The French Quarter
The French Quarter remains the largest tourist destination in New Orleans. In many respects it IS New Orleans - at least to those who have never seen the city before in person, or those who are visiting for the very first time. Trust your Set of Drifters - there is more to NOLA than just the Quarter, and we’ll reveal much of it below. Still, we’ll have to agree that there is no more perfect place to first sink your teeth into than the "Vieux Carré.” One short walk down any of its quaint cobblestone streets, and you’ll instantly be hooked.
A joint effort of the National Park Service (and some pretty strict city planning codes), the French Quarter remains a great example of well-planned preservation of the past, even hundreds of years after its original inception. Your first impression will no doubt focus on the unique mélange of historical architecture that works in tandem with a wide variety of detailed ornamentation and evocative landscaping. Top it all off with some impressive cast-ironwork, and the end result is almost imaginary, likened to Disneyland (but perhaps with a little more booze and debauchery). In fact, there’s a rumor that on one of his visits to the French Quarter, Walt Disney himself decided he wanted to purchase it lock, stock and barrel! When he was turned down by the government, Disney switched gears, building the popular “New Orleans Square” inside Disneyland instead.
Founded by its mother country of France back in 1718, the Vieux Carré was originally developed into a military-style grid consisting of 78 squares. Today, the neighborhood remains much the same, measuring only .66 square miles from top to bottom and edge to edge! It’s this exact concentration that keeps the area so special, and protected from the outside "modern world.”
But it’s not just the French who laid their mark on the land that retains it provincial name. The Spanish moved in during the latter part of the 1700s, and due to a string of mischievous fires that destroyed much of what the French had built, what endures today is mostly Spanish (or Creole) in nature. Set of Drifters tip: Look out for tiled signage embedded into the corners of many buildings. These showcase Spanish alternates for street names that have since reverted back to their original French monikers.
After changing hands back and forth from French to Spanish rule, New Orleans eventually became part of the United States as part of 1803’s Louisiana Purchase. From this point on until well after the Civil War, New Orleans’ French Quarter was known to be one of the most lavish and coveted American cities in which to live. But with that opulence also came crime, courtesy of keel-boat riding thieves, pirates and prostitutes, and later in the 1900s, gangsters!
In 1936, Louisiana State set up the "Vieux Carré Commission" to preserve the unique character of the original French Quarter grid. Art galleries and antique stores quickly followed, and along Bourbon Street, nightclubs, bars and, yes, even strip-joints soon became the mainstay. These days, Bourbon Street is highly commercialized, and often tedious. We tend to enjoy the quieter end of the street where the infamous Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, the oldest bar in New Orleans, is still located. (See "sips" for more information.) But don’t let the virtual insanity of Bourbon prevent you from making a trip here. It can be avoided mostly… if that’s what you want. Trust us, wander down Bourbon after a huge Saints victory - and just try not to catch the spirit!
The heart of the French Quarter is undeniably Jackson Square, the original “county seat” of government for over 150 years! From the steps of picturesque St. Louis Cathedral, everything within the French Quarter is easily walkable within an afternoon, but trust us, you will want to spend more than a few days enjoying the charms confined within. Set of Drifters tip: It would behoove you to check the current calendar to see what events are occurring in New Orleans. The city plays host to a wide variety of conventions and annual events, and their impact on the French Quarter is not to be underestimated. Let's put it this way, if you want relaxation, the weeks surrounding Mardi Gras are not gonna work for you! (See “essentials” for more tips on the best times of the year to visit NOLA and the French Quarter.) Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
French Quarter - bordered by the Mississippi River to the south and North Rampart Street eight blocks inland; from Canal Street on the west to Esplanade Avenue 12 blocks to the east
Esplanade Avenue into the Faubourg Marigny
As visitors to New Orleans will soon realize, there's so much more to the city than just the French Quarter - though you do not have to wander too far from it to experience some of these gems. On our October 2003 visit, we ventured to the nearby Faubourg Marigny district for the very first time. Walking down Esplanade Avenue, your gateway to the Marigny, we were quickly astounded by sumptuous landscaping that enveloped some rather grandiose, albeit decaying, mansions.
Esplanade (locally rhyming with "lemonade") grew out from the Quarter in the 19th Century, a portage road that led goods from the Mississippi River up to the bayous, and eventually Lake Pontchartrain. Once referred to as "Millionaire's Row," today the street feels a bit more "real" when compared to the idyllic tree-hugged avenues inside the “Garden District” (see below). While both locations feature gorgeous examples of southern mansion architecture, the edifices on Esplanade seem to be more user-friendly, and maintained by sociable residents with far less pretense. These locals probably hit up Buffa’s every now and again. The restaurant and lounge is one of the oldest in the neighborhood, and dubbed “your new favorite place” by its proprietors. The few times we’ve visited, the small bar is always crammed with regulars from near and far. A supplemental dining room may be hard to find from the entrance, but once discovered, is home to standard Cajun dishes like red beans and rice and bratwurst jambalaya, served within an effortlessly retro vibe. We never miss a stroll down Esplanade, if only to catch up on the restoration progress of some of our favorite homes. (Set of Drifters tip: Check out that manse on the 800 block of Esplanade at Bourbon!)
But in order to really feel the flavor of the French Quarter’s neighboring hood, it’s time to head deeper into the Marigny. Your first introduction will undoubtedly be Frenchman Street, a densely back few blocks of bars, eateries and jazz clubs that attracts an equal mix of in-the-know travelers and locals. See “live music in NOLA” below, and “goodies” for more details of this burgeoning New Orleans hot-spot!
