I’ve been to New Orleans many times on business, but this was the first time visiting as a tourist. We stayed at a very nice old hotel/condo complex in the French Quarter called – appropriately – The Quarter House. Much of the building is about 175 years old and the rooms manage to preserve much of the original brick work and horse hair plastered walls (if you looked closely at the exposed edges, you could actually see the embedded hairs in the plaster !). The area called the French Quarter is actually the oldest area of New Orleans, and was founded very nearly 300 years ago. It also is ‘high ground’ which I suppose is a relative term given it is only about a metre or so above sea level, but it is worth noting that it is one of the few areas in New Orleans that didn’t flood during the Katrina hurricane in 2005.
When I compare how I remember it prior to Katrina, to how it is today, New Orleans is obviously still recovering and has a long way to go – even during rush hour, the traffic really wasn’t bad at all, and where I recall having to push my way through dense crowds of people partying the night away on places like Bourbon Street, I found that it just didn’t seem busy at all. Having said that, the food is still first rate, the music is still great, the bars are open 24 hours a day – and New Orleans is I think the one city where you can legally take your beer with you as you go for a walk on the street. The beignets (a type of deep fried pastry topped with icing sugar) are still being bought by the dozen by lines of tourists at Cafe du Monde, although I personally think a Tim Horton’s would put them out of business in a week as the ones we had were heavy and greasy rather than light and fluffy as I remember. It is still very much a party place – and as Halloween was approaching there were lots of people in costumes and fancy dress just wondering around and taking in the scene. I hope it continues to recover and get back fully on its feet as New Orleans is still one of my favourite North American cities.
We visited several places in the city, but one of note was the Old New Orleans Louisiana Rum distillery which is a boutique distillery offering tours and tastings, and which produces one of the nicest sipping rums I’ve had in some time ! Outside of the city, we took the suggestion of a friend of mine still working for Shell, and toured a few of the plantations that border the Mississippi River about 30 miles up stream from New Orleans. The main crop grown prior to the civil war and still to this day is sugar cane and there is still a lot of it to be seen under cultivation. One plantation we visited was the Oak Alley Plantation, so named because of the twin row of 28 live oak trees (a species of oak common in the southern USA, and called ‘live’ as it is an evergreen oak that stays green year round) leading from the front door to the levee bordering the Mississippi. The trees are said to be about 300 years old, although the building dates from 1836, and at that time as was the case generally in that area, the plantation included slaves who lived in housing further back from the river behind the main house.
It is worth noting that prior to the start of the civil war, many slaves at Oak Alley had been freed by the Roman family, who owned the plantation till 1848, although I personally found it quite sobering to see that at that time there were still 113 people listed in the 1848 estate “inventory”.
Next stops – Alabama and Tennessee !