crammed a lot into this day, starting with an early morning tour of the city on our luxury motor coach.
Our local guide explained how the city is laid out along the winding Mississippi, which makes cardinal directions useless to locals. Uptown, Downtown, West Bank (which is actually east of the city), lakeside and riverside are just a few of the ways they’ll tell you how to get where you’re going.
The bus stopped first near the lush City Park, at St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, which was founded in 1848 and is the only one of the city’s famous crypt-lined burial places that still allows visitors. By 9 a.m. it was a very sunny, very humid 95 degrees, so we didn’t walk the entire thing, but our local guide helped us understand why New Orleanians are generally “buried” above ground — the city is largely below sea level, so coffins buried below ground risk being water-logged or possibly popping back above ground. She pointed out the crypts of some local notables, and also took us to the wall where those who have less money can be interred for a lower cost. Another option for the working class is an oven tomb, in which a body is placed into a vault, where the hot weather makes for quick decomposition. When there’s nothing but bones left, those are moved underground to make way for a new body. The names of all the dead are listed on the outside of the crypt. It’s pretty efficient if you think about it!
If you’re wondering why not just cremate the bodies, it’s because New Orleans is a very Catholic city, and Catholicism has historically discouraged cremation.
Next up was a pit stop at the aforementioned park to grab some beignets, little square doughnuts doused in powdered sugar, from the Cafe du Monde location there. We all delighted in the crisp, puffy pastries, and those of us who wore dark colors were full of regret as the sugar coated our shirts.
We drove through the enchanting Garden District, crowded with giant southern mansions, past Tulane and Loyola universities and down St. Charles Avenue, where the Mardi Gras parades take place and the open-air, historic streetcars still run.
After the tour, we were dropped in the Uptown neighborhood to seek lunch on our own, and a few of us chose to belly up at the historic diner counter of the Camellia Grill, which opened in 1946. The Greek-revival architecture outside gives way to a very retro interior, and the waitstaff wears vintage-looking short-sleeved white coats with black bow ties. Our tour guide raved about the cheeseburger, and those among us who ordered it reported that it was delicious, but I couldn’t resist a shrimp po-boy, which was served on an airy, squishy bun. It might not have been the best po-boy I have had in New Orleans (that honor goes to Johnny’s Po-Boys in the French Quarter), but it certainly beat anything I’ve had in the Midwest.
Next, we got a taste of what the city is like during the festival that defines it in many ways: Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras World, in the warehouse district of the city, is the place that builds the outrageous, audacious and enormous floats for the many, many parades that take place over the two weeks of Carnival. Most pieces on the floats are carved out of styrofoam, which is then coated with papier mache and painted. Colorful float characters, from a giant crawfish to a 15-foot-tall bust of Cruella Deville, were absolutely awe-inspiring. Floats are funded by 78 Krewes, essentially clubs, each consisting of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dues-paying members. Those members pay for the privilege of riding on the floats and throwing trinkets such as beaded necklaces, cups, coins and more to the gigantic crowds. Many trees along the parade route sport beads most of the year, as some of the beads thrown from balconies or floats inevitably get tangled in their branches.
I was glad to have packed extra clothing because the Mardi Gras World warehouse was not air-conditioned, so we all ended up a little damp. A dip in the third-floor pool of our hotel cooled us down, and after some freshening up, we were ready to head out to the New Orleans School of Cooking for a demonstration and dinner.
The school, in a renovated molasses warehouse in the French Quarter, offers hands-on classes for smaller groups and demonstrations for bigger groups like ours. Chef Michael W. Devidts, who was taught to cook by his Cajun-Creole mother, showed us how to make a deep, dark roux, the fat/flour beginning of most Louisiana dishes, including gumbo and etouffee. Devidts, who has cooked with the likes of Paul Prudhomme and Julia Child, was full of entertaining stories about his life, but also about the history of the dishes he was preparing. He served us a delicious gumbo and an etouffee using a very untraditional protein — chicken (crawfish or shrimp are de rigueur). And in a very New Orleanian fashion, we got two sweet treats at the end — the soft pralines you can find all over the city and bananas foster, invented here. The latter had us all pulling out our cameras as flames shot up when Devidts lit the rum in his skillet on fire.