Further afoot northeast from Frenchmen, amenities within the triangular-shaped Maringy (also known as the 7th Ward) may get a bit more sparse, but the vibe that much more interesting. Any leisurely stroll down side streets like Kerlerec, Music, Pauger and Burgundy will whisk you past numerous Creole cottages, elaborately-painted Victorian shotguns and other structures that, after the 1984 World’s Fair, became refuge for residents priced out of the Vieux Carré.
Named as one of 2009’s “Top 10 Great Neighborhoods” by the American Planning Association, the Marigny is in an ever-evolving state of flux, partly due to wind damage sustained by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. On subsequent trips since, we have seen a number of businesses shutter, only to reopen stronger as entirely new entities. And while larger chains are trying to muscle their way in, local hipsters are striving to keep their community an arty melting pot devoted to the visual and performing arts. (See “hipster watering holes” in “sips” for more information.)
We recommend continuing your stroll past Elysian Fields Avenue (designed to mimic the famous Champs-Élysées in Paris) all the way up to St. Claude. From here, turn right and keep walking past cherished local event spaces like the All-Ways and Shadowbox theaters. (The latter is one of our most photographed buildings in New Orleans, thanks in part to a cool retro pharmacy sign that has recently been refurbished). You may also want to check out the recently renovated New Orleans Healing Center and nearby Cafe Istanbul for all your New Agey/ Performance Art needs!
Looking for a great thrift store? Try the Conrad Shop, also on St. Claude. This place is cluttered (in a good way) with so many unique items, that you’ll need to carve out at least a half an hour to sift through it all. We loved Conrad’s collection of original artwork almost as much as their vintage New Orleans matchbooks. As long as you can handle a little dust and cobwebs, this place is a must. Make sure to say “hello” to the friendly and vivacious staff for us!
Esplanade Avenue - from North Peters Street (at the river) to North Rampart
Buffa’s - 1001 Esplanade Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 949-0038, http://www.buffasbar.com/
Faubourg Marigny - bordered by North Rampart/ St. Claude Avenue to the north and the Mississippi River to the south, from Esplanade Avenue on the west to Franklin Avenue on the east
Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association Walking Tour (held each November) - http://www.faubourgmarigny.org/outreach_walk.htm
AllWays Lounge & Theater - 2240 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117, (504) 218-5778, http://www.theallwayslounge.com/
Shadowbox Theatre - 2400 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117, (504) 298-8676, http://theshadowboxtheatre.com/Shadowbox/Now_Showing.html
New Orleans Healing Center - 2372 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117, (504) 940-1130, http://neworleanshealingcenter.org/
Cafe Istanbul - 2372 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117, (504) 975-0286, http://cafeistanbulnola.com/
The Conrad Shop - 2436 St. Claude, New Orleans, LA 70117, (504) 948-4262
Garden District/ New Orleans Streetcar/ Magazine Street
If you’ve already walked the French Quarter up, down and sideways (for the third time), it may wise for you to step further out into New Orleans. You see, while the French and Spanish Creoles (descendants of early settlers) remained protective of their Vieux Carré homes once Louisiana became a state in 1803, well-to-do Americans set up residence further afoot in what would eventually become the “Garden District” during the 1830s and 40s.
Located just down the Mississippi, New Orleans’ Garden District is arguably just as well preserved at the French Quarter (at a higher sea level, it avoids most hurricane flooding), even if the vibe is decidedly different. Here stately homes, many of them former plantations, beam in brightly-colored facades that poke out from oak-lined side streets. The neighborhood has been attracting celebrities for decades. (These days, luminaries such as John Goodman, Sandra Bullock, Nicholas Cage and a number of local sports heroes all have homes here.) But it’s not just dazzling array of Double Gallery, American Townhouse and Colonial Revival manses that makes the “Garden District” worth a stop. Its lifeline is Magazine Street, a long and curving thoroughfare that serves needs both basic and fanciful. Here, upscale antique and design shops cozy up next to funky thrift and music resale outlets. A hipster contingent further brings in a healthy dose of street art, bars and some pretty cool restaurants. We list some of our favorites below, though imagine you find plenty of others during your afternoon stroll here.
So, we know what you’re about to ask now... How do we get to the Garden District? By historic streetcar of course! (Come on, we’re afraid “A Taxicab Named Desire" just doesn’t cut it.) Fun and functional, and at a nominal price of only $1.25 USD, you can take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar from the edge of the French Quarter, through the artsy Warehouse District, and all the way “uptown” to the garden neighborhood. The voyage takes about 25 minutes in total, and really helps to give first-timers the lay of the land beyond the French Quarter. (Set of Drifters tip: On our most recent visit in October 2012, the streetcar was undergoing renovations and we were forced to ride a bus instead. Don’t let this deter you from riding a streetcar if you happen to see one during your trip. The New Orleans fleet is still in great shape, even though its origins date all the way back to the mid-1800s! Your "Set of Drifters" sees this as a great example of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality.)
Hop off around Louisiana or Toledano to start your weaving walk through the neighborhood. The magnificent homes south of St. Charles will immediately start to scream "Old South" in one breath, and "we're showing off" in the next. (We actually love it when owners exhibit pride in their homes by either leaving front windows or doors wide open so that anyone passing by can see inside their finery; this seems to happen a lot in New Orleans.)
