You can’t fake New Orleans. It’s an original. A one-off. Whilst many US cities are a bit samey, a handful of destinations are distinctive. I knew that San Francisco, Santa Fe and New York were unique. And as soon I as I arrived in ‘The Big Easy,’ it was clear that this city belongs in that special group. The music sounds different, the food is distinct and New Orleans looks like nowhere else in America.
“There’s lots of Spanish and French architecture and that goes back to the early days,” Kristian Sonnier of the city’s tourist board told me. But it seems the buildings were designed for New Orleans’ distinct vibe. “People like lounging areas. Porches, fans and the shade of oak trees are important. The pace slows down as you get to town,” he added.
We chatted over lunch at Ralph’s on the Park, a restaurant in a wooden clapperboard villa in the leafy Mid City area. The 1,300 acre City Park opposite is filled with twisting and contorted oak trees. Some of them are older than 600 years. There’s lake in which I spotted terrapins of various sizes.
This is just one of a number of districts that share New Orleans’ distinctive style. “It’s worth riding the street cars down the tree-lined boulevards that lead out to the suburbs,” Kristian advised. So after lunch, I headed to the city’s Garden District. It’s filled with 19th century mansions built in a Southern style. Many of the properties are palatial, with grand columns at the front.
You can admire their beautiful gardens from the pavement, too. Just watch where you walk, especially at night. Tree roots have forced up the sidewalks and a stroll can turn into an assault course of lifted and broken paving stones! You’ll find good shopping and dining options in this area, although I laughed at the sign in the window of Barmacy, which stated, “Sorry, we’re open.” And in Oak Street, a student area, the outdoor sign at Jacques Imo’s bar proclaimed, “warm beer, lousy food and poor service.” New Orleans has a self-deprecating sense of humour.
If you are out and about after sunset and survive the uneven pavements, you’ll notice the city’s special atmosphere. Some people might call it spooky. Spanish moss, which creeps down from the tree branches like cobwebs, gives it an almost ‘Scooby Doo’ type feel.
Many homes have fixed gas lanterns to their exteriors, which cast a flickering light from their real flame. “I think gas light adds a certain kind of quality to the night air,” Kristian told me. He explained that there’s a local company called Bevolo who make these lamps and export them all over the world. You can see why the combination of low, flickering light and old buildings creates the city’s famous ghostly vibe. And I’m sure it helps ticket sales for the night-time vampire walks.
New Orleans was built on swampland. They can’t dig down for graves, so they had to bury their dead above ground in stone crypts and mausoleums. These eerie and ornate stone sculptures and edifices rise above the graveyards, which you’ll find right in the middle of suburban areas. The living and the departed are close neighbours here, it seems.
And there’s the voodoo thing, too. In the touristy central French Quarter you’ll find shops selling jokey, plastic witchcraft tools, but ask the locals and they view it more as a serious religion than mumbo jumbo. Kristian told me that Haitian settlers introduced voodoo and it’s still followed. “Rituals take place on Bayou St John, right behind where I live,” he told me.
“So if you have an argument with somebody in the office, they’re not going to whip out a doll and pins, are they?” I asked. Kristian smiled. “You can buy little bags with charms that make people do things for you. And there are some voodoo priestesses who can tell you which incantations you need to chant to get what you want.”
The phrase ‘melting pot’ is used frequently when describing the make-up of America’s cities. In New Orleans, the term really does fit. The Spanish ruled the area between 1762 and 1803. Their street names are still marked by tiles in the side of some buildings, ironically in today’s French Quarter. And the French Fleur de Lys emblem is visible on flags, posters and shop designs all over the city. “There’s not just French culture, but also Spanish, German, Italian and Sicilian influences here. The Caribbean connection includes African roots because of slavery,” Kristian told me.
The cultural mix is always changing. After Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the city in 2005, many of the newly-arrived emergency workers fell in love with New Orleans and chose to stay in the city.
I wanted to find out more about the city’s rich history so I met up with tour guide Brian Huff from New Orleans Streetwalkers Tours. “We’re going to go back to 1682,” boomed Brian theatrically, as we stood in the French Quarter’s vibrant central square. “A French explorer claimed all lands drained by that mighty river in the name of Louis XIV of France. That is why we are called Louisiana – we’re named after the French king.” Nouvelle-Orléans was founded in 1718.
