We decided a week ago that we were going to take a 5 day East Coast trip where it would be warm. Our hearts were set on Key West...we soon discovered that our travel dates were during "Fantasy Fest" and hotel rooms were mostly booked and those remaining were too expensive! A friend suggested New Orleans. We had never been - but being 50, I thought it was someplace for 20-30 age group. I imagined that it was a dangerous, dirty place, filled with homeless folks, prostitutes, drunks and weirdos - BOY WAS I WRONG.
Albeit short, our New Orleans vacation ranks up there as one of our best trips.
We stayed at a B&B called La Belle Esplanade. It was beyond fabulous! I posted a separate trip report with details.
Rather than writing a day by day account of our trip, I thought I would just write about what I liked and didn't like:
Santa Fe - 3201 Esplanade Avenue (near our hotel) - fabulous! We sat at the bar, the bartender was very personable - he told us that they rarely get tourists. We just had apps & drinks - Crawfish filled Empanadas, Fried Green Tomatoes with grilled jumbo shrimp & Tuna Tostada (seared yellow fin tuna, served over crispy corn tortilla, lettuce, black beans, guacamole, fresh corn salsa, pico de gallo, sour cream, cilantro and jalapeños). All fabulous! Looked as good as it tasted. The chef came out of the kitchen, talked to us for a bit and offered us a cup full of pulled pork just out of the oven - yum. Ambiance was great. This is where I learned that I could get a "to go" cup for my margarita! I didn't keep the receipt, but here is the link to their website: http://santafenola.com/
Gumbo Shop - 630 Saint Peter St - recommended by a friend - loved this place! We sat in the cute little courtyard, our waiter was fabulous and the food terrific (we only had appetizers here) - Chicken Andouille Gumbo (their specialty and best gumbo we had in NOLA), the Combination Platter (Shrimp Creole, Jambalaya & Red Beans), Crab cakes with some type of cream based "to die for" sauce - also 2 beers & 2 St Peter's Punch - $52.95 before tip. If we stayed longer, I would have gone back a second time.
Galatoire's - 209 Bourbon - supposedly the best of NOLA - we made online reservations in advance. We were early, but seated immediately. The hostess asked if we had a "server preference" - I guess the waiters have been there 30 years or so and many returning guests request the same waiter. We had Charlie - he had been there 27 years, while not overly personable, service was very good. The menu is a la carte - he made suggestions. Food was terrific - hubby had a ribeye with mushroom bordelais and wedge salad, I had a hearts of palm salad, sauteed lemon fish, sauteed spinach and broiled tomatoes. For dessert we had a key lime tart and pecan pie - I got 1 glass of wine, hubby had water. Total before tip was $126.76. Not sure that I would go back - large room, very noisy and bright lightening - not very romantic. While the food and service both get 5 stars, I would give the atmosphere a 2.
Tracey's - in the Garden District, recommended by our cemetery tour guide, online reviews aren't great but we enjoyed our lunch. The bartender and manager were both very personable. They suggested we split the roast beef poboy (their specialty) and cheese fries - they allowed us to substitute sweet potato fries. The poboy was a 9. A bit too much bread but otherwise fabulous. They insisted that we try the cheese fries with gravy - weird to us, but they were right on - if I had to do it again, I would skip the cheese and just dip the fries in the gravy. Hubby ordered a beer and got a free refill because she liked Bostonians. Cool atmosphere - lots to look at here. I guess everyone has to try a poboy - would recommend this one (although we didn't try any others). Cost $22 before tip.
Pat O'Briens - we didn't eat here - just drinks. Yes, it is touristy but go! I loved the piano bar sing along. My husband liked the bar across the way with the big screen TV (Red Sox World Series game #1) . There are outdoor spaces, great on sunny days and warm nights. We met lots of new friends here. No we didn't try the Hurricane - but I bought a cute baseball cap.
Swirl Wine Bar & Market. 3143 Ponce de Leon (corner of Esplanade, near our B&B) - cute place! Server was great. We tried a few different wines, all yummy and got a small plate of cheeses, bread, olives, marinated artichokes, stuffed grape leaves. I heard that they had food samples many Friday evenings - worth checking out if you are in the area.
Court of Two Sisters for brunch - 613 Royal - the WORST eating experience I have had in a VERY long time! First, the hostess told us that we needed to wait for our server before we could go to the buffet. He was no where to be found. We had to ask 2 other servers to find him. Took about 10 minutes. Granted we did go near the end of the buffet, but the food was like a really bad wedding or Las Vegas buffet. Many of the platters were empty, other very picked over and unappetizing. The roast beef was so tough that we couldn't chew it and the bread pudding tasted like it came from a can. I could go on, but you get the point. Hubby got 1 beer, I had water, price before tip $75. Outrageous price! I wouldn't have wanted to pay $9.99 a person for this meal much less $29.99 each!
