Adventures in the Big Easy

Mark and I recently took our first real VACATION-vacation in quite a while to the historic Gulf Coast city of New Orleans. It was a delight-a-minute! In today’s post, I’d like to share some of our wonderful experiences with you.

We stayed right in the heart of the French Quarter and explored the district for 7 full days and nights. We were there to take in three things primarily:

Amazing jazz.

Delicious food.

And memorable beverages.

Boy did we ever!

We set out early on a Sunday morning from Central Florida in a rented car, looking forward to a great road trip and an exciting destination. The drive was fairly easygoing through the North Florida backroads we had opted to take. We even stopped for a picnic lunch at a favorite lakeside park at the halfway point.

However, once we hit Alabama on I-10, traffic slowed way down, and what we had estimated to be about a ten-hour drive became twelve. Bridges and tunnels seemed oddly challenging for interstate drivers of the region. But we kept our cool!

Despite gulf state sluggishness, we’ll definitely do a rental car road trip again! It was uncomplicated, and the drive together was really enjoyable. We pulled into NOLA around 4pm CST and checked into our home base, Club La Pension on Decatur near Canal Street (picture below courtesy BlueGreen Vacations). Once settled in, we at last made our initial foray into the Quarter.

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Our first stop was RF’s Martini Bar, a cozy spot at the corner of Bienville Avenue and Dauphine Street. The cocktail curators behind the bar served us up two divine concoctions, and the live music was just what we needed to relieve the buzz of the road in our ears and ease into the NOLA groove.

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Feeling fine, we moseyed on down Bourbon Street and discovered Maison Bourbon, at the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter streets. “Dedicated to the Preservation of Jazz,” this was one fantastic little music hall. With no cover (ever!) and terrific cocktails, we enjoyed top-notch Dixieland for hours. This is where I also discovered my favorite classic NOLA cocktail, the Sazerac, made with rye whiskey and bitters. Delicious!

Mark had fun chatting it up with the musicians, and discovered that he and some of the band members knew a mutual jazz musician friend from his hometown. What a way to kick off the week!

 

Over the course of several days, we took in lots of fascinating sites, including Jackson Square marked by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and wonderful shopping; the Aquarium of the Americas; and the Audubon Zoo — which was probably our favorite outing of the week. We wanted to do a few more tours, but we just couldn’t fit everything in. We’ve got quite a list saved for our next visit!

 

Each day we walked endlessly around town. Even still, after a couple of days we figured out that there was simply no way to eat three full meals a day. We were constantly stuffed and needing an afternoon nap! And who has time for that?

For instance, on Tuesday we ordered an irresistible Original Muffuletta at Central Grocery & Deli on Decatur — we split a half of one. This had been on our must-do list for years, and was quite literally one of the best sandwiches we’ve ever eaten! (And we brought home several mondo-size jars of their famous muffuletta olive salad spread as proof of our adoration!) No regrets of course, but from then on we decided to put the kibosh on lunch for the rest of the week.

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So most days it was breakfast of either classic powdery donut confections from Cafe Beignet (hands down better, and more accessible, than Cafe Du Monde), or a delicious plate of assorted breakfast selections from Huck Finn’s, the corner joint on Decatur near our home base. Their andouille sausage gravy and biscuits will never be forgotten! And then a well-chosen meal out on the town for dinner. And did we ever bring a list of friend-recommended restaurants to choose from. Oye! Where to even begin??

In fact, there were a couple of restaurants we had intended to try, but circumstances rerouted us in different directions. One evening we walked down to Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street, but as one would expect, the line was around the corner and, frankly, we weren’t in the mood to hang around waiting. So another recommendation was Felix’s, right across the street from Acme. It, too, was bustling, but we managed to get right in. Talk about a happy mistake. Everything was so tasty there, and we enjoyed all the classics — shrimp po-boys, gumbo, turtle soup, char-grilled oysters — and we went back the next day!

 

Another fun night was whiled away at Fritzel’s European Jazz Club on Bourbon Street, just down the road from Maison Bourbon. A little different ambiance, quite cozy indeed, and more fantastic Dixieland was enjoyed by us.

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One evening on the walk home, we stopped into Mister Apple Candy Store, an adorable dessert shop on Peters Street we’d passed a few times but had kept our eye on. The window full of colorful candied apples called to us, and we finally caved and went inside. We actually decided on some classic pralines and a decadent fudge brownie to enjoy with a glass of wine on the rooftop back at the home base.

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Speaking of the rooftop patio, one night Mark and I were up there quietly unwinding with a bottle of wine, and all of a sudden, what comes along down Decatur but a parade of neon night-riders on bicycles! It was a spectacular scene of dancing lights, twittering whistles and honking air horns coming out of nowhere and right underneath us. Check out this little video I took …

 

The next weekend, Satchmo SummerFest was set to overtake the grounds of the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue, in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood on the northeast end of the French Quarter. It was a three-day jazz festival that we just happened to learn about in planning for our week in town, and we were counting on enjoying at least two of them immersed in some amazing local music. The only hitch — the RAINS were setting in!

