Street in the French Quarter

Several co-workers and I were scheduled to attend a conference in New Orleans during the first week of September 2005.  Little effort was made to hide the fact that we all felt more excited about seeing the city than attending the conference:

“We’ll have to skip out one night and go hear a New Orleans music legend,” I said.

“You should have an affair,” a friend suggested. I was recently separated.

“Two birds with one stone,” I quipped. “I’m going to sleep with the Neville Brothers.”

“Which one?”

“All of them!”

But our glib mood quickly faded as we heard reports of an impending hurricane.  At the last minute, the conference was canceled.

I am grateful not to have been in New Orleans when Katrina hit.  But I am also grateful to have visited there once 15 years before, if only for a day.  Describing my one, fabulous day in New Orleans is a great pleasure.  In researching this post, I was gratified to learn that the joys I experienced then are still available today.

What to Do?

New Orleans. Photo by HarshLigh.

When I passed through the Big Easy all those years ago, I was touring the country in a mini-motorhome.  I was brave enough to drive solo across the continent, but far too chicken to drive in a big city.  So I signed up for a tour. It turned out to be marvelous.

The day began with a bus tour  to various sights.  We visited the above-ground tombs of Lafayette Cemetery and saw the voodoo offerings that had been made at one of the graves.  We were told that the statue of Andrew Jackson points toward the YMCA sign and that YMCA stands for Yanks May Come Again.  We viewed a house that had been built as an exact replica of Tara in Gone with the Wind and the driver told us that when he announced it on one tour, a passenger had retorted, “Frankly, driver, I don’t give a damn.”

Next was a steam boat ride on the Mississippi.  As we chugged along we learned of the historic role the river had played for the country and especially for the city of New Orleans.  We saw buildings that had served as barracks during the civil war and learned that many of the houses in town were constructed from lumber that once made up the barges which floated down the river.

After the boat ride, we had a couple of hours on our own before the bus was to pick us up and take us back to our places of lodging.  What a dilemma! I had recently turned 21, legal drinking age, and therefore felt somewhat obligated to visit the bars on Bourbon Street. But I also really enjoy just wandering around looking at architecture.  Suddenly the light bulb went on in my head and I realized I could do both at the same time.  I walked into a bar and ordered myself a warm, dark pint of Guinness which came in a plastic cup.  Then I meandered through the French Quarter enjoying the sights and my beer.  Conveniently, I emptied the glass and reached St Louis Cathedral at the same time. Depositing the cup in the trash, I went in for a tour of the Cathedral.  When I came out, there was a jazz band playing in the square. What a high! In one day, this famous city had lived up to all of my expectations.

Obviously, New Orleans deserves more time than I gave it. I can’t remember why I only had a day- something about needing to get to Tucson for a Grateful Dead concert- but if I had it to do over, I would definitely take a walking tour  of the French Quarter or the Garden District and  partake in the city’s legendary music scene .

Where to Stay?

New Orleans has several affordable hostels/hotels: 

India House Backpackers Hostel  and Marquette House International Hostel offer a party atmosphere and dorm beds for $20 per night.

St. Vincents Guesthouse in the garden district has has old style charm in affordable private rooms.

Where to Eat?

Gumbo, Jambalaya, red beans and rice…food-wise New Orleans has a lot of regional specialties, so I hope you’re hungry.

For something inexpensive and filling it’s hard to beat a Po-boy sandwich:

Johnny’s Po-boys  (511 St. Louis St) offers dozens of variations.
Central Grocery  (923 Decatur St) has po-boys and muffulettas (Italian style sandwich).  There are lots of varieties including a vegetarian version.
One must eat pastries when in a place that was colonized by the French.  Head to Café Du Monde, located in Jackson Square for beignets (fried dough covered with powdered sugar).  Calories don’t count when you’re on vacation.

City Explorer’s Tip:

The city’s official tourism website offers some sample itineraries, including a three-day trip for folks on a budget.

They also maintain a calendar of events with items ranging from classical music concerts to eating contests.

A Day Off the Beaten Path:

Feeling guilty about enjoying all that music and debauchery? Why not combine it with a little community service? The Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the loss of literally hundreds of thousands of homes during hurricane Katrina make New Orleans a deserving candidate for your volunteer time.  Here are a few organizations to consider:

New Orleans area Habitat for Humanity
Make It Right– Brad Pitt’s project to help rebuild the lower 9th ward
Volunteer match can link you with a variety of volunteer opportunities (including ones related oil spill clean-up)

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