New Orleans, Louisiana - The Big Easy, Jazz City (we aren’t so sure!)

Published: April 8th 2014
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So, we've done country, blues and soul. Now it's time for Jazz. New Orleans (or as they pronounce it N'Awlins) - home of Satchmo (Louis Armstrong), Mardi Gras and the French Quarter (Vieux Carre).

It's an early start as our train leaves Memphis at 6-50 am, and we're slightly concerned as our taxi turns up 10 mins late. Shouldn't have worried; the train is running one and a half hours late! It's the Chicago to New Orleans overnighter and no one has any idea how or why it was running late......till the one of the attendants spilled the beans - it left Chicago late and they didn't know why!

We have lower level coach seats which is pretty comfortable for a 9 hour journey - loads of leg room, reclining seats and power points. No Wi-Fi though. Upstairs seems pretty crammed by comparison. A nice feature of the train is an Observation Lounge with all glass sides and easy chairs so you can go and spend time there and enjoy the scenery. There is also a rather small dinning car area. This is not much of an issue for us as we do our own picnic sandwiches with crisps which we enjoy as a treat.

We had planned to do lots of reading about NOLA (that's how they refer to New Orleans in the city) and Louisiana on the train but we managed to lose our LP guide book when we dropped the car back in Memphis so we're limited to what we can get off the internet - so glad we got the data connection for the iPad - it’s been a god send for us. NOLA tourism has a great website and it looks as if there are plenty of things going on during our stay - including a couple of food festivals including a BBQ competition. It's also crawfish season so looking forward to lots of boiled crawfish, a local delicacy, along with a host of Louisiana & Southern dishes.

The scenery we go through is mainly rural and lots of wetlands with cypress trees growing out of the water. The route takes us back through the Blues Trail route, following the course of the Mississippi river. As we get into Louisiana we go through the bayous, swamps and then alongside Lake Pontchartrain, towards the Gulf Coast and into New Orleans. We actually arrive on time and would have been early had the train not stopped for 15mins outside NO station.

The station is very modern with great murals depicting the history of the city, its quite centrally located, has the Greyhound stop too and a couple of eating places. Definitely the best terminal so far. We decide to take the Streetcars to the hostel rather than a cab - only $1.50 each including transfers whereas a cab would be $12 for only 2 miles. And the Canal Streetcar stops just at the end of the road where we're staying! As in Memphis the Streetcars aren't a speedy option but they are atmospheric and pretty convenient. And as usual the drivers are great at letting us know where to get off or which trolley or bus to catch. (US bus drivers are definitely getting our vote for "best of" on this trip so far). $3 buys you are day ticket for unlimited travel – amazing value.#

(Side note: The so called great American ‘Customer Service’ and ‘Efficiency’ is not always there in our experience, however, they are good at putting things right when it goes wrong. Bus drivers have been brilliant at helping us all along our trip but some of the workers at Greyhound and Amtrak seem to be less than motivated in their jobs. Mind you we could say that about some of the private sector folk as well – really surprised by their poor attitude).

India House hostel is in Midtown and is a lovely old wooden clad building with a porch out front. At least it is from the street. In fact it takes up a whole block of houses and is huge with inside and outside kitchens, communal areas, laundry etc. and a pool under construction. We have a private room with our own bathroom for $55 per night, so it's very good value too. The kitchen is pretty well equipped with cookers etc, but hardly any plates, bowls and no cutlery - other than plastic stuff. Coffee all day – great, no towels – not so great but you can buy them for $5 each and keep them.

Angel, who works there is full of local knowledge and recommends places to eat and a couple of local supermarkets. It's pleasant so we walk the 7 blocks to Carrollton Street (though the streetcars go there too) where there are 2 supermarkets - Rouse's and Winn Dixie. We go to Rouse's first and get no further. It's amazing with fab freshly cooked food, loads of seafood with the biggest lobsters we have ever seen (cooked & live), a huge butchers section and best of all some freshly cooked, still steaming from the pot, spicy boiled crawfish! So that's dinner sorted. Clam chowder, crawfish and fish - Delish! We also bought some crawfish and spinach lasagne but we're too full to eat it so that's lunch/dinner another day sorted too.

