By KIM POINDEXTER
New Orleans isn’t for the faint of heart. So if you’re offended by transvestites, topless women, sex toy shops, all-hours bars, the sight of people purging in the street and other visions of light-hearted debauchery, read no further, because the Big Easy is not for you.
But if indulging in some of the tastiest food on the planet while you enjoy a slate of great music and the old-world charm of the Crescent City overshadows the less savory elements, book your flight. You’re in for a sensory trip you won’t find elsewhere.
My husband, son and I were in New Orleans last year for one weekend of the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, which we hadn’t attended since 1998. This isn’t the only festival of its kind; there are several across the U.S., but I have several friends who have been to others, and all agree NOLA’s is the best (all but one, who prefers the more sedate ambiance of another event).
Jazz Fest (www.nojazzfest.com) dates back to 1970 as an authentic cultural immersion experience, spotlighting the area’s unique Creole/Cajun roots. The festival is April 27 through May 6, and if you decide to go this late in the game, you’ll wind up in a hotel a little far afield from the French Quarter, the hub of activity. But general admission tickets are available, and this year’s lineup is especially appealing – for me, anyway.
The Eagles – my favorite band – are one of the headline acts for the second weekend. So are the Foo Fighters, Bonnie Raitt, Eddie Vedder, Herbie Hancock and many more. If you’re eyeing the first weekend, you’ll have Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Beach Boys to draw your attention. Unless you pay the exorbitant prices for special seating, it’s general admission, and you’ll fight for blanket spots on a huge field at the fairgrounds, but trust me: It’s worth it, if you can deal with the crowds.
The 2011 first-weekend lineup included Robert Plant, Jeff Beck, Bon Jovi and more. It was my son’s first time, and he reveled in it, moving among nearly a dozen venues, including the larger stages, a few tents and permanent buildings like those at any fairgrounds. There are always several bands playing at a time, and visitors wander around, enjoying fabulous food from a number of vendors, as well as shopping the eclectic wares only New Orleans can offer.
I had to have boudin right away, and the fried boudin balls were wonderful. My husband delved into a huge paper boat filled with boiled crawfish. Fried alligator is always on the menu, and you won’t be able to resist the jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, shrimp and grits, and an array of po’boy sandwiches. And of course, fresh oysters on the half-shell and soft-shell crab. At the fairgrounds, the food prices are pretty good, although alcoholic beverages are a bit higher.
Hotels during Jazz Festival jack up their prices; we’ll be paying nearly $300 a night for a room at the French Quarter Hampton Garden Inn this year. That’s why splitting the cost of a room with friends is a good idea. If you’re staying in the French Quarter, you can catch regular buses (reasonably priced) to the fairgrounds from most of the major hotels. If you’re staying farther afield, you’ll pay much less for a room, but you’ll need to get a taxi. Book early, because getting a cab on the spot is virtually impossible during Jazz Fest. Tickets to the festival are less expensive if you buy them in advance than at the gate (where they’re $65 apiece per day). If you’re not interested in going to the fairgrounds every day, don’t buy for all days.
Each morning, you’ll wait in line to catch a bus from your preappointed spot; you’ll be trundled to the fairgrounds, where you’ll wait in another line to get in. If you don’t get there early, you won’t be able to claim a decent spot in front of the stage of your choice. Since there are several venues, you’ll want to park in front of the stage where most of the groups you want to see will perform. Then, you and your crew can take turns browsing about, while someone mans your home base with blankets, lawn chairs, and coolers. Don’t forget your sunscreen, or you’ll be deep-fried like the food you’re eating.
For our particular tastes, going to New Orleans and staying at the fairgrounds the entire time would be a waste of cultural opportunity, so we planned other side excursions. You might want to check out some of the museums, or the zoo, and there’s a riverboat ride we heard was fun. We opted to take a bicycle tour with Confederacy of Cruisers (confederacyofcruisers.com). CofC offers a culinary and a “drinking” tour, but because of heavy crowds, they only feature their Creole tour during Jazz Fest. This is advertised as a jaunt that gives you a taste of the “real city,” and it’s true to its word.
