have my own version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s nostrum. It goes: better to arrive than to travel at all. Low spots of the journey: confiscation of my cigar cutter by Aer Rianta’s bully boys; the ludicrous Shannon stopover; airline food, compounded by the cock-up that had me labelled as vegetarian – moi, king of carvivores!; airline wine – twist off the top and there a whiff of sulphur that says the devil’s on board, probably disguised as the supersonic snorer in the next seat; three hours in Newark Airport.
But I love N.O. I’d like to go to there to sample the balmy climate in early Spring and Autumn; to tap my feet at JazzFest and to caper with the utterly nutterly in Mardi Gras. I wouldn’t go in August. To visit in August is to tote your own personal sauna.
Arriving at Louis Armstrong Airport the sponsor’s white stretch limo beckoned. We breezed into ‘The Big Easy’, sunroof open, moonroof glowing, TV, and air-conditioning in top gear and the burred walnut cocktail cabinet in overdrive. Of course it couldn’t last. We got pulled over by cops erecting barricades and had to hump the suitcases the last three blocks to the hotel.
The Royal Sonesta, plush, expensive and unctiously over-serviced in the American manner is located on Bourbon Street one of the main arteries of the Vieux Carré, the French quarter, heart of old New Orleans. Bourbon is ‘the strip’: end to end tourist cheap NBA jerseys bars, jazz emporia and dance clubs. Arrive during Mardi Gras and you’ll find an immobile, impenetrable mass of frat-pack guys and dolls, eyes and arms stretching upwards, if not to heaven, to the private balconies where the privileged fling strings of beads to anyone below who catches their fancy. Sometimes the beads come the other way and pert young girls and even bold grannies flash their tits in acknowledgement. Muchdrink is taken, although it has to be said I only ever saw two fights, both of them of the ‘handbags at fifty paces’ variety. Bourbon Street has to be experienced, especially as one of the best live music haunts, the Jazz Parlor is there – brilliant R&B bands in the afternoon, a reminder that New Orleans was home to Fats Domino as well as Jelly Roll Morton. Down the far end there’s Preservation Hall, a tatty jazz shrine with probably the best trad music in town.
Royal Street, a mere block away is restrained and elegant; browse the impressive antique shops and vibrant art galleries. Also on Royal is my nomination for the World’s Finest Coffee Stop. At the House of Brews. Leah’s pluperfect double macchiato is the perfect antidote to sightseer’s fatigue. Each morning I sprawled out on a comfy banquette and scoured the Times-Picayune for the day’s events.
In this way we found the Gospel Mass at Our Lady Star of the Sea on St. Roch. The tourist map did not prepare us for the hour and a half’s trudge, the last mile through an area that could only be designated ‘dodgy’. Our reward was to be surrounded by the friendliest congregation on earth and confronted by the most beautiful angels in heaven – a fresco of girls so gorgeous you’d beg to take one to the Trinity Ball. The Rev.Tony Ricard gave an eloquent sermon, theme: “If God calls you up on the telephone, you better star-9 him right back”. His God was a jovial host, his heaven, a party. The thrilling choir was led by an Aaron Neville sound-alike.
You can eat great food in New Orleans. And some not so good. Worst meal we had was at the Palm Court, a trendy jazz café where even a stomping sextet could not make up for the straight-out-the-freezer fare and the dumb waitress who poured the second bottle of red into glasses half full of the first. But Arnaud’s!!! New Orleans’ oldest restaurant provided a main course to die, for. Sweetbreads, shrimps, crawfish tails and shitake mushrooms in a Creole-tinged sauce played chords on the keys of memory for weeks. At the fine ethnic Alex Patout, we tucked into marinated turtle wrapped in cabbage leaves and local duck, étouffée (smothered) with the thoroughness of a Shakespearian assassin. Nicely ageing Zinfandel, Edmeade’s 1996 provided the perfect accompaniment. We also relished tasty, muscular shrimps with pasta at the French Market Restaurant, washed down with the excellent dark, strong, local beer Turbo Dog.
One of the finest meals we had (prime shrimp, oysters on the half shell and succulent veal) was some way out of town at the homestead lovingly restored by our hosts, Southern Comfort and immortalised on the bottle label. To lounge on the verandah not giving a damn (“Scarlett, give us a bit of feckin cunus willya”) on a warm February day, sipping Plantation Punch, was near heaven
Southern Comfort is the archetypal Louisianan tipple, being invented by a New Orleans bartender, M F Heron, back in 1870. A ‘right of passage’ drink, first step up from beer and cider; as Janis Joplin’s favourite gargle Southern Comfort acquired a rake-hell reputation much favoured by rebellious youth. But blended with cranberry juice or Triple Sec, the teeny-treat sweetness fades, the charming aromatics come into play and it becomes more sophisticated.
