Madame Lily Devalier always asked “Where are you?” in a way that insinuated that there were only two places on earth one could be: New Orleans and somewhere ridiculous. — Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
One of my first memories of New Orleans is reading the Tom Robbins novel, Jitterbug Perfume— but ‘memory’ is not the right word. Maybe ‘encounter’ is better. Or ‘introduction’. Considering that I’m talking about a Robbins novel about immortality, Pan and perfume, I’m tempted to use ‘preface’, ‘prologue’ or ‘preamble’. Robbins took me through the streets of New Orleans accompanied by a mysterious Jamaican beet salesman and his helmet of swarming bees. His name was Bingo Pajama. And ever since reading that book, I’ve wanted to visit this enchanting city.
Thirty years later, we did. 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of my brain injury and this year I made up my mind against returning to Las Vegas. I wanted to travel someplace new, some place I had never seen before. After considering a number of possible new destinations– including some overseas– we narrowed the field of possible destinations to the Florida Keys and New Orleans. I decided for New Orleans. I’m so very glad that I did. We had a fantastic time.
Once more, Farmboy and Princess joined Whirl and me for the trip. We stayed at the historic Roosevelt Hotel. Originally built in 1893 as the Hotel Grunewald, the hotel has seen a great deal of New Orleans’ history. The Grunewald was sold in 1923. New owners renamed it the Roosevelt Hotel in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s efforts building the Panama Canal had tremendous financial benefits for the city. In 2005, the hotel was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and closed indefinitely. During the closure, the hotel was sold, underwent complete renovations and modernizations. Much of the public areas– notably the lobby and the Sazerac Bar– were restored to the look of grand days of the hotel in the 30s and 40s. The Roosevelt Hotel reopened in 2009.
We began by listing things we wanted to see. We talked to friends and relatives for suggestions. Whirl works with a museum curator who is a New Orleans native. Through that contact, we received an extensive summary and advice. It was a start. By the end of a week or so the list had grown. By the time we landed in Louisiana, it looked something like this:
FOOD AND DRINK
- Acme Oyster House
- Cafe Du Monde
- Central Grocery and Deli
- Commander’s Palace
- Fiorella’s Cafe
- Gumbo Shop
- Jacques-Imo’s Café
- PJ’s Coffee
- Parkway Bakery & Tavern
- Sazerac Bar
- Slim Goodies Diner
- Verti Marte
- Wink’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery
- Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium
- Audubon Park
- Backstreet Cultural Museum
- Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World
- Buckner Mansion
- Crescent City Books
- French Market
- French Quarter
- Garden District
- Pearl River Eco-Tours
- Holt Cemetery
- Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church
- Jackson Square
- Krewe du Vieux
- Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
- Langlois Culinary Crossroads
- Magazine Street
- Maple Leaf Bar
- Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo
- Ogden Museum of Southern Art
- St. Charles Street Car
- St. Louis Cathedral
- St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
- The Moon Walk
- Blue Nile
- Frenchmen Street
- Hi-Ho Lounge
- Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar
- Preservation Hall
- Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro
- The Roosevelt Hotel
Twenty-one restaurants. Twenty-five cultural attractions. Seven music venues. One hotel. Four nights. Five days. It was pretty obvious we weren’t going to get to everything on the list. And we didn’t. But we did manage to do quite a bit while we were there and came away from the trip thinking we’d really managed to see something of the city.
While it had been our intention to visit some venues for music, we never did quite make that work exactly that way. But what I can say is that music– live music– was everywhere. From the street musicians in the French Quarter, to different two- and three-piece bands in the hotel lounge every night to the piano player to the jazz three-piece at Commander’s Palace during brunch. Music was everywhere you went. And as much as I would have liked to seek it out explicitly, it still found me.
We arrived mid-morning on Wednesday to clear skies. It was apparent looking out the window that we were somewhere new. Even in winter, with much of the greenery gone, this was a different place. I thought maybe I had seen the Mississippi snaking along. I was wrong. It was one of any number of rivers and streams flowing through the area. We were out of the airport and quickly on our way to the Roosevelt. Checked in and looking for lunch. Off to the French Quarter.
