Frank and I love to travel and whenever we have an opportunity to explore another area of “Hometown” America we take it whether it’s for a couple weeks or just a weekend. In the past few years we have had the opportunity to travel to Europe and learn about other countries’ cultures; but right here in the States, we can find a different culture in each state.
In October we had the chance to go to New Orleans, correctly pronounced I’m told as “Naw’lins”. I have always wanted to go there, but after Katrina hit, I figured that I would never have the chance to see the real New Orleans.
Frank’s cousin who lives in San Francisco decided to get married there on the weekend of Oct 10. It was my birthday weekend, so why not go. Besides two of our children and their spouses would be going too.
Molly and Marty had gone to a Harry Connick Jr concert a couple years ago and he had said that if you want to do something to help New Orleans and the Katrina victims then go to New Orleans, stay in their hotels, eat in their restaurants, and buy their goods. With that in mind, Molly and Marty decided to plan their wedding day in New Orleans and invite 120 people to join them. One of the Bridesmaids had written to Harry Jr and told him what Molly and Marty were doing. In return, he sent them a wedding present of a photo of himself thanking them.
Their six o’clock wedding was true New Orleans style. It was held in an open courtyard of a hotel on the edge of the French Quarter. The reception was serenaded by a live band and the food was true New Orleans cuisine. But, the best part was still to come. At ten o’clock everyone moved to the street were we were met by the Algiers Jazz Band and a police motorcycle escort. It is known as the Second Line and is a parade thru the streets of New Orleans. The band was followed by the Bride and Groom each carrying a black and white parasol. Behind them came the rest of the guests waving blue napkins from the wedding. Whenever I have ever thought of New Orleans, I have pictured the funeral processions that we see on film. I never knew they did that for weddings too, much less never dreamed I would ever be a part of something like that. Most of the guests participated and as the band played lively music like “When the Saints Come Marching In” (can you hear them play), we all “danced and strutted” our way thru the streets. Locals came out on their verandas to watch and cheer us on. Other tourists stopped and enjoyed the sight, took pictures of us, and some even joined the end of the procession with us. What a sight! What fun!
Since our hotel wasn’t too far away, we took a slight detour home walking along Bourbon Street. It was Friday night and the street was lively but not rowdy. We all were still “jazzed up” from our parade so decided to stop in the Blues Club for a little Blues and Jazz music. We were told that the best bands weren’t on Bourbon Street but we thought differently after listening for a while.
After such a fun night, Saturday morning came very soon. Our goal today was to walk the streets of New Orleans in the daylight this time, explore the shops, and taste more New Orleans cuisine. I suspected that the shops were getting in the Halloween spirit early since there were lots of skeletons on display. Many of those were posed playing musical instruments. Although along the way we passed quite a few Voodoo shops, we knew they were definitely not just carrying out a Halloween theme. Anyone need a Voodoo doll, a curse, a spell broken? They all can be found inside. Then there were the bead shops. I have heard that the beads were a prize to be sought by some during Mardi Graz but I didn’t know that they were a popular item along Bourbon Street anytime.
There are so many good restaurants in New Orleans that it is almost too hard to choose. It was time for lunch and we stopped in La Bayou. Having grown up in Maryland, I am very partial to Soft Shell Crabs. Have you ever had one? Ummmmm! There was no doubt what Frank and I were having as soon as we spotted it on the menu…. Fried Soft Shell Crab Po’Boy. The seasonings that they use in Louisiana are the best. Oh and by the way, just about every shop you see sells their seasonings and a hundred choices of hot sauces!
With our palates well satisfied, we continued our trek through town. We were in the French Quarter and the architecture was superb. Everywhere we looked we saw the scrolled wrought iron railings that are so much a symbol of New Orleans. The French Quarter didn’t seem to have suffered too badly from the hurricanes considering Ike and Gustav had just been thru that whole area a bit before we came. There are a lot of construction repairs going on throughout the city and the streets and sidewalks are in desperate need of repair, but in some ways it added to the ambience of Old New Orleans. Nothing modern here. Horse drawn carriages are seen carrying tourists about town.
Soon we reached our next destination, Café du Monde. Now this is a place that is not to be missed. The covered outdoor seating looks like it has been hit by a snowstorm, but a closer look determines it is only powdered sugar everywhere. It’s located near the Mississippi River in an area called the Marketplace. The Café is known for its beignets. These are rectangular shaped raised donuts without holes. If you have ever had a sopapilla it is rather like that only sweeter. They are served 3 to a plate and totally covered in mounds of powdered sugar so plan on sharing with a friend.
After dusting off the powdered sugar from our hands and clothes, we were off again. A little side trip down to have our first glance of the Mississippi River. Then we were back on the streets and looking thru shops. Of course, it wouldn’t be New Orleans if we didn’t find some masks. Frank and I both had to try on the handheld type. It made us look like we had just stepped into a Ball at Versailles. In another shop Debbie and I found the more typical New Orleans style feather masks which we proudly displayed for the camera.
Another thing you’ll find in just about every shop or café, is an alligator. Don’t worry, we never saw a real one but there are plenty plaster ones. Some even to have fun with.
We came across Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and just had to go in for a rest and entertainment. The band was quite good. In the hallway entrance is a plaque that tells the story of how Jimmy came to make New Orleans his hometown.
