Crescent City Diary: April 5-9 2019
It seems as if New Orleans, Louisiana is either on everyone’s bucket list or it isn’t. Those of the “isn’t” opinion tend to be those who have lived near or in the city or were at one time a member of the active military. Those of the “is” opinion are generally those who have not been to the southeast region of the country and are under the impression that the city retains its charm as one of mystery, debauchery and the origin of America’s original music form, jazz. Despite the resentment of this most famous city by some, taking an open mind and a sense of exploration are a healthy approach wherever one travels on vacation and certainly recommended for this one.
The usual spring break trip constitutes a trip to southern Utah, Lava Hot Springs in Idaho or sometimes nowhere if the funds aren’t available. This year, fortunately, it found us in the deep south in springtime. As a fan of jazz music, the city holds a sacred place for fans because of the rich cultural history and connection to one of the countries greatest cultural upheavals that set in motion what would eventually evolve into the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. Additionally, the area’s history of plantations, slavery, colonialism, commerce and an element of the paranormal lend ample opportunities to experience a broad selection of experiences for everyone. Of course, NOLA is also renowned for world-class cuisine with influences from original Creole, French, Caribbean and the highly accessible waterways of the Mississippi and the Atlantic Ocean.
In order to take up some space on the less serious aspect of this blog this “review” is not meant to be taken for anything you might find in a Fodor’s or Moon travel guides. Moreover it is a visitor’s impression of the experiences taken in during a brief stay. I felt that the group picked a diverse choice of activities that nicely touched on many of the aspects that the city is known for. Catching the city between festivals and peak times I felt lent itself to a less pressured and frantic pace. Being in a city with as wild a reputation as “the Big Easy” is often not what it’s cracked up to when you add throngs of visitors and even more highly priced food, libations and attractions.
Prior to our arrival it had rained heavily and severely for two days, causing some minor flooding and even canceling several events around the city. The scope of the deluge was evident by the pools of water visible throughout the city under freeway overpasses, parking lots and in lawns and fields. Fortunately the weather dried out by the end of the week and warm temperatures and sunshine graced the majority of our stay.
Freret Street Festival
This one was an easy choice given that it was free and nearby our Airbnb. Apparently this is a yearly street-market festival that features local artists and vendors. It encompassed several closed city blocks with a stages at each end (four in total) featuring live music, plenty of food booths and also the inclusion of local businesses and bars. Unlike the conservative norm of Utah, public consumption of alcohol is not looked down upon in this city. Along with the other offerings, carts and booths sold both cold beer and shots of liquor for reasonable prices to festival goers. Much of the art was fascinating and had an expectable local flavoring. Some stood out and I’m sure the vendors looked forward to a profitable day’s sales and were glad that the weather didn’t force the festival to be canceled. One gem I discovered was the Crescent City Comic shop, as a fan of local business over big-box retail I strolled in and walked out with some merch I didn’t usually spy at my local haunts. Another round of beers and a Burnt Ends Po’ Boy sandwich finished off the afternoon in the quickly rising heat.
Haunted New Orleans Tour
A haunted civil war hospital, former Spanish Embassy and decadent socialite mansion are subjects of one of the walking tours of old New Orleans. Complete with a costumed tour guide and plenty of lurid detail, this day-tour outlined the lives of some of the city’s most storied and infamous figures. Highlights included a count who preserved blood for nefarious and morbid purposes and a woman who treated slaves worse than property until her house burned to the ground. The tour certainly gave insight to why this city is considered one of the country’s most haunted.
Filled with spirits of both kinds, the tour paused briefly at a bar for libations. The guide, named Lynx, dressed as a 19th century pirate and carried on the tour with a dramatic and determined flair. His storytelling and detail provided plenty of elements to draw visual cues from the facades of structures that have stood for more than one hundred years. Perhaps the midnight cemetery tour or ghost hunt is more for thrill seekers but this walking tour was both affordable and educational. In a city that has seen more than its share of tragedies, often the most chilling reality isn’t the one that lurks in the darkness.
No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stroll down this famous and often infamous byway. Because of the week’s in-between status of not hosting Mardi Gras, a major sporting event or any other festival, the attendance was relatively mellow. That having been said, one could still stand and watch as wave after wave of people who were mostly tourists like us came and went all night. The most popular eateries and bar were packed with waiting lines and there was plenty of distraction such as voodoo museums and themed gift shops to offer wares, scares and empty your wallet. Regardless, all of our group returned with their wallets/purses intact and a “been there, done that” story to tell.
Destrehan Plantation and Cajun Pride Swamp Tours
Slavery left its mark on the south like a scar that won’t heal. Despite the ignorance of modern history books, progress of the last half century and insistence that America is an equal society, history cannot truly be erased. Nowhere is the evidence of cruel segregation more visible than in the plantations that dot states such as Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. Some of these buildings have been restored to their southern glory, lavishly decorated and painted to resemble the antebellum state that they had. Others have been left more stark and focus on the state of everyday life where the differences of masters and slaves were a fact that so few stopped to recognize. Destrehan was one of the latter. I found it neither particularly repentant nor ignorant to its past and the history the guide told was more of a bare-bones day to day account of life on a plantation. The impressive structure featured massive timbers and high ceilings supported by sturdy stonework that had stood for more than one hundred years. Everywhere you looked, however, it was evident that there was a white class and another class that only existed to serve the former. The oppressive difference of the slave residences drive this point home unflinchingly. Some go to plantations to experience history, while others would like to perhaps get a taste of the supernatural. The one thing that is undeniable is that regardless what you go looking for, you will come face to face with the specter of a past that will not die.
