Friday, July 9, 2010

The Best of the Best: NOLA Edition

This is the "best of the best" blog that I've been putting off on purpose. Because I honestly don' t know as if I could ever describe my New Orleans experience and actually do it justice with my description. Obviously it's a "best of the best" for good reason, but I have to be honest and admit that the main event that put it over the top will never happen again. At least, not exactly as it did when I was there--which was February 4-8, 2010.

Those dates don't ring a bell? Well, let me begin by saying that we chose February not only for Mardi Gras season, but because we took the trip for my sister Christy's 25th birthday. It ended up being the two of us, my [then-boyfriend, now-] fiance Steve, and our good friend Jonathan. Hotel prices were a bit too much to go over the actual Mardi Gras holiday, but by going the weekend before Mardi Gras weekend it was do-able. We booked the trip nearly six months in advance, and about two weeks prior to going found out that we would be there over Superbowl Sunday. And of course, the Saints would be playing.

Still, we didn't "get" it. We headed down to NOLA on a Thursday morning and spent the weekend eating, drinking, and sightseeing. I will try to be a bit more terse with the following reviews, because as you can probably guess, what I want to reflect on the most is how that one single event--the Superbowl--put our already amazing trip completely over the top.

The Hotel

View of the infamous Mississippi River "crescent" from our hotel room
We stayed at the New Orleans Marriott on Canal. I really have no complaints. It was right on the edge of the French Quarter--a quick walk to all the best stuff. A little farther from the Garden District, but that wouldn't have sucked so bad if the streetcar was keeping regular time (which was the "fault" of the numerous Mardi Gras parades). The room was actually a decent size, despite it being a downtown hotel and the fact that there were four of us sharing it. Although I don't understand why hotel bathrooms no longer having fans! The bathroom in our hotel in Charleston in December '09 (also a Marriott) didn't have one, and this hotel didn't either. Annoying, especially when, as previously mentioned, four people are sharing the room and therefore the bathroom.

THE FOOD

We ate at Napoleon House on our first night. I loved the hot muffaletta and Christy and my friend Jonathan raved about the jambalaya and gumbo. Prices were decent and we all enjoyed the house drink, Pimm's cups. On Friday we had a big lunch at Landry's on Lake Pontchartrain. It's a chain, but mine and Christy's third cousin Shirley treated us all and the food was great. We ate dinner really late that night, at Coop's Place on Decatur. It was...okay. At best. The fried chicken was really good but the service SUCKED (we waited about an hour for a bunch of fried food--and the restaurant was small, so even though it was full there weren't many people there). I will admit that it probably didn't help that we were exhausted and hungover.

The menu(s) at the Corner Muse
Saturday, Steve, Jonathan and I wandered into a coffee shop on Magazine called The Corner Muse. My latte was good (and only $3 for a large--take that, Starbucks!) and I also had a Snowball, despite the cold. I had read about them in my guide and wanted one, but wasn't sure there was a place selling them anywhere near the areas we were visiting, so getting to try one was a pleasant surprise. It was flavored shaved ice, so not much to say other than that I enjoyed it :o) That helped tide me over until a late lunch at Mother's. I got their classic Ralph po' boy. It was good...but nothing amazing. I was slightly disappointed simply because I'd heard so many good things about the place.

Dinner that night was late and eaten at Angeli on Decatur. This was a gem suggested to us by a random bartender. We just had sandwiches but everything was great and reasonably priced, so no complaints!

Unfortunately, as I previously mentioned, many restaurants kept short hours or were outright closed on Sunday due to the Superbowl. While it was really neat to see the amazing spirit the city has for its football team, this was kind of frustrating.

Trying to eat a beignet without getting powdered sugar all over myself.
We were able to get into Cafe du Monde pretty quickly that morning. Yes, the beignets were amazing! Too bad the chicory coffee left something to be desired...neither Steve or I cared much for it, and we're coffee nuts. (or should I say beans? haha) We got stuck eating dinner at a place called Magnolia on Decatur. Prices were okay (what you would expect in a city, anyway) and my burger was AMAZING. Steve liked his jambalaya but Jonathan said his gumbo was crap and even though Christy ordered a Reuben sandwich, she got a ham and cheese sandwich. She just ate it and then made them change the bill. At least my drink was nice and strong...haha.

