New Orleans was one of the biggest surprises of my six week tour of the USA. From friends visiting for Mardi Gras to the destruction on the news from Hurricane Katrina and books set against the backdrop of the city, I had heard a lot of stories. A heady mix of cultures, jazz and southern hospitality was on the cards and I couldn’t wait to see New Orleans for myself.
My tour of Louisiana had started in Lafayette, the most humid place I have ever been in my life. Home to some very ancient looking and pretty large dino-bugs, which love to hide in corners of tent folds by the way. It was completely different to the last state of Texas and I loved the heat and wildness of it all. We had spent the time exploring the swamps which were pretty in their own way. Drifting through the bayous with draping mossy branches of cypress trees, lazily spotting alligators had been a happy way to spend the afternoon, (alligators really do like marshmallows FYI).
The following day we headed down to the hazy city of New Orleans, where we had the luxury of a two night stay in a townhouse to look forward to. You really do appreciate things like sturdy walls, electric lighting and armchairs when you have been on the move for a while. After throwing my things into my chosen bedroom, it was time to head out with our guide to explore the French Quarter.
Born from the ashes of civil war, floods, hurricanes and two great fires, today’s New Orleans has a fascinating mix of French, African, Spanish and American roots. Founded by the French in the 18th century, the colonial influence is still evident in the architecture of the French quarter, even among the bright lights of Bourbon street.
Known by many for its Mardi Gras celebrations, Bourbon street is the main tourist area for those seeking lazy drinks during the day or heated fun at night. To me, the bars and clubs seemed to be just the surface of the nightlife. As you walk the streets you get a real sense of this with smoky bars full of dark corners and candlelit tables. People standing in conversation and shapes of those dancing in between. It is on the verge of a tourist town gone wrong, and reminds me of the bars in the movie Sin City.
Music is a huge part of the culture here and the sound of live music echoing from doorways was fantastic. It is an immersive experience to be sure and one I enjoyed, but I couldn’t help feeling like I stood out as a stranger to the city. We had all been warned not to drink too much or wander outside of the French quarter and I feel like this is sound advice. After a long night and an eventful taxi ride home, (we had to open our doors for the driver to stop the car), I was glad to get back to the house for sleep.
After a delicious breakfast of coffee and beignets from Cafe Du Monde, we walked the short distance to Jackson square for a look at the Cathedral before making our way to the mighty Mississippi river. Did you know that boats still capsize in the river every year due to changes in the undercurrents? Thankfully I did not, and hopped aboard the Natchez steamboat for a harbour cruise without hesitation. For those wishing for a taste of elegant southern life, the steamboats are a dream. Relaxing on the chair deck with tables set for afternoon tea and upbeat jazz playing, it feels like you have stepped back into the 1920s.
As full on as New Orleans is at night, it is just as laid back during the day. It is so warm that there is no appetite for rushing or disturbance, making this a perfect time to take in the sights. Strolling through the streets you can admire the architectural influence of the French Quarter and seek out the rows of pretty pastel houses with shuttered windows. When hunger strikes, head indoors for some Cajun cuisine – gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya, fried chicken and po-boys are all choice favourites.
New Orleans has survived its fair share of difficult times. Through slave trade and civil war, the city stood strong as a hardy place full of its loyal citizens. New Orleans is full of families that have survived together, with homes and businesses built in layers over each other. Cemetery crypts and life stories handed down through generations. I loved that unsquashable spirit and feeling of community history as we wandered about. I don’t think there is one person there today who wouldn’t defend their home to the last, if threatened.
And speaking of spirits….New Orleans has more than its fair share of those! Rather than shying away, the city embraces its supernatural aura with ghost, voodoo and cemetery tours aplenty. Yes the stories are embellished on, but most are based on fact. So leave your sceptical brain at home and join one of the night-time walking tours as a fun, alternative way to see the French quarter. Read Tales of Terror from New Orleans to find out about some of the unnerving stories I heard on a tour.
New Orleans welcomes you into its past and its present. Full of colourful characters, legendary stories, unusual history and creole hospitality, New Orleans is a place that lingers in your mind long after you leave it’s sultry streets.
While I enjoyed my time in New Orleans, it was full of warnings from local people. Only drink one hurricane. Don’t go near the cemeteries on your own. Try to stay away from the main road into the city. Don’t wander off on your own. Most of these were common sense, but it’s clear that New Orleans appears to be a place for the more seasoned traveller. That said, I would jump at the chance to go back to see more. On my hit list would be visiting some of the historic plantations around New Orleans and snapping up a space on one of the cemetery tours, as well as taking an air boat tour back to the swamps.