After learning we would be spending a year in Tennessee, one city immediately stood out as a must-see during this time: New Orleans. Neither Jeff nor I had ever been, but we had heard great things from other tourists. Well, we finally got the opportunity a few weeks ago to visit this vibrant, historic city!
We departed on a Saturday morning to make the nearly six-hour drive south through beautiful Mississippi. Ok, that was a bit of sarcasm. Undoubtedly there are beautiful parts of Mississippi, but the drive along I-55 was not the most scenic route. The most notable thing was perhaps the armed security personnel stationed at their rest stops. Which led me to wonder what type of activity has gone down at Mississippi rest stops in the past that led them to enact this measure…
As we entered Louisiana and the bayou, we got off the highway a bit northwest of the city between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain. I had to review my geography, as the latter lake looked like the ocean, but not quite. Technically, it’s a large brackish estuary, which I was shocked to discover averages only 12-14 feet in depth. Anyway, on the western side of Lake P. stands the restaurant Middendorf’s, our destination for a late lunch.
We would have easily blown by this somewhat historic seafood spot had it not been recommended to us by one of Jeff’s coworkers. As it was, we stopped and enjoyed our first taste of Louisiana. Jeff started his meal with a cup of turtle soup, then we both partook in their speciality – original thin fried catfish. It was a unique texture and flavor from any fried fish I’d had before. True to it’s name it was sliced very thin, and the batter was some mix of cornmeal, which was crunchier and less fluffy than my previous experiences. The entree was rounded out by hush-puppies, coleslaw, and fries.
For the rest of the drive (Jeff was driving at this point) my eyes were glued to the swampy terrain as I enjoyed the unique mix of marsh, bridges, stilted or floating homes, trees, wildlife, and boats that surrounded us. I’ve been a lot of places, but this landscape and architecture were definitely unique from anything I’d seen before.
We arrived downtown and checked into our hotel, Le Meridien, in the early evening. It was conveniently located only a short walking distance from the French Quarters and the riverfront. Unfortunately, in the heart of downtown, parking was not free nor plentiful. Our hotel offered valet only and at a premium price. Upon arrival, our car was whisked away to who-knows-where, and we chose to walk or Uber if we needed to, for the remainder of our stay.
I may have underestimated the distances between various places we planned to visit during the trip, as I soon discovered that the restaurant that I had made dinner reservations at was about 3-miles away. We decided, given our long day sitting in the car and late lunch of fried food, that we would walk to dinner. I saw that it was basically a straight-shot down Magazine Street and secretly hoped that this was a more well-maintained area of the city.
I was quite pleased to find our route down Magazine Street to be lined with cute boutiques, art studios, restaurants, with a mix of some historic homes and urban residences. The weather was low to mid-60s, as I quickly removed my light-weight jacket and was comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt.
We arrived at our destination, La Petite Grocery, just before our reservations, which I had moved up as early as possible once I realized there was a Mardi Gras parade happening that evening that I thought we should attend. The restaurant is advertised as serving higher-end Louisiana fare. It was also a 2016 James Beard Award Winner, and was recommended for us to try.
We ordered a couple appetizers, a main entree, and a couple desserts to share. The highlight, for me, was the crispy duck fat or skin around the savory meat of the entree. I’m not one to typically order duck, but our waiter recommended it, and it did not disappoint.
We finished in time to catch an Uber to the other side of town. Believe it or not, this was our inaugural Uber ride. I had downloaded the App; and as Jeff excused himself to the restroom, I opened it to search for a ride. I was notified that the fares were higher than normal, due to congested traffic, but was shocked to see just how outrageous they were. Our destination was only about 5-6 miles away! But at this point, 3-miles from our hotel and car, with limited time to make it to the parade, our options were slim. I waited until Jeff, who did not seem as taken aback by the ungodly price, returned to confirm our costly chauffeur.
I’ll talk in more detail about the parade in my next post, which will focus on Mardi Gras, but we did in fact, make it with time to spare to witness the Krewe of Chewbacchus. Afterwards, we walked around a mile back to our hotel and retired for the night.
The following morning, I awakened just before 7am to outdoor music blaring over some speakers. My still half-asleep mind was struggling to comprehend why someone was having a party at this early hour on a Sunday morning, when I then heard, over the intercom, “10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…” followed immediately by the blare of an airhorn or something equally obnoxious. I may have dozed back off after this initial annoyance, but then a couple minutes later the same countdown and horn followed. What the?! This happened again, and again, and it finally dawned on me, there must be a large race start on the street outside our hotel. So much for sleeping in…
Sure enough, the New Orleans Rock and Roll Full, Half-marathon and 10k races took place that day. After getting over the annoyance of an early wake-up call, the event actually made our walk to brunch that morning more enjoyable as our route followed the race course. We got to enjoy the live music, roads closed to traffic, and festivities of the race without the registration fees or effort. Hurrah!
