New Orleans (aka Nawlins)

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December 23rd 2008
Published: September 10th 2009
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 Video Playlist:

1: Natchez 15 secs
2: Cafe Du Monde Jazz Music 30 secs
Memphis - New Orleans

Wednesday 1st October (Day 37)

Today we had a little time before leaving Memphis, but didn’t have much time to really go back into the city or any last attractions before needing to get sorted, so we just had a quiet morning at the hotel. We caught a taxi to the airport, bound this time for New Orleans. Of course, as with our last two flights, we could only get there via Atlanta, Georgia, so we were able to see the city for a third time from the air, while catching our connecting flight. We were both keen to see New Orleans, although we had been told to stay away from the French Quarter at night time, as it could be quite dangerous. We were also especially keen to visit the city, as we were interested in seeing any aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (if it still remained). We arrived at the airport and managed to grab a bus to the central city. The ride took about 40 minutes, and it was a really interesting journey, through some of the lower socioeconomic areas - there were loads of abandoned buildings, and graffiti covered just about everything. However, despite the condition of many of the buildings, they didn’t look specifically flood damaged or anything similar, so it was hard to tell the reasons that much of the area appeared fairly desolate. Many of the people on the bus were clearly from low income families, and there were several crazy people as well. I found the whole experience quite fascinating. I wanted to ask people about their neighbourhoods and the hurricane and about their lives, but didn’t want to come across like a jerk (or make them think that I was looking down on them or anything), plus the bus probably wasn’t the right environment anyway. We arrived in the city but the hotel was still a couple of miles away. We didn’t have a map so we caught a taxi from outside the public library. We drove through the French Quarter and it was just amazing - all the houses with their ironwork balconies, some houses giant and grand, while others were tiny and narrow. It was a fantastic place! We made it to our hotel which was this HUGE old grand place - we had a room that was the size of most people’s whole house. The hotel was all decked out in old-fashioned style grandeur, from the four-poster beds, to the antique furniture and giant-framed portraits on the walls. We unpacked and just took a leisurely look around the huge old building, and dipped our feet in the pool.

From there we walked over to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, as the sun set - the houses we saw along the way were just fantastic - more ironwork balconies and bright colours. We were pleased to find that our hotel was right on the edge of the French Quarter, so it wasn’t much of a mission at all. As soon as we got to Bourbon Street we saw a black guy beating the crap out of a drunk white guy about 30 metres up the road. A couple of people were trying to break it up but there weren’t that many people around. The black guy went down a side alley and we kept on walking down Bourbon Street, past the alley, in time to see a couple of cops run past us and tackle the guy in the alley (who was walking really slowly, trying to look casual). It was pretty random how we were right there for the whole thing, just a few metres away, but it was a really good illustration of the dangers of the area - the alleyways were also quite dark and isolated compared to the main street. It was an interesting first encounter in New Orleans! We kept walking down Bourbon Street and stopped in at a small shop for a Hurricane drink (alcoholic slushie) which we wandered around with for a while. It seems you can drink alcohol out on the streets in New Orleans (at least in that area anyway), and many small stores sold different flavours of alcoholic slushies, other local drinks and some also sold a few tourist items as well. In between the slushie shops were nightclubs and strip bars, all pumping out there own music and trying to attract punters for the evening. I was surprised at how the street contained almost nothing other than clubs and strip joints. It didn’t seem as seedy as in some other cities, as they were catering to tourists of all ages, sexes and nationalities, but it was still interesting. Many of the slushie shops also sold the plastic necklaces you see around people’s necks at Mardi Gras. It wasn’t hard to imagine the street absolutely full of revellers during the celebrations, although the area wasn’t as big as I had imagined previously - I wondered where they fit all of the thousands of people that showed up every year.