We spend the evening chatting to an older guy, George from Seattle travelling with his god sons, who are interested in our trip, then hit the sack for hopefully a decent night’s sleep. Unfortunately, we forgot to tell the "neighbours" this plan and C wakes to WW3 next door at 2-00am! While M on the other hand sleeps through it all.

Next day our priority is getting a new US LP guide book so we take the street cars to the Garden District where we get the last copy on the shelf. It's hot off the press for March 2014 so will be interesting to see if it has any different information or recommendations. Travelling here we pass through St Charles Avenue which has some amazing early American southern style houses which we take some pics of later.

Also nearby is the Lafayette Cemetery which has many tour groups visiting. It's interesting as all the tombs are above ground due to the water levels but not as impressive as others we've seen. Next stop is the Visitor Centre where we pick up loads of info but also accidentally hear about a free jazz in the park concert that evening in Lafayette Square; they happen every Wednesday for 12 weeks and we haven't seen them advertised anywhere!

Then it's the AT&T shop to sort our iPad Wi-Fi contract as it is due to run out. The iPad mini has been invaluable to us and getting a SIM for W-Fi access is the icing on the cake - it's been so useful we definitely will need this as we travel. We are assured that we can renew easily online so we decide we can do it later. And then we head to Mothers, eventually - for some reason the street cars are not running one way so we wait 40 minutes; not happy.

But when we get to Mother’s (a local café with a reputation) - joy! This is a local food eating place that has great reviews and we can see why. We have Jambalaya and seafood Gumbo - both of which are great (helped by the fact that the waiter decides that we should get another Gumbo free as he spilled a little), and there are so many other good things on the menu that we know we'll be back.

In fact we go back for our final night but bad call on the order unfortunately - grits with debris were ok but not very flavoursome, biscuit with ham (supposed to be the best ham anywhere) was ok but cold and not served with any salad or gravy so dry, and the Jambalaya wasn't as good as first time. Hey ho.

The afternoon is spent exploring the French Quarter, starting off in Bourbon Street which is, as advertised, very tacky. However, it's a must do at least once to ensure you never want to come back through the street again. It stinks of stale booze. It will probably look much better in the evening but even so we are surprised that there isn't much music playing. What we do notice is how many more street sleepers and beggars there are here, both black and white folk.

The streets away from Bourbon Street are more attractive with galleries, art shops etc and less neon, and the houses are very French with elaborate iron balustrading on each floor and many still have the decorations left up from Mardi Gras and St Patricks Day Definitely party central......... One of the nicest places on Bourbon street is at the far end – a pub frequented by locals and some tourists - Lafitte Blacksmith’s; allegedly a place with no electricity – which is crap – but it perpetuates this myth by lighting the place with candles in the evening which gives it a great atmosphere.

They have a Harrah’s Casino and shopping complex at the end of Canal Street and the Riverfront. Not our thing – tried Las Vegas and that was enough.

The main architectural designs in New Orleans are Creole Cottages – very colourful and of wooden construction, Creole Town Houses with arched windows and which differ from American Town houses as they have 3 stories not 2, Raised Centre-Hall Cottages similar to French Plantation houses, Shotgun Houses (a long story but stupid) and Double Gallery Houses – unique to NO. It makes for a good mix that looks eclectic and attractive.

In the heart of the area is the St Louis Catholic Cathedral fronted by Jackson Park, which looks very impressive. The Park is pretty nice with spring in the air and flowers in bloom. The park railings are covered in art displayed by local artists and makes the scene even more colourful. There's a square between the Park & the cathedral which is taken up with many clairvoyants (mainly women?), and musicians come and busk here. On the opposite side is access to the riverfront area and the Mighty Mississippi (with obligatory steamboat of course – not that we try it as we are a bit sceptical of American kitsch and tacky tours with little or no substance).

