We arrived in New Orleans on Sunday after visiting the Louisiana visitor centre (where we picked up a large stack of brochures and maps and free coffee and Wi-Fi) and checked in to KOA West in the parish of Kenner (Louisiana has parishes instead of counties). We chose this campground because they had a free shuttle that drove you the 16 miles in to the downtown New Orleans area. We booked to go in Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and they took you in at 9 am and returned back by 6:30 pm. We had two different drivers during the week and they took different routes each day and they gave us a huuuge amount of information along the way so we didn’t need to pay for any tourist bus tours. On Monday when we arrived in the French Quarter we first walked around in the French Market area and then waited for a free walking tour to learn about the history of New Orleans (the guide had grown up in the French quarter and spent her whole life in New Orleans). The Cajun ethnic group living in Louisiana were descendants of Acadians from Nova Scotia and the Creole term referred to the mix of other peoples with French, Spanish, African, and American Indian heritage. After the walking tour we stopped at the Café du Monde which has been in the French Market since the early 1860’s and bought some Beignets (French doughnuts with tons of icing sugar on them) and watched how they were made. Next year will actually be the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans. We then walked around Jackson Square, watched a break dance show, and listened to some of the street musicians. After the lunch time mass was over we visited the St. Louis Cathedral that was built in 1851 and then went for lunch at the Napoleon House (a 200+ year old landmark) where we tried the famous Muffuletta (Muffuletta Sandwich )which was fantastic (Sharon tried a Shrimp Po’Boy Sandwich , but it wasn’t as good) and a Mudbug Brewery Café au Lait coffee milk stout.
After lunch we did a 38 stop self-guided walking tour where we saw many historic buildings in the French Quarter including: Laura’s Candies (where we tried Pralines and bought some chocolate bark), gas lamps, Louisiana Supreme Court building, Pirates Alley, Creole cottages, and the Lafitte Blacksmith house (now a bar) built in 1732. Lots of places had the Purple, Green, Gold colours for the upcoming Mardi Gras festivities. After that we walked down the famous Bourbon Street. It was full of bars, strip joints and daiquiri to go joints. The smells were not exactly tantalizing and this was during the day time! The music was more rock and roll and dance music. The famous New Orleans jazz was played more on Frenchmen Street. We finished the day by walking along Canal Street which is the widest street in the US (they were going to build a canal down the centre but never did) and watching the boats along the Mississippi. The sun was just setting when the shuttle picked us up and we were completely exhausted from a great day walking around and sampling the foods of New Orleans.
On Tuesday morning we had a different driver and literally I’ve never heard anyone talk so fast and spew so many facts about everything along the route. He took a different route through the beautiful Garden District and because no one had any tours booked he diverted to show us famous celebrity homes like Sandra Bullock, Peyton Manning, and John Goodman. The 3 slides show samples of the architecture from this area. The only one we didn’t get a picture of was the Shotgun home. In order to lessen tax rates many people built long skinny homes using the depth of the property and keeping narrow frontages. They called them shotgun because if you opened the front door and the back door they said you could fire a shotgun straight through the home. Once in the French Quarter we went to the New Orleans Jazz National Historic park and signed up for a ranger led walk to explain the evolution of Jazz. While waiting for the tour we saw Fats Domino’s piano and Kid Ory’s trombone, both were damaged in Katrina and partially restored to display. The ranger tour was quite fascinating. She had a Bluetooth speaker with her and we walked around the French Market area and she explained the evolution of New Orleans Jazz and played us songs to demonstrate how Jazz started. Jazz is a combination of Bamboula (African drum rhythms), European Opera (due to the French and Spanish influence), Marching Band music, Gospel music, and the Blues. She explained how each of these layers added to form jazz and about the first Jazz recording done in 1917 (First Jazz Recording ).
After the tour we went for lunch at the famous Antoines restaurant which has been continuously operated by the same family since 1840! They had an amazing lunch deal where you got appetizer, main course, and dessert for $20.17 and the even better deal was that you could have the Cocktail of the Day for only $0.25 each to a limit of three. We both had the Charbroiled Oyster appetizer, Sharon had the Breaded Veal main and I had the Louisiana Drum (fish, not a spotted drum fish), and Sharon of course had the Chocolate Ganache Cake and I had the Pecan Bread Pudding and we both had 3 Cosmos Cocktails. The portion sizes were perfect for lunch, the food was amazing, and the Cosmos gave a good buzz;-) After lunch we had a tour of the various dining rooms in the restaurant where they had displays of the famous people who have eaten there and about the restaurant and Mardi Gras history. The wine cellar holds 25,000 bottles and is 165’ long. During hurricane Katrina they were without power for several weeks and therefore the wine collection was auctioned off to buyers by the insurance company because they couldn’t count on the quality of the wine anymore. The restaurant also had a narrow internal courtyard and the Antoine family had collected ash trays from around the world. We were so glad that Shari and Randy from the campground had told us about this restaurant deal!
