New Orleans is an absolutely fantastic place. There’s music everywhere, all sorts of weird and wonderful people, and a real sense that anything goes. The main tourist strip of Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is pretty gruesome to behold of an evening, and we tended to avoid it, but our B&B – the Royal Street Courtyard – was actually closer to Frenchmen Street, which is full of excellent music clubs and bars.
After receiving a very friendly and comprehensive welcome and induction from our host Philip, we spent our first afternoon and then the next day strolling and riding the trolley in the French Quarter and Garden District. Both areas are packed full of beautiful architecture, antique and art shops, and of course great bars for the necessary cold beers (the best way to tackle the humidity). We also called in for the obligatory coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and oyster lunch at Acme. Musically, we warmed up for the weekend with a night out around Frenchmen and Decatur. We started with lovely Creole tapas and stomping piano at The Three Muses, then took in a great young brass band, a club with a DJ playing vintage soul, and finished off with trad jazz in the lovely Spotted Cat.
All great stuff… but then came the main event…
Jazz Fest was two days packed full of some of the best music, sunshine, lovely food and the friendliest crowd you could wish for. Hard to do it justice really, but the highlights were Irma Thomas, Bonnie Raitt and the Rebirth Brass Band. We also squeezed in Herbie Hancock, Allen Toussaint, the Meters, Foo Fighters, Preservation Hall Brass Band and a few gospel and blues acts. And I can’t not mention the food. OMG (as the kids say)! Soft shell crab po’boys, crawfish monica, gumbo…heavenly! We finished our second day with huge grins on our faces, and a determination to do this again soon!
Driving south out of NOLA, post-Jazz, we boarded an airboat with our guide Louis in the Jean Lafitte wetland area. Speeding through Lake Salvador and the cypress waterways, Louis regaled us with stories of Cajun swamp life, pirates, Creole history and the battle of New Orleans. And then the boat slowed to a cruising pace and we were suddenly surrounded by alligators. I’m not exaggerating when I say they were literally bumping up against the boat. Louis fed them marshmallows and even got out onto the bank to get up close and personal. Lunatic! After some initial trepidation, however, we both bravely held a small ‘gator, proudly posing for a photo.
The following day, we took the trolley along the riverfront and up Canal Street to the City Park, a lush, sprawling area in Mid-City. Among the many innovatively-named areas of the park, my personal favourites were ‘Big Lake’, ‘Great Lawn’ and ‘Middling-Sized Pond’ (though I may have made the last one up). After spending a really pleasant hour meandering through the Sculpture Garden, admiring the eclectic mix of pieces by Rodin, Miro, Plensa, Moore, Bourgeois and many others, it became critical to find shade. Luckily, the New Orleans Modern Art Museum was our next port of call, with its welcoming (if not overly-aggressive) air-con. With collections of Native American and Louisiana artwork, as well as a fascinating photography exhibition, we whiled away more hours, before returning to the B&B to freshen up and head out to Bacchanal, a grungy courtyard wine bar. Twinkly fairy lights, delicious food and a jazz trio: another big tick.
For our final day in Nawlins, we took in the Louis Armstrong Park and St Louis No. 1 Cemetery in Treme, then headed through the arty Warehouse District to Cochon Butcher, a favourite of chefs and food critics. Yum! With weary legs, we decided to spend the afternoon aboard Steamboat Natchez. The Mississippi river isn’t picturesque, but we enjoyed sunning ourselves and sipping cocktails on deck. And, as a last treat, we went out in the evening to Cafe Amelie, a swish courtyard restaurant. A simply wonderful end to the holiday.
But it wasn’t quite the end of the trip. First, we had to get back to Atlanta airport. As a result of the frankly ludicrous American hire-car industry’s refusal to accept a credit card from anyone other than the driver of the car (and Paul’s lack of said credit card), we were forced to drop off the car in the same location as we’d picked it up. So, having cancelled our internal flight from NOLA, we took a scenic coastal drive, stopping in Biloxi on the Gulf of Mexico for shrimp and a quick stroll on the beach, then continued onward to Birmingham, where we stayed overnight before driving to the airport. The least said about Birmingham the better. Suffice to say, Paul now has a credit card.