THE SHOPPING

I went into a couple of clothing stores on Magazine on Saturday, but they were very overpriced and beyond that, nothing really caught my eye. Steve did some record and antique shopping and got some good buys, though, which was nice. I also bought some beads (gasp!)...but only because I wanted special Pirate ones, and only a few different strands. I went a bit nuts on the masks, though...oops ::sheepish grin::  The only other thing I bought was a painting at Jackson Square. This is a must-see if you enjoy art...there are some amazing pieces and most of it is very reasonably priced!

MARDI GRAS


Now can you see how we ended up with so many beads
We saw 4 parades; 5 if you count Krewe of Barkus (the dog parade). They were neat. The ones at night were far better about throwing beads than the ones during the day, and I'm not even kidding you, we have a bag of beads at home that probably weighs 10 pounds. And that's after we picked out all the good ones that have the Krewe symbols on them!

People in New Orleans decorate for Mardi Gras like we decorate for Christmas; some of the houses had very simple decorations but there were many who obviously went all-out and trust me, I have plenty of pictures of those who did! My only question is...why doesn't every city go all-out for this holiday the way they do??? Come on...household decorations, costumes and crazy clothes, parades, drinking=fun fun fun!

THE SIGHTS

We really didn't sightsee until Friday, as it was dark and raining by the time we arrived and checked into the hotel Thursday night. Cousin Shirley (I say "cousin" lightly, because she's actually our third cousin and is, well, a bit older than us--we'll just say she has lived in New Orleans for over forty years and leave it at that) picked us up and took us to the New Orleans Museum of Art. They were showing a Disney exhibit on the evolution of characters and stories from some of their most popular animated films, so as a Disney nut, this was a must for me! She also drove us by St. John's Bayou and through City Park, which was beautiful.

Where the levee broke...
We then drove through her old neighborhood (most of which was flooded because of Katrina). So many of the houses are still vacant and waiting to be torn down and replaced. You can even still see the X's from where they were checked for bodies. After some more personalized sightseeing (I have to admit that having a family member as a guide was a huge plus!) she drove us through some of the Garden District to get back to our hotel.

Saturday,  Jonathan, Steve and I walked down Magazine Street, shopped, and did a quick walk-through of some of the Garden District.

Ridiculous Garden District House
The houses are beautiful but some of them are just way too big. I would much prefer the type of neighborhood that Shirley lives in (quiet, smaller streets, average houses) or the French Quarter to the monstrosities that us Americans insisted on building. We had planned on taking the streetcar down St. Charles, in the direction of our hotel, but we ran into parade time and  had to walk the entire way. And while the walk up Magazine hadn't been bad, we were getting tired, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was ready to rest my feet for a bit.

Late that afternoon we had a tour scheduled--the New Orleans Cocktail Tour. I would not suggest this. To anyone. It wasn't super expensive--only $25--and we definitely visited some bars we wouldn't have discovered otherwise (Muriel's, Tujagues, some place that is famous for sazeracs but was way too crowded to be any fun, and the Bombay Club), but after having such an awesome time on a Pub Tour in Charleston (which I obviously push every chance I get, that's how great it was), I wasn't impressed. There were 16 people in our group, and that was too many. We also spent far too much time standing out in the cold listening to the tour guide (and don't get me wrong, she was fun and had a lot of great info, but I just wanted to scream "CAN'T WE DO THIS SOMEWHERE WARMER???" at her). We did get to see the old bordello apartments above Muriel's, though, and that was really cool.

Famous Bienville House Hotel in the French Quarter
Sunday we basically just spent all day walking around the French Quarter, checking out some of the famous sights (Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and all of the beautiful ironwork on the buildings)...things were really crazy because of the Superbowl, though, so we probably missed some stuff. Yet another reason to eventually go back!

