Landing into New Orleans in stormy weather after a very long flight from London via Houston was in some ways the best introduction to the vibe in New Orleans. The steamy sometimes oppressive heat and thundery weather that we had landed in was frequently broken up by torrential rains . The sultry heat, blazing sun and rain all within minutes summed up the eclectic nature of the French quarters in New Orleans .
The French Quarters is like being on a huge film set in a movie that’s full of wonderful characters, elegant houses, flashing over the top neon lights, and bars bars with music everywhere. It has an edgy friendliness and its just pure surreal theatre. It more than lives up to its reputation. We were staying in the #Soniat House Hotel which was everything I imagined a small boutique hotel in New Orleans would be. Wrought iron balconies, Lush courtyards cool insides. I fell in love with the hotel, its friendly staff and service and our enormous suite with a balcony overlooking the quiet street.
Every morning I waited in anticipation for the knock on the door that indicated our tray laden with the freshly baked biscuits made from a secret recipe (scones) and chilled orange juice was ready. It has an old-world charm that I found appealing and so so relaxing. Its like being a treasured guest in a fabulous house from a different era. Want a drink a cocktail? Just help yourself from the honour bar in a gorgeous sitting room that just draws you in.
Food and New Orleans are inextricably linked. Crawfish, oyster, crabs are just everywhere and aside from one place we visited the food was very very good. Despite the tiredness from a long flight we went out for dinner our first night to the Italian Barrel which became a regular haunt.
We had arrived in time for the Creole tomatoes festival and the Bruschetta loaded with baby cherry tomatoes other dinners were tucking into looked so inviting we had to have some. Drizzled with a light vinaigrette and basil it was yum. Sitting outside with the whoosh of heat a glass of chilled rose, a bowl of clams and an enormous crab salad was almost perfection. The crab was fabulous. Luscious white crab meat sitting on top of asparagus, avocado and rucolla. It couldn’t get better.
Far too excited and too restless to sleep we went to #The Snug Harbour to hear Ellis Marsalis who plays most Fridays. A Broody mysterious and intimate club, the music stage is nestled at the back of the restaurant. We had been up 22 hours but who cared when you had great music and an exquisite margarita?
And that set the tone of our week long stay. Calm and cool in our hotel and then out for late breakfasts accompanied by street Jazz or out and about in the French Quarters. We had a great breakfast at the Fleur de Lis. A simple local café that we stumbled on watching farmers market unfold. You can have eggs anyway you like them hash browns friendly great service and the biggest cup of coffees we have ever seen.
The weather before we arrived had been forecast as thundery and rainy and I thought this is going to be a horrible wet trip but despite the bursts of showers nothing absolutely nothing beats rushing from red trolley train in the torrential rain to the Farmers market. Soaking wet sitting at the Oyster and seafood bar , watching massive pots of crawfish garlic leeks lemons being made while you eat fresh delicious oysters and feeling that familiar woosh of heat from the open sides and seeing the curtain of water around you was like being in a huge film set. The colour the people, the market . It was dream like.
We lived on oysters morning noon and night from the stands to great restaurants. The Royal Oyster House where we sat on the balcony and just watched the Saturday night crowd getting ready to party to the absolutely fabulous Arnaud’s which was throwback to another era. A huge room with high ceilings and sensational food. I loved their champagne cocktail made with brandy and their special catch of the day served with a tomatoes salsa chilli was mind blowing as was the veal tornados with Chanterelle mushrooms. And I am still dreaming about it.
In between frequent visits back to our hotel room just to cool down we wandered into countless art galleries from the absolute kitsch to the wonderfully witty work of the late New Orleans artist George Rodrigue and his famous blue dog. There is so so much going on but in a gentle way until the evening when the area around Bourbon street just explodes with energy and activity. It has what I call a friendly edginess . Literally like a movie you can wander and watch all this colourful life going by you, dipping into this bar or that bar.
One of the craziest joints we went to was #Krazy Korner . I was mesmerised by these trays of coloured test tubes that were shots of vodka which were being carried around by various servers and served in rather unique ways. One server had an enormous embpoint and the test tubes, up to 4 were put into her cleavage and customers head was thrust into this vast expanse of flesh and with a jiggle their head was tipped backward an the liquid would be swallowed. Truly it was a sight to see. While another server would put one end of the test tubes into her mouth and impart it to the other person that way. It was fun rather than sleezy. We also liked Fritzels on Bourbon street. Great for serious music lovers as is the Jeremy Davenport lounge at the #Ritz Carlton for trumpet lovers.