As you wander, you just may spot Belfort Mansion, the home those impetuous kids from MTV’s The Real World resided in back in 2000. (The address is 2618 St. Charles Avenue.) Or perhaps, you’re likely to stumble upon the Victorian-era home that portrayed little Benjamin Buttons’ abode in the Brat Pitt movie of the same name. (It’s at 2707 Coliseum Street). Interested in seeing which other homes belong to whom? You’re in luck. There are a variety of walking tours available through the neighborhood, many of them focusing on the architecture and history of the landscape. Some include a stop-off at the historic above-ground Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, located on Washington Street between Coliseum and Prytania (see more below in "Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1"). We feel the neighborhood is entirely enjoyable on your own, but if you are stoked to see the cemetery, plan ahead. It’s often gated shut, and you won’t want to miss a ramble through its spooky, yet tranquil atmosphere.
Eventually, you wind up at Magazine Street. You can head either way to sample the gaggle of cool little vintage clothing, furniture and antique shops! Some of our favorites include Funky Monkey (and its collection of quirky T’s) and ReHab, the be-all and end-all for NOLA vintage furniture, textiles and housewares. While mainstream grub is available for hipsters of all shapes and sizes, our favorite spot is Salú for tasty flatbreads, small plates such as bacon-wrapped prawns and crab ravioli, and yes, certainly a glass or two of wine!
Returning to the Quarter, you’ll need to head back up to St. Charles to catch the streetcar back. (Washington Avenue is a nice thoroughfare to do so.) Be sure to look up into those majestic oak trees. You’ll spot loads of Mardi Gras beads left over from years past. St. Charles is one the largest parade routes of the celebration.
Garden District - bordered by St. Charles Avenue to the north and Magazine Street to the south, from Toledano Street on the west to 1st Street on the east
New Orleans RTA Streetcar information - http://www.norta.com/getting_around/Streetcars_for_Visitors/index.html
Organized Garden District Tour courtesy of Historic New Orleans Tours - http://www.tourneworleans.com/garden_set.html
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 - 1400 Washington Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70115, (504) 525-3377, http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/lafayette-cemetery-no-1/
Funky Monkey - 3127 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70115, (504) 899-5587, https://www.facebook.com/FunkyMonkeyNewOrleans
ReHab Vintage Furniture & Home - 2855 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70015, (504) 899-6221
Salú - 3226 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70115, (504) 371-5809, http://www.salurestaurant.com/
Haunted History Ghost Tour
With such a rich and tangled history - much of it owing to murder, mayhem and natural disaster - New Orleans is widely known for its supernatural connections. In a place where annual Halloween celebrations rival even those associated with Mardi Gras, generations of locals continue to practice Voodoo, while still others swear by the fact that vampires are hardly fictitious! And did we mention yet those above-ground cemeteries? (If not, we will.)
Let's face it. New Orleans is haunted - period.
Many believe New Orleans’ proliferation of spirits remain shackled to their wicked past due to a dampness that hangs in the air throughout much of the year. But even without humidity to blame, one suspects that the enchanting atmosphere embodied by the French Quarter is simply too seductive to give up - even in the afterlife. (Heck, your Set of Drifters would gladly remain here in perpetuity if given the chance! Where do we sign up?)
Now, even if you’re not a believer like us, a “traditional” French Quarter ghost tour is a wonderful way to pull back the curtain on some of the neighborhood’s most redolent environs. You’ll see the groupings of tourists clogging Vieux Carré sidewalks every day of your trip, and though you might mock the theatricality of it all at first, once on the inside, we assure you the experience is worthwhile. So many of New Orleans former (and current?) inhabitants led impossibly tragic lives that, in turn, inspired some pretty wicked stories.
The LaLaurie Mansion is a noteworthy mention, and a requisite stop on many French Quarter ghost strolls. Madame LaLaurie lived in the manse at 1140 Royal in the early part of the 1800's, and it is here where she and her husband allegedly tortured and performed insane medical experiments on their slaves! After a kitchen fire drew attention of city workers, members of LaLaurie’s staff exposed their laboratory. It is said that the couple fled New Orleans shortly thereafter in the middle of the night, fearing prosecution and ridicule from an angry public! Some say they disappeared into a local Creole community across Lake Pontchartrain, while others assume they made it all the way to Paris where they were never heard from again! Set of Drifters tip: For more information on Madame LaLaurie, and other French Quarter ghost stories you may encounter on your tour, this is a good repository to investigate.
Our favorite ghost tour in New Orleans is the one performed by "Haunted History." (They have a bunch of other options - vampires, voodoo, cemeteries, etc. Be sure to check out their website if ghosts are not quite your cup of witch’s brew.) Tours depart from Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop on St. Peter multiple times a day. A 3:00 PM day trek is available December 26th through July 31st and October 1st through November 30th, though we recommend one of the two night tours instead. Departing all throughout the year at either 6:00 PM or 8:00 PM, this your best opportunity to really sink your teeth into New Orleans’ haunted, and often macabre, past.
Ticket prices for “Haunted History” tours are reasonable at $20 USD for adults and $17 USD for students; reservations required. (Don’t forget to tip your ghost host!)
Set of Drifters tip: Prepare for at least two hours of walking, and dress accordingly if it’s even the slightest bit chilly. A mid-tour stop at one of the French Quarter’s spook-infested watering holes is included, mostly to sate cynics who’ll complain there’s no interior access to the majority of sites. We suggest you use this respite for a potty break, and to grab a cool (or warm) cocktail before heading back out on the remainder of your hunt.
Haunted History Tours - 723 St. Peter Street (between Bourbon and Royal Streets), New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 861-2727
Louisiana State Museum at The Presbytère and Cabildo
One attraction we had often overlooked when visiting NOLA on multiple trips was The Presbytère, a large, somewhat nondescript building adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square. Originally designed to house Capuchin monks in 1791, the building changed purpose a number of times throughout the 1800's, before finally becoming part of the Louisiana State Museum’s vast holdings in 1911.