Since we were a quarter of the way there anyway, I talked a group into walking to Frenchmen Street, my favorite place in New Orleans, for some live music.
The street, which shoots out of the northern end of the French Quarter, is known for its numerous and lively music clubs, and even on a Monday night, it was hopping.
We perused an adorable outdoor art market then popped into d.b.a. to catch some incredible modern jazz. The talent level of local musicians, many of whom learn to play instruments as soon as they can walk, is off the charts. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never seen any bad music in a New Orleans club. The competition is simply too great for anyone who is not top-tier to land a gig. My recommendation: Wander the street, pop in when you hear something that moves you and carry plenty of cash to tip these hard-working musicians.
We started this day with a walking tour of the French Quarter.
When you think of New Orleans, the picture you probably bring up in your mind is of two-story buildings, surrounded by wrought or cast iron balconies, most of which, we learned, are actually called galleries (balconies are not supported from underneath and don’t wrap around buildings).
Those buildings are located in the French Quarter, so named because it was established by the French, who were the first to colonize the land here in 1718. The original wooden buildings mostly rotted in the swampy air or burned in a massive fire in 1788, and though French tastes remained strong during rebuilding, the Spanish put in new regulations to prevent the spread of fire, which included plaster on exterior walls and slate and tile roofs. Wrought and cast iron came later, in the late 1700s, and took the quarter by storm. The exterior of many of the buildings has remained largely unchanged since, and it’s now a historical district, so changes must be true to the original look and feel of the neighborhood.
Our tour was led by a Tulane history professor and his architect friend, and between the two of them, we were inundated with facts about the culture, the many tragedies locals have endured and the unique look and feel of the 422-acre quarter. The city didn’t expand beyond that acreage until 1788.
That afternoon, the majority of us took advantage of an optional tour of Oak Alley Plantation east of the city. It was my first visit to a plantation, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The grounds, which are defined, as you might expect from the name, by an alley of 300-year-old southern live oak trees, are meticulously maintained, and the Greek Revival mansion, completed in 1839, is open only to paid tour groups. We walked through the gardens in the stifling heat and then through the house, where we learned about how the family, who oversaw slaves that grew sugarcane on the surrounding acreage, lived.
One of those slaves, Antoine (no last name, they were considered property), is responsible for grafting a pecan tree that produced nuts that could be opened with bare hands — the Centennial Variety. Antoine is responsible for the proliferation and popularity of the nut in New Orleans and beyond, because before his creation, pecans were notoriously hard to open.
There’s an entire, very haunting exhibit about the slaves that inhabited the property, in replicas of the shacks they would have lived in before the Civil War. It was hot in those shacks as we examined the shackles used to keep the slaves captive, and the sweat dripping from my brow and the hot air in my lungs felt correct, and suffocating.
After a cold shower and a change of clothes, we set out for an evening on our own. My little group stopped first at the historic, award-winning Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, which is attached to Arnaud’s restaurant. Chef Jack Riebel of St. Paul’s The Lexington, who has sadly passed, was the one who told me about the restaurant’s souffle potatoes, which are fried twice until they puff up and are served with a killer bearnaise sauce. I can’t visit New Orleans without getting an order, paired with a French 75 cocktail (champagne, cognac, sugar and lemon).
After our aperitif, we walked to Bayona, chef Susan Spicer’s charming restaurant in a cottage in the heart of the French Quarter. The restaurant, which opened in 1990, serves twists on classic Southern fare. We especially enjoyed the mellow, nutty garlic soup and what might be the best scallops I’ve ever had, served with maque choux, a Cajun mix of corn, peppers and bacon grease, and gaufrette potatoes, which are essentially French waffle chips.
Afterward, it was time to hit Bourbon Street, the bawdy, raucous street on which our hotel resided. I generally avoid the pedestrian-only thoroughfare because of the amount of obviously and obnoxiously intoxicated people stumbling down it, but my group was full of newbies who wanted the experience. We started at Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub, which is one of the last fully jazz-oriented clubs on Bourbon Street. The Dixieland band, which was crowded onto a small stage, was excellent, and we enjoyed a few rounds before moving on.
We popped into a few other places on our way back to the hotel, catching a killer soul band just across from our hotel before calling it quits because we had an early morning on the horizon.