We walked about 3-miles northeast of our hotel to Cafe Degas, a cute little French restaurant a few blocks from the historic home where the impressionist artist Edgar Degas lived while he was in New Orleans. The restaurant features a large pecan tree growing through its dining room. We enjoyed our brunch while sitting out on their covered balcony as poor marathoners struggled past in our periphery. Did I feel a bit guilty delighting in my delicious homemade quiche and savoring my artisan coffee while others death-marched on towards the end of their race? No, not really. Didn’t Solomon write something in the book of Ecclesiastes about a time for everything… A time to run a marathon and a time to enjoy delicious French food?
After finishing our brunch we walked back along the scenic, tree-lined Esplanade Ave. towards the French Quarter then took a sharp right to walk down Bourbon Street. Las Vegas has Freemont Street, Memphis has Beale Street, New Orleans has Bourbon Street. What do they all have in common? Music, mayhem, and a plethora of alcoholic beverages that are legal to carry around while being consumed (likely contributing significantly to the second word on this list).
It was around noon on a Sunday, so not much was happening at the moment. The street appeared to still be in clean-up mode, presumably from the previous night’s activities. The adjacent shops were either a bar, a tacky souvenir shop, a nightclub, or some combination of the preceding. The road down the center was undergoing major construction and completely torn up at certain points. Incidentally, our experience down Bourbon Street turned out to be rather brief and uneventful.
We came out on Canal Street, a main drag that would lead back to our hotel. We decided, since it had been almost an hour or so since our last meal, it would behoove us to find some place to get dessert. Besides, we burned like a bajillion extra calories watching all those marathon runners. We found a cute little place called Amorino that specialized in gelato. In a surprising twist of ordering, Jeff requested his flavors in a cute floral arrangement while I went with the more practical, ‘give it to me in a bowl’ approach.
We then returned to the hotel to relax and get ready for our city bus tour that we had signed up to take that evening. We went down to wait outside our hotel at the appropriate time but due to some unforeseen traffic issues, the driver was not able to reach us in time and we rescheduled the tour for the following morning. We then found ourselves with a few hours of unexpected free time.
It was overcast and a bit drizzly, but we’re from Seattle and a little wet weather would not deter us. We ventured down towards the waterfront and found a near empty park and walkway along the Mississippi. Through the foggy banks we caught glimpses of New Orleans only true steamboat, the Natchez, as it departed and blared its horn.
Our walk took us past the Audubon Aquarium and the site of another traditional riverboat, this one a paddlewheel called the Creole Queen.
The pathway lead to an indoor mall which we entered and I quickly spotted a sign for Cafe Du Monde which is world-famous for their beignets. The original Cafe Du Monde was located north of us, in the French market, but that location was a notorious tourist trap and infamous for long lines. I quickly reasoned that the recipe here would be the same and we could enjoy some delicious beignets without unreasonable crowds.
We found the storefront around the corner and were able to view the dough being spread, cut, and fried through the window as we briefly waited to order. We received our trays and carried our white powdered delectables over to a table to sit and enjoy them. Were we hungry? Not really. Jeff suggested saving them for later but I refused, as I felt, in order to experience them at their best, we had to eat them while they were still warm (I stand by this decision).
As you can see from the above pic, they do not skimp on the powdered sugar. I was doing well keeping tidy until Jeff made me laugh. I had the presence of mind to keep my mouth shut but the little extra puff of air that rerouted out my nostrils was enough to cause a white sugary cloud to erupt around my face. Oh well. The mess was worth the deliciousness, and judging by the piles of powdered sugar left on many of the tables, we were not the first, nor would we be the last, to have issues with tidiness.
The beignet was excellent, but not mind-blowing. It was about what I thought warm, fried dough covered in sugar would taste like. Hard to go wrong with that combination. The coffee on the other hand, exceeded my expectations. Granted, I did not realize that Cafe du Monde was in fact a coffee shop, but the cafe au lait (1/2 coffee, 1/2 milk) that I ordered to merely accompany my beignets, was fantastic.