While your "Set of Drifters" popped into The Presbytère in November 2009 solely to avoid a torrential mid-day downpour, we were delightfully surprised by LSM’s comprehensive, and colorful, experience! Their permanent exhibit titled “Mardi Gras: It's Carnival Time in Louisiana” follows the humble origins of the annual celebration all the way up to its bombastic present.
We loved the extensive collection of original photographs, newspaper clippings and vintage posters and ball invitations from decades past. (We may have even photographed much of it for use as inspiration back home.) But let’s talk facts here. The real star of the show is the exhibit’s mesmerizing collection of sparkled Mardi Gras attire. Several rooms showcase elaborate costumes, crowns, scepters and other accessories, that in many cases are accompanied by original design drawings. Make sure to spend some time in the “Zulu room.” This Mardi Gras krewe is well known for having some of the most fabulous, over-the-top costumery around. While Mardi Gras World (see below) trumps the Louisiana State Museum in terms of offering a peek behind the curtain at float making, the latter does feature one cool little experience the other doesn’t - a simulated ride aboard the party, complete with a filmed back projection of festive parade goers! Laissez les bons temps rouler. Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
The Louisiana State Museum carries over down the block at the Cabildo, the former seat of government for New Orleans during the Spanish occupation of the city from 1795-1799, and the exact location where France later handed New Orleans over to America in 1803. Perhaps a bit less colorful in its presentation of history (there are no sequins to be found here), visitors to the Cabildo will learn a lot about the constant struggle to keep vice and strife under control in the “Big Easy.” From pirates, gamblers and crooked politicians to wars, fires and other such destruction, New Orleans, and its Cabildo, have survived it all!
If you are an oft-returning fan of the Quarter, and are seeking a deeper meaning to this lovely spot beyond your next Hurricane cocktail, we wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Louisiana State Museum - particularly the exhibit housed inside The Presbytère. Admission is quite affordable at $6 USD for adults and $5 USD for students, seniors and active military. Children under 12 are FREE. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 AM until 4:30 PM (closed Mondays). Set of Drifters tip: Don’t miss taking a pee-break upstairs at The Presbytère. Their Mardi Gras exhibit features one of the most clever "public restrooms" we’ve seen yet.
Louisiana State Museum at The Presbytère & Cabildo - 751 and 701 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 568-6968
http://www.crt.state.la.us/museum/properties/presbytere/ and http://www.crt.state.la.us/museum/properties/cabildo/
live music in NOLA
We would be remiss if we did not mention the absolute glut of music found throughout New Orleans. And while the frenzied pace and jittery twang of “Zydeco” seems to prevail (at least from a decibel level), the somewhat grating style of music is really only a “loss leader” to a much larger aural world.
Stroll down the French Quarter’s cobblestoned rues at virtually any time of day, and you’ll undoubtedly hear live music filtering through the saturated air. We surmise it’s been this way for well over a century, since Dixieland Jazz first emerged out of “Storyville” in the early part of the 20th Century. Thanks to prolific musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Al Hirt and the king of them all, Louis Armstrong, Dixieland soon became the signature sound of New Orleans. These days, though you’ll likely still hear “When The Saints Go Marching In” at some point in your visit, established brass bands have been joined by a multitude of up-and-coming artists who effortlessly blend together elements of Bluegrass, Hillbilly, and Cajun with more experimental tones of the modern day. Perhaps the best part about all of this is that the musicians creating these new, always-evolving sounds are doing so with real talent - and real instruments! Refreshing, huh?
On our most recent trip in October 2012, we were highly impressed by an esoteric duo over on Royal Street that mixed various percussive hits with the kora, a 21-string bridge-harp from West Africa. Elsewhere at the famed French Market, a soulful collective named Tuba Skinny assembled together some of the most attractive sounds (and players) we’ve heard yet! Led by the bass-drum-beating female vocalist Erika Lewis, Tuba Skinny sizzled on a number of obscure 20s/ 30s jazz tunes (including “Fourth Street Mess Around”), though it appeared they hardly cared. Hipsters? Perhaps... though these talented kids have the musical prowess to back it all up. Look them up on Facebook, or Bandcamp before they get too big. (They’ve already toured Australia and Mexico, and the “Playing Traditional Jazz” blog out of Leicester, UK has dubbed them “the best band in the world.”) Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Aside from the Quarter, perhaps the most concentrated place to hear live music in New Orleans is on Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood you really should not miss while in town (see above for more information). Here, you’ll find other in-the-know travelers and hipster locals frequenting various bars, restaurants and artsy stores. And if you’re lucky, you may even experience an impromptu street band fusing traditional Dixieland Jazz with more modern rhythms, most often with homemade instruments. (Washboards and tin cans anyone?) Set of Drifters video: Check out another of our New Orleans videos on our YouTube channel for even more sounds!
Nearby, d.b.a. lounge is a satisfying "jazzy" night spot that showcases live acts every night of the week. Management accompanies the tunes with one of the most impressive collections of draught beer we’ve sampled. (Our favorite is, and always will be, local brew Abita - available in numerous tasty varieties! Try the “Purple Haze!”)
We were lucky to discover d.b.a. during one of our first visits to the Big N.O., and try to get back as often as possible to see one of their biggest draws, Linnzi Zaorski. This local crooner with a strong, yet lilting, Billie Holliday drawl is certain to get you in that special mood! Open Monday through Thursday starting at 5:00 PM, and Friday through Sunday at 4:00 PM, d.b.a. closes very late depending on the night and the crowd.) You won’t want to miss this.