Touring a swamp isn’t exactly what most consider a vacation destination, but to the landlocked residents of a non-coastal state it can provide a fascinating perspective into an entirely different environment. First and foremost, swamps do not harbor swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes as many films and TV shows mistakenly portray. As the guides pointed out, the water is constantly flowing, not standing, which prevents the dreaded pests from laying their eggs to hatch and feed on the nearest food sources. Second is that they are not smelly, slimy atrocities (another inaccuracy) seething with carnivores. Okay, maybe check that last part. Alligators and snakes are two common denizens of the swamp and certainly, if one is not respectful or cautious of their surroundings, physical peril can ensue. Sitting aboard a tour boat floating the waterways is not going to expose you to these perils and is a perfectly ideal way to not only orient oneself to the aquatic forest that is a swamp, but also with help of a knowledgeable guide to learn about the history and secrets this unique ecosystem holds. Highlights of this tour included the legend of Julia Brown who was said to have cursed her town to oblivion on her death–the town was wiped out within a year by a powerful hurricane. Also the chance to witness wildlife such as alligators in their own environment as well as hold a baby one.
Cemetery Stroll and City Park Botanical Gardens
The final day brought the opportunity to get in some final sightseeing before the flight home. First option was one of the local cemeteries. Our group chose a shaded, lavish site, not the famed city cemetery that featured midnight tours and decrepit mausoleums. Additionally, that cemetery offered little or no shade from the sun making it better to take by morning or twilight during the warm months of the year. Lakewood Cemetery lay at the city’s edge and it was evident that it was patronized by the city’s elite class. Honestly, some of the structures probably cost more than an average homeowner’s mortgage! When I say ‘structures’ I’m not just referring to mausoleums themselves. Many of the monuments included statues, sculptures, stone vases mounted on plinths, and even classic columns with detailed decorations and carvings. Apparently if you are wealthy in the south the celebration of death can be almost as important as that of life.
A perfect conclusion to our trip to the south, the New Orleans Botanical Garden lay inside the sprawling city park. This gem of a public attraction charged a fee which I initially scoffed at but later thought worthwhile if for no other reason than its shelter from the rising heat. Adorning the entrance was a massive Jeff Chihuly sculpture which seemed to symbolize the vibrant and colorful nature of the city itself. The gardens were immaculately groomed and adorned with native plants of every sort that can be found throughout the region. Many of the covered walkways were just beginning their growth for the late spring/summer and it must be a glorious sight to behold them in late months when the vines had crept to cover them, illuminated by decorative light strings in falling light. For the benefit of mixed interests, the garden featured one of the largest outdoor train sets I’ve ever seen which neatly plotted out the footprint of the Crescent City. Also a Zen garden and two domed greenhouses boasted the more unique species of plant life that could not be consistently maintained in open air. What I took to be a somewhat overpriced distraction turned out to be a delightful diversion and bookend to the trip.
Perhaps if you live in a city that operates at the frenetic pace of “up all night, sleep all day” or have witnessed the stark contrast between haves and have-nots on a daily basis you will learn to resent its essence. Just like individuals are attuned to take their own surroundings for granted, any place can become a prison if you allow it to. From a visitor’s outside perception, New Orleans holds that mystical fascination that most of us are drawn and attracted to. Movies and books have glamorized the city’s image with tales of vampires, witches, specters and murderers. Then, fourteen years ago hurricane Katrina changed the landscape altogether. Perhaps no natural disaster has affected the public in a way that this one did and in its wake it left the city and national consciousness in ruins. It was the first real sign that climate change wasn’t to be taken lightly.
Our rented Airbnb was located on a street half a mile from the refurbished Mercedes-Benz Superdome, infamous now for the footage of evacuees seeking refuge from their flooded communities. Ironically, at the end of the street the remains of a house had been left, but only the front facade of the house, porch and all. The rest behind it had been long-since torn down. I wondered if it stood as a kind of macabre monument to what had happened. Certainly it won’t be a “never again” thing as this city will once again be visited by mother nature’s wrath.
Like any other city/communities, New Orleans is not without its faults. As one of the oldest cities in America it inherits the darkest of legacies in the inequality and suffering caused by slavery. This racial disparity still ripples through society today, especially in the regions where the growth of cotton, tobacco and sugar cane thrived. However, the city is also a testament to human spirit. To those who call it home and returned to rebuild after the storm, the spirit of the colonial settlers was evoked. They say that in 50-100 years this city will be underwater and nothing will be left to rebuild. If this happens, then the rich history of the Creole, Spanish, French, Cuban and so many other cultures that made this city a melting pot will be physically lost. The legends of voodoo priestesses will still be whispered, the specters of the ancient cemeteries will still draw chills and the notes of Louis Armstrong’s trombone will continue to resonate throughout history. If you have never been there, then you will never know what it’s like to miss New Orleans.