At the end of Bourbon St we reached Canal St, a large multilane road which illustrated the end of the French Quarter on one side (the CBD began on the other side of Canal Street). We walked down Canal St to the casino (to get some dinner), but they wouldn’t let us in as I didn’t have any ID on me. Oh well - their loss. We walked toward the river and back towards our hotel, on Decatur St, which runs parallel to Bourbon St. This street seemed to hold most of the restaurants and also a lot of bars. It was far nicer-looking than Bourbon Street, and didn’t seem as dodgy either. In fact, there were a lot more people here and they looked like they were out for a good holiday or a pleasant evening, rather than just to get drunk (which is the image that Bourbon Street presented). In between the restaurants were many tourist stores, which were just closing up for the night. We passed by the St Louis Cathedral and stopped to look at the street art for sale, out on the footpath in front of Jackson Gardens. However, there wasn’t the pressure to buy something (as there is in many cities), and we didn’t see anyone begging for money in our entire time in New Orleans. It just seemed a bit easier to wander around without being harassed, and it was interesting to see all the street performers and things that were happening at that time of night, down by the river front. Vaughan was getting hungry and we didn’t quite know where to eat - it was still pretty hot even though it was about 9pm, so we chose a casual local Creole restaurant that had massive door-sized shutters that opened onto the street, which enabled us to sit right near the footpath and watch all the people as we ate. We both had gumbo (a local rice, chicken and vegetable dish), which was fantastic! Vaughan had a bowl of chilli on the side. Creole restaurants in the USA generally refer to a type of cuisine specific to Louisiana, which includes influences from Spain, Haiti, and other island nations. It was such an excellent meal, and we just sat there, watching all the goings-on around us until the restaurant started to close up for the evening, before heading back to our hotel for the night.

Thursday 2nd October (Day 38)

We started off the day by venturing back down Decatur St to a little breakfast café, where Vaughan had a cooked breakfast and I had a bagel. The place was run by a local lady and her sister, who were friendly and inviting. We stayed for an extra coffee and then headed off along Decatur St, crossing Canal St and over to the other side of town where we caught a tram out to the Garden District for a walking tour we had booked. We had wanted to look around St Louis Cemetery No 1, as it is New Orleans oldest cemetery. Many movies have also been filmed here, and as with many other areas lower than sea-level, the bodies are buried in historic above-ground tombs, rather than in the ground, to avoid the ground being undermined in flooding and washing the bodies away. However, we chose to visit Lafayette Cemetery instead, for two reasons: the first being that we had heard that neither cemetery was terribly safe (and it was better to go as part of a walking tour), and also because Lafayette was next to the Garden District, an area consisting of grand old New Orleans houses/architecture that we wanted to learn about. Although we would have also liked to have gone on a daytrip out to one of the old plantation houses, we just couldn’t justify the expense, and so we paid for a walking tour of Lafayette Cemetery and the Garden District instead, which we were both looking forward to. We arrived at the meeting place (an offbeat bookstore and café) and waited for everyone else to arrive. We soon met up with a few other people (there were about 10 of us altogether), and the leader of the tour, who was an old guy that looked like Father Christmas. He first took us through the cemetery where we saw various spots that had been used in movies, as well as learning about the format of the cemetery in general, the history of some of the families in the area, and the methods used for burial in the area. It was incredibly interesting and we probably spent a god hour wandering around there. Apparently it was the cemetery closest to the childhood house of Anne Rice, and some of the graves are specifically mentioned in her books. The cemetery wasn’t as big as I had expected, and we were soon ready to move on to see the Garden District, which was actually (conveniently) the suburb directly surrounding the cemetery. There were certainly some grand and impressive homes in this area, most of which were considered to be historical buildings, so updating them can be a challenge (and expensive) for the owners. In fact, many of the houses require so much maintenance every year that they are sold frequently because people cannot afford the added expense. Many of the homes are surrounded by iron ‘cornstalk’ fences (see photo). The back story on the fences is that in the 1850’s a gentleman called Colonel Short moved to New Orleans with his wife. His wife was homesick for Iowa and so he created a cornstalk fence to remind her of home. These are found on quite a few properties in New Orleans. We continued to wander around the Garden District, past more amazing homes and well-established gardens - it was so incredibly hot and we hadn’t thought to bring more than a small bottle of water. I think a lot of people were feeling the heat, so after about two hours we headed back to the café and bought a new bottle of water and had a coffee. The tour had been really interesting and we had seen some amazing things. What I found most interesting was that at end of the tour ‘Father Christmas’ (the tour guide) had said “I appreciate you coming. Make sure you tell everyone you know that New Orleans is alive and well after Hurricane Katrina, and that we would love for people to start visiting again”. We were both really glad we had gone on the tour, and there seemed to be so much to see in New Orleans - it was a vibrant and exciting city just bursting for the tourism market to pick back up again.