Other Frenchman-adjacent music spots worth checking out are the Spotted Cat Music Club, Blue Nile, Maison and Igor's Checkpoint Charlie. Be on the lookout for rosters including Emily Estrella (and her Faux Barrio Billionaires), Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, The Gin Jars and again, Tuba Skinny!
Of course no mention of New Orleans’ music scene can be complete without a nod to the city’s two huge annual music festivals. The New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Fest and Voodoo Fest draw in big names (and even bigger crowds) each April and October/ November respectively. For other local music in and around the Marigny, be sure to check out our “sips” section, and current NOLA calendars for more information.
Set of Drifters tip: We suspect many of New Orleans’ street musicians sincerely rely on their craft to eat and sleep each day. And thus, we recommend supporting them with tips whenever you can, no matter how curmudgeony they may appear (or smell).
The French Market - French Market Place (just off of Decatur Street), New Orleans, LA 70116, http://www.frenchmarket.org/
d.b.a. Lounge - 618 Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 942-3731, http://dbabars.com/dbano/
The Spotted Cat Music Club - 623 Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 943-3887, http://www.spottedcatmusicclub.com/
Blue Nile - 532 Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 948-2583, http://bluenilelive.com/
Maison - 508 Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 371-5543 http://maisonfrenchmen.com/
Igor's Checkpoint Charlie - 501 Esplanade Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70116, (504) 281-4847, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Igors-Check-Point-Charlie/117750594918159
New Orleans Heritage and Jazz Fest - http://www.nojazzfest.com/
Voodoo Music + Arts Experience - http://thevoodooexperience.com/
Tuba Skinny - http://www.tubaskinny.tk/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tuba-Skinny/198301143539894
The Gin Jars - https://www.facebook.com/TheGinJars
Linnzi Zaorski - www.linnzizaorski.com
Oak Alley Plantation (Vacherie)
Still have "southern mansion architecture" on your mind? Then one spot that should shoot to the near top of your “MUST-SEE” list is Oak Alley Plantation. Located in Vacherie (about one hour outside New Orleans), this attraction truly captures the essence of what you imagined the "Old South" to be! To get there, you’ll pass by a series of evocative bayous punctuated by tall Southern cypress trees and hugged in Spanish moss. (You know you’re close when the wide Mississippi appears on the right hand side of the road.)
Arriving at Oak Alley is like entering into a dream. The 28 famous live oak trees lining the walkway out front cradle an imposing Greek Revival mansion, and create a scene you’ll find hard to forget. (In fact, this inimitable view has been used in the filming of many movies and TV shows, including Primary Colors, The Long, Hot Summer and a pivotal scene from Interview with a Vampire.)
On our debut trip back in January of 2007, our van driver deposited us and the rest of our group out back, and directly into the sub-par cafe. (Okay maybe for a banana or bagel, but not much else - by all means, skip the coffee!) After snapping pictures of the many majestic oaks, we eventually made our way to the main house for the best part of the excursion - the guided mansion tour.
We recommend you ask for either Bernice or Jackie. The former’s southern drawl and cadence reminded us so much of Zelda Rubinstein (“Tangina” from Poltergeist) that we had no qualms about asking her about Oak Alley’s reputed ghost history. "Oh Yes!" Bernice replied. "We have one ghost, the former lady of the house. And believe me, Mrs. Selene was baaaaaaaaaddddddddd!" (A subsequent Ghost Hunters episode featuring a study of Oak Alley Plantation confirmed much of what Bernice advised us that day.)
A second visit to Oak Alley Plantation in November of 2009 (with different friends) gave us the lovely guide Jackie. She shared with us intriguing stories of how the one-time sugar plantation flourished in the 1840s, only to be sold off after the Civil War for less than $40,000! Make sure to pay attention during the stop inside the elegant dining room where a clever early solution to air-conditioning is demonstrated. Set of Drifters tip: No photos are allowed inside Oak Alley so if you absolutely must snap an image of the lush interiors, prepare to do it on the sly!
After the tour, we spent another 1/2 hour or so exploring the decrepit backyard barn and slave quarters. The disparaging difference between the main house and these faulty structures served as a sobering reminder of how humans in America were once sold and used as pure commodity. Hoping to uplift your spirits (and/ or empty your pocketbook), a mostly tacky gift shop is also located behind the house. Aside from some rather nice cookbooks, this, too, was baaaaaaaaaddddddddd! Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Oak Alley Plantation is open 9:00 AM until 4:30 PM daily, with slightly longer hours (9:00 AM until 5:00 PM) available from March through October. Admission is $20 USD for adults, $7.50 USD for teenagers aged 13-17 and $4.50 USD children 12 and under. The Antebellum experience is available from any number of tour operators, and can usually be booked from your hotel. Depending on your schedule (and interest), it can also be combined with other nearby plantations or even a swamp tour (see below)! Expect an early-morning shuttle pick-up from your temporary abode!
Oak Alley Plantation - 3645 Highway 18 (Great River Road), Vacherie, LA 70090, (225) 265-2151
Mardi Gras World
Ask anyone to describe New Orleans in under a sentence, and they’ll more than likely toss “Mardi Gras” somewhere into the equation. Ironically, no matter how synonymous the annual celebration may be with NOLA, your Set of Drifters have never experienced it, even after seven subsequent visits to what is certainly our favorite US destination. Why the snub? We can sum it up in one word: crowds. Ugh. (For more on the best times of year to visit New Orleans, see “essentials.”)