As it's nearly 5-00pm we decide to head straight to Lafayette square for the music and its great! It's free entry but you buy tickets for the food and drink and all profits go to support local community groups. We try Abita the local brew - initially 2 premium beers at $5 a time and then C comes up trumps - she finds some tickets and manages to wangle 2 beers from the guy for $4 - not sure how??

We see 2 acts - both good, but the jazz band was awesome. They also play in front of Jackson Park. If it hadn't been so cold we definitely would have stayed for the whole evening. All in all a good intro to NO!

Returning to the hostel we get chatting to a mixed group of fellow travellers; a young woman from Kolkata studying in the US and in NO on her Spring Break, some Dutch girls, George and an Aussie woman (definitely from the Outback in looks and sound) and an African American (Jamaican heritage) woman (full of life) here for a Conference. It makes for lively conversation until we decide we better eat - our leftovers from last night, and then bed.

It's getting warmer gradually but despite the weather forecast the sun doesn't quite come out so we spend a bit of time catching up with emails and admin. We've read about another free jazz in the Park event - this time at Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme area; the area that's predominantly African American. So we head over, visiting the St Louis Cemetery Number 1 on the way. Again the tombs are above ground due to shallow water levels and it's a very much more French affair from the names, and many of the tombstones are written in French too. One tomb is notable as it may, or may not be, that of Marie Laveau. Legend has it that she was known as the Voodoo Queen (not sure if the mystery is meant to support all the haunted Cemetery tour agendas or just poor record keeping 200 years ago). Anyway she clearly started a trend of sorts and a few lengends along the way……… However, she was a real person, she lived in the French Quarter and had many rich & connected clients and was pretty powerful as a result. The grave is covered in crosses which are meant to be put there for your wishes to come true. If it does you need to place various gifts at the graveside.

Voodoo came from the mixing of the Catholic Religion with African beliefs and rituals, brought over by the slaves particularly those from West Africa and Haiti. The Voodoo connection plays a big part in the marketing of NO now including various mask and images in Mardi Gras and quite a few tacky looking Voodoo stores in the Quarter.

As we meander through the French Quarter to the Jazz in Armstrong Park we wonder how come we can't hear all the music. It's not on! Curses to the local tourist mag that promoted it badly. However, it is a nice park with some great sculptures of jazz musicians including of course old Satchmo himself whom the park is named after. There's also a sculpture of the most recent Pocahontas - a guy who took on the role of the chief of chiefs of the American Indians in the parades, in his Mardi Gras feathered outfit. It's an amazingly detailed piece of work.

One of the must do things in NO is to visit Cafe du Monde for coffee and beignets (basically sweet doughnuts with no hole in them, but over dusted with icing sugar. Beignets in NO come in all forms not just sweet - stuffed with meat, fish, seafood etc. More of that later). They do taste pretty good but the queues for them are ridiculous and definitely not something to try to go to over a weekend when the line goes round the block.

Its Rouses again for dinner stuff and we try tortillas and refried beans and fish - not our best effort we have to admit. However, there's more chatting round the table; the travellers definitely seem more communicative here. There are a couple guys attending a conference from India, there's a young Vietnamese guy who keeps offering everyone vodka shots and spends his evening getting smashed but very friendly, a local guy who has taken refuge in the Hostel for a few days, and there are a lot of young women from Browns in Providence up North on their Spring break - many ended up here without knowing others who were coming here from the same school.

The Next day it's literally pissing down with rain all day. It was worse than a Monsoon shower. C goes down a few blocks to get her haircut as she has got to that stage where she drives both herself and M mad as a few wisps of hair might be getting close to her eyes. (M has a new name for her: - "Sheldon” after Prof Sheldon Cooper the geek from 'Big Bang Theory'😉. The cut is actually done with a razor! And pretty good it is too. But by the time she comes out, Flash floods have occurred, folk are wading through the streets with their shoes off and she gets soaked on the way back. It finally stops early evening, so we head out for a walk to check out some local eating spots and decide to go to Katie's a few blocks away. It was featured on Triple D the food programme anchored by Guy Fieri. After a miserable day we decide a treat is in order even though Katie's was a bit pricey.