While the hotel is not directly in the French Quarter, it is only a block away on the south side of Canal Street. We found New Orleans quite walkable. So we walked into the quarter looking for The Gumbo Shop— and right into Bourbon Street cliché. For the six blocks we walked along, I felt that perhaps we had made a horrible mistake in coming here. This was kitch and commercialism and no more interesting than any tired bar with dollar shots and tight t-shirts. Then we turned onto St. Peter Street and into a period film production underway outside Preservation Hall. A half block away from Bourbon and the entire vibe changed. It was a whole different place. And it was fantastic.
The Gumbo Shop served as our entry into what became really an eating tour of New Orleans. I mentioned that we did a lot while we were here but we ate even more. And every meal was fantastic, starting with this one and the one immediately after. Coincidental to our trip, Princess’ parents were in town for a conference and had made arrangements for the six of us to have dinner at Clancy’s that evening. So with that in mind, we took the remaining couple hours of the afternoon to explore. We headed down St. Peter Street, took a left and discovered rows of fortune tellers and artists lined up. Whirl went to have her tarot read. Princess joined her. I turned around and suddenly realized I was standing in Jackson Square right in front of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France. That’s right. Sober, and with a belly full of gumbo I’d bumbled into the one Crescent City location I absolutely wanted to see– and I’d done it on accident.
While Whirl had her cards read, Farmboy and I went inside, and then wandered around Pirate and Pere Antoine Alleys beside the cathedral, eventually making our way across Decatur to the overlook of the river and the square. Princess and Whirl caught up with us after a while and we set back across the quarter exploring the shops along the way. I made a note of Cafe Du Monde for café au lait, beignets. For later.
Clancy’s with Princess’ parents meant more fantastic food and wine (baby drum with muddy waters sauce and shrimp, sweetbreads, bread pudding) after a long, slow cab ride from the hotel to the Audubon neighborhood. Our driver took us down St. Charles Avenue and we spent most of the trip admiring the antebellum mansions. We returned the next day, this time on the St. Charles streetcar to visit Magazine Street, take a guided tour of the Garden District before continuing on to the Carrollton Historic District for afternoon drinks at the Maple Leaf Bar and another fantastic dinner at Jacques-Imo’s (paneed rabbit with shrimp and tasso pasta, alligator cheesecake, fried boudin balls).
We wrapped up the evening with cocktails at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt. The four of us spent a couple hours talking with Andy, Andrew and Benji behind the bar. They made many delicious cocktails and capped off a great anniversary day with a flourish. Returning the Sazerac to its 1940s glory was one of the goals of the post-Katrina restoration work done on the hotel. Art deco decor, huge African walnut bar and the associated theater of serving absinthe.
Friday morning came early. We booked a swamp tour along the Pearl River and the Honey Island Swamp to the north of the city. For hours we slid along among the bones of the swamp– winter had pulled back much of the greenery, revealing the structure of the environment in a way that we would never have seen at other times of the year. And while wildlife was comparatively scarce, we did see herons, kingfishers, egrets, turtles, osprey, wild pigs and a raccoon. Most striking were the artifacts left in the swamp from Katrina. We cruised past shrimp boats from the gulf that had been lifted by the storm for over ten miles to be left, wrecked among the oak and cypress. A small hut still hung up in the branches ten years later.
Lunch was New Orleans staples: the muffaletta sandwich from Central Grocery followed by café au lait and beignets at Cafe Du Monde for dessert. (Told you we’d be back!) We waddled across the street for a second visit to St. Louis Cathedral before touring the The Presbytère. The Presbytère is part of the Louisiana State Museum and holds two permanent exhibits. “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” documents the disaster, the aftermath and ongoing recovery. “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” offers a window into the annual celebration rituals of Mardi Gras– parade floats, costumes, and glimpses into the secretive social club society from which modern-day Mardi Gras krewes evolved. Both were powerful, informative exhibits and well worth the time we spent in them, providing context and structure to the act of walking through living history.
When the museum closed, we found ourselves once more on Jackson Square and explored more of the French Quarter on our way back to the hotel. Princess collected at least half a dozen different samples in her attempt to discover the perfect praline. Whirl found some decorations for our kitchen back home. I had a tummy ache. That night was another great dinner. This time at the John Besh restaurant, Dominica in the Roosevelt Hotel (paneed pork chop with paprika aioli & pickled carrots, sweetbreads, roasted cauliflower, gianduja budino). By this point you’re likely detecting a theme. There were a number of bridal parties in the restaurant and we learned from our waiters that it was quite popular to get married in the church across the street and have receptions in the Roosevelt.