Nonna Mia Cafe and Pizzeria, 3125 Esplanade Ave. Pizza - on the suggestion of the bartender we got the Prima Pizza - Caramelized onions, goat cheese, roma tomatoes, spinach and artichoke hearts with garlic sauce - I am a pizza aficionado and hard to please, but I like this one. The toppings were fresh, homemade crust and sauce - the crust was crunchy and fluffy - almost like a really good bread stick. We also got salads - Caesar for hubby and just a house salad (with pine nuts) for me - both fresh and very large. The pizza was so good that hubby ordered a slice. The slice wasn't as good - crust flatter and kind of dry - we were there around 3PM so it may have been sitting for awhile. Server was nice, but just okay - she kept disappearing for long periods (like when we needed another drink ir the check) - we were the only ones in the whole place, so maybe she was out back doing side work - my husband got up twice to search for her.
Cafe du Monde - okay but overrated - tasted not much different than the fried dough I got at the Fryeburg Fair a few weeks back. I wouldn't wait in line for an hour! We kind of cheated. We found that the line seemed to be for the outside seating - we went inside and there were several open tables. We sat down, unsure if we were cutting the line and the waiter served us immediately. About $6 for 3 beignets large diet coke and two waters. Other friends who were there at the same time as us tried the same seating strategy and had no problem either.
We were hoping to try the 25-cent martinis and 2-course lunch specials at Commander's Palace which was where our cemetery tour ended - we didn't know that you needed advanced reservations and that even for lunch dress is business casual.
Acme Oyster House was also on our list - never made it - but our "new friends" from Buffalo went for fried oysters and said they were fabulous.
We had also hoped to get to Muffaletta’s at central grocery on Decatur Street but we saved this for Sunday lunch right before we left, and they are closed on Sunday :-(
I forgot to mention - Our first day in New Orleans, we walked over to catch the trolley. I was complaining to my husband because I forgot my sneakers and my shoes were creating blisters. I am a “soft talker”, so I didn't think anyone heard me… A few minutes later a 40 something Southern woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “honey, I heard you talk about your blisters, how about I give you my socks, maybe that will help”. I thanked her and said that wasn't necessary. She practically begged me to take them saying she didn't need them. I finally convinced her to keep her socks – we chatted with her for awhile – she and her mother were there visiting her college age daughter. Just one example of the people we encountered in NOLA. The locals were nice and overly friendly – it was refreshing.
One more restaurant – we went to Joey K.’s on Magazine Street based on the hop on/hop off tour bus guy’s suggestion. I did a quick google search and saw that Food Networks, Guy Fieri, had been there and made the (wrong) assumption that it would be good. The service was okay, bathrooms dirty, bar cluttered, lots of flies, bread close to stale, food marginal. Hubby got a Caesar salad, I tried the gumbo and we split fried green tomatoes with shrimp. I would give it a 3 out of 10.
Hop on/off bus tour – we just bought the one day ticket, expensive but this was a really good city overview about 2 hours. There are two buses, we did the CitySightseeingNewOrleans.com – informative, interesting guides.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 726 St Peter Street – MAGICAL! We did the VIP advanced tickets ($90 vs. $30) to the 9:15 show because our only available evening coincided with the Red Sox World Series game #1 and there was no way I was getting my husband out of the bar to wait in line for an hour while the game was on. The Hall is right next door to Pat O'Brien's, so we were able to watch the game until 2 minutes before the show. Later my husband said he was very glad that we skipped 45 minutes of the game to do this (he is a sports freak). Did I say MAGICAL? Our first and by far best jazz experience. We saw the “Preservation Hall Jazz Band Featuring: Mark Braud” – ambiance and music couldn’t have been more perfect. You can bring your own drink with you (they don’t sell alcohol) – the 45 minutes went by in what seemed to be 5 seconds. We laughed and sang along. MAGICAL.
Garden District/Lafayette Cemetery – with Free Tours by Foot – Really great. I think our tour guide was Sara (I forgot to write it down). She was a teacher turned tour guide. Very knowledgeable, engaging, passionate and personable. The cemetery and the neighborhood were both fascinating. Several celebrity homes and lots of history! We had planned to do several free tours but it didn’t work out – based on this one, I would highly recommend them – 5 stars!