Still, reports from both residents and other travelers have assured us that Mardi Gras is an unforgettable festivity that everyone should experience at least once in their life. And though we have not made specific travel arrangements for March 2014 just yet, we promise to pop our “Fat Tuesday cherry” at some point in the near future. Luckily, until that riotous visit, we can continue to live vicariously through two New Orleans experiences that are available to vacationists all year round. One of these, the flashy “Mardi Gras - It's Carnival Time” exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytère location, has already been profiled above. It’s the perfect “rainy afternoon” pick-me-up, and a wonderful way to tempt visitors to return for the real deal.
Perhaps even more bombastic, however, is Blaine Kern’s “Mardi Gras World,” a gigantic warehouse located only a hop, skip and a jump from the French Quarter, that showcases many of the parade floats currently under construction for the following year’s blowout. Debuting almost thirty years ago as a “tourist attraction” to give visitors a behind-the-papier-mâché look at how each float is made, Mardi Gras World is now a well-oiled machine. (One of our favorite parts of the tour was a free shuttle system that plots 20 different pick-up/ drop-off stops throughout New Orleans. Don’t forget to tip your driver!)
Though Mardi Gras World had lured us once before in 2008, we really should have paid attention to the calendar; an impromptu New Year’s Day visit across the Mississippi to Algiers proved unfruitful as it was one of the few days that designers, sculptors and painters had off!
On a more recent excursion in 2012, we finally sealed the deal - though again, it was somewhat by chance. While walking uptown along the river bank, we ran into one of the many posters advertising Blaine Kern’s colorful attraction (and a nearby shuttle stop). With a few hours to spare until that evening’s bacchanalia commenced, we hopped over to the all-purpose kiosk and a grabbed our tickets. A people-mover arrived only five minutes later.
These days, Mardi Gras World is located at the Port of New Orleans, though in all honesty, is only one of 12 different warehouses in the area that are used by Blaine Kern Studios to produce float assets for over 40 different annual parades! Our arrival was a quiet one, and for the 10-15 minutes we waited inside the sparse gift shop, we wondered if we would be the only ones on the tour! Here, historical photographs of past Mardi Gras celebrations adorn the far walls, and you’d be better off spending time with these rather than the plethora of stuffed gator plush hewn overseas in China!
Once our group had swelled to about ten, we were ushered into a dark room with about 50 chairs (you do the math). Our tour guide told us that we would soon be watching a short film about the history of Mardi Gras float-making, and though we were a bit put-off at first about watching a 15 year-old video, in retrospect, it was a good thing. (Once you get inside the warehouse proper, there is so much going on - and so much to see, it’ll be pretty hard to concentrate on what exactly your tour guide is saying, particularly if he/ she is doing it in Creole dialect!)
Our guide also advised us that now would be the time to get out our cameras and pose alongside mini-floats while dressed in provided carnival regalia (i.e. funny quilted rave hats, sequined tops, scepters, et. al.) This got us a bit worried. Did that mean this was the only time along the tour that we would be able to photograph the floats? Set of Drifters tip: Don’t panic. Even if you are feeling a bit intimidated by the massive sculptural heads that mark your entrance to Mardi Gras World, everything you see inside is completely accessible for your iPhone camera! This means - relax; have fun, and yes, even if it seems really silly, dress up in that king crown while standing next to an oversized lobster! You’ll regret it later if you don’t.
Next up was the warehouse tour, a 30-minute trek up, down and through the alleyways that connect one behemoth float to the next. Along the way, you’ll see “float assets” in every stage of construction: from simple sketches in the design phase all the way through final paint touch-ups. We were amazed to see how each 3D piece is actually the product of multiple layers of flat Styrofoam that are sculpted in relief, glued one on top of another and then covered in large strips of brown paper. These papier-mâché heads, limbs and torsos are finalized in dazzling gem colors that belie the rough, drab materials within. It left us wondering... just how much are these sculptors and artisans getting paid every day? We hope it’s sufficient, as their output is truly stellar.
Inside the warehouse, your camera will be working overtime to capture the hundreds of pop culture heroes and villains on display. From politicians to movie stars, superheroes to Disney princesses, there is something for everyone. And again, the artistry is top notch. Though we loved hearing about how the different krewes pull together funds for their fantastical masked parties each year, what endures most as a memory of Mardi Gras World is the sheer color and vibrancy! Here, even in pieces that Blaine Kern Studios have rehabbed a number of times over in the past 60+ years, a certain quality of personality endures in the sometimes haunting eyes - and always-gleaming smiles. Set of Drifters tip: Be on the lookout for busts of Salvador Dali, an oversized nurse with the deadliest blue eyes and a greedy demon stealing Mardi Gras doubloons.... though to be honest, virtually any 3D sculpture is worthy of a photo.
After the tour finishes, visitors are encouraged to spend even more time walking through the warehouse unattended to take photos. And if so inclined, you may also venture out to Mardi Gras World’s on-site cafe where a complimentary piece of tasty “King Cake” is yours for the taking. (Remember, if you get the slice with the small baby in it, the next party is at your place!)
Mardi Gras World is open daily (except for major holidays, and not surprisingly, Mardi Gras) from 9:30 AM until 5:30 PM. Tours are offered just about every 30 minutes, and with the video and other picture-taking elements, lasts about one hour in total. Admission prices are $19.95 USD for adults and $15.95 USD for students with ID. Children aged 2-11 are $12.95 USD. (Keep in mind that special offers may be available at ticket kiosks through the French Quarter, and that the free shuttle is included in the price of the ticket.) Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Mardi Gras World - Port of New Orleans, 1350 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans, LA 70160, (504) 361-7821
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
Even though it's located right in the middle of the French Quarter, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is one of those "off-the-beaten-track" kind of places. Sure, a colorful display of vintage glass urns gracing the shopfront's windows will quickly mesmerize you. But even after countless trips up and down Chartres, we had never bothered to stop in and see what lay behind the moth-eaten curtains.
