Dirty, smelly, crazy, loud and one of the best holidays of my life. NOLA is nasty, obnoxious, leery and acidic on the eyes. My preconceived notions of NOLA were whimsical, romantic and nostalgic. I liked to disappear into films like Interview with the Vampire and Pretty Baby, both of which filter NOLA through rose-tinted spectacles.
The film Ten Years A Slave, presenting the tragic story of slave Solomon Northrupp, was set amid a lush, sultry backdrop, almost too beautiful to be the sight of such hardship. Then there were the long, languorous and deeply sensual novels of Anne Rice who brought the realm of vampires and violinists to life. All these works of art represented New Orleans and encouraged me to want to, no, need to see it.
NOLA is a dichotomous city, one which resonates with both purity and putridness. As well as the stories of Storyville Bordellos, you have gorgeous architecture. Beyond the heave and swell of Mardis Gras and Bourbon Street is the call of the cicadas and the sweaty swamp. Visiting NOLA is seeing it for all its dirt and grime (and needing a shower on the hour every hour) but also being captivated by its unique beauty.
Make no mistake, NOLA is gorgeous in a way that is hard to define. It’s a beguiling combination of hard partiers (Spring Break, WOO!), voodoo, ghosts, graveyards, jazz and bourbon, as seedy as it is sweet.
Hop on Hop off Bus Tour
You might not think that a bus tour is the first thing you’d want to do when you get to New Orleans, but it was the way I decided to spend my first morning. New Orleans is not overly large but by bus, you get to grips with the main overview of the city. It’s divided into key quarters, most tourists stay in the French Quarter whilst the Garden District is home to various rich and notable NOLA natives such as John Goodman, Beyoncé and JayZ and formerly Anne Rice.
A bus tour might be a slightly lazy way to amble around, but with the heat and intermittent storms, it’s a useful way to quickly place yourself in this sweltering city. You also get a free tour of the Garden District and a self-guided tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 as optional add-ons.
I’m not one to take advice from Blake Lively, but I did so on this one occasion and that was to head to Stein’s on Magazine Street. I also batted away the faux concern of an attorney who seemed concern that I didn’t have any mace on me and offered to drive me back to my hostel (no thanks creepy mace man.)
Garden District walking tour
The Garden District has always held a mystical allure for me. It’s where all the big, beautiful houses are located. Houses is probably the wrong word. These are mansions. It’s a great place to scout out celebrity houses but just marvelling at the architecture is enough. You do have to keep a watchful eye on the pavements which don’t tend to be well maintained. You also learn a little about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the neighbourhood.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
If you’re already in the Garden District, the cemetery is a mere hop, skip and a jump away. When in NOLA, you have to see it’s graveyards as they are very distinctive. They are essentially above ground vaults where the dead are kept. You can find many members of notable families housed in one crypt. Make sure you have a hat or some water with you, as the heat is stifling (perhaps the heat is on my mind as at the time of writing, England is as hot as sitting in an oven with a towel wrapped around you. I genuinely feel as if I’ve been catapulted into the sun.)
I love everything creepy and quirky. One of the things I love most about the Zelda games is the odd masks, magic and transformations. Perhaps that’s what’s so enduring about voodoo. The voodoo museum is tiny but offers an intimate experience into the heart of voodoo in New Orleans. You can also learn more about Marie Laveau, one of the most famous and beloved voodoo practitioners in the city.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
If graveyards are your thing, and I admit, they kind of are for me, St. Louise Cemetery No. 1 is unique for several reasons. One, it houses Nicolas Cage’s pyramid tomb (seriously…the man isn’t even dead yet) and two, it supposedly houses the resting place of the mysterious Marie Laveau. Makeup, combs and alcohol are cluttered around the tomb where she supposedly rests as offerings.
I hadn’t even heard of Preservation Hall before I went to New Orleans, but then I haven’t heard of a lot of things. The hall itself is dedicated to the preservation of jazz. Inside, there is no bar, no bathrooms and no photos are allowed. Instead, you sit and listen to the musicians play. It’s also BYOB. You can reserve a spot by purchasing tickets online if you aren’t in town for long and don’t want to risk queueing, but you can just turn up and hope that you are one of the lucky ones. Tickets cost $20 if you purchase them on the door and shows run from 5pm, 6pm, 8pm, 9pm and 10pm unless there are particular special events running.
Frenchman Street is Bourbon Street’s slightly less rowdy, less sleazy cousin. It’s still misbehaved, but in a cheekier way whereas Bourbon Street itself is pure carnage. The devil himself would blush after taking a sip of a hand grenade. There are plenty of bars, restaurants and social frivolities to engage in here, without feeling that you’ve wandered into the 7th circle of hell that Bourbon Street can effortlessly regress to.
I booked my swamp tour with Cajun Encounters who drive you out to Honey Island Swamp. Do any of you guys remember that episode of The Simpsons when Bart joins the boy scouts and the gang float down a river whilst creepy laughing weirdos run by? Something about this episode stuck in my mind and it’s why I have a minor obsession with American camps and wilderness groups in general.
Swamp life doesn’t disappoint. We saw crocodiles, heard the bull frogs and saw a racoon with muddy paws, but the thing that really grips you about the swamp are its colours and sounds. It’s so green and the whispered chorus of endless creatures is almost deafening.
I think we’ve established that I’m a Pretty Baby fan (love you Brooke). There was no way I could go to NOLA without seeing the hotel where they shot some of the scenes. The hotel is situated on St. Charles Ave and feels like being transported back in time. The hotel is old but retains a very majestic charm. Don’t bother with the Pretty Baby cocktail. It was so sweet it kept me coughing. Order something else instead.
Plantations are an integral part of Louisiana’s history and there are plenty here. I was advised not to do a tour, as you don’t learn much about slavery, but I decided to go along anyway. I booked with Pelican and combined the Laura and Oak Alley Plantations. At the Laura Plantation, a colourful little plantation, you learn about the history of the family that lived there as well as about the slaves that lived on the plantation. Oak Alley is famous for its sprawling oaks (definitely a place to get a picture) and although the experience is less intimate, the property is far more grandiose. You won’t learn too much about slavery from these tours, but you do learn something and it’s an interesting starting block from which you can further your own knowledge.
Everyone stays here because this is where it’s at. From here there is so much to do. There’s Jackson Square, Café du Monde (where Louis sat and had coffee in Anne Rice’s novels) and of course Bourbon Street is not far away…
How the hell do you describe Bourbon Street? There are no words. It’s a claustrophobic mass of crazy people, all drinking and hollering in the street. Notable places of interest are Tropical Isle (try the hand grenade) and Pat O’Brien’s (for the hurricane.) It’s no coincidence that all the drinks sound like they can kill you.
Also, to do, which I didn’t end up doing, is the Steamboat Nanchez boat tour.
I stayed at City House Hostel New Orleans, which provides such a fun, social and lively atmosphere. There are events scheduled every night and there’s a free beer for each guest at 9. I would recommend it. Plus, the air con is good.
All my love