After having to queue - the norm for all good eating establishments in the US it seems, it looks like we made a Good Call! We have Awesome seafood beignet (actually pizza base but v light) stuffed with seafood in spicy sauce, oysters chargrilled on the BBQ with bacon and shrimp and cheese sauce - best we have ever had, followed by baby back ribs to share, cooked in blackberry BBQ sauce with mashed potato and steamed veg all washed down with a glass of Merlot (wine being a luxury for us on the trip). Best meal we've had in the US by a long way. A bit pricey by backpacker standards but good value by UK prices.

We then head to Chickie Wah Wah just down the road from the Hostel. It's a jazz club and has a more neighbourhood feel than some of the crap ones in the Quarter. However, it's $8 entry and as it's a bit quiet we decide to leave it for another night. Unfortunately luck isn't with us and when we do go back there's a duo playing - French Fairport Convention style but in French! Nice but we were hoping for jazz or blues so don't stay.

The night experiences another massive thunder & lightning storm and 'Sheldon' is not amused while M sleeps through it - till she wakes him up..........Women!

Next day sunshine is promised again but doesn't materialise until lunchtime. Then it becomes really nice & warm. Having tried unsuccessfully to renew our SIM & data card we head down to the AT&T store and are advised that for the pre-paid plan we want we would have to go to Walgreens & buy a new gift card which could then be used for credit on the mobile account. This is the easy bit, but then we are told that the gift card needs time for the funds (in this case $25 for 3 months and 1 Gig data) to go onto the gift card. It's an Amex Gift card which says clearly no more fees - other than the $3.95 we have to pay Walgreens for purchasing the card....... You can see where this is leading?

We allow a few hours for the card to activate then head back to store. C is glad we did as she had threatened to do the transaction herself. At the store the Sales Agent couldn't load the plan and after 5 tries we discover it's because Amex have taken $1 off the credit each time we tried so we end up having to call Amex (Call Centre in Delhi India) to get a refund and AT&T (Call Centre in Oklahoma) at the same time - one mobile with C and other with M - to make sure it goes on. What a faff. After 1.5 hrs we have lift off.

Later we go to the riverfront for a walk then on to the French Market area, which is very touristy and has a statue of St Joan of Arc in gold in front of it on a horse. The key to understanding the city is that NOLA was established by the French and this Gallic heritage is still strong even though the Spanish ruled the area for a time. All the streets in the French Quarter still have their Spanish names on the side (superseded by their American counterpart now).

At the end of the French Market area we find a food festival in full flow with lovely music coming from various corners and a couple performing in a square. We choose some great fried chicken from Gus's of Memphis (another food establishment which claims to be ‘World Famous'! A lot of food places seem to use this label liberally it seems and who’s to challenge them! It seems to be the American way!). We also try some fantastic Confit duck with rocket (arugula to the Americans) in a Po'boy (sandwich roll to us in the UK) washed down with Abita Amber beer.

We also take another wander around the French Quarter area and along Esplanade Ave - allegedly the loveliest street here according to our LP guide, though we disagree; it's not that special. The adjoining streets & houses however, are more interesting going into the neighbouring Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood. This is the trendy part of town which is more authentic middle income NO. It's very colourful and attractive. The main drag is Frenchmen Street which is recommended for an evening trip with quite a few bars and clubs with live music. The music varies from blues and rock to swing jazz. Not quite what one would expect from the alleged 'Jazz Capital of The World'. The main ones are Blue Nile, DBA, Maison - which we liked, Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor & Bistro. Many have a cover charge as its Saturday. Next to the Spotted Cat is Frenchman Art Market which looks cool lit up with fairy lights and an illuminated 3 piece suite (!) at night; it sells different types of stuff, and is quite funky.