This morning, we headed south of town about 45 minutes for a tour of the Louisiana swampland, another first for me.
Instead of a noisy, speedy airboat, we were loaded onto a more mellow giant pontoon, which meant we could mostly hear the guide, and could relax and enjoy the scenery.
Trees draped with air plants, bright wildflowers and lush tropical vegetation would have been enough for me (we saw the gorgeous bayou that was used as inspiration for the Disney animated film “Princess and the Frog”!), but we also encountered an insane amount of wildlife, including dozens and dozens of alligators, who swarmed the boat in search of the marshmallows the guide fed them with a very long stick. We also saw some domestic cattle, blue herons, white cranes and an entire family of raccoons, who were also big fans of the guide’s fluffy white treats.
For lunch, which was on our own, we walked to Napoleon House (built in the early 1800s as a refuge that never came to pass for the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte) for a hot muffuletta, which I was settling for because my beloved Central Grocery, which serves a phenomenal cold version, has been closed for renovations for two years after being hit by Hurricane Ida.
The sandwich, layered with cured meats, sharp provolone and an olive salad, was delicious, and I loved that I could order a quarter sandwich (they are gigantic) and a side for less than $15. I chose red beans and rice, a dish I hadn’t yet partaken in.
We all needed a nap after a late night the day before, so we settled into our cool hotel rooms during the heat of the day.
In the evening, we walked to the iconic Court of Two Sisters for our farewell dinner. I ordered a very delicious shrimp and grits and a slice of perfect pecan pie.
After dinner, we took a group outing to Maison Bourbon, the other jazz club on Bourbon Street, for a set of awesome music, which was unfortunately clouded by the fact that the club’s air conditioning was on the fritz. Since it was our last night in town, I was dead set on heading back to Frenchmen for even more music. Because the air was still around 90 degrees without factoring in the oppressive humidity, we opted to take a rideshare.
We first hit Bamboula’s for a raucous blues band and ended the night at d.b.a., which featured a more mellow Cajun zydeco trio.
Because we didn’t fly out until late afternoon, we had most of the day to ourselves.
After a fabulous buffet brunch back at Court of Two Sisters, my group decided to walk down Royal Street, known for its art galleries and upscale boutiques. We caught a little street music and saw the wide range of modern art displayed in the many galleries. At the other end of the quarter, we turned right and hit the French Market, an open-air market filled with bohemian shops, restaurants and a stage for live music, of course.
Walking back along Decatur Street, we noticed that although Central Grocery is closed, they are selling their muffuletta out of a cooler in the liquor store next door. Score! My travel companion and I were set for a meal on the plane ride home.
Digging into the chewy bread, quality meats and zippy olive salad, we agreed that there is just no beating that sandwich. I really hope they rebuild by the time I return.
Here are a few of the highlights, in case you want to plan your own trip to the Big Easy.
GW Fins: 808 Bienville St., New Orleans; 504-581-3467; gwfins.com
Carousel Bar & Lounge: 214 Royal St., New Orleans; 504-523-3341; hotelmonteleone.com
St. Louis Cemetery No. 3: 3421 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans
Camellia Grill: 26 S. Carrollton Ave., New Orleans; 504-309-2679
Mardi Gras World: 1380 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans; 504-361-7821; mardigrasworld.com
New Orleans School of Cooking: 524 St. Louis St., New Orleans; 800-237-4841; neworleansschoolofcooking.com
d.b.a.: 618 Frenchmen St., New Orleans; 504-942-3731; dbaneworleans.com
Oak Alley Plantation: 3645 LA-18, Vacherie, La.; 225-265-2151; oakalleyplantation.org
Arnaud’s French 75 Bar: 813 Bienville St., New Orleans; 504-523-5433; arnaudsrestaurant.com
Bayona: 430 Dauphine St., New Orleans; 504-525-4455; bayona.com
Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub: 733 Bourbon St., New Orleans; 504-586-4800; fritzelsjazz.com
Napoleon House: 500 Chartres St., New Orleans; 504-524-9752; napoleonhouse.com
Court of Two Sisters: 613 Royal St., New Orleans; 504-522-7261; courtoftwosisters.com
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