We explored the indoor mall a bit longer before making our way back to our hotel to watch the Grammy’s. I’ve always had an inexplicable fascination with major award shows. I’m not even going to try to defend it. It is what it is. I do not believe Jeff shares this irrational enthusiasm for slow-moving, anticlimactic live TV events, but he supports me, so we tend to watch them together.
As Alicia Keys opened the evening as host and I sat entranced in front of the tele, Jeff ran out and across the street from our hotel to Mother’s Restaurant to retrieve some jambalaya. Mother’s is an order-at-the counter, cafeteria style, restaurant that was established in 1938 and known for New Orleans style recipes. Despite the fact that our tour-guide the following day seemed to snicker, as he said something like, “well, their quality isn’t what it used to be,” I found it the perfect entree to chow down on as I watched Jennifer Lopez dance onstage while I was left to ponder why she was the artist chosen to headline a tribute to Motown music.
The following morning we had breakfast at the hotel as we awaited our bus tour of the city. Despite some concerns about the scale and professionalism of the tour company, our guide and ride did eventually materialize (though separately). We stopped at one other hotel to pick up the only other passengers on our tour then set off to get some background and history of the colorful city.
The tour took us through downtown and around to other districts that were not within our desired walking radius. Highlights included hearing more about the melting pot of cultural influences that make up the city, driving through the 9th Ward and learning more details about the devastation brought by hurricane Katrina, making a stop at one of the cities cemeteries and seeing the above-ground tombs, and learning more about Lake Pontchartrain and the geographic landscape of the area.
Our guide was a former history teacher, obvious intellect, and liked to hear himself talk, so it was quite an informative trip. We also got expert answers to all our important questions such as, “What kind of tree is that?” (the one I was pointing at was apparently a live oak) “How do you pronounce New Orleans?” (short answer, it depends where you’re from – apparently only tourists and Cajuns call it Nawlins) and “Is there a difference between Cajun and Creole?” (most definitely yes, they are not the same at all, I can’t believe you thought they were the same thing…).
The tour lasted just short of 3-hours, after which we were deposited back at our hotel. After a quick refresher back at the room we departed again, this time to visit The National WWII Museum just a few blocks from our hotel. Everyone we spoke to, who had been to New Orleans of late and visited this attraction, said it was a must-see. So we heeded their advice and headed over around mid-day.
Now, if you’re like me, you may ask, how did the United State’s largest WWII museum end up in New Orleans, Louisiana? Well, the answer would be thanks to Andrew Higgins, a New Orleans-based manufacturer who made boats that operated in swamps and marshes. Once the war broke out, he started producing the famous Higgins boats (technical name: landing craft, vehicle, personnel, LCVP) which were used throughout the war for invasions such as D-Day in Normandy.
The current museum, founded in 2000 and continuing to expand, takes up a couple city blocks and several large buildings. There are different packages of experiences you could purchase upon entry. We chose the general museum admission plus tickets to see the 45-minute 4D film Beyond All Boundaries narrated by none-other-than Tom Hanks (Morgan Freeman must not have been available).
Our journey into the museum began by entering a train station and receiving a mock Dog Tag, representing a specific individual that served in WWII, that we could activate at various kiosks throughout the museum to follow along with his or her story. We got to keep the Tags afterwards to continue to access the stories online (though, I just tried mine again and some of the pages don’t appear to be loading correctly).
After quickly browsing through the first building, we hurried over to the Solomon Victory Theater to get seats for the film showing. The use of the term 4D in entertainment always bothers me. I mean, can we just admit that we’re really just going to experience something in three dimensions but there might be some added features like vibrating seats or fog machines? Now, if the theater or seats actually rotated us through time and space then perhaps that would qualify as 4D. But, unless they did so in an undetectable manner that returned us to our original state and time at the end of the film, I don’t think they did… I think we just witnessed a film with some cool 3D enhancements.
Now that I have vented that unnecessarily long complaint, the film itself was excellent and worth the extra cost of admission, especially if you have several hours to devote to the museum. If you only have a couple hours then, although great, I would recommend skipping the film because the other exhibits will take at least that long to explore.
We spent the remainder of our time at the museum in the Campaigns of Courage building, the top floor of which was devoted to the Pacific Theater, the bottom floor to the European. The exhibits combined audio, visual, reading materials to convey information and had elaborate sets to carry you through the passageways and help display items, weapons, vehicles, clothing etc. used during that time. In addition to following your Dog Tag story there were ample other firsthand accounts of wartime stories to help personalize the experience.