When it all gets too much and it can in the French Quarter we went to the Garden district and had a fabulous meal at a bistro in a local neighbourhood . Gautreus is so integrated in the neighbourhood with no sign to suggest its there but inside is an elegant dining room serving inventive French Louisiana food where the locals go. We tried the cauliflower beignets with sultanas and currents and I had a really sensational fillet with crispy garlic potatoes that was more than good. I have to say that many of the chefs here are really creative using absolutely the best produce and interpreting it a unique way. It really opened mu eyes up.
We followed this dinner by going to Chiki Wah Wah which is the other extreme of refine. A local bar , to listen Meschiya Lake a very charismatic singer with a voice to die for and made up for the unfriendly bar man. There is also a dark side to the French quarter and we saw lots of people of all ages pleading poverty and homelessness but no one bothers anyone so while you notice it no one intrudes into your space.
We did all the touristy things and we loved them. The ubiquitous horse carriage round the French Quarters early in the morning was just so relaxing as well as informative . No trip to Louisiana without a steam boat trip on the Mississippi can be called a visit . Our morning started with breakfast at the #Café du Monde that serves absolutely yummy sugar laden beignets that are cooked on the spot. A short walk and we were at the wharf to board The Nantchez. Its the only authentic steamboat that goes up and down the great river. They have a jazz band on board and you can have lunch dinner or snacks or do just we did have a rum punch and watch the world go by.
It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do with storms brewing and torrential rain to go to the swamps but we did! Sitting on a boat with no cover wrapped in yellow enormous raincoats we toured the swamps in Honey Island a diverse eco area. We saw alligators pelicans and a huge array of wildlife. It was great fun zooming on the swamp and marshes just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico I felt we were intrepid adventurers facing the elements. Yes I know but New Orleans does things to you that make you feel warm giggly and free.
We finished the day by dinning at GW Fins a great seafood restaurant that has an original inventive way of preparing seafood. I loved their Gumbo, a traditional Louisiana dish . that everyone in Louisiana interprets differently. This particular version was made of oysters crayfish crab and oysters in a broth with fragrant rice.
No visit to Louisiana is complete without a tour to a plantation . Sugar Plantations is what New Orleans thrived on in the distant past. We took a half day tour to see Oak Alley and Laura. Both very different but worth a visit if only to get a bit of understanding on the terrible era of slaves and how these magnificent homes and plantations were built with their blood and lives.
And then we met Jo. Jo tells you what the tourist guides don’t. He takes you to the part of the town where the levy collapsed and flooded near the Bywaters and explains how rescue teams put circles on door to denote conditions of the property and bodies inside like they did in London during the Plague. He tells you about the Danziger Bridge shootings where police killed and shot 2 civilians a few days after Hurricane Katrina then fabricated a cover up story. A brilliant raconteur his insights on the history of New Orleans how it was built and developed , what it was like to live there now was simply fascinating.
He took us to the Tree of Life in an are called the eye by the water. It is apparently the oldest tree in the States and all new brides go there for luck. He introduced us to snowballs on Magazine street. A fruit flavoured icy drinks. He added a new dimension to our visit by recounting how Mardi Gras was started and Fat Tuesday which is when Mardi Gras begins after Lent . He debated whether Statues of New Orleans historical figures such as General Lee should be taken down as it seen as a symbol of racism. He just had a host of insightful anecdotes and a passion for the city that he shared with us. It made our visit to New Orleans more ‘real’.
Our final day was spent walking around and though there are lots of walking tours we just wandered around on our own and then had a dinner at a new Orleans institution Brenan’s. We were not disappointed. The service is impeccable. The crab remoulade I had was fresh with a touch of paprika and lime. The Gulf grouper with amandine was cooked perfectly and you must must try their mashed potatoes. Fluffy buttery light and yummy.
Yes the French quarter is touristy, tacky at times, but its also has a warmth and genuiness that seeps into you. A spontaneous hug from the lady at the next table, a compliment from a passer-by and an infectious joie de vivre that draws you in and for a fleeting period of a visit you really do get the feel that you have been an actor in a wonderful live movie.