I’ll take things a 40 year old might do in New Orleans, Alex…
New Orleans at Mardi Gras, no matter how exhilarating to some, is simply not my scene. I’m not a huge fan of crowds, nor do I suffer any aching empty feeling caused by the tragic lack of plastic beads in my life. That being said, I did always want to visit The Big Easy, and finally last week my husband Mike and I made it down there. I really wanted to go before whatever this grudge Mother Nature has against that poor city made visiting impossible. So, for what it is worth, if you are thinking of going to New Orleans, here is how two forty-somethings made the trip.
We checked into Le Pavillion (covered in my review of that hotel to be posted in this blog tomorrow) and immediately decided to walk to Bourbon Street like good little tourists. As we started our walk, we quickly realized that our flight had clearly been accidentally diverted to the Surface of the Sun. Even in May, trotting out in the jeans we’d worn on the plane turned out to be about as bright as a BP executive in charge of the oil cleanup. I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West after getting hit the bucket of water about five minutes into the walk. Infuriatingly, the locals (to whom we whined in the hopes of getting sympathy) to the letter insisted “this isn’t even hot!” darling, batshit crazy people that they are.
The jeans also made us easily recognizable as a potential target to a gentleman named Dave we met on Canal street. Actually, I don’t know if we met him, per se. There we were walking down the street and in the blink of an eye there we were hunkered over a Dave-provided map sweating our asses off and chatting away like old war buddies. He told us all the ways to save money and all the things we needed to do during our stay. Clearly he had positioned himself as our private tour guide, for which we ultimately tipped him – which I’m sure was his point. I thought his advice was very good and he was friendly as hell. Mike on the other hand spent the whole time twirling around like nervous ninja waiting for Dave’s imagined partner to pickpocket us, but the guy didn’t take $20 from us, we gave it to him. He didn’t even ask for it. Though I suspect he would have continued spouting advice until one of us reached for our wallet.
One of Dave’s recommendations was to go to nearby Huck Finn’s Restaurant for what he claimed was an amazing breakfast. Unfortunately, by the time we said our goodbyes to Dave, Huck Finn’s had moved on to lunch. Disappointed and feeling like the diner-like cafe wasn’t really where we wanted to eat we were tempted to move on, but the air conditioning pulled us in like tractor beam. I ended up with one of my favorite meals of the trip – an alligator sausage sandwich. Mike had pulled pork, which he found delicious as well. By tourist town standards the prices were reasonable, just as old Dave promised.
We then went to the hotel to change into something that felt less like wearing a fur coat wrapped in a heating blanket during a Vietnam summer. We did some general milling about, hopped into the hotel’s pool and then wondered where we should have dinner. As they say – when in New Orleans, you are either thinking about where you are going to eat or you’re eating.
On a whim, we ended up at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen – Chef Paul Prudhomme’s authentic Cajun joint. You’d recognize him as the Dom Deluise look-alike on the Cajan seasonings in your local food store. I had fried eggplant with atchafalaya sauce and Mike had a decadent Blackened Stuffed Pork Chop Marchand de Vin stuffed with four different cheeses, because in New Orleans stuffing it with just ONE cheese would be laughable. Both were fantastic. The place wasn’t as nearly as tourist-trappy as I feared and we couldn’t stop talking about how glad we went there for the next three days.
On day two we took the obligatory carriage ride tour around the French Quarter. Hosted by our knowledgeable driver Howell, a retired history professor from the University of New Orleans, we very much enjoyed the overview of the local history. We had a choice between the $75 private tour and the $15 public tour and had no regrets on the public tour. True, you do have to wait until the carriage gathers six people, but sitting in the shade of the carriage awning was worth the price of admission alone. That being said, you could literally wring us both out by the end of the half hour tour, because no matter what the locals say, it is hot as a monkey’s ass in New Orleans in May.
After the tour we wandered on and around Bourbon Street interrupted only by a lengthy stop at Pat O’Brien’s, where we had to stop under local tourist law. I can’t say I’m a fan of the famous, but overly sweet Hurricanes, but I did have about six other various cocktails ranging from the classic Sazerac to milk punch to bourbon on the rocks. Yes, by all accounts I should have been shoveled off the ground after what I drank there, but for some reason when I’m on vacation I inherit superhuman powers and am impervious to becoming overly drunk, heartburn or any other debauchery-induced ailment. I don’t know what it is. In the grand scheme of things it’s a pretty lame superpower, but you go with what you get.
