A carnival for the senses in the City of New Orleans
I was back! Way longer than planned, but I have an excuse, it’s called life. Now aged 44 some 23 years on from my last trip a second opportunity crops up to re-explore one of the USA’s most cultural and historic city’s, the Capital of Jazz and Carnival. New Orleans.
At just 21 on my last trip, New Orleans is Nicole’s home town. Nicole and I became pals working for Airtours Sun Cruises, the UK’s first budget friendly cruise line – sounds as glamorous as it was. Nicole was employed as a photographer and me, I was the girl in the radio room, responsible for shipboard communications.
Cruise ship contracts could be hard work, but sometimes, we’d escape our duties and get some shore time and have an adventure or two. Camel riding was one particularly funny highlight.
So, post ship contract and with sister and my friend Kate in tow, we headed across the pond for our first experience of the Big Easy. Young and energetic we saw some sights and spent the rest of our time wisely – cocktail drinking on Bourbon Street and scooping sorbet at Jazz Fest in return for free entry. It was absolutely brilliant and I was buzzing to go back!
New Orleans is huge, so where to start, how about where the city itself started? Founded by the French in 1718, passed briefly through a period of Spanish rule and it was again won back by the French before finally being acquired by the United States in 1803. The city’s iconic French Quarter pays homage to this cultural heritage. Stunningly quaint, its cobbled, narrow streets with highly ornate wrought iron balconies are a joy to wander.
Architecture aside, when cultures collide, fusion happens, more importantly food fusion happens. Like much of the USA there’s an endless choice, but the big bonus here is you also get Creole, Cajun, Soul Food and Seafood.
Creole and Cajun are two things that are often confused. Creole is a fusion of European, African and Caribbean cooking using Louisiana ingredients. Cajun has similar roots and flavours, but the difference is use of the tomato. Creole uses tomato and Cajun does not.
Soul Food is another superpower here, with roots sadly in enslavement, this hearty cuisine was created to feed. This doesn’t mean poor quality, think fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and peach cobbler, this is dangerously delicious food. So, despite its horrible past, we owe African American cooks the greatest of thanks, it’s incredible.
For seafood fans, this is also hallowed ground. Oysters, Shrimp, Catfish, Crawfish and Crab are all abundantly available both cheaply and at top quality. The top of our ‘to-do’ list was to eat something truly southern and we just had to have a seafood boil. As simple as it sounds, it’s a pile of freshly boiled seafood, in this instance, Crawfish (think mini lobsters) with Lousiana seasoning, new potatoes and Andouille (Cajun sausage). There’s no etiquette eating it, just get messy, peel em, and eat em, just divine.
For many visitors here, just a few days are available to explore and if that’s the case, a good way to sample the variety of food is at the riverfront French Market. This pretty open-air market features shopping, dining, music and local crafts. We sampled crawfish mac and cheese, and a delicious Beignet from the iconic Cafe Du Monde, this is the place for these donut like fried snacks.
Of course, as one of world’s leading music cities, many people head to New Orleans for this reason alone, after all, it’s known as the birthplace of Jazz! Two of the biggest draws for visitors here are Jazz Fest, a festival dedicated to the genre held each spring and of course Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, Feb). The Mardi Gras Carnival and celebrations are legendary however, visiting at this time can be hot, busy and expensive. Many visitors are just unaware that carnival season actually starts in January with opportunities to view some incredible parades.
Parades are organised by ‘Krewe’s’. These are clubs or organisations that exist to celebrate Carnival although, they may also have cultural, charitable or social aims too.
We visited late January and caught three mind blowing parades of music, costume and dance. The first was Krewe of Chewbacchus a selftitled satirical space cult. We then visited the Outer East district and the Krewe of Nefertiti, an all-female social aid and community organisation. The final parade, Krewe Boheme we luckily viewed from a balcony in the elegant French Quarter, a private party. Each one was absolutely incredible, creative, inspiring and unforgettable.
During our visit we did once again visit the famous ‘Bourbon Street’, very cool but akin to Newcastle’s Bigg Market on steroids. Wild and fun with a bit of everything, it’s worth checking out, but there are definitely better and cooler options. Frenchman Street is one. Once a hidden gem, it’s now recognised as one of the best spots for live music and as the weekend arrives from Wednesday onwards the music options and the crowds get bigger.
New Orleans has a vast and very cool drinking scene, some say it’s the birthplace of the cocktail. True or not, the Sazerac Cocktail was created here, made with Cognac, Whiskey and Absinthe, it’s lethal. Also, Louisiana’s open container law means walking around with an alcoholic drink is perfectly legal here.
There’s an incredible array of activities here, Sailing Mississippi by paddlesteamer with live Dixieland Jazz was a highlight and our day at the National Museum of WW2 was a wow experience. We also walked our socks off, exploring the French Quarter and Garden District with expert guides from freetoursbyfoot.com. By night we explored lesser known cool hangouts with Nicole, the benefits of knowing a local!
Sadly it was time to head home but what a trip and what an experience! In the words of Nawlins local, Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world…