Saturday was filled with more culture, starting with a visit to the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. This was more than appropriate given the amount of work Whirl does in the Insects department at the Field Museum. Several of her coworkers encouraged her to visit the Insectarium. Once she knew of it, there was no way we were going to miss it. The museum did not disappoint. Fantastic displays and an engaging staff marked this as one of the highlights of the trip. Farmboy commented that this was his very favorite item on the list.
We walked north along the Moon Walk to the bustling French Market. It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to try a French Fry po-boy sandwich. I found one along with some delicious beer, fried pickles and fried chicken at Fiorella’s Cafe. For dessert– and, as it turned out, dinner– buttermilk drops from Wink’s Bakery.
We hustled across the French Quarter to tour the Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church that afternoon. I am so very glad we did. It is one of the most singularly beautiful churches I have ever seen. A volunteer from the parish took us through the building and up into the choir balcony before the afternoon mass. I shot what I could, quickly and quietly, to try and capture the grandeur of the building. It was very clear to me why this church is such a popular wedding location.
You may be asking, “But why did you skip dinner Saturday night?” Simple answer: Krewe du Vieux. The first parade of the Mardi Gras season was Saturday night and we did not want to miss it. I know, the sacrifices we make for satire. Krewe du Vieux is the only krewe allowed to parade through the French Quarter. All floats are small, drawn by hand or mule. All the music is from live bands.
“With its theme ‘Krewe du Vieux Begs for Change,’ the group pondered a city, state and nation wrestling with transitions everywhere. What it found were confusing education mandates (with teachers of dubious moral character), dysfunctional city services, a bankrupting health care system, and legalized gay marriage (’50 States of Gay’) and marijuana (‘Toke of the Town’) sweeping the nation.” —David Lee Simmons
We met Art and Emily at the parade and spent the time before the arrival talking and joking around with them: comparing notes. It was also while we were waiting for the parade to begin that we learned of Winter Storm Linus– our flights back home Sunday night had been canceled. The storm was dumping nineteen inches of snow on the city. All flights into anywhere in the Midwest were grounded for the next twenty-four hours. But by this point in our trip we knew there were much worse places in the world to be stranded. Everyone we met knew it too.
After the parade we retired back to the hotel and tried to contact the airlines to look into alternate flights. That was fruitless. The best we managed was to arrange for a response at some ambiguous time later that evening– two hours or more. So it was back to Sazerac Bar. It was going to be a long night. Airline robots honored their promise and called us back with new travel arrangements. They were diligent calling us every ninety minutes or so starting at about 1:00 AM until 6:30 AM Sunday morning. Made for a good night’s sleep.
We were booked on an early morning flight Monday through Charlotte, NC. Princess and Farmboy were booked on an even earlier flight through Miami. Whirl and I decided to stay put at the Roosevelt. Princess and Farmboy decided to book a room at a hotel by the airport. And with those arrangements made we thought of things to do on our extra day in New Orleans, Superbowl Sunday.
With a bit of “positive mental attitude” the concierge arranged a reservation for the four of us for the Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace. It proved to be the highlight meal of the trip: turtle soup, commander’s salad, cochon de lait eggs Benedict, pecan crusted gulf fish, black angus sirloin and egg, sugarcane & black pepper bacon, buttermilk biscuits, creole bread pudding soufflé, southern style pecan pie. It was delicious. Service was excellent. A three-piece band moved throughout the restaurant playing requests: trumpet, banjo, stand-up bass. After the meal we spent some more time in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 before making our way back down St. Charles Avenue and the hotel.
A brief detour to the casino on Canal and we were spent. Filled, content, happy and sleepy. We said our farewells. Princess and Farmboy headed for the airport hotel. Whirl and I settled into the lounge at the Roosevelt to watch the football game. The hotel had set up a couple televisions in the lounge and a small group of twenty people or so watched it together. By the time the third quarter began, we retired up to our room, watched the exciting finale, packed and turned in. Morning would come early and I was uncertain exactly what to expect for the leg home.
But as it turned out, everything went perfectly. No delays. No complications. We were home from a wonderful, fulfilling– and very filling– trip to the Big Easy.