We arrived at the festival at high noon on Friday just as the gates were opening. And I’m not kidding, the moment we got inside and under a music tent, the sky opened up and down it poured! Also, we hadn’t eaten much for breakfast because we knew the festival was going to be lined with food tents from local eateries, and we planned to chow down. Starving as we were, we were literally trapped in that tent until the rain died down. Good thing there was great music to diffuse our mounting hunger!

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Finally there was a break in the deluge, so we peaked out and decided to reconnoiter the food sitch. We made a lap around the grounds to get a lay of the land, and oh my goodness was the lawn quickly water-logged and mud-bogged. Some of the food tents were not even approachable. But we were on a mission and would not be detained any longer. We first sampled some terrific red beans and rice with andouille sausage, and fried oysters on a vinaigrette salad. Later, crispy chicken wings and a seafood stuffed pepper. We also discovered a new affection for the local brew with Abita’s The Boot, a cold, crisp Kolsch. Perfect!

Well the rain came and went, off and on throughout the day, and we listened to some great jazz bands. We also toured inside the Old U.S. Mint, where there was an interesting exhibit of local history and Mint operations. On the upper floors was a jazz museum. Mark was fascinated by displays about Louis Armstrong and Pete Fountain, and I especially enjoyed the exhibit of women in jazz history. All remarkable stories! Check out a virtual tour of the Old U.S. Mint and Museum.

On the way out, we stopped in the gift shop. I purchased a deck of Louis Armstrong playing cards (to keep in the car for when we’re at a restaurant with an unbearably slow kitchen).

After lots of soggy standing around in ankle-deep water, we took a break in the afternoon to get out of the rain and find a dry seat. We sauntered over to nearby Frenchman Street, the center of the New Orleans live music scene. We landed in one of the clubs we’d heard about, The Spotted Cat. I can’t say the wait staff were the “warm and friendliest,” but we enjoyed a couple more Boots as well as a fantastic Delta Blues band, the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio. These guys were incredible, so entertaining, we could have listened for hours on end! And well, we sort of did. LOL!

 

We landed back at the Satchmo Fest just in time to catch the last act of the evening, a high-energy gang of horn players, and we just had the best time!

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We intended to spend Saturday back at the festival again, but the day was even more stormy. I mean, the streets around our home base were white-water rapids, flooded to the top of the curbs, and the lids of the street drains were bursting up from the pressure. It was crazy, and we were comfy, dry and content staying in.

We did venture out for our final fine dinner of the week, having planned to go to Antoine’s on St. Louis Street, the oldest French-Creole restaurant in New Orleans. However, when we arrived, they were temporarily closed, mopping out from a flash flood, and would be delayed for at least another hour.

We decided on the Bourbon House, aptly on Bourbon Street. How could we go wrong with a name like that? And it had been recommended for dessert by our waiter at Felix’s. The menu looked wonderful, and there were literal walls of Bourbon in the lounge. But it was a busy Saturday night, and we had an hour’s wait. Wishing I’d have had those Satchmo cards on me!

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But it was worth the time. Once seated, we started off with drinks, a Four Roses Bourbon neat for Mark, and a Sazerac for me. The wait staff was on point and very friendly, and our meals were to die for. Shrimp Carbonara for me, and Fried Whole Red Fish for Mark. He was so impressed with the chef’s preparation of the dish, and we both thought everything was absolutely delicious!

For dessert, we splurged and each ordered the Creole Bourbon Bread Pudding with bourbon cherries and butterscotch. Oh my, so terrific, and we also each received a complimentary demi-tasse of their famous Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch — mostly because the staff fell in love with Mark’s enthusiasm for the fish dish, and his fish shirt! We were so happy to have landed here and enjoyed the entire experience! We’ll definitely return again.

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Before leaving town, we placed two Geo Travel Bugs in a nearby Geocache, with the hopes that they would set off from this historic city to travel the globe. And you know what, they’re already off and running!

 

And so after a final Big-B at Huck Finn’s on Sunday morning, we got back into the rental car and departed NOLA, well dined and brilliantly entertained. This was certainly the most memorable vacation ever for us, and we can’t wait to spend more time in the Big Easy! We’ve only scratched the surface of this new favorite city of ours.

I hope you enjoyed this little account of our adventures. I’d love to hear about some of your favorite dining, entertainment and outing spots around town! I’ll be replenishing my own to-do list with your suggestions for our next visit. Please share in the comments below.

Wishing you a sunny day! Jessi

Footnote:  Collage 2017-08-31 07_56_04   … but that’s another story for another day….

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