The mighty Mississippi’s murky brown waters cut across the city and I hopped on a ferry for the ten-minute ride to the other side of the river. As the boat pulled away from the shore there was a good view of the city’s high-rise skyline and twin cantilever bridges carrying the interstate into town. The low rumble of the boat engine mixed with the jolly, fairground-sounding notes of a steam-driven pipe organ. They were coming from the nearby paddle steamer Natchez, which also offers river cruises.
I disembarked at Algiers Point, the second oldest part of the city and the district on the western bank of the river. It was established in 1719. Looking back to the dock, I thought it was strange seeing a ship pass across the top of the grass embankment, which holds back the Mississippi. The river is higher than the street level, and it’s this that caused so much misery in the past for New Orleans.
The city made international headlines following the devastation by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Almost 1,500 people died and around four-fifths of the city flooded when the dykes – or levees as they’re called here – were overtopped or breached. Some parts of town were under 15ft of water.
Brian explained why the city was so vulnerable. “Jackson Square in the French Quarter is just 10ft above sea level. The highest point in the city is 14ft. When Katrina hit and the levees broke, the water just flooded in.”
As I walked away from the waterfront I noticed how peaceful this suburb was. The steamboat songs were replaced by the sound of a woodpecker busily bashing his beak against a telegraph pole. The area is mainly residential and filled with colourful wooden homes, some with porches and many pre-dating the War of Independence.
A vintage Gulf petrol station has been preserved. There’s an English style pub, too. Curiously, the front entrance to The Crown and Anchor is fashioned like an old British Police callbox. It did seem bigger inside. That place is like a Tardis!
Back across the water, I checked out another hip, up-and-coming suburb, Bywater. I was initially unsure if I was heading in the right direction. A rundown old industrial area separates this district from Downtown. I wouldn’t walk it at night, but in daylight you can appreciate the brightly painted buildings, spooky street art featuring grinning skeletons and the iron-balconied Regency townhouses. Strings of plastic beads were strung from trees and railings like spaghetti. That’s a remnant of famous Mardi Gras partying.
Nothing defines a region more than its food. I’ve travelled the US extensively and I’ve never found a city with a more distinct cuisine. I loved the blackened seasoning and the heat and spice in the food. “Cajun food is anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims,” Brian told me, adding, “It’s one-pot country cooking at its best.”
Frank Brigtsen’s is well known around New Orleans as a television chef. He has been at the forefront of revitalising traditional Creole cooking methods and he offered a more considered view. “It’s very complex,” he told me. “Cajun food comes from the French-speaking Acadians from Canada. They settled in South Louisiana, living off the land and using French cooking techniques with the local ingredients.”
Frank owns Brigtsen’s, a beautiful restaurant in a Victorian villa in the Riverbend area of the city – a leafy suburb popular with university staff. He told me that traditional local dishes can change within a short distance. “There are different subcultures in the state. We don’t have counties like elsewhere in the US. We have parishes. From one parish to another the gumbo can be different.”
Gumbo – a dark, rich, fishy stew – is one of the city’s best-known dishes. I asked Frank what has to be in a gumbo. “It starts with a brown roux of oil and flour,” he replied, adding, “It is a very French technique.” The word gumbo comes from an African word for okra. “People talk about gumbo like people talk about football teams,” Frank told me. “They’ll argue and say ‘mine is better than yours.’ The only right way to make it is probably the recipe that your mom followed,” he laughed.
As we chatted, it became clear that making gumbo isn’t just about cooking a meal. It can be a social occasion and a celebration of a deep sense of New Orleans identity. “If you found some fresh okra and fresh shrimps, you’d put them in your gumbo and invite people over to eat it with you,” said Frank. “French bread and gumbo is a social gathering. It brings people together and truly keeps us together,” he said.
Frank became more serious as he explained the importance of this uniting dish. “We were all evacuated for Katrina,” he explained. “We went to North Louisiana for a few months. When we were finally allowed home I wanted to make a gumbo so I got my pot and my ingredients and I asked my wife to call all the staff. We made it together. That was a best gumbo in my life. It brought us all together again and reaffirmed that this is our place. We laughed. We cried. We hugged. It was very enlightening to me how powerful a gumbo is.”
Another local favourite is the po-boy, a sandwich made on a type of French bread but different from a baguette. “Our bread is light and airy and with a thin crust,” said Frank. “We make some big sandwiches with it. It could be as simple as ham and Swiss cheese, roast beef and gravy or seafood, like fried shrimp or oyster.” You will see muffulettas too. These are a big sandwich on a round, sesame-seeded bun. It is filled with cold cuts of meat, olives and provolone cheese. Sicilians introduced it to the city.