The immersive nature of the museum helped me to better understand the scope, scale, and impact of the period. This helped me put our current events and circumstances somewhat in perspective. Watching the 24-hour news cycle and reading daily news headlines you’d think our world is on the brink of self-destruction. Though there are horrible atrocities and corruption still going on today, I personally, am not facing the firsthand sacrifice and ever-present fear of being actively engaged in a massive violent conflict. Though there still is, and will always be, much to lament in our nation and world, we have a lot to be thankful for as well.
After enjoying the museum, we rushed back to the hotel and changed into slightly nicer attire (not a high bar) before catching a much more reasonably priced Uber to dinner at Shaya, a restaurant that serves modern Israeli cuisine. This was the last stop on our must-do list while in New Orleans. We had received multiple recommendations for this place. Even our somewhat persnickety tour-guide gave his overwhelming approval when we mentioned we had reservations to eat there that evening.
Upon arrival we were promptly led to a table in their pleasant, walled-in back patio. We perused the menu, asked a few questions, then ordered several dishes to share. I could see by the dubious look on our waiter’s face, that perhaps we had just ordered an obscene amount of food for two people. He also cautioned us against over-indulging in their homemade pita bread that kept arriving in endless supply warm to our table.
We found his advice impossible to heed, as the pita bread, with and without some of the spreads that we ordered to accompany it, triggered major pleasure centers in our brain and demanded ongoing consumption to enjoy a near euphoric state. You think I’m exaggerating? My brother, who had eaten there a few months prior, described their pita bread as “life-changing.” He was not wrong. Beignets might get all the hype in New Orleans but for pure pastry perfection, go to Shaya and enjoy their homemade pita.
After indulging (the preface over is really quite subjective) in the pita and spreads we still had a couple more appetizers and an entree. At this point I was trying to pace myself a bit, as my capacity for food, though large, is not unlimited. As the appetizers rolled out, one featuring shrimp, the other sweet potato, I thought I’d just take a couple bites of each and let Jeff have the lion’s share. Until I actually took a couple bites of each… and was like: Nope, that was an amazing flavor combination right there! We are going to keep eating and stuff ourselves to the absolute capacity tonight, yes we are. Totally worth it. So, despite my swelling stomach, my taste-buds continued to be delighted all the way through the fall-off-the-bone-tender lamb entree served with whipped feta, and a strawberry pecan tabouleh.
The waiter kept checking in, and looked progressively more astonished that we continued to eat and eventually finished all our food. After our dishes were cleared, he returned to present the dessert options while likely thinking to himself, they can’t possibly still have room for dessert, can they? Are they even human? At this point, we did concede. But seeing that every bite up to this point had been utterly amazing, we did not want to miss out on their sweet offerings. So we ordered a piece of their signature cinnamon babka king cake that they made special for the Mardi Gras season to take back and eat later at our hotel (spoiler alert: it proved to be amazing as well).
Since we had just about eaten our weight in food, we decided instead of Uber-ing, that we would walk back to our hotel, which was about 3-miles away. Unfortunately, the shoes I had chosen to wear to dinner were apparently only good for walking about one-mile before blisters began to form on my heels. I alternated between cautiously walking barefoot, and trying to walk shod on my tippy toes to avoid the friction on the back of my feet. Jeff suggested the completely reasonable idea of calling an Uber for the rest of the distance but despite my bleeding heels, my stuffed stomach didn’t want to sit down again right away and was enjoying the walk.
We slept well that night in our food-induced coma and awoke the following morning with plans to see a couple more parts of the city before departing. It was a bit wet and blustery as we headed down to Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral. We had heard the history of these areas on our tour but wanted to return to explore them on foot.
We then exited behind the cathedral and onto Royal Street in the French Quarters. Despite the name, the area’s architecture has a large Spanish influence, and I enjoyed viewing the picturesque buildings and balconies in the district. I also enjoyed walking down Royal Street which was lined with more upscale shops, restaurants, and art galleries as compared to its parallel, and more raunchy, neighbor Bourbon Street. It was still early morning as we walked back on Royal so we window shopped some of the art galleries as many of them were not officially open yet.
We eventually made it back to our hotel, packed up, and set out for the return trip to Memphis. We made one more stop, on the outskirts of the city, before our final departure but I’ll discuss that in my next post. Thanks for reading my not-so-succinct summary of our visit to New Orleans. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t been to go at least once in their life as there are features of the city that are unique from anywhere else I’ve visited.
My next post, likely a bit shorter than this one, will discuss more about the festivities of Mardi Gras season.