With feet refreshed again, we continued our walk and came upon the Old New Orleans Mint which was in use in the early 1900s. It is now the home of the Louisiana State Museum. Very near here is where the street named “Frenchmen” begins. We were told that to experience the really good jazz music of New Orleans in the evening, this is the street to walk along.
Also near here was the end of one of the famous streetcar lines, the Canal street line. We hopped on for a ride back to our hotel. It’s possible to buy a day pass and hop on and off all day. The other option is to pay per trip. It cost about $1.25 per person but if you are “old like us”, seniors get to ride for 40 cents, quite a bargain!
After refreshing ourselves at the hotel, we all headed out to dinner. On the way to the restaurant we happened across an elderly gentlemen sitting on a box and serenading the passersby with his harmonica and song. He was like a character right out of an old picture book of the South. I know my eyes saw him sitting there in front of a shop, but my mind saw him sitting under a tree by the Mississippi River just playing to himself. His music was fantastic both with his harmonica and his singing. We all stood there for a while just enjoying him. With our pockets a few bucks lighter, we continued on walking and talking about how the people here in New Orleans didn’t sit on street corners begging like other cities, they actually entertained instead.
We had dinner at The Gumbo Shop. This is a very popular restaurant so with six of us, we had a little wait for the table but it was worth it. The guys had some gumbo but I chose the crawfish etoufee which was a wonderful choice. They sell the cookbook at the restaurant and I was surprised to see that all the dishes that the family had chosen were in the cookbook. Yes, I purchased one to take home with me.
The Gumbo Shop is located on Royal St which is just a block or so over from Bourbon Street so we again took a detour home. This being Saturday night, Bourbon Street was much livelier. There were young men lined up on verandas holding handfuls of beads over the railings. When pretty young girls walked by, they tried to get their attention by throwing the beads down to them. Unlike Mardi Gras, they was no “flashing” required to obtain one. The Oakland Raider fans were in town to attend the Saints game on Sunday, so they looked like it was Halloween as they paraded themselves along the street as pirates and skeletons. It all added to the fun of the evening though and no one was rowdy or out of hand.
Sunday was my birthday so the family took me to Brunch at the renowned Brennan’s Restaurant which is located in the historic Morphy House. As we entered this elegant restaurant, we were greeted by waiters in tuxedos. Wow, I thought, they got dressed up for my birthday. Whenever I think of the South and plantations, I always conger up a picture of the Southern Belles sitting on the porches of their mansions drinking cold Mint Juleps on a summer afternoon. I had no idea what a Mint Julep actually was but I was determined to try one while in New Orleans. It was worth trying. It is actually made with simple syrup, bourbon and a lot of fresh mint. Somehow I always thought of it as a non-alcoholic drink. Guess the bourbon was what kept those Southern gals happy.
Following a very nice meal, we were treated to watching the waiter cook up Bananas Foster. This is one of those flaming desserts prepared tableside. I understand that Brennans is credited with inventing this dessert. Then I was in for a special treat. Five tuxedo clad waiters came to the table with cake in hand and sang “Happy Birthday”. Bet you never had that on your birthday!
Now you think that was the best part of the experience but it wasn’t. The best was found downstairs in the Ladies Room of all places. There was a delightful African-American attendant there. She proudly told me that she was 80 and she was called Miss Mary. She greeted me with her southern charm and wished me a wonderful day. I told her it was a wonderful day already because I was spending my birthday in New Orleans with my family. With that Miss Mary burst out with the greatest rendition of “Happy Birthday” followed by a whole litany of blessings for good health and happiness, and a wish for me to live everyday to the fullest. Of course, I thanked her and told her that since I was now a 10 year cancer survivor, I do enjoy every moment of everyday. Miss Mary went on to tell me that two of her brothers had been 17 year cancer survivors only to be taken by Hurricane Katrina. How sad I thought. Then she asked what brought us to New Orleans, and I told her about Molly and Marty’s reason for having the wedding here. Hearing Harry Connick Jr’s name, her eyes brightened as she told me that her son played in a band with Harry Connick Sr when he was just starting his career in New Orleans. Meeting Miss Mary had to be one of the highlights of the day.
Leaving the restaurant, Frank and I headed down to the river. We were planning to embark on my next wish, a ride on the Mississippi River on the paddleboat “Natchez”. What a beautiful day for a boat ride! Before anyone boarded the boat, a gray haired lady sat on the top of the Natchez playing the calliope. Now that really got us in the mood for “cruising down the river on a Sunday afternoon”. The two hour boat ride up and down the Mississippi gave us a chance to see the havoc that Katrina has played with the New Orleans economy. So many docks stand half demolished still demonstrating how the city had lost much of its shipping business. Floating along though, I couldn’t help but picture what this port had been like in the past, and think about how many adventurers had to ford across this river somewhere to pursue that trek to the West.
After the boat ride, we followed the Riverwalk which leads to a large Shopping Mall.
Soon it was time for dinner and “The Court of Two Sisters” restaurant had been the recommendation for my birthday dinner. We had a wonderful meal there and again I had a “Happy Birthday” serenade by the waiter who had a really great voice. Was this a great birthday or what?
Monday was Columbus Day and we were flying home in the late afternoon so we still had a little more time to explore. We decided to ride the Charles Street streetcar from one end to the other. What a bargain, for the cost of a streetcar fare we had a tour of the city. We enjoyed the Southern and Victorian architecture, the mansions, Loyola College and Tulane University.
By the time we boarded the plane, we felt that we had really experienced the culture of New Orleans and the South.