The French have also influenced the city’s fast food. If you head to Jackson Square in the city centre you’ll find a café, hemmed into a dip, just under the wall retaining the Mississippi. Cafe du Monde is a 24-hour cafe established in 1862 and usually has huge queues outside. “They are famous for their beignets – French doughnuts with sugar,” Frank advised. “They are also famous for their chicory coffee.”
New Orleans is passionate about food and they love their cocktails, too. You’re never far from an alcoholic beverage! Brian told me that he is a member of a gymnasium called the New Orleans Athletic Club, founded in the year 1872, that has a full bar!
I met with local cocktail expert Paul Tuennerman at the cocktail bar Cure. It’s on the city’s Freret Street. The area was rundown and dodgy until a few years ago but now, after Katrina, people are moving in. He gave me one of New Orleans’ distinctive bright red cocktails – the Sazerac. It contains cognac and is named after an established brand. The drink includes sugar, absinthe and the local floral, botanical drink called Peychaud Bitters. It was created by Antoine Peychaud, who moved here from Haiti in the late 18th century.
“The bitters are a key element of the drink,” Paul shouted over the room of loud revellers. “Back then there were no cocktail bars. There were apothecaries that people went to see when they felt unwell. The local chemist would make them something. This drink was one of those remedies. I call it history in a glass.”
A lot of Sazeracs will be consumed from 13th February 2018! That’s when the next Mardi Gras celebrations start. The church calendar dictates the date of the annual festival. I was interested to see that religious events are marked prominently here. I noticed an Algiers Point café offering Lent Lunch specials of crayfish. “Mardi Gras is the greatest free show on earth,” Kristian told me. “It is a city-wide celebration the likes of which you will never see anywhere else. You don’t have to pay to experience the spectacle. Just turn up.”
It’s around two weeks of parades during which the city hosts over one million people. There are only 400,000 residents normally, so it gets busy. Floats can be up to 300ft long. “The riders will throw plastic beads, or stuffed animals, or frisbees,” said Kristian. “You’ll see a lot of ladders along the route so that kids can be placed on a homemade perch for a better view.”
New Orleans is also world-famous for its music and, in particular, jazz. Musicians play in pubs and bars and you hear music on every street corner and square in and around the French Quarter. “Jazz was born in New Orleans,” Brian told me.
Locals are proud of local jazz legend Louis Armstrong. They named their airport after him. A city centre park has also been dedicated to Satchmo, and his name adorns the arch over the entrance. His statue greets you outside the ferry port in Algiers Point too.
Philip Moore is a concierge at the city’s Hilton New Orleans Riverside and he’s an expert on nightlife options. “You have to go to Bourbon Street. It’s world-renowned, even if you’re just there for five minutes, five hours or until five in the morning!” he said. I did. Its wall-to-wall bars and the streets outside were full of student pub-crawlers, stag and hen dos. It was too loud and wild for me! “The next night, I’d go to Frenchmen Street,” Philip continued. “They have thirteen music clubs over a three block radius.”
Instead, I opted for a more sophisticated slice of New Orleans nightlife. I met Robin Barnes, one of the city’s most-loved singers for dinner at Trinity Restaurant.
I asked Robin where she’d recommend for live music. She suggested I head to Royal Street, an area near to Bourbon Street, but more relaxed and dotted with antique shops, jewellery stores and art galleries.
“Music is pretty much the underlying beat of the entire city,” Robin told me. “The city has such a diversity of music. It has brass bands, which could play traditional jazz music through to soul. If you listen to anyone in New Orleans you’re going to be moved with some kind of excitement, feeling and passion,” smiled Robin.
Robin is in great demand as a performer and I went to see her Saturday night live jazz performance at the Windsor Court Polo Club Lounge. This is an upmarket venue decorated in plush fabrics, rich furnishings and comfortable leather Chesterfield sofas. It felt like a gentleman’s club and the crowd were all there to see Robin. It’s well worth going along while you’re in town. Find out about Robin’s performances at RobinBarnesMusic.com.
As I said goodbye to Robin she offered me some final thoughts on her hometown. “New Orleans has a thumbprint on what the world needs and everybody needs to experience it at least once. But they’ll be back,” she laughed. And Robin, you’re right. I will.
The UK represents New Orleans’s biggest international market and getting to the city is easier than ever. This year, British Airways launched direct, 10-hour flights to New Orleans from London.
I was kindly accommodated at the comfortable and perfectly positioned Hilton New Orleans Riverside.
You can find out more about visiting New Orleans at NewOrleansOnline.com.