Our excellent tour guide, Cassady, led us through neighborhoods packed with historic houses, on old classic, comfy bicycles – the ones with foot brakes and upright handlebars. No special skills needed, but you have to be in fairly decent shape, because you’ll ride a few miles in the heat of the day. This tour focuses on enclaves once home to Creoles and Free People of Color, through elegant oak-lined avenues and down narrow, colorful streets. Cassady explained the entire history of the city, and his homey Nawlins drawl and lively delivery made the tour so much fun we didn’t want it to end! He also took us to four favorite neighborhood bars, where the drinks were cheap and the “natives” friendly. It’s a must-do for visitors, and at only $45 a person, it’s a steal of a deal. Be sure and save money for the gratuity; Cassady earned it for sure!
Since the great cuisine (and perhaps the alcoholic beverages!) are a main attraction of New Orleans, we investigated before we choose our restaurants for the evening. My sister Lisa, who lives in Florida, is a great travel researcher, so combining her knowledge with some tips from others (my husband’s boss, my sister’s brother-in-law, and Cassady), we came up with four real winners: Court of Two Sisters, Felix’s, Mother’s and Couchon.
Court of Two Sisters (www.courtoftwosisters.com) is on the famous Rue Royale and has a storied history behind it. Two Creole sisters gave the restaurant its eventual name. The menu is traditional but elegant, the atmosphere revolving around a very special courtyard motif, so this can be a choice for a more dressy occasion. Entrees range from $25 to $30.
Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, in the French Quarter on Iberville, is a local favorite for fried seafood platters. The website wasn’t working as of this writing, but you’ll find everything from fried shrimp to crawfish, soft-shell crab to oysters on the half-shell – plus all the trimmings, like coleslaw and hushpuppies. There was a line around the block when we got there; fortunately, we had reservations. It’s a big free-for-all atmosphere with long tables, and the prices are reasonable.
Mother’s (www.mothersrestaurant.net) is another popular local hangout, established in an old warehouse. The menus are wide-ranging, homey and traditional, with the usual po’boys, gumbo, red beans and rice, and more. Platters are available, as are daily specials, and portions are huge. Expect to pay from $15 to $25 for an entree.
The real capstone of the agenda – for me, anyway – was Couchon (www.couchonrestaurant.com), billed as Cajun Southern cooking. This is off the beaten path a bit, but without a doubt, it’s one of New Orleans’ best restaurants; even the chefs will tell you that. I doubt you’ll get in without reservations. If you like game, this one’s for you, but you can also get a sampling of the seafood and other treats so prized among Nawlins fare. I got one of my nephews to try the fried oysters, and even he agreed they were superb. I myself had the rabbit and dumplings, and my husband – who loves pork, and that’s what “couchon” means – had the Louisiana couchon with turnips, cabbage and cracklins. My son had the smothered duck leg and dirty rice. One of the specialties is oyster and bacon sandwich, and someone at our table had that. Others include braised pork cheeks with sauerkraut potato cakes, fried boudin (which I also sampled), and of course, the alligator. Entrees range from $15 to $26.
Our group also took a trolley tour of the Garden District, with its lineup of stately old homes. They were relatively untouched by Katrina, so the area still offers a display in finery. The trolleys are another fun and unique feature of New Orleans, and some are hop-on, hop-off. These tours are inexpensive and good for kids, and they’re the best way for you go get a good look at the heart of the city.
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a stroll down Bourbon Street, where you can take in the bawdy and raucous atmosphere, drink a couple of Hurricanes, and pick up a few ringlets of beads. And no, you won’t have to take off your shirt; that’s for Mardi Gras. It’s always “buyer beware” for the bars, and you’re better off asking a local. Some of the more touristy spots will sell you a Hurricane with very little alcohol in it. We also stopped by the Napoleon House for an “original” Pimm’s Cup – delicious and refreshing.
If the intoxicating atmosphere (sometimes quite literally) of Jazz Fest appeals to you, start planning right now, before everything is booked.
Another thing you might want to start now is your diet. In just a few days in the Big Easy, you can easily pack on 10 pounds, even with the bike tour. Ask me how I know!