A short walk away stood a restored Chinesische church and inside, a bar and restaurant where a small pirogue, traditional fishing boat of the region, sat awash to the gunwhales with prime shrimp and juicy oysters on the half shell – mmmm…
On the last night we hove up at fashionable Brennan’s and spent an hour salivating over the wine list, marvelling at the low mark-ups and the d’automobiles tremendous selection of Old and New World classics. The food was immaculate, in a modern, highly finished way. There was nothing on the menu that whispered ‘lovingly simmered for three hours in the traditional fashion’.
A word on waiting. What is it about the American ‘waitron’ that keeps him or her in your face throughout retreat a meal? The young guy at Soup Brennan’s seemed determined to be on first name terms by the end of the evening, capping our jokes, sharing his unsolicited views on everything from Napa wines to Arcadian migration.
Don’t lurk in your hotel. Get up, wholesale NBA jerseys go out and have breakfast at a diner in the New Orleans fashion: mushroom omelette and grits or poached eggs with lump crab meat and remoulade. N’Awlins Cookery Company on Conti Street is excellent for all-day food at reasonable prices. Staff are friendly and the recommended ‘alligator sausage with chef’s own special (hot) barbecue sauce and macaroni cheese’, an ethnic treat. Lulu’s on Exchange Alley has great barbecued pork ‘po’ boys’ – unfeasibly large filled long rolls. Don’t miss the muffuletas at the New Orleans Deli or Luigi’s on Decatur (pronounced Deck-ay-der) – cartwheel-sized flat rolls filled with ham, salami and provolone cheese and salad dripping with olive oil and other goodies. Red beans and rice, jambalaya, catfish pie and filé gumbo of song and legend are all available, from diners, pavement stalls and even expensive restaurants, with varying degrees of quality and authenticity. Try the rich, nourishing gumbo wholesale jerseys – the soup you eat with a fork.
Take a riverboat cruise up the Mississippi or a swamp trip. We went with Captain Terry. Half-Choctaw, half-French. Once we came to terms with Elvis the baby ‘gator, crawling round the boat at our feet we had a fascinating afternoon.
Visit the ‘Cities of the Dead’, the cemetries where, because much of New Orleans is below sea level, the departed are buried above ground in elaborate tombs. Try St.Louis No.1 between Conti and Basin where ‘voodoo queen’ Marie Laveau is buried (Voodoo is the second most-celebrated religion after Catholicism). Shun the pseudy-voody capering around the grave and gain enlightenment at the Spritual Temple on North Rampart Street or the Voodoo Museum on Dumaine.
An hour or two in the Confederate Museum, near Lee Circle where the talismanic general sits atop a 60-foot marble column, poignantly facing North, will give you a fascinating insight into the South’s history.
Go down to the Café du Monde in the French market and pig out on beignets and coffee before buying an assortment of scary sauces with rude names (Dave’s Arseburner, The Mean Green Motherfucker). And your Mardi Gras gear…
Mask ($3 in the flea market – you can pay $100-250 for one bespoke crafted on Royal) and innumerable strings of beads are minimum essentials. Buy a couple of arty sets – you’ll be amazed at what people will offer to swap for these you could get the best beady bargain since Stuyvesant bagged Manhattan – and a shedload of cheap baubles in case you get invited on to someone’s balcony, not impossible as NOers are gregarious folks.
After that it’s up to you because Mardi Gras is for participation not for gawking at a procession going by. It’s what Paddy’s Day should be in Ireland if we could ever shed our inhibitions and our taste for drinking ourselves into a state of oblivion in the name of ‘the craic’
There’s always something to see – right up to the witching hour on Fat Tuesday itself when the police and the National Guard pull down the curtain on the the street theatre. Sure the parades are rolling down Canal St from mid-January onwards, propelled by the fat cat businessmen and artists, influential politicians and exclusive social clubs who bankroll the operation.
But the most fun is to be had getting togged up in the disguise and capering down to Jackson Square to mingle with the other masked eejits and, afterwards, drifting back to locals’ haunts like Harry’s Corner for an Abita Amber and a spot of hot jazz.
Alas, we didn’t have time to venture into the Garden the District where the great houses are, stroll through Audubon Park, take the free ferry to Algiers, sip a Sazerac or dance to Zydeco. Got to leave something for next time.