What’s the first thing that comes to mind for you when you think “New Orleans”?
For me, it was the immense, impressive cuisine scene, followed closely by all that jazz, those blues, Mardi Gras, and a fair dollop of debauchery.
Later, I suffered something of a moment of sheer panic whilst pondering the fact that I was about to set-off on an adventure in one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world.
Now, should you prefer assured safety and familiarity, you may not consider New Orleans as a travel destination, and that’s completely understandable. Hell, no one’s going to question your judgement and very clear flair for sensibility there.
But (*and I say this with the least patronising and most diplomatic voice I have in my reo-repertoire): you should.
And, here are a few good reasons why.
Firstly, the bad press New Orleans gets is well worth ignoring – why(?), because (*IMO) with the correct, appropriate application of some good ol’, down-home common sense, there’s absolutely zero reason why you can’t or shouldn’t explore the ‘Crescent City’ completely drama- and hassle-free.
The people there are spectacularly polite – like, way more so than we are here in NZ. Manners are a massive must, and I actually found myself having to consciously adjust my cognitive space to this particular tikanga, because being asked to “excuse” somebody so they could reach past me for access to their straw or napkin was so far out of the parameters of my personal everyday experience.
We don’t do that shit here; we reach, we grab, and all too often we move on without having given a single fuck about anyone. Spend half an hour in your local McD’s, sometime.
Plus, just straight-up don’t make yourself a target for crime. Walk the French Quarter during the day (after, say, 9-am), and forget Bourbon Street, there’s bugger-all there anyway if you’re not fixing to get particularly paralytic. Do Royal Street instead, and find something unique from one of New Orleans’s local artists to take home.
You’ll be chuffed, I promise.
We eased-in to our stay with some mall-time, and some people-watching (*air-con, 30 or-so degrees outside, ’twas a useful process of acclimatisation). We also used Uber to get around for the first couple of days, and that helped us to acquire some handy-as local knowledge to get us going and simplify our initial impressions of the place. I’d also suggest investing in a wrist wallet for the added peace-of-mind re: cash and cards, and their invisibility to the outside world.
Okay, so secondly: the chance to immerse yourself in where you are, and assume a real hard-core “when in Rome” mindset, is invaluable.
You’re in New Orleans, so go to a Saints game at the Superdome and yell your bloody lungs out – God knows we did. We also took-part in the Bubble Run 5-km endurance event, attended the local barbecue and blues festival, got our tarot read in Jackson Square, visited museums (*yes*, even the Historic Voodoo Museum), and enthusiastically supported the city’s economy by signing-up for a couple of cemetery tours with the incredibly awesome and knowledgeable ‘not for profit’ organisation, Save Our Cemeteries – among other things.
You do this stuff and you get a feel for what’s important to the people who live there, and what makes them tick as a society.
Because why the heck wouldn’t you want to experience and learn that in the Big Easy, right?
Surely that’s the “why” part of even bothering to travel in the first instance, IMO.
Third: to explore, and to be fearlessly adventurous.
After a couple of days, we figured out that despite the negative crime press that New Orleans “cops” (*sorry*), the places we were going as tourists were actually fairly (ha, “fairly”) risk-free. And, we were pretty darn good at cruising beneath any and all metaphorical radars.
Make no mistake, though, we did the necessary groundwork to get ourselves to that particular point of ‘awareness’. My advice(?): get out and about, keep your head down and your wits handy, remain observant and ‘sensory’, and the rest really does take care of itself.
Sure, we did have a couple of ‘moments’ there. En-route to our Bubble Run we saw the ugly side of Bourbon Street; 6-am and we’re in a cab that’s stuck in the middle of the road, nowhere to go, and police and wasted peeps are hollering and posturing at each other.
In the moment, the mind can’t help but “go there” in terms of what might happen (*what did happen, was we drove the fuck out o’ there).
You have to release the 10 minutes’ worth of crap, and move on, really.
Fourth, and finally: to support the local economy, any way and anywhere you can.
Heard of ‘Hurricane Katrina’? Yeah, well, New Orleans certainly has, and even after 10 or-so years of rebuilding, the struggle continues.
Enter any local art gallery there these days and you’ll notice a tonne of up-cycled timber, iron, and other stuff from Katrina-affected homes for sale – all stunning to look at, but equally haunting.
There are countless ways to support the locals in their many entrepreneurial endeavours. The culinary scene is one, and of course the most logical (and gastrically-rewarding) accompaniment is one of the region’s best brews, or craft beers.
Abita’s ‘Purple Haze’ completely stole our hearts while we were there, along with NOLA Brewing Co’s ‘Blonde Ale’ – just, you know, if you’re in need of a couple of specific start-points.
There’s an abundance of restaurants – you can imagine; one that remains memorable for me is ‘Mona’s Café’, a quirky little Lebanese place on Frenchmen Street (in the “Marigny” district) that utterly rocked my world.
Add any Māori emphatic you like – tino, rawa, katoa, they all apply.
Other “honourable mentions” include: Red Fish Grill (for their white chocolate mousse ‘creole cream’ cheesecake), Jackson Brewery Bistro Bar (and their ‘buffalo’ frog’s legs), Fair Grinds Coffee (banana chocolate-chip vegan loaf), and of course, Café Du Monde (world-famous beignets, *hello* (*these are close replicas of our “fry-bread”, but lighter and fluffier, and with heaps of icing sugar on top)).
And, if you happen to be shopping at the Black & Gold Sports Shop for some Saints gear and you don’t mind a modest atmosphere, then stop-in to Tower of Pizza, and prepare to absolutely swoon.
I’d also make a point of seeking-out Frenchmen Street for the city’s best art market/s and live music venues – actually, to be honest I’d exert the effort and visit as many of the local neighbourhoods as I could, to get an accurate “feel” for the “real” New Orleans:
- The Tremé’s extremely culturally important, so at the very least head to the Blackstreet Cultural Museum and check-out the old Mardi Gras Indian costumes that they have on display;
- Ride the St. Charles streetcar/s – they’re the originals (*the others have air-con, and comprise the modern versions), and you’ll spend a pittance for a day-pass ($3 for 24 hours – cheapest way to explore the city);
- On game-day, should you happen to get to a Saints game, get yourself to Champions Square for some serious atmosphere(!);
- Do the Mississippi – either ride at night on one of the local steamboats (*the Natchez is the only steam-powered version, these days), or take your time walking the periphery.
Whatever happens, whether you follow my whakaaro or not, please simply throw caution to the wind and go – despite any doubts about the place, in spite of the brand-new President-elect (*auē(!) – I deliberately haven’t gone there), and in light of the possibility you’ll lose your heart and your mind en-route to the final day of your New Orleans stay.
‘Haere pai atu, hoki ora mai nei’ (“Go well, and return safely”) – always;