By Melanie Votaw
Photos by Melanie Votaw and Hotel Monteleone
New Orleans: All It’s Cracked Up To Be and More
The song goes, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans … and miss her every day?” Well, yes, now I do. After traveling to six of the planet’s seven continents, I finally made it to the Big Easy, and I have to kick myself for waiting so long. Let’s just say that I’m in love. I can’t remember the last time I felt so connected to a place.
I had heard that at least from a tourist’s point of view, New Orleans had recovered quite well from Hurricane Katrina. It was nice to see that first hand, although I did see some of the aftermath outside of the French Quarter on one of my tours – empty storefronts and parking lots that used to be shopping malls. From what I was told, some people have not been able to rebuild due to exorbitant post-hurricane flood insurance rates.
In the French Quarter, however, it’s business as usual, and that business is like no other city I have encountered anywhere in the world. At once, it’s southern, European, elegant, funky, and sleazy. There’s a sense of fun that permeates the Quarter (at least if you’re a tourist), so don’t expect to stick to your diet or your alcohol quota.
First, the food. I’m not big on Cajun cuisine or seafood, so I worried about how I would like eating in this city. My worries were unfounded. My first night, I had a memorable meal at Arnaud’s, a New Orleans institution for nearly 100 years. I tried turtle soup, a local delicacy that includes brandy, and I found it to be very tasty (don’t tell my friend’s pet turtle).
For my main course, I had the Breast of Duck Ellen with blueberry-infused Port Wine sauce and marinated blueberries. Pecan products are everywhere in New Orleans, so I tried the pecan pie for dessert. Everything at Arnaud’s was perfectly prepared, and our server made me feel like an old friend. While we ate, there was a live jazz trio playing traditional music, and they came by our table asking for requests.
If you go there, you have to try the Café Brulot for two or more. It isn’t just a drink – it’s a show. The waiter makes it with coffee, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and Orange Curacao. The presentation comes when he peels an orange, leaving the rind hanging. He then douses the rind with brandy and lights it. This creates a spiral fire effect. Is it worth all that work? Yes, it’s a delicious drink.
Another evening, I ate at a new highly recommended restaurant called Tableau, located in an elegant setting adjoining Le Petit Theatre. I tried the tender lamb chops with a tangy New Orleans-style BBQ sauce of lemon, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, and local beer. The praline monkey bread pudding was a to-die-for dessert, and on a winter night, the Hot Buttered Rum specialty drink with Butterscotch Bayou Silver infused rum and seasoned butter was nothing short of scrumptious. (I resisted the urge to order a second.)
For brunch, the place to go is the Court of Two Sisters with live jazz. It’s very popular, so you must have reservations. The buffet is comprehensive with something for everyone. I especially loved the chicken curry salad and the dessert table that included local specialties like bananas foster and Mardi Gras king cake. In summer, you can eat outdoors in the lovely courtyard that has its own live band.
Walking around the French Quarter is easy, so you can do that on your own, including music on Frenchman Street, which is just outside the Quarter. Bourbon Street has become so commercialized that Frenchman is now the place to be. I popped into a couple of clubs, including the tiny Spotted Cat Club. The small band played traditional Dixieland jazz, and the cornet player mentioned that he once played with Benny Goodman. A sign over the piano read, “No drinks or drunks on the pianee.” Meanwhile, an impromptu concert was taking place on the street with a group of about a dozen young musicians. They weren’t as polished as the band indoors, but they had plenty of spirit.
When you want to learn about the history of town or venture outside of the city for more of what Louisiana has to offer, your best bet is a tour. My first one was a walking tour with Historic New Orleans Tours. Our entertaining and knowledgeable guide took us to the oldest cemetery in town – Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 at the border of the French Quarter and Tremé. Some of the tombs are beginning to sink into the ground, and others have fallen apart.
Famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau is entombed there, and actor Nicholas Cage has built a large gray pyramid tomb there for his remains when the time comes. We ended our tour with a walk through Armstrong Park, named after renowned trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Congo Square is within the park in the vicinity where the slaves met to dance, sing, and play their drums.
There are a number of Civil War-era plantations just outside of New Orleans, and you can choose from a variety of tours. I took the Gray Line Tour to Oak Alley Plantation – a grand antebellum mansion that is famous for its canopy of 300-year-old oak trees. It’s a stunning view of the trees as you walk toward the pastel building with white columns. You can easily see why the building has been used in many films. Not much of the interior is original, but there are a few fascinating pieces that the tour guides in period dress will point out.
The original slave quarters are no longer on the grounds, but they have built replicas and created an exhibition. I appreciated the fact that they don’t try to soften the information but tell you exactly how awful it was for the people enslaved by the owners of Oak Alley. A wall engraved with the names of the slaves who served there is included in one of the exhibits, and I noticed that the last name listed was “Unknown.”
Swamp tours from New Orleans are very popular. I took one with Cajun Encounters Tour Co. After a short drive, I hopped on a small boat with a few other people, and we sped through the swamps. In winter, the alligators hibernate, so we only got a glimpse of one young one’s head. But we saw many birds and a raccoon, and I enjoyed the cypress swamp with the Spanish moss hanging from the limbs and the roots called “cypress knees” protruding out of the water.
We also took a look at Indian Village, which is not inhabited by Indians but by fishermen. The ramshackle homes are simply a way of life for the people there, so who am I to say they aren’t happy? Nevertheless, their dilapidated appearance is what prompted the filmmakers to use some of them as locations for the award-winning movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
I stayed at two properties while in town – Audubon Cottages (see story in Hotels & Resorts) and the historic Hotel Monteleone, which is another institution in the city in existence since 1886. A grand luxury hotel in the tradition of true grand hotels, it has been beautifully maintained and, therefore, has been used in a number of films over the years. My room had everything I could want, including the sound of the Natchez steamboat’s calliope outside my window. There is a terrific restaurant called Criollo, a spa, a rooftop pool with views of the city, a fitness center, free WiFi, and valet parking.
The Carousel Bar and Lounge is one of the high points at Hotel Monteleone – a circular bar that slowly moves around and is decorated like a carousel. Located right on Royal Street, the hotel is centrally located so that you’re just steps from any place you want to go in the Quarter. I even walked to Frenchman Street from the hotel in about 20 minutes.
How did I get to the Quarter from the airport? Limousine Livery picked me up and took me back. There were many traffic issues on my day of departure, and they went out of their way to make sure I made my flight in time. The drivers were friendly, too, and I enjoyed our chats en route.
So, do I really miss New Orleans every day? You bet. And I can’t wait to go back.
© February 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.