Thanks to the recommendation of Ann Woodward - we met her in Jordan and through the wonders of Facebook have kept in touch; we head for Dinner at Port of Call on Esplanade. They do a great drink or knock out juice - Neptune Monsoon – 2 rums & fruit punch cocktail for $10. With a burger to share served with baked potato & soured cream. Not bad. It’s small and has a local feel – many locals come for a drink and a take out. For a table it’s an hour and 20mins wait but we agree to eat at the bar & get taken care of pretty quick.

Walking back through Bourbon Street at night it is as Ann described, a bit of a train wreck. We're not sure why folk go there other than to get hammered. No decent music either. Loads of shouting from folk up on balconies who have colourful necklaces they are throwing down at folk on the ground; why?? Loads of drunk folk staggering around (mainly women who can’t hold their liquor). It’s also a place for hen do's (a lot more low key than in the UK) – not quite sure why they choose this as a location. There are a few clubs – quite a few pole dancing or sex clubs and a male stripper joint as well (all within 50 yards of each other!!) And some women/families out with babies in buggies at 10pm! Crazy world.

Happily the weather improves for our final two days in NO, and we get to revisit some of the places we went to before: the Garden District which has some even more amazing houses in the side streets than we'd seen before, very elegant American Victorian, and absolutely huge. Nicolas Cage apparently had a pad here and ‘The strange life and Times of Benjamin Button’ was filmed here. We revisit Lafayette Cemetery too as its sunny; Louis Armstrong Park; French Market (which has a lovely cafe called EnVie we visit a few times); the riverfront; Jackson Square and finally the Cathedral which inside is very much homage to St Louis, King of France.

We also get to experience more great food though! We do lunch at Ruby Slipper near the hostel where they do awesome biscuits with debris (the bits that fall off a roast joint into the gravy) with poached eggs, and cheesy grits with catfish, shrimps and poached egg. Really good and the 15 min wait was only 5 before we got served.

On our last day there we take a wander along Magazine Street as it's supposed to be 4 miles of shops and galleries. Most of the end near Canal Street seems to be parking lots however, so we give up and head to Lucy's for a beer. Good call - its happy hour and baseball is showing live on TV. This is in the Warehouse/Art District.

For our final day’s lunch we go to Cochon Butcher (another recommendation by Ann) – its next door to the fancy restaurant Cochon, both of which are owned by Chef Donald Links. We try a Muffaletta - layers of home cooked meats and salami with provolone cheese and Olive salad in a very large bun ($13 for a whole one - enough for 2). It is fabulous and we would love to have it again but time is not on our side. They also have some amazing looking marinated Brussels sprouts which we don't try but wished we had. Actually all their food looks great and the crowds are there to prove its deserved reputation. We might get the chef’s cook book or some of his recipes…. If in town Do Not Miss This Place!!!

What becomes apparent to us is that the main places of interest other than the Katrina wrecked neighbourhoods now restored, are within a relatively small area of NO. The Mercedes Benz Superdome where the victims of Katrina were housed is pretty impressive near the Amtrak/Greyhound Terminal.

The city does however, punch above its weight and seems to have a host of festivals around music (Blues, Jazz, Satchmo, even Raggae, etc), food (BBQ, Creole, Seafood, Oyster, Shrimp, Crawfish, Greek, etc) and culture (Art, Film, Treme, French Quarter, etc) all year long. The next big gig is the Jazz and Heritage Festival 2014 which we unfortunately miss, headliners include Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and Christina Aguilera etc etc - not sure they are all known for their Jazz credentials though.......??

Will we be back? We don't think so ......It's fair to say though, we definitely had some great food in NO - amongst the best we've had in the US so far.

But it’s off to Texas …. BBQ Capital of the World they claim……..again.

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8th April 2014

A fine American City
You've enjoyed some great food and sights. Makes us want to go back. May have to do that soon!

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