Chillin’ at the Big Ease, New Orleans
Aaah, La Big Ease.
After a very crazy and busy New York, arriving in New Orleans was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air. Also, it was hot and humid. 100% humidity... But there was so much to see we’d almost forgotton that we were sweating buckets.
Normally we’d take a bus or other means of public transportation to our airbnb location but since we did not find the busstop anywhere, we opted for an uber. A bit more expensive but it did cut down our travel time by about an hour (worth it if you ask us).
We had the luck that our driver was a real Cajun. Spoke French and everything. To me this was known but to my husband , who didn’t read up so much on NoLa, this was a nice surprise. His French was actually easily understandable, just slower...(way!)
A short ride later we arrived at our airbnb where we met Victoria, her boyfriend, and their loyal crew of three dogs and two cats. Settling in went quite easy. I was amazed at the fact that their little garden easily grew massive papayas, avocados, citrus and torpedo sized bananas!
This tropical climate sure has benefits to make you jealous!
For the next 2-3 days, we took it real easy. We still had a lot of planning ahead (California, Japan,...). And let’s be honest, it takes up more time than you always expect. Not that we didn’t get out of the house... We’re too addicted to discovering...
So on our first day we already stretched our legs in the French quarter, roamed around Royal and Bourbon street , checked out the little stores (voodoo,...) and visited a (free) museum. But still, everything at a relaxed pace.
We stumbled on the Lalaurie house as a first landmark. I won’t go as far as to explain the whole horrorstory here, but lets say that this house belonged to a Madame Lalaurie who had her own gruesome way to deal with her slaves... (Glad she’s dead).
The streets in the French quarter are everything you’d expect of the typical New Orleans view. Buildings built with each their own unique look and character. Almost all of them have balconies with very decorative Spanish metalwork and decorated with large hanging pots filled with fern drooping down. Painted in creool colours, the little streets burst with colours and life. The tiny shops: art galleries, voodoo, antiques, ... and bars with each their own special cocktails only add more to that liveliness. It’s impossible not to enjoy this lovely scene. Before the coast of the Mississippi and along Decatur st. you’ll find the french market where you can find local food, souvenir shops and touristic hotspots. Don’t be surprised to find bands at the most random spots, giving you a taste of some happy jazz music. Tip: if you dig the jam, give em some dime.
The museum we visited, was The Historic New Orleans collections. Divided over two buildings and totally free of charge to visit! (Leave a tip for them though!) The one part of the exhibition is orientated towards the history of Nola, with its French and Spanish background, and the other more towards art and culture. Even in the works of art you’ll see and learn something new about Louisiana. (For instance, about hurricane Katrina)
Definitely worth a visit!!
So what we normally do once we have arrived at a new place, is walk around the first couple of days and ask the locals for advice. What do they think is a good spot to visit? Where is a good place to eat? What should we definitely avoid,...
One of the first things we heard about and decided to visit was the New Orleans city park and its sculpture garden. An hour walk from our Airbnb, past the Louis cemetery no. 3, there you will find a long driveway towards the park with a building, hosting temporary exhibitions. The park itself is absolutely huge! It is bigger than central park. We only paid a visit to the sculpture garden and that already took us 2 hours.
Entering the garden, you are immediately greeted by one of Henry Moore’s beauties.
Continuing further down a path through a tropical scenery you find other statues various in style. You’ll see abstract, expressive, classicist,... made by both old and new artists. So you can feel nostalgic or discover something new! One of me and my husband’s favourites is the statue ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois, centred in the first part of the garden.
And Mardi Gras is never far away...
The second thing that a lot of locals advised us to do was a plantation visit and a swamp boat tour.
Holy Shazam.... These things are tourist traps and are very expensive!!!! No matter were we looked, prices for a plantation visit + a swamp boat tour + transportation started at about 150$ pp. And you do both activities in one day. Which seems rushed... Our second objection was the swamp boat tour. Yeah, sure you get on a boat and they guarantee you’ll see alligators... because they feed them. We even heard tourists talking about having a small gator hatching in their hands... Really, we did not want to have any part in this. Leave the wildlife alone please, lets enjoy and respect nature from an appropriate distance.
Not to mention if you take an airboat out into the swamp, you’ll arrive back on shore stonedeaf after sitting (just) an hour behind a huge fan...