That abstinence finally ended on a recent visit to NOLA in October of 2012 when we finally put two-and-two together: a museum devoted to the history of pharmacology - housed inside the aging apothecary of America's first licensed pharmacist? We’re so there!
Carving out our visit ahead of time (the museum has some rather odd hours), we arrived shortly before 10:30 AM on a Tuesday. We were quickly greeted by a steampunk seated behind the antique cash register who appeared to have lost himself inside a thick Victorian-era spellbook! We paid the dandy gentleman a nominal admission fee and took some of his literature to help navigate us through the two-story space now listed on the National Register of Historic Places! (Though the square footage of exhibit space is not that large, the museum’s showcase is extensive, and entirely interesting. Plan on spending at least an hour or more inside to really feel the pulse.)
The first floor, the former storefront of Louis J. Dufilho, Jr., and the first United States-sanctioned apothecary, is rammed to the pufferfish gills of Voodoo syrups, perfume and tincture bottles, bizarre patents for questionable medical practices and tonics - even a soda fountain! We loved checking out the inhumane surgical instruments (leeches anyone?), and learning how opium was once used in tampons to treat symptoms of female hysteria! At times funny - and at others stomach-cringing, this collection is sure to raise questions of morality - and your eyebrows - time and time again!
Dufilho’s original living quarters, examination and sick rooms await you on the second floor. (Be careful on that rickety old staircase.) Aside from some really cool antique artifacts (eyeglasses, posters, mortar & pestle combos, etc.), the most interesting exhibit upstairs was a cadre of “excavated bottles” featuring the wild and, more often than not, fraudulent liniments and potions proffered by “respectable” witch doctors that roamed the land selling “cure-alls” to the poor, uneducated masses. Tsk-tsk-tsk.
Don’t forget to step outside into the lovely 19th century courtyard out back. This quaint setting can be yours for wedding receptions or other special events. And this is exactly why we love New Orleans so much: the causal notion of hosting one of your most special days inside old pharmacy full of macabre torture devices and liniments! Yes, in NOLA, there's always something new (old) to discover!
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is oddly open only from 10:00 AM until 2:00 PM Tuesday through Friday. Saturdays offer slightly longer hours from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM. The museum is CLOSED Sunday and Monday. Set of Drifters tip: Look for guided tours on Thursdays and Fridays at 12:00 Noon. Admission is $5 USD for adults and $4 USD for students; children under 6 are FREE.
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum - 514 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA 70130, (504) 565-8027
Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1
While it’s probably the very first place you’ll spot as you enter the Vieux Carré on your taxi ride from Louis Armstrong International Airport, Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 is certainly an unsettling place. Dubbed one of New Orleans’ “cities of the dead,” the above-ground final resting place appears a jumbled mess of crumbling brick, decaying plaster, fallen statuary - and weeds! But it didn’t necessarily start out that way.
Originally open for "business" in 1789 after devastating fire forced city planners to reorganize New Orleans, Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 was set up just outside the Quarter (along St. Louis and Basin Streets) to combat a number of unpleasant disease outbreaks blamed on the city’s “deceased.” You see, due to the Crescent City’s less-than-desirable underground water table, dead bodies had a bad habit of popping out from their soggy subterranean coffins following a simple rainstorm! Yikes.
A solution to the problem involved selecting a plot of land that adjoined a canal (which helped drain excess water), and then using it to build a series of one, two, sometimes even four-story crypts from the ground up. The 1800s saw Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 collecting a treasure trove of New Orleans residents, both common and noteworthy. Divided into sections to accommodate Catholics and non-Catholics (as well as people of color both free and enslaved), the cemetery soon became “home” to everyone from wealthy landowners and politicians to soldiers lost in the Battle of New Orleans. (Notable to us on our visits in 2003 and 2007 was the inclusion of Creole plantation owner Bernard de Marigny, who upon his bankruptcy, sold his property ownings to make way for the now-groovy Faubourg Marigny neighborhood (see above).
But of all the cemetery’s many residents laid out within the complex maze of alleyways and, ahem, dead-ends, perhaps the most notorious is none other than "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau herself. Controversial in life - her “reign of power” not only forever infused Voodoo with New Orleans, but also bankrolled brothels that influenced city government - she is perhaps even more controversial in death! Passing her High Priestess status over to her daughter at some point in her life (no one is really sure when), Voodoo Mambo “Marie Laveau” appeared to live on within the Vieux Carré for much longer than any mortal possibly could. But when she finally died, and was placed in the family tomb of her common-law second husband (Christopher Glapion), historians began to wonder, was this actually Marie Laveau, or Marie Laveau II?
For tourists visiting Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, it appears not to matter. Markings scratched into stucco, and unusual offerings of beads, money and more, are often left in homage of Laveau, or in hopes that her spirit will grant some personal wish. But are these expressions true representations of Voudoun, or simply the result of hubris provided by New Orleans tour operators and/ or sellers of state lottery tickets? One thing’s for sure. Get caught scratching and “X” on the side of the Glapion family’s tomb, and you’ll get fined! (Check out Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo in “goodies” and “the best time to visit NOLA” in “essentials” for more information on Marie Laveau and Voodoo’s entrenchment within the city.)
Over the decades, new development cut the size of Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 in half! Nearby “Storyville,” New Orleans’ fabled “red light district,” succumbed to political pressure in the 1930s and gave way to the Iberville Projects. Yes, the times - they were-a-changing, and with them, Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1. When the area north of Rampart fell into a state of disarray and crime in the 1960s, the cemetery soon garnered a reputation so sketchy that it attracted cult filmmakers Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to stage part of counterculture classic Easy Rider here in 1969. (The Archdiocese of New Orleans has since banned filming at the cemetery, save for films and documentaries that place the location in historical context.)