We were sitting next to two unfriendly fellows from Iowa, but luckily our bartender Craig was sort of like having Chandler from Friends wait on you, which made up for the cranky amateurs beside us milking their two beers. One noted our drinking habits and said a little two loudly: “I wish we could stay long enough to watch this trainwreck.” Which had me talking down Mike for the next 10 minutes. Trainwreck. Ha. Just because two Miller Lights put your on your ass there, Iowa, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a stiff drink or two.
Strolling in broad daylight with our 190 Octane slushy we marveled at the depravity of Bourbon Street. Even during the day, just walking down the street, you felt like you were in a strip club. Much of it smelled like those pockets of trash water you bump into behind any given city restaurant. While some people’s morning rituals include yoga or a cup of coffee, merchants here spend mornings rinsing barf off the streets. Posters of girls committing various “strange acts” posted brazenly on the street, drunks bumping into each other, hookers eyeing-up their marks – we saw it all and it wasn’t even dark yet. Come to think of it, we get up so early it wasn’t even noon yet.
We spent most of that day taking it easy by the pool and saving our appetites for Chef John Besh’s August, where we had reservations and about which we had heard many amazing things. Sadly, we didn’t have the time I hoped for there. The foamy seafood amuse bouche served in an eggshell was one of the most amazing things to ever touch my lips, but somehow my “sugar and spice duckling with stone ground grits, roasted duck foie gras and candied quince” and Mike’s pork just didn’t hit the mark. I’m sure it had more to do with our increasing exhaustion than anything the restaurant had done wrong, though the foie gras seemed a bit undercooked and Mike’s pork was just a tad overcooked. I think when you work a place up in your mind as much as I had with August, you’re just setting yourself up to be disappointed. It also probably had a lot to do with the collection of fried and sauced foods we’d been forced to eat for the previous 48 hours, which left us both hungry and permanently two bites away from full at all times. At some point during the trip I ordered an ice tea and it came to me deep fried and smothered in cream sauce.
The next day was the highlight of the trip – we took a swamp tour with Airboat Adventures. We were provided pickup right at our hotel and during the two hour airboat tour with our old-salt shrimp boat captain/tour guide Stevie we spotted a 12 foot monster gator and many, many smaller ones. Capt. Steve tossed the water dinosaurs marshmallows and even managed to balance one the big guy’s head. As we motored off, the last I saw “Hulk” he still had that marshmallow between his dead, reptilian eyes. We were able to touch a gator as well, and the swamp itself was beautiful. We wisely chose the smaller boat option ($20 extra) which only held us and a French couple who gave up trying to understand the Captain’s Louisiana accent almost immediately, leaving us feeling like Captain Steve’s only clients. I can only be grateful we got there when we did – the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil platform spill was due to arrive on the scene any day. The docked shrimp boats, unable to ply their trade, were heartbreaking.
Mike and I were due to depart late the next day, so we spent the morning having our beignet at Cafe Du Monde (if you live anywhere near Dutch people I can tell you it tastes exactly like a funnel cake) and taking a self guided tour of the Garden District. In other words, we left the Swamp Tour and continued our Swamp Butt Tour. By that time I felt like we’d hit everything we wanted to see, with the exception of enjoying some jazz down by Frenchman’s Street. Sadly, my mate doesn’t like jazz, so I let that list item go.
Given an extra day I probably would have finally talked Mike into seeing some Jazz with me, visited some museums and had a coronary. Not necessarily in that order.
By the last day I was wearing both Mike’s watch and his wedding ring due to a combination of fried food/booze/heat bloat that left him unable to wear any of it anymore for fear of losing a hand or digit to constricted blood flow. We did a lot of walking, but you’d have to walk to the moon and back to work off the fattening food and alcohol that calls your name like a fat, sloppy siren in that town.
And that’s how you can spend a trip to New Orleans if hitting the French Quarter at night doesn’t flip your cookie. Bring a stomach pump and a portable air conditioner.
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