Frenchmen St. – Very different from Bourbon. You do have to take a walk down Bourbon just to see it, but I preferred Frenchmen. We wandered down to see what our choices were – looked through a small craft fair toward the end of the street and settled at Maison on 508 Frenchmen. It was a good choice. We sat at the bar right next to the band for a few hours. The music was very good (6 guys), enjoyed the atmosphere.
National WWII Museum – FABULOUS! If you do nothing else, be sure to see the movie by Tom Hanks, Beyond All Boundaries (about 50 minutes). The Submarine experience was okay – I can see that they worked very hard on the concept – they didn’t pull off an amazing experience, but it was still good and educational. The museum itself was overwhelming. We spent about 3 hours and barely scratched the surface. It is very well done. After 3 hours we were a bit burnt out (and hungry). This is a place to return a few times. I am not even a history buff (my husband is) and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Plantation tour - Our tour guide (who’s name I forget) was fabulous. He gave us so much history that my brain was about to explode! We stopped at Oak Alley and Laura Plantations. It was about an hour drive. I can’t say that one was better than the other – they were both different and both fabulous. Technically you could rent a car and drive yourself but you would miss a lot of the history. The Oak Alley tour was short – maybe 30 minutes (although we were there for 2 hours and could have spent more time). They had an interesting Civil War display and slave exhibit. The Laura tour was just over an hour and focused on the family and slaves. Both were amazing.
Mardi Gras World – this is a stop on the hop off/hop on bus – we drove by the doors and got to see many of the floats/props, that was enough for me. I have however done all the behind the scenes Disney tours so I didn’t feel the need to see more and my hubby had no interest in it. Our B&B owners told us that it was very touristy but that they found it interesting…
Royal street has nicer shops, tons of antique shops and artists galleries. Nice music in the streets and a lovely walk down the street.
Bourbon Street – crazy, but you have to walk down it for a bit. Perhaps a bit more crazy when we were there since it was Halloween week – lots of interesting characters & street performers. Don’t bother buying beads, I found bunches in the street.
Jackson Square – several street performers, lots of artists, nice parks. I could take it or leave it – this is where all the horse carriages are lined up. We had a carriage ride on our list but just didn’t have time. I have a friend who told me this was the highlight of her trip. I overheard a few of the drivers and it seems that they were giving basic history that we had already heard on the bus. They also go through one of the cemeteries.
Magazine Street – I believe this street is about 6 miles long. The hop on/hop off bus had 5 stops on the street. We wandered down about a mile section – lots of shops and eateries. Good window shopping.
New Orleans City Park – we went here twice, once on foot, once on bike, Very quite early mornings. Great if you are a morning runner or walker. We tried to walk through the sculpture garden (we got there at 5:50 and they close at 6), the guard kicked us out at 5:53. We were able to ride our bikes around the exterior and look through the fence. Some cool sculptures if you are into that sort of thing.
Krewe of Boo Halloween Parade – really fun! Someone told me that there was a parade almost every Saturday. We stood on Canal Street near Royal. I thought we wouldn’t be able to get close. We arrived 10 minutes before the start and were right up front. Lots of free stuff – candy, pretzels, hats, beads. The floats were amazing. Lots of great dancers/bands. It lasted under an hour but was one of the best parades I have seen.
St. Charles Streetcar – exact change only! This was touristy but one of those things you should do. Got a few cool photos.
S.S. Natchez Steamboat – We skipped the brunch (given our negative buffet experience) and did a 2 hour cruise only - $52. It was interesting to see the city from the Mississippi. The jazz band was okay – but since we were on deck and the band was downstairs, it was no different than piped in music. If I had to do it again, I might just do the free ferry. Two hours was a bit too long.
French Market – skip! Lots of junk – if you like to barter and like junk – masks, beads, sunglasses, wallets, random souvenirs – then go, otherwise I wouldn’t bother.
Tipitina’s was on our list, but we ran out of time :-( We also missed the zoo, aquarium and insectarium. I really wanted to see the IMAX film at the aquarium that tells the story of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of a 13-year-old violin prodigy but it only played at 1 and 3 daily and things just didn’t work out.
Overall - I fell in love with the city. We met lots of interesting people from all over. I loved the locals. I felt right at home - I never felt uncomfortable or threatened. I found the city to be clean and welcoming. Lots of history, amazing food and fabulous music. I would return in a heartbeat (maybe not during Mardi Gras) - Initially I thought 5 days might be too much - but we barely scraped the surface!
Maybe 5 days at a time is plenty - we definitely drank more than usual and went to bed later (11 PM instead of 9) - hubby says, "I am glad my vacation is over because I would be dead in about 2 more days".