After venturing back on the tram, we arrived back in the French Quarter and walked down to the waterfront, buying another slushie drink on the way. We weren’t quite sure how to catch the ferry across to Algiers (which was free, and we thought we would just go for the sake of checking it out, as well as being able to see New Orleans from the water), but managed to work it out in the end. We jumped on the ferry and made it across to the other side. We didn’t know much about Algiers, so just wandered around for a while, taking photos of cathedrals and statues and stuff. Vaughan was wearing a KGB t-shirt, and some guy called out to him, speaking Russian - we got the giggles because we had no idea what the guy was talking about, so we just took off down the road, still laughing. We tried to take some photos looking back at the city, but the sun was very low in the sky behind the buildings and it was impossible to get a decent shot, unfortunately. We only stayed in Algiers briefly before jumping back on the ferry and heading back to the city. It was getting dark when we arrived - we walked back along Decatur St, stopping in at a slushie shop and buying another local drink to try on the way (it was like a chilli tomato juice drink - you could pick how spicy you wanted it, so I got the extreme one, just because I could). We stopped at Café Du Monde to watch the jazz band that was playing in the outdoor area. After all, New Orleans is the home of jazz, and we hadn’t heard much since we had arrived.

Towards the end of the street (near where we were staying), we had a quick look around the markets before they packed up for the night. They mostly seemed to sell tourist items and cheap plastic necklaces and other products used for Mardi Gras, so we headed back towards the centre, looking for somewhere to eat. We stopped off at loads of tourists stores and looked at all the stuff - their products were quite good compared to a lot of stores in other cities. There were also quite a few books about Hurricane Katrina (of course), and the pictures were quite devastating to look at. I can’t imagine what it must have been like at the time. We eventually settled on eating at Bubba Gump’s - a chain store I had wanted to visit in New York - we ordered seafood po’boys, but didn’t stay too long there, as neither the food nor the service were really worth paying for compared to most other places we had been in the end. We ventured back out onto Decatur St and again, just enjoyed wandering along, looking at the art work for sale and watching the street performers, and people all around us. Night time really seemed more lively than daytime in New Orleans. Before going back to the hotel we walked to a slightly different area, and stopped outside a few bars that were playing jazz music. These bars were just on the edge of the suburbs, and there were far less people around so it was even more relaxing. It was great to hear the jazz drifting a on the breeze behind us, as we walked back to the hotel after another fantastic day.

Friday 3rd October (Day 39)

Today we jumped up and got some breakfast at the hotel before heading out for another day in New Orleans. We were loving it so far, and were keen to see more. We dropped some laundry off in the French Quarter and proceeded to walk down Bourbon Street in the middle of the day. It was hot and sunny again, and the alcoholic slushies were already on sale. I took some more photos before we had another wander back down at the waterfront. We ducked into a few more shops and then grabbed some sushi for an early lunch. It was pretty lax and we just took our time, eventually deciding to do a walking tour of the French Quarter that was outlined in our Lonely Planet book. We walked past the old Ursuline Convent and the historic tavern called LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop. We then headed over to the Cornstalk Hotel (another place with those cornstalk fences I was talking about earlier), as well as St Anthony’s Garden behind St Louis Cathedral. We wandered past a few houses known as the living quarters for various famous writers in their time (William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, among many), before heading back around in a loop past the State Supreme Court Building and back into Jackson Square. It was a pretty good walk and we saw some random back alleyway voodoo shops, although I didn’t want to go in (that stuff freaks me out). It was interesting to note that voodoo was generally also another influence from Haiti and the surrounding islands (as with the Creole food).