These days, though a few new burials take place here each year, Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 is arguably more of an “attraction” than a “resting place” for souls. That being said, the non-profit organization "Save Our Cemeteries" is working hard to keep the evocative site, and others like it, safe and secure for centuries to come. (Some of their projects include securing a statewide trust fund and legislation to preserve historical cemeteries, collecting and recording tombstone information for genealogical purposes, and on-going surveying, repairs and stabilization of existing structures.) You can help out their efforts by taking one of their tours. Save Our Cemeteries offers expeditions of New Orleans’ oldest surviving cemetery daily at 10:00 AM. Departing from the Basin Street Visitors Center (501 Basin Street), visitors should expect to learn the backstories, and dark tales of debauchery, lived by many of the city’s most famous “dead residents.” Tour prices are $20 USD for adults while children under 12 are FREE. (The tour lasts about one hour, making this “city of the dead” much more manageable than similar locales in Buenos Aires or Paris.)
Set of Drifters tip: Book directly from their website and check the calendar. Most Fridays and Saturdays include a second tour at 1:00 PM. Furthermore, if you find yourself “Uptown” in the lush Garden District (see above), Save Our Cemeteries offers a similar tour of the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 Monday through Saturday at 10:30 AM. (Ticket prices are $15 USD for adults.) Though this location is similarly “historic” - home to many soldiers of the Civil War, and a location in Anne Rice's beloved Vampire Chronicles series - it has been preserved much better than Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, and therefore, may be a better option for those with mobility issues.
Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 - 425 Basin Street, New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 483-2064
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 - 1400 Washington Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130, (504) 658-3781
Save Our Cemeteries - http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/tours/index.htm
meet the Cajuns (both human and gator) in a real Louisiana swamp! (Barataria)
Any stroll through NOLA’s distinctive French Quarter has the capability of taking you far away from what you previously perceived to be “American.” And yet, even when rooted in an assemblage of French, Spanish and Acadian flourishes, the essence of it all is still very Louisianan.
Now, if you’re anything like us, after a couple of days soaking in New Orleans’ inherent charm, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself jonesing for further immersion into the “southern way of doing things.” An intriguing, and expressly revealing, way of doing just that is to leave the urban arena altogether and head on out to a bayou instead. (For all you city-folk out there, a “bayou” is the southern moniker for a swamp!)
Okay, we know what you're thinking... Aren't the "Set of Drifters" supposed to be showing us things that are off the beaten path? What's with the "ghost tour," the "plantation tour," and now, a “swamp tour?" True, normally we would not endorse so many back-to-back tourist-based experiences, yet here in New Orleans, the activities on tap are so unique, and characteristic of their surrounding region, that it’d be a shame to miss them. Set of Drifters tip: If visiting for only a long weekend, we prescribe just one of these tour selections, saving the others for subsequent visits to New Orleans. (Trust us, once you get a taste, you’ll definitely be back for seconds!)
Most "swamp tours" can be arranged from your hotel concierge, or via a number of tourist outfits located on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. If you are in town for only a short while, make sure to plan ahead and reserve a spot as they often fill up. During our December 2008 jaunt with friends from Arizona, we went with Louisiana Tour Company, an outfit that whisks guests out of the Vieux Carré via a shuttle ride to backswamps of Barataria. From here, you have two choices: either a relaxing trip on a covered 60-person pontoon, or a more adventuresome emprise aboard a high-speed "airboat." (Wow, it's just like that Disney film The Rescuers!) Requiring a bit more comfort to calm our then-current hangovers, we chose the slow-going route, a nice option even if you just need some deceleration from stresses back home.
While at first glance, the ecology of a “traditional” Louisiana bayou seems pretty quiet and nondescript, lurking in those moss-laden bogs - beyond tall cypress trees and Native American burial mounds - is a surprising variety of wildlife. Think egrets, snakes, turtles, and yes, even alligators! Since tour operators cannot necessarily promise glimpses of the latter, they often bring on-board taxidermied gator jaws (and even entire heads) for people to “pet” just in case! Luckily for us, a couple of alligators were "sunning themselves" on the hazy winter day our barge rolled by. But with the ferocious creatures barely moving a single scale, we were left to wonder if we hadn’t actually boarded Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise!" (This possibility was negated once we realized our guide, who spoke some serious Cajun pidgin, had not a single corny joke to spare!)
For those of you who need a bit more “wild” in their life, your pontoon host will most likely have another rarity on board for you - in the form of a little baby alligator! Feel free to coddle the little guy - he won't bite you! He’s used to humans projecting their superiority over him on a daily basis. (This is one photo you’ll want to post on Instagram right away!)
The Louisiana Tour Company, and other suppliers like it, will most likely have a number of different tour packages that you can customize to your liking. LTC charges $49 USD for the regular boat swamp tour, and $90 USD for the airboat experience. Children 4-12 years old are $25 USD for the regular swamp tour, and are not allowed on the airboats. These prices should include pick-up and drop-off at your hotel. Set of Drifters tip: Remember, your shuttle is going to pick-up and drop-off a bunch of other tourists at various hotels throughout the city - not just inside the French Quarter - so expect to spend at least five hours from door to door. (If you have your own wheels available, you can pay about $20 USD less by driving to the dock on your own. This option will also save you some time... that is if you can navigate through the twisty turns of the bayou roads! A GPS is most certainly required!)
Louisiana Tour Company - 9706 Barataria Boulevard, Marrero, LA 70072, (504) 689-3599