So for us, travellers on a budget who still want to see the full of New Orleans, this was a big problem. Naturally we started looking around for alternatives and the more we thought about it the more we realised that renting a car was probably the best option.
We could spread out both activities over two days, enjoy them at our own pace and save some money. But we still needed to find an alternative for the swamp boat tour.
And after a while searching the internet, I found the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve (Barataria). A park about 30 minutes away from New Orleans, open from 9 till 5 and with a daily ranger guided tour from 10 - 11 am. It had bayou, swamp and marsh areas.
There was a lot of wildlife: alligators, snakes, wild hogs,.... Everything we wanted!! And it was completely free! We even had the luck of stumbling upon an armadillo, snout burried deep in the mud munching away on bugs. So cute!!!
So, the next day we rented a car and set off for our first day: a plantation visit.
Small sidenote: almost all cars in the US are automatics. OMG, that thing is a deathtrap when you are used to manual cars! The first couple of minutes we had some abrupt and involuntary “break” moments cause Haythim was still in the habit of driving a manual car. Everytime he tried to shift gears he actually hit the breaks really hard. I think some of my organs moved that day.
Anyway, after a while he got the hang of it and off we went.
There are a lot of options to go and visit different plantations, but everyone kind of agreed that the Laura plantation is a must see! And conveniently, close by you can find the other equally famous plantations: Whitney and Oak alley. Oak alley is probably the most famous one due to its use in different movies.
So our first stop was the Laura plantation in the city of Vacherie (French anyone?). We arrived just in time to join a tour throughout the house and plantation.
The plantation main building itself is creole style: of the ground and lots of colours. The warm yellow and greens fit the house really well. But it really came to life thanks to our tour guide and Laura herself. Or her memoires to be specific. These memoires give you the best realistic insight in the life of a plantation owner. Starting with het grandmother who passed the plantation down to her children, and after that the following family plots and intriges. The Laura plantation was a very big and succesfull plantation. Like nearly all plantations in New Orleans it dealt in sugarcane and used slave labour to do this.
Behind the house, you would always find the “kitchen” (right) and a kitchen garden (left) nearby, before heading to the back of the property and finding the slave houses...
While we did also see the slave quarters and got some explanation there, it still felt quite “far” from us. So we decided to visit another plantation, which put more emphasis on the slaves and their lives/daily routine. The Whitney plantation.
But not before we got some grub. We asked some locals and got the hint that right next to Laura plantation there was a small family restaurant called: B&C Seafood Riverside & Cajun Restaurant (B&C). This was our second taste of some real local food (the first one being Coop’s place but more about this “pièce de resistance” later). Really, I can’t put it into words. Their Po-boy, gumbo, crawfish stew (with rice), their potato salad was the best. Ever!!!!! Everything was so tasty I get hungry again just by thinking about it.
So, after we had our fill, we arrived just in time at the Whitney plantation for their last tour.
Oh boy, this was a lot of information in a very short time. Our guide was a living, moving library of information about slavery in the south. While Laura plantation focused on the life of the plantation owner, Whitney was about slaves and their daily lives. First of all, the whole tour was basically outside, in the blistering sun. There were umbrellas available for some shade, but honestly it wouldn’t help you much.
The tour started with a short presentation in an old church building on the plantation.
In this church we also saw a lot of statues of children. These are the last children that lived on this plantation. The artist who made the statues used a combination of clay, iron, plaster,... to make the statues age and even break. It was very confronting to see these statues and realise that actually slavery was not so long ago.
After this short introduction we went back outside and started the tour of the grounds with 3 memorial monuments and more explanation about the daily lives of the slaves.
Near the end of the tour, we came near a patch of sugar cane. This was the main product for which slavery was used. And let me tell you, these plants are vicious! The whole leaf is basically a barbed razor that will cut you open like a hot knife trough butter. You wouldn’t just have a papercut, you’d have a bleeding gash that would need stitches. Our guide broke of a part of the cane and gave us some of the inside to bite and suck on... pure sugar. And even now, sugar cane is the main crop you’ll find around here. Sugar is as high in demand as it ever was and the climate here is perfect for it.
The following day we went towards the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve (Barataria). This was an early day for us since we did not want to miss the free ranger guided tour that the park offers every day at 10 am.