We wandered back towards Bourbon Street and stopped off at Pat O’Brien’s pub for a few drinks in the sun. Pat O’Brien’s was an awesome place, with about 4 different bars (with different things happening at each one) and several outdoor courtyards. We started off by sitting in the darkest, coolest bar, just to get a break from the heat. We watched as a lady sang some jazz numbers, accompanied by a pianist. She was pretty good, but we soon decided to sit back out in the sunshine, and went out to find a table and some accompanying cocktails. The cocktail menu was excellent, and there were so many nice drinks to choose from - they all looked so refreshing on such a hot day. They were also quite large and reasonably priced. You paid an extra $3 for your glass in case you wanted to keep it (most tourists did), but we didn’t have any way of getting ours back to New Zealand without breaking them, so at the end we took ours back and got our $3 back - easy! It was really nice just sitting there in the sun with Vaughan - the people around us were quite nice, and just seemed to be there to sit outside and enjoy the cocktails and the company as well. There were massive fans going on all sides of us to try and keep the air circulating, but we found it pretty pleasant just sitting there talking. I could have stayed there all afternoon, but we had decided to go to the I-MAX down by the waterfront, to watch a film about Hurricane Katrina. We made it back down there in plenty of time, and went in to watch the film - it was far less about the actual hurricane that expected, and more about saving the surrounding wetlands that protect the land from flooding. Apparently they had already started making the film when Hurricane Katrina hit the area, so it was the perfect example of why the wetlands were important. Both Vaughan and I found it really interesting, and we were both glad we had gone. Afterwards we walked along the waterfront, past the paddle boat (the Natchez) which was blasting out its showtime tunes as people boarded for their dinner cruise - we had considered going on the cruise ourselves, but had read a lot of reviews that said it wasn’t even remotely worth the expense, even though I’m sure it would have been kind of cool. I think that the Natchez is the only paddleboat left of its kind in the area. I had a really massive migraine and didn’t feel like walking back, so we caught a tram the rest of the way and had a break back at the hotel for a while. I think the sun was really getting to me, even though we were glad to see it!

After we had a rest, Vaughan caught up on some emails and we remembered to pick up our laundry, I was feeling a lot better. Unfortunately there were either fleas or bed bugs (or both) in the carpet, and Vaughan had been bitten about 40 times on the feet and legs while he was lying on the floor, using the laptop. It is still the only time on any of our journeys that we have found fleas/bedbugs anywhere, even though many accommodations suffer these problems. I think it was just because the hotel was so old and it really wasn’t the cleanest, even though its grandeur was certainly impressive. It was dark now and as we were walking back to Decatur St to find somewhere to eat dinner, we decided to cut through the markets and grab a coffee. From there we could hear fireworks coming from the waterfront, so we hot-footed it in that direction and made it out to the spot where the Natchez dinner guests were just disembarking. Many of them had stopped to watch the fireworks, and we still have no idea what occasion the fireworks were marking, but that didn’t matter. It was awesome to see everyone’s faces turned up to the sky, elderly couples, parents with children, groups of young people - the view of the fireworks over the river was just fantastic, and with the Natchez paddleboat also in sight, it certainly made for a spectacular scene. We were so lucky to have caught the fireworks show on our last night in Nawlins (as the locals call it), and we walked excitedly back to Decatur St. After our disappointing at Bubba Gump’s the night before, we wanted to make sure we enjoyed our meal. We sat down at an outdoor table at Café Du Monde, not just watching the jazz band from the edge of the seating area as we had done for a few minutes the night before. Apparently Café Du Monde can have waiting lists of up to 50 people at meal times, although we had never seen it packed out in the whole time we had been there, and there were loads of empty tables to choose from. I just wanted to sit fairly close to the band to take some photos and listen to the music. We only stayed for a drink however, as although the meals there were within our budget, Vaughan really wanted to return to the Creole restaurant we had gone to on the first night, with the gumbo and bowls of chilli. It was both more our style as well as cheaper, and I had enjoyed it too. We sat at Café Du Monde a little longer - I was particularly enjoying the skill of the saxophonist in the band, and they cranked out a few numbers we knew. All of the guys in the band were quite old, and really knew their stuff.

We left the café and walked back along Decatur St, stopping in again at some of the tourist shops, where I really enjoyed looking at the art (especially the jazz posters). We made it to the Creole restaurant and had another fantastic meal over a few drinks, making friends with the waitress and having an excellent time - it was really busy (Friday night) and we enjoyed ourselves a great deal, staying again until fairly late, just because of the pleasant environment and people. The restaurant was pretty laid back overall and we were really glad that we hadn’t gone further afield looking for something different. If only I could remember the name of the restaurant! We strolled slowly back towards our hotel, taking our time down Decatur St (and loving how much more enjoyable it was than walking down Bourbon Street), passing by the waterfront one last time. I had really wanted to see more of the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and/or some of the projects going on to assist the city in recovering from the damage. I knew of several development districts catered to this, and wished that we had hired a car to explore a little further than (mainly) the French Quarter, as there is much more to the city than this. However, we had still enjoyed our time here - it’s a place I would certainly like to visit again one day. Tomorrow - on to Miami, Florida……


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