New Orleans is a favorite of mine. Living in Houston, it’s but a hop and skip away by plane and also a reasonable (and fun) road trip. I’ve done NOLA the hard way. You know, with copious amounts of hurricanes at Pat O’s, walking home with the sunrise, and avoiding water from the workers hosing puke off of the sidewalks. Ahhh… such memories. Now that I’m a little bit older, wiser, and my recovery time from a night of boozing has grown exponentially, I prefer NOLA the easy way.
For a place known for its debauchery, is there such thing as taking it easy in The Big Easy?
There’s so much more to New Orleans than Bourbon Street, gratuitous nudity, plastic beads, and voodoo dolls. It wouldn’t be the same without any of those things, but there is also a grown-up and somewhat sophisticated way to experience "The Crescent City."
International House: Two blocks from the French Quarter, yet still in the heart of the city, the International House is as grownup and as cool as you can get. A mix of old and new, this contemporary hotel impresses as soon as you step into the lobby. With 23-foot ceilings, plaster columns, and velvet-upholstered furniture, it’s plain to see that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill hotel.
Just off the lobby is the Loa Bar. One part elegant parlor and one part saucy bordello, Loa is the place to go in New Orleans for the most innovative and imaginative hand-crafted cocktails. With fun drink names like Johnny & June, La La Louisaine, and A Polite Discretion, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the cocktail, although you can always count on the freshest ingredients and the finest spirits. And if this small hotel bar couldn’t get any better, Loa stays open until the wee hours of the morning, so feel free to people-watch out the giant floor-to-ceiling windows from the comfort of your comfy velvet chair until you’re ready to call it a night up in your room.
Don’t think you’re just going to show up at 8 p.m. on a Friday night and get a table at Cochon, one of New Orleans’ top restaurants. I actually tried it and was told it would be a two-hour wait. However, I was fortunate enough to grab a seat at the bar, which happens to serve a full menu. With a name like Cochon, French for pig, you can guess the restaurant’s specialty. A combination of Cajun and Southern flavors, the menu is small but packs an impressive punch. Some of the dishes I tried were:roasted shrimp with hog jowls, chiles, and cornbread; cane syrup-glazed pork cheeks with mushrooms and roasted corn grits; pork and black-eyed pea gumbo; Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, pickled peaches, and cracklins; and an oyster and bacon sandwich. Never fear if you’re not a pork fan; there are other options. But let’s be serious. Why would anyone go to Cochon and not eat swine? Don’t forget to wash all that porky goodness down with a Catahoula Hound Dog or Sacalait Punch.
Mr. B’s Bistro is owned and managed by Cindy Brennan, you know, of the famous Brennan family in New Orleans? It seems as if most of the best restaurants in the city have a Brennan connection, and that’s just fine by me. They know great food. With Creole-inspired dishes, Mr. B’s serves up a seafood- and meat-heavy menu, just as you’d expect on the Gulf Coast. An elegant atmosphere located in the heart of the French Quarter, Mr. B’s has similar dishes to its more famous (and expensive) brother, Brennan’s. Mr. B’s even uses the Brennan family’s famous bread pudding recipe. This place is a great choice when you’re looking to have a nice meal, but don’t feel like dressing to the nines and forking over a car payment.
Conveniently located a block or so away from the International House, the Ruby Slipper Cafe is a spectacular place to have breakfast or brunch. I should know. I loved it so much I ate there on Saturday and Sunday mornings. And bonus! They serve breakfast all day. The creation of The Ruby Slipper was inspired by Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and the overwhelming sense of homecoming after Hurricane Katrina. They pride themselves in buying locally, recycling, and composting, but I say their greatest achievement is the bananas foster pain perdu. This French toast made from French bread is topped with bananas foster topping and applewood-smoked bacon. It’s a diet killer but so worth it. Sit out on the sidewalk if the weather is nice. It’s a great place to watch the city and its cast of characters pass by.
Cafe du Monde...There’s not much to say about this New Orleans institution: fried dough, powdered sugar, Chicory coffee; get thyself there at some point during your say. Period.
It doesn’t matter how many times I go to New Orleans, I always make it a point to visit St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. An easy walk from the French Quarter, the church and Jackson Square surrounding it, changes depending on the time of day you visit. A steady stream of artists, musicians, and street performers fill the square. Have you ever wanted to get your palm read or to visit with a fortune teller? Ironically you can do that right outside the church. The exterior beauty of St. Louis is only rivaled by the inside. Walk in and take a look around. Don’t miss the beautiful ceiling.
I know that it seems rather odd that I’d suggest visiting the National World War II Museum in a city known for its upbeat and party atmosphere, and in reality, I was surprised that I wanted to go. But since this was to be a grown-up trip, I took the advice of my very grown-up neighbors (in their 60s) and made plans to visit the museum. Prepare to be overwhelmed by the sense of pride and loss that will wash over you before even stepping foot into the building. The sidewalks surrounding the museum are layered with etched bricks emblazoned with the names of those who gave their lives in the war.
Inside the museum is a bounty of World War II paraphernalia from large to small. Boats, planes, and tanks dominate the entrance. Once inside the museum, rooms are filled with everything from weapons to advertisements to uniforms to countless other artifacts that represent war time. Perhaps the thing that struck me most was seeing the World War II vets touring the museum. Most of them didn’t get around very well, but to see their eyes and eavesdrop on their stories was heartbreaking and magical at the same time.
After touring the museum, make sure and take time to see the 4-D movie, Beyond All Boundaries. Narrated and produced by Tom Hanks, this educational, yet entertaining film will cause you swell up with pride. You’ll be reminded about the cost of freedom and what makes the United States such a great place to live. With blasts of cold air during Normandy and vibrating seats coinciding with the rumble of tanks, this movie is an experience not to be missed.
All right, so maybe I didn’t take it completely easy in "The Big Easy." After all, New Orleans is one of the closest places to gamble from Houston. I couldn’t possibly be that close to legal blackjack and not take a seat at the tables. Harrah’s is more than 100,000 square feet, has tons of slot machines, and plenty of table games to entertain the most serious or casual gambler. My only complaint is that they don’t have single- or double-deck blackjack. Apparently I need to take that up with the state of Louisiana and not Harrah’s. It’s a great place to hang with the locals, play some cards, have a drink, and people-watch.
There are so many layers to New Orleans with its rich cultural history that I can’t begin to tackle it all in just 36 hours. I’m quite pleased at what I did experience by not sleeping off a hangover in my hotel room. I can’t wait to take it easy in "The Big Easy" again. There’s no telling what else I’ll discover.
For more of Leah Walker's travels, visit Leah Travels: Life Is Short & The Road Is Long.