The sights and sounds of NOLA

(Bryan Schuler is development director for Travois)

With millions upon millions of people visiting New Orleans each year, tourism is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry for the city.  So when the opportunity presented itself to go to NOLA for business, I jumped at the opportunity to tack on a few additional days in advance of my meetings to become a tourist.

I’d never been to New Orleans before so I was looking forward to making the trip.  Coincidentally my wife and I were looking for something to do for my birthday, and this trip was a perfect excuse to schedule a mini-weekend getaway.  We booked two nights at the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street (one street over from Bourbon Street) and two round-trip tickets on Delta, and were off…

Our hotel was in a perfect spot in the French Quarter with access to pretty much everything.  The first evening in the city we spent wandering the streets of the French Quarter mostly taking in the sights and sounds of Bourbon Street.
We visited some of the more well known establishments including Pat O’Brien’s, Tropical Isle, Cat’s Meow, Preservation Hall, and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop —the oldest bar in America.  At the recommendation of our hotel concierge, however, we passed by the 100+person line waiting to get into the Acme Oyster House and had dinner at the Oceana Grill, just a few steps off Bourbon Street along Conti Street.  The oysters as an appetizer were awesome and my dinner, crabmeat stuffed ahi tuna, was even better.

After dinner we enjoyed several of the street performing acts on our way to Decatur Street for some coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde. If you don’t know what a beignet is it’s a French donut that tastes incredible. With all of the powdered sugar it reminded me a funnel cake you’d get at a county fair or carnival.  Delicious.  I could eat six or seven easy.  Take note, however, if you plan on visiting Café Du Monde, they only take cash and you need to time your visit appropriately.  Don’t go in the morning or else you’ll be waiting in 100+ person line in order to get in.  My recommendation is to go in the evening when there’s no line, and you can walk right on in.

Day two started early with breakfast at Jimmy J’s Café on Chartres Street.  We opted for a lesser known “hole-in-the-wall” for breakfast rather than the $45 we would have spent to have eggs and toast at the Hotel Monteleone.  Now I don’t know that it would have cost us $45 for breakfast at the hotel, nor do I know if Jimmy J’s Café is a “hole-in-the-wall” establishment in New Orleans, but what I do know is that the café was rather small, was located on a rather unassuming side street, and had incredible grits!  The artwork inside was pretty cool too.  I highly recommend this place for a quick affordable breakfast.

After breakfast we again strolled the streets of the French Quarter taking in the French- and Spanish-inspired architecture. We made our way down to Jackson Square to visit the St. Louis Cathedral and the many artists and merchants that set up shop outside of the square.

Jackson Square is also home to the oldest apartment buildings in the U.S., the Pontalba Apartments built in the 1840s by the Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba.

I mentioned the artists and merchants along the streets outside of Jackson Square.  This artwork is simply amazing as is the atmosphere around the square.  From the young boy (not even 15 years old) playing the trumpet on the corner to the old man (75+) reading palms of a middle-aged tourist couple to the line of carriage horses along Decatur Street ready to take guests on a cemetery tour, this is certainly a spot every visitor to NOLA should check out.

If you continue down Decatur Street away from Canal Street you’ll notice the French Market District on your right-hand side.  Here you’ll find America’s oldest public markets.  First opened in 1791 (more than 200 years ago) as a Native American trading post on the banks of the Mississippi River, the shops, Farmers Market and Flea Market now play host to more than 100 vendors and is open seven days a week.  At the end of the French Market District you’ll come to the New Orleans Mint (the Old U.S. Mint), which was in operation until 1909 and is the only mint in the US to have produced American and Confederate coinage.  Today the building is the current location of the Louisiana Historical Center, The New Orleans Jazz Club of the Louisiana State Museum, and the city’s new performing arts center.  The building is also home to Louis Armstrong’s first cornet.

After our own self-guided tour of the French Quarter, we opted on an Airboat Swamp Tour in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (about 30 minutes south of New Orleans) with Airboat Adventures.  Now this was cool.  While the weather wasn’t optimal for large gators — it was too cold — we did come across a few smaller ones.  Our tour guide explained the ins and outs of the Louisiana swampland and bayous and we fed a few gators some marshmallows — apparently gators love marshmallows.

The best part of the trip, however, was hearing firsthand from our guide — a life-long resident of Lafitte, La. — about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the small town of Lafitte.  For months he participated in a cleanup effort in the swamp pulling furniture, garbage cans, washing machines, you name it, out of the swamps.

Our guide, who is also a certified Coast Guard rescue boat operator, shared stories with us about using his airboat in rescue missions within the city of New Orleans and making it to areas within the city where the National Guard and Red Cross simply could not make it.

He sadly recounted finding some victims of the hurricane in their homes. His most vivid memory was of approaching a flooded house and having an elderly man with a shotgun walk out the front door into armpit high water refusing to be rescued and demanding that he back away from his property.  To listen to our guide share these personal stories was pretty special.

On the evening of day two we opted to avoid Bourbon Street and head toward Frenchmen Street for dinner and live music.  Much different than Bourbon Street, this area of New Orleans was described to us as the place where locals go to hang out.  It certainly had less glitz and glam than Bourbon Street.  We arrived at our dinner destination — the Three Muses — at around 5:30pm and there was already an hour and a half wait outside.  So we waited.  This place is small and they don’t take reservations, so if you want to go, plan on arriving as soon as the doors open.  That evening there were two bands playing, neither of them did we know.  The first was the Hot Club of New Orleans, best described as an infusion of swing and classic jazz, and the second was Kristin Diable, whose music best resembles that of Norah Jones.  After dinner we headed back to the Monteleone for a drink at the world famous Carousel Bar & Lounge within the hotel.  Installed in 1949, the carousel features 25 bar seats and makes one complete revolution every 15 minutes.

Day Three: the day my wife heads back home and the day before my business meetings begin (the original reason why I’m in NOLA).  So before heading back to the airport to say goodbye to my wife, we decide to take an early morning bus tour of New Orleans and the surrounding areas.  We were picked up by VIP City Tours right outside of our hotel and began our two-hour trip led by our tour guide Jarrod.  Jarrod, a resident of the 7th ward, gave us a guided history of the French Quarter and then drove us to the 7th, 8th and 9th wards to see the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  We were able to view first-hand areas of New Orleans that were 10 to 12 feet underwater.  Incredible.  From there we traveled north to see Lake Pontchartrain.

Along the way we stopped for a brief tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 to learn more about the New Orleans tradition of burying their dead in above-ground vaults — a combination of necessity given the low water table and French and Spanish tradition.  Our tour concluded with a trip to the Garden District and a ride along the official Mardi Gras parade route.

With the tour over and the clock winding down on our mini-getaway, we journeyed one last time down Royal Street to the Royal House Restaurant for a quick lunch consisting of shrimp and grits and oysters Rockefeller.  Outside the restaurant the Hokum High Rollers performed a lively mix of country, blues and folk music.

I must say, for being in a city only two and a half days, we were able to cover a lot of ground and see a handful of amazing and historical sights.  If you have a chance to visit New Orleans, I highly recommend making the trip at least once in your lifetime.