THE NIGHTS

Ahh yes...my favorite part...

Our first night, Thursday night, we got a couple drinks at a bar called the Krazy Korner on Bourbon, then listened to music at Preservation Hall for a while. The band took a break at one point, and we walked back to Bourbon and found a hole-in-the-wall bar that was much quieter and had far cheaper drinks than Krazy Korner... I wan to say it was called John's or Johnny's. The bartender was really cool and even gave us some restaurant suggestions, and was the first person to insist that we watch the Superbowl on Bourbon Street Sunday night...

Eventually, we went back to Preservation Hall for more live brass band/jazz, then had drinks at this place called Yo Mama's right across the street from the hall. The bartender there was a one of those "I hate all tourists and I'm going to be really obvious about it" people (seriously, why do you work at a bar just off Bourbon Street in New Orleans???), but it was quiet and not too expensive, so we stayed a while. After that, things get hazy. We definitely went to at least one club after that...but we may have gone to two or three...I just only remember one. And it was a club. Not usually my thing, but fun when you're drunk on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Me, Steve and Christy (and Lil' Wayne) in the "Party Elevator"

We were too hungover to do anything Friday night. End of story.

Saturday, after drinks during our cocktail tour, watching some parades back near our hotel, and then dinner, we stayed out, and again my memory is fuzzy. I remember The Funky Pirate on Bourbon. That's it. Oops. (Hey, I was already drunk from the cocktail tour.) All I know is that we had to drag Christy back to the hotel and put her to bed. Steve and I tried to go back out, but by the time we walked back up to Bourbon and found a bar that wasn't too insane, we had one drink and then decided we were also tired enough to get some sleep.

We all felt a little slow on Sunday and swore we weren't going to party too hard.

Yeah right.

It started with cocktails at dinner. Then we bought some liquor and soda and mixed drinks in our hotel while we dressed for the Superbowl. Then we went to Bourbon Street and found this place I'd wanted to see, The Olde Absinthe House. Christy and I made friends with a girl who was standing next to us. Turns out her sister was a bartender. I got a true-blue gin fizz (YUM!) and we didn't have to wait for drinks all night. Then the Saints won the Superbowl! And that, my friends, is when the insanity truly began.
Excuse the blurriness, I was being jostled--because this, folks, is Bourbon Street about a minute after the Saints won their first Superbowl on 2/7/2010
I'm not joking--within about ten seconds of the officials calling the game, nearly every single person that had been in a bar on Bourbon Street flooded outside. There was screaming, chanting of the "Who Dat!" anthem, and I can't even count how many times I was hugged by a random stranger. I'm sure that it's tons of fun to be at the Superbowl--but on Sunday, February 7th, 2010, we were in the perfect place at the perfect time. It's an experience that someone who wasn't there can't even imagine. Not just because they won the Superbowl, or just because they won it for the first time in the franchise's history. Because these people have such tremendous pride in, and love for, their city that it literally infected all of us. I was as ecstatic that night as I was back on October 27th, 2004 when the Red Sox won their first World Series in [about] 86 years. And we didn't feel unsafe, because despite being crazy and drunk and excited, the people of New Orleans (and Saints fans in general, apparently) know a little something about how to party, and party right.

(I was later reminded that New Orleans--even the touristy areas--isn't/aren't really "safe". I'm not an idiot. I've traveled all over the world. I know that this is a major city with a high crime rate. But the fact of the matter is, if you don't act like an idiot you'll be fine. Even late at night, even on Bourbon Street, etc. Keep that in mind.)

Final picture of the NOLA 4, not long after watching the Saints win the Superbowl


In Conclusion

What it all boils down to is that this is a place that has, and a people who have, been to hell and back...and they didn't just SURVIVE. They rebuilt, and with that rebuilding came a newfound love for this city that they call home. They know how to truly live, there...and I'm not just talking about the partying. I'm talking about the fact that they respect the past, but they don't cling to it. Everything about New Orleans is a perfect blend of new and old, life and death. I can't imagine how anyone can spend a lifetime on this Earth and not want to see such an amazing place.

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