Before I retired, every few years I’d attend an industry meeting in New Orleans. It always was a lot of fun, and my wife sometimes would come along for a few days of vacation. One of the associations had a conference planned there for winter of 2006. But in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina changed all that. The conference was relocated to Orlando, and I never made it back to New Orleans.
This winter, as we discussed where to go for a short get-away from the Minnesota winter, we decided it was time for a return trip. This time, no conference sessions to work around. It would be just good food, fun music, and warm weather.
Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. The city experienced a cold spell during the 5 days we were there in late January. Still warmer than Minnesota. But one day, the temps stayed in the 40s. Didn’t bother us to much, but a lot of the locals were complaining.
As we planned the vacation, we did have second thoughts a few times. Our son (who lived in New Orleans for a few months in 2001) gave us a DVD set of the first season of the HBO series Treme. The Treme is a neighborhood just north of the French Quarter. The TV series portrays the lives of New Orleans residents trying to rebuild after the hurricane. Much of what was portrayed was quite bleak. Intellectually, we were sure that things had been rebuilt now. But we did have some concerns about how things would be.
Well actually, it was better than I had expected. Much better. A couple of the locals we met said that the city is better now than it was before the hurricane. (This was mentioned in a subdued voice, as though it was kind of embarrassing to admit.) We had a fantastic time. And we fulfilled our goal of enjoying good food (lots of it) and fun music (almost constantly).
Our hotel was the Hyatt French Quarter. It was great! Now, there are some fabulous historic and quaint old hotels in the French Quarter. I won’t try to tell you that the Hyatt is better. But, we’ve stayed mostly at boutique hotels on our travels since I retired, and the Hyatt was a really nice change of pace. It’s clean and modern and conveniently located. We got upgraded to a king room, and they comped the wi-fi. The staff was extraordinarily friendly and helpful. I’d readily recommend it.
We spent most of our time in the French Quarter, browsing through the art galleries and antique stores, shopping in some of the off-beat shops. We bought a few things (a new bow tie for me, some jewelry for Linda, gifts). On our second day, which was chilly with periodic rain showers, we stopped in at an artists co-op – Dutch Alley. When we brought our purchase to the counter, one of the artists was working on a sculpture of a young black man holding a revolver to his head with one hand and taking a selfie with the other. We chatted with him, and Linda said the piece was quite disturbing. That lead us into a conversation about guns. Linda expressed her view that she “hates guns,” and the woman behind the counter agreed. But the artist (who was black) said “As long as the bad guys have guns, I’m going to have one too.”
On one of the days, we walked to the Garden District to see the shops and galleries on Magazine Street. On our way back, we walked along Prytania Street where we saw some pretty fabulous homes and mansions. The vibe in the Garden District is much more laid back than the French Quarter, and it was a nice reminder of the diversity that’s in the city.
On previous trips to New Orleans, we had been to the Garden District. But on this trip, we saw other neighborhoods by taking the streetcar to City Park. It’s a huge park, very pleasant with the largest collection of mature oak trees in the world, some of them more than 600 years old. In the park is a botanical garden, a sculpture garden, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The weather that day was some of the nicest we had during our trip, so we didn’t go into the museum. But we did spend quite a lot of time in the sculpture garden, which is fantastic.
As I said, two of our goals were good food and fun music. I’ll post more about some of the restaurants we visited. But here are a few general comments.
- Café du Monde – we went there on the first day and the last day for beignets and café au lait. The concierge at our hotel tried to steer us to an alternative for beignets, but sometimes you’ve just got to stick with the kitsch of a tourist attraction even if the local alternative is just as good.
- Ruby Slipper Café – this was a recommendation from the concierge that we took, and glad we did. Had a fantastic brunch there before our walk to the Garden District.
- John Besh – He’s a New Orleans chef who seems to over-shadowed Emeril Lagasse for star power and the Brennans for creative cooking. I first read about him on the New York Times food page. I even blogged about a video they have posted that made me want to experience his cuisine. (Click here to read that post and link to the video.) We went to two Besh establishments. They were two of the best meals we had during our trip.
The other goal was fun music. We really loved the music scene in New Orleans. When we raved about the music scene to our daughter when she picked us up at the airport, she was somewhat defensive of the Twin Cities music scene. Yeah, there’s usually live music to be viewed almost every day. But we can go for weeks without hearing about a performance that we want to see. And yes, New York and LA have great music, and on our visits there, we can find music we like almost any time we want. But in New Orleans, it’s all concentrated in a very accessible way. So you can listen to a set of great jazz in one club, then hear an energetic brass band on the street, and then drop in to a gritty blues club before ending the evening at another jazz venue. All without getting into a car or cab.
A few notables:
- Three Muses – Not only was the music great, but we had dinner there, and it was fantastic.
- Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub – In the downstairs showroom one night, we heard a great Dixieland band. The next night, in the upstairs showroom, was an equally enjoyable band performing more swing music. And during a break in the music, we went out onto the balcony overlooking the madness and bustle of Bourbon Street.
- The Davenport Lounge (Ritz Carlton) and Fountain Lounge (Roosevelt Hotel) – two hotel lounges with daily performances. We went for pre-dinner cocktails.
- Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel – my favorite. We went there twice.
Sorry that it took so long to return to New Orleans. We won’t wait so long for our next trip.