We arrived a little before 10 am and, unlike some other tourists, ready for a day in a swamp/ marsh area. If you would go there, do yourself a favor. Wear good hiking shoes, long pants, a decent shirt and bring lots of water and an insect repellent.
Before we even started people were getting mosquito bites left an right.
Lets give a warm applause for the dragonflies who help get rid of these blood sucking critters.
The tour was very informative and we highly recommend it. Not just because of the explanation and background information the ranger gives, but also because he can help you spot wildlife such as alligators. They are not as easy to spot as you might think. They are very good at blending in (they litterally look like wooden logs with eyes) and staying perfectly still. Also, they will not attack unless you bother them or they feel that their young are in danger. I think they are cute as can be!
When the tour ended we stayed behind and made our way back (at our own pace) towards our car. While slowly going back we saw some more alligators from about 1 - 1.50m away. We kept our distance, took some pictures and moved on, careful not to bother the animals too much.
In the afternoon we did another 2 trails in the reserve. These were less touristy so we only saw 1 - 2 people during our walk. Which was good for us because we had more time (and less noise) for the wildlife. We saw some snakes, frogs, snails and even an armadillo! ... We also saw a couple of BIG spiders. Somewhat less cute, but if you leave them alone they will thankfully spare your lives as well.
After these 2 fantastic days, we started preparing our trip to Los Angeles.
But not before doing a French quarter/ cemetary tour. I’d actually recommend doing this kind of thing one of your first days in New Orleans, since you discover what to visit, what not to visit, and some hidden gems along the way. So we did see a couple of things that already gave us motivation to come back to New Orleans in the near future. You ain’t seen the last of us Nola...
So in a tiny group of 6 people + guide, we made our way (again) into the french quarter. First paying a visit to the Missisipi river, along the golden statue of Jeanne d’Arc, Jackson Square, then through the popular Decatur, Bourbon, Rampart and Royal street. You get to enjoy the scenery of the lovely balconies, the backgroundstories of the houses (for example: shotgun houses) and monasteries, and sneak a peek down the courtyard of some typical creole houses.
We had no idea that there were so many hidden gems right there in the french quarter, right beneath our noses! Lots of New Orlean folk will even let you into their house to see their interior or to go up on the balcony. (Do give em a tip though if they’re so nice as to go out of their way to do that). There are also tons of musea to visit: from piracy, sailor, Nola history, voodoo to apothecary. All reasonably priced and worth a visit! (Except the museum of death, but I’ll get to that later).
After a very informative tour down city center, we finally hit the attraction I had been “dying” to see... The Louis Cemetery no.1.
Also home to some fine typical New Orlean graves, and the queen of voodoo: Marie Laveau. Make sure you have enough water and sunscreen on you before you enter this blazing cemetery with almost no shade. Hot is but an understatement for this place, even in the morning. Our tour guide provided us with lots of inside info on the cemetery, from the traditions, the costs, why the graves were all above ground (hint: lots of rain, gives lots of mud...). The Marie Laveau grave, well, they’re still not sure if it’s actually hers. There’s three options so far. A grave marked with XXX’s (which is a “voodoo” sign), a typical New Orlean white grave where (rumoured) she, her husband and daughter are burried, and another grave somewhere in another cemetery. Nothing a 100% percent sure.
And there we concluded our awesome tour, after which we went to grab a refreshing drink in the french quarter.
I mentioned a museum of death. Though I was hoping for a more informative, historical or even romantic view of death, with lots of skulls/skeletons on pedestals or hanging from the walls, we were rather dissapointed by what it turned out to be... It was more of an alter / ode to serial killers, their victims and snuff movies. My advice: don’t go, it is not worth the price (15$p/p)
Earlier I also mentioned Coop’s Place. This is blissful restaurant located in the frenc quarter (ducater street), might look like a dusty dive bar, but it has some of the best local food you will ever find in New Orleans. Their menu consists mostly of étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya supreme, .... And all tasted great!
Which also explains the long waiting line you will see outside. If you want to eat here, be sure to go in before or around 5, after that the line only gets longer. You might think that around 9 there might be less people? Guess again. Also, the later it gets, the more chance there is that something might be sold out!
Here we enjoyed our last blissful meal in New Orleans before finishing up our preparations for Los Angeles, our next stop in the US.
I’m gonna miss you New Orleans... Save some crawfish stew for when I get back will ya.