New Orleans Travel Guide
A sub-tropical sweatbox close by the Gulf of Mexico, the place literally reeks of excess and debauchery. Hard drinking and hard sex are virtually a regional pastime. It behaves like no other American City as much as it looks like no other American city. Like the saying goes New Orleans is ‘the city that care forgot!’ The unique cultural mishmash of African, Indian, Cajun and Creole influences lend the City a definite European air and the lifestyle practiced here is on a par with even the wildest that Spain and France have to offer. Which is saying something. There is little on show, if any, of the traditional conservatism so rife in the US. In short: the natives want to have a good time and no one’s going to stop them.
The definitive image of New Orleans is the fabulous French Quarter, in particular Bourbon Street. Made famous in Song, Literature, TV and Movies it lives up to both its name and reputation. From its iconic lacy iron balconies down to the boisterous bars and steamy sex shops beneath it never lets you down. During the day it is like stepping into the pages of a Mark Twain story but at night New Orleans is an altogether different animal. When this town hots up it doesn’t stop till it reaches full boil. The bars simply ooze low life glee, sticky floors, sweaty, stinking and beautiful. Music is omnipresent invariably soulful and mean; it shakes you up and lays you out, or is that the drinks, which are always large and often bewilderingly strong. Sure it can get heavy. But what do you expect. This is a big city and like any city it has an ugly side. Keep to the busy well lit areas and you’re generally OK.
Daytime is for strolling and taking advantage of that other New Orleans religion Eating. This is food heaven. From the powder sugared beignets washed down with chicory coffee at The Café Du Monde (in business since the civil war) to oysters and white wine at Casamento’s. You can splash out in style at Antoine’s the oldest family run restaurant in the US; the place that caused Cecil b DeMille to exclaim, "Many a chef has created a dish, but only God could have cooked that fish." For more international flavours the Bayona is tops, imagine it - cream of garlic soup, sweetbreads with lemon-caper butter, and grilled shrimp with coriander. If you want dinner to be an event you’ve got to check out Emeril’s it’s noisy, its crazy and the food’s excellent. Why not combine eating with a bit of learning and enrol at the New Orleans School of Cooking, where, for around $20/$30 you get a three hour lesson in Cajun cooking and also get to enjoy the fruits of your education at the end.
Remember the tripping scene from Easy Rider? Peter Fonda, Denis Hopper, Karen Black, Toni Basil get all weird and emotional in a graveyard. That was shot in Crescent Cemetery one of New Orleans notorious Cities of The Dead. Due to the high water table of the Bayou the dead are ‘buried’ above ground. The result is unquestionably eerie. Row after row of bleached stone mausoleums and sarcophagi stand side by side creating the aforementioned ‘Cities’. To most they are morbidly fascinating, to some inspiring. Check out the oldest, St Louis where you’ll find the tomb of Voodoo Queen Marie Leveaux, or Lafayette, a favourite haunt of Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat. But be careful. Don’t visit alone. Always go with an official tour. These places are havens for muggers and desperados.
New Orleans takes the ‘Dark Side’ very seriously. Even the most ardent cynic would be wise not to scoff. Voodoo is still widely practiced (by at least 15% of the population) and almost universally respected here. At the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in the French Quarter Priestess Miriam Chamani practices spiritual healing rituals based on Afrocentric American Voodooism continuing the tradition established by her ancestor Dr John (not the musician) in the 1820s. The Historic Voodoo Museum is also a shop. A guide is on hand to explain what the exhibits are for and you can buy everything you need from gris-gris to Baron Samedi dolls.
The best time to visit New Orleans is Mardi Gras, which takes place during the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday. The main event is Fat Tuesday the traditional last chance to overindulge before lent. Famous for the legendary bead and coin throwing parades it is undoubtedly one of the best parties you could wish to be at. To say that Mardi Gras is colourful is an understatement Frenzied is more like it. The whole world and his dog are completely off their heads. As exhausting as it is invigorating words cannot truly capture the madness. New Orleans doesn’t so much push the boat out as launch the whole damn armada.
There is something so American yet un-American about New Orleans. It is like a time capsule lodged firmly in a bygone age where beauty counted for all the right reasons and life was a little harsher yet slower. From the majestic splendour of the paddle steamers along the Mississippi to the quaintness of the straw hated mules and horses pulling the tour carriages, the streetcars and the picture-book Spanish houses. It’s like being in a parallel world where elements of what we know from books and movies have been cobbled together to create a city. If you like to party, there’s one going on. If you like to eat, take a seat. If you like hot music just listen. As the unofficial Louisiana state motto says ‘Laissez les bon temps rouler’ ‘Let the good times roll’.
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