After lunch we headed back to the Jazz National Historic Park for a free Jazz concert in the theatre which had incredible acoustics. Then we went through the Louis Armstrong exhibit. He was born in New Orleans and they had his very first Cornet that he played. There was an interesting ad for Swiss Kriss herbal laxative that Louis did since he lost 90 lbs. using the product;-) They also had photos from when he was King Zulu for Mardi Gras in 1949. There was controversy because he followed the tradition and used the Blackface makeup for the parade. He said in an interview we watched, that being King Zulu was one of the highest honours he had in his life. Shortly after he boycotted going to New Orleans due to segregation because they told him his white band members couldn’t play with him. He finally returned in 1965 after the Civil Rights Act was passed.
The building for the Jazz park was actually the Old US Mint (1838-1909) so we went through the exhibit on the first floor and saw the coin press machine, the automatic weighing machine, the assay balance and weights, and even a half dollar Confederate coin that was pressed during the short Confederate time period.
Next we went to the house named Madame John’s Legacy which was built in 1788 in the French Colonial style and it was one of the few houses to survive the 1794 devastating fire in the French Quarter. It was owned by a famous pirate’s family, Spanish military office, wealthy Creole family, and Italian immigrants. Currently it houses the Newcomb Pottery exhibit which was done by the Newcomb Women’s college (they had a mission to train and employ young women as professional artists) from the time period 1895 through 1939 and was a famous example of Southern Arts and Crafts style. Sandra and Wendy would really find this exhibit interesting. We finished the day off along the Mississippi seeing the Immigrants monument which seemed appropriate after we had learned about the immigrant history and Jazz roots of New Orleans.
On Wednesday when we arrived downtown we were walking by the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and noticed a ranger doing a talk so we joined in. The walking tour was just over an hour and the ranger explained about the land and the culture of New Orleans. One of the interesting facts she mentioned was that New Orleans continues to sink by 1/3 “ every year. In theory the systems of Levee’s and pump stations should keep the water out but failures can occur as in Katrina. Now they use clay for the levee’s instead of organic soil as they don’t erode. In the Mississippi delta human engineering (oil industry) has caused coastal erosion and climate change has caused water levels to rise and currently the delta is losing a football field of land every 45 minutes. A committee has been formed to study and produce a detailed action report every 5 years to try to minimize the impacts to the region. Next we went to The Presbytere Louisiana state museum where they had exhibits on Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras. This section is all sign boards from the museum so you can decide how much you want to read. The boards describe: the impacts of water to Louisiana, how people lost their lives in attics trying to get out of the rising waters, the communication breakdown for the emergency aid, how many people had predicted the levee failures would occur, the actual levee failures, future impacts due to climate change, and what lines of defense they are now using to hopefully avoid catastrophic impacts in the future.
Upstairs we went through the Mardi Gras exhibit and again this section is several display boards. We had spoken to some locals and they indicated that the most magical part of Mardi Gras for them was really the parades (over 50 in New Orleans alone) and the fun of everyone dressing up in costumes and having a good time. In this section you will see: the history of the parades, King Zulu costume, Queen Zulu costume, the Billion dollar impact of Mardi Gras, old style beads thrown, Acadian wire masks, Merlin costume, and the newest style of parade throws.
For lunch this day we tried out the Gumbo Shop and had an amazing crab cakes appetizer and then Sharon had Seafood Gumbo and I had Chicken/Andouille Sausage Gumbo, both very good. In the afternoon we went to the Cabildo Louisiana State museum which had information on Napoleon’s Death Mask, Colonial Louisiana, the Battle of New Orleans, death and dying history, musical history, and Civil War and Reconstruction. The most interesting areas were the Battle of New Orleans and how significant that was to the city with the Americans beating the British in 1815 and the area about blood-letting where they talked about the importation of fresh Swedish and Hungarian Leeches;-)
It was funny to see the Bubba Gump restaurant sign as we had just watched the Forest Gump movie the night before;-) We finished off the day at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park reviewing their exhibits which covered the history of the French quarter (the exhibits were housed in the original city planners property from 1720), the waves of immigrants to the area, the history of the pirate Jean Lafitte, the origins of Gumbo, Brass Bands, and Creole vs. Cajun, and the Longlots which were the plantations established along the Mississippi River. As you can imagine we were totally museumed out after this day so we planned the next day to go to Grand Isle to get back to nature;-) I’ll close this section off with the next selection of beers I’ve tried and my favourite in this grouping was the Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale.