New Orleans was everything I imagined it to be. Pastel pink streets, debaucherous groups of roaming travelers, jazz music flowing endlessly from every bar, and the kind of oppressive sticky heat that forces you to run to the nearest watering hole for a cool glass of Sazerac, the cityâ€™s official drink.
My media trip very much dictated my time in New Orleans, which Iâ€™m actually very grateful for. Surely if I had shown up with a group of my hooligan friends, weâ€™d sleep â€˜til noon everyday nursing our hangovers and miss all the best stuff.
Start a morning with beignets
I know, Iâ€™m starting with the most obvious: beignets at Cafe du Monde. But I canâ€™t stress enough just how tasty these little lumps of deep-fried powdered sugar donuts are. Cafe du Monde is the only place to go. Itâ€™s legendary, and itâ€™s no frills. The menu has all of five items. We all know youâ€™re ordering beignets.
We showed up at 8 am to beat the crowds. By 9, the line-up was around the corner. But for one sacred, blissful hour the city was quiet and still. The man out front hadnâ€™t yet started playing his tuba. Traffic was mild. My only distractions were an elderly couple who spent 45 minutes perfecting a selfie, and a younger couple in the throes of a wild argument.
Learning to love jazz
I didnâ€™t know I was a jazz fan until I walked into my hotel room at The Jung to hear the most soulful song blaring from the radio. The station was WWOZ New Orleans, and I listened to it for the duration of my stay. Iâ€™m listening to it right now.
Later that evening I and the other journalists wandered into the Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street. It was a shock to the system, leaving the sensory overload of loud pop music and giant drinks and men hooting about Mardi Gras beads, and then coming into a quiet jazz bar. Nayo Jones was performing and I had a front-row seat. Iâ€™m told this place and The Spotted Cat are two of the best in the city for live music (Howlinâ€™ Wolf is another). The New Orleans tourism website has a great up-to-date events listing, and WWOZ has an impressive live music calendar.
A cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking
I was so nervous about this cooking class. Cooking is something Iâ€™ve only become interested in within the last year, and my technique is something of a sloppy drunk kid trying to boil pasta. I claimed the most confident cook in my group, and we got busy making Crab Ravigote, Meat Pies, Alligator Piquante, Rice, and Bread Pudding.
Our chef was a brazen and comical man named Ricardo, who told us to spank the alligator meat lightly to dry it off. Somehow (maybe it was the free wine?) I managed to do pretty well (with everything, not just the spanking), and Ricardo seemed pleased. In the end, we all sat down to an enormous feast fit for kings, and with all the tedious work out of the way, we had a relaxed, friendly dinner.
(If youâ€™re wondering, cooking with alligator is an awful lot like cooking with chicken.)
Iâ€™m a little ashamed to say that rather than do a bike tour of the city (I was way too intimidated) I opted for a little tax-free shopping at Canal Place. The experience was â€œmehâ€ but I did end up with a few nice shirts to bring back home. All you have to do is ask the cashier for a voucher and then bring your voucher (along with passport) to a refund centre. Thereâ€™s one at the airport and one in Canal Place as well.
Not all shops offer tax-free shopping though, so pick up a free guide at any visitor centre and youâ€™ll find your options.
Riding the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar
I didnâ€™t expect to enjoy this activity as much as I did. Before dinner one night, we hopped on the old St. Charles Avenue Streetcar from Canal Street to Uptown New Orleans. The streetcar is a relic from a bygone era, with exposed ceiling bulbs and mahogany seats and a driver who seems to belong in the 1920s. All the windows are wide open, and Iâ€™m amazed no one forewarned us of potential decapitation if we stuck our heads out.
I didnâ€™t just gawk at the mansions — the people watching opportunities were delightful. A crowd of stunning women dressed head to toe in yellow dominated most of the seats at the front of the tram. The driver engaged in loud banter with everyone who came onboard. The fare for the streetcar is $1.25, making it one of the cheapest ways to have fun in New Orleans.
Eating all of the food
I have an entire blog post dedicated to eating food in Louisiana, but not focussed solely on New Orleans. If I were going to suggest two must-dos, itâ€™d be the charbroiled oysters at Dragoâ€™s, and brunch at the legendary Brennanâ€™s. Itâ€™s where I had the life-altering eggs cardinal, consisting of poached eggs with crispy shrimp boudin, lobster cardinal, and black truffle hollandaise.
Another memorable meal: after stepping off the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar we headed to dinner at the Jack Rose inside the Pontchartrain Hotel, where we were greeted with a giant portrait of Lâ€™il Wayne, complete with gold grillz. Hipster-esque, but the meal was high-end. I had the baked Brussels sprouts, and the shrimp and okra gumbo.
Oddly enough, my favourite meal occurred when I wasnâ€™t even hungry in the slightest — the same morning as the beignets. Our guide took us to the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater area where we had brunch at Paloma Cafe. Itâ€™s a quirky kind of cafe where the waitresses walk around with buns placed firmly in the centre of their heads and everyone looks like theyâ€™re wearing burlap. I had no idea what to order, so I went with the French toast with a side of fried chicken, covered in a kind of praline syrup. I canâ€™t even explain how incredible this dish was. I wasnâ€™t even a tiny bit hungry and I devoured it like a starving person.
Weâ€™ll stop there. I could go on forever about food.
Getting a history lesson in drinking
One afternoon, we took part in a Drink and Learn walking tour of the French Quarter with Elizabeth Pearce. (Unfortunately, it was just a sampler of the full tour, but Iâ€™d sign up for this in a heartbeat if I get to go back. Pearce is delightful.)
Elizabeth led us through the French Quarter, giving us a history of the city intertwined with its history with alcohol — mainly, how it all started with sugar. At the Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone we paused for a Sazerac: a combination of Cognac and bitters made by Antoine Peychaud. Itâ€™s the official cocktail of New Orleans, and every ingredient is connected to the city. (And yes, the carousel bar rotates as a carousel does.)
On the full tour, there are many more stops. I imagine Elizabethâ€™s job is a fun one.
Bourbon Street is the legendary boozebag spot, famous because you can patrol the length of the street with alcohol in hand. Itâ€™s rarely quiet. No one in my group was much inclined to spend time here, but we strolled through it one evening to get a little taste. Walking through here is an exercise in patience.
Personally, I preferred Frenchmen Street. It has all the joyous atmosphere of Bourbon Street but with less chaos and less annoying behaviour. Itâ€™s artsy, or at least it tries to be. I remember a glitter-covered sidewalk leading to a young girl sitting at a table writing poetry, her head cocked to the side and a faraway look in her eyes.
We watched some live music in the street before moving on to the Art Market. If I had a bottomless purse, Iâ€™d buy everything. But even the gorgeous painted mugs that kept catching my eye cost $80 apiece. Still, I felt pretty comfortable among my people.
Mardi Gras World
Mardi Gras World was another pleasant surprise. This facility is where all the magic behind Mardi Gras takes place. Itâ€™s a 250,000 square foot warehouse where you get to watch builders, designers, and artists working on their enormous, colourful floats. Itâ€™s pretty jaw-dropping to see in action. You also get to see thousands of completed floats stored here.
Fun fact: each float weighs about 21 tons and costs about $50,000 to make.
Taking the tour actually made me want to come back for Mardi Gras, which is something Iâ€™ve been completely uninterested in. (Turns out Iâ€™m not a festival person.)
You can do a tour too. Mardi Gras World is open every day from 9 am to 5:30 pm, with the last tour being at 4:30 pm. The tour costs $22! Plus you get some beads and a sampler of King Cake at the end.
Faubourg Marigny and Bywater
This is really the only other neighbourhood I got to experience while in town, and Iâ€™m glad I did. The Creole architecture here is pretty amazing: all the homes and buildings are painted in eccentric colours, like lime green shutters on hot pink exteriors. Each front step was decorated in elaborate ironwork.
Itâ€™s also hipster central (I mentioned Paloma Cafe, right?). Iâ€™m told you have to try the praline bacon at Elizabethâ€™s Cafe. Itâ€™s the kooky looking building covered in paintings, with a sign out front saying â€œReal Food Done Good.â€ When youâ€™re done all that, go peruse the wares at Euclid Records shop. You canâ€™t miss it — itâ€™s bright pink.
Staying at The Jung Hotel
The Jung Hotel is likely somewhere I couldnâ€™t afford on a personal trip (although at about $156 a room, it isnâ€™t horribly out of range), but it was one of my favourite hotel experiences ever. The rooms are enormous; you could fit an entire apartment in the bathroom. I drank wine, watched TV, rolled around in my king-sized bed, and pretended for a few days that I was a rich self-made woman akin to Kylie Jenner.
This is the NOLA that I saw on a very brief trip. Iâ€™m not ignorant to the cityâ€™s troubles. My friend Emily told me that while she lived in the city for five years, she was the only person she knew who had never been robbed with a weapon. Stay out of the darkness, friends! But youâ€™ll love New Orleans. Honestly, just roaming the streets through the French Quarter and around Jackson Square would have kept me satisfied for the duration of my stay.