🎺 New Orleans: The One with the Huckleberry Finn Fetish

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One thing is for sure: if you go to New Orleans, you should fast for about a week beforehand. This may sound naive but I didn’t realize that New Orleans was all about the food! I just thought I’d go there for some light jazz and Mardi Gras beads. That was just one of the many surprises that was in store for me on my weeklong jaunt to The Big Easy!

Since the biggest business in NOLA (as the locals call it—not to be confused with EBOLA) seems to be gastro-economics, that’s a good place to start. It was very difficult to limit the 30+ recommendations we received down to a just few—after all, I’ve only got one stomach (Although, I’m quite sure I grew one more by the end of the trip). But here are a few gems:

The restaurant with the best food by far was GW Fins. I don’t know what “GW” stands for but it should be “Gastro-Wow!” It’s quite pricey, though. I had to resist the urge to assign a dollar amount to every bite. But if you’re looking to splurge, this is the one!

Another great recommendation was Bacchanal. Strangely situated on a dark corner of an industrial neighborhood, this colorful restaurant is lit up like Whoville. With a supremely unique backyard dining experience of fairy lights, live music, wine, and cheese plates, Bacchanal is the ultimate social get-together. You may have to arm wrestle a few locals for a table, but it’s worth the fight.

For a more-affordable-yet-still-delicious option, I quite enjoyed Huck Finn’s (what’s with all the “fins”? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe I was a fish in another life).

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Of course, it wouldn’t be considered a vacation without partaking in a few potable aperitifs (that’s a fancy way of saying ‘drinking some booze’). My favorite place by far was the Carousel Bar in the Monteleone Hotel. Underneath a carousel canopy, the bar itself literally revolves ever-so-slowly in a circle. As if drinking doesn’t make people dizzy enough already—they add centrifugal force! Brilliant concept. My other favorite bar was Patrick’s Bar Vin. The vintage oak-barreled ambiance with its delicate jazz music and coasters made of cork, it may as well have been called “Sharyn’s bar.”

The places I would say are a bit overrated are the Market Café, Musical Legends Park, and Café du Monde. Not surprisingly, though, because these are the uber-touristy places where the staff know that millions of people will show up even if there was a fly in their food, so the service doesn’t really have to be that good. At the Café du Monde, I asked a busboy (who assured me he was not a busboy even though he was cleaning plates off of tables), if he could clear a table so we could sit down. I’m quite sure I saw the reflection of my powdered-sugar-covered face in his eyes.  

As for nightlife, of course, the first place we went to was the piece de résistance: Bourbon Street. I don’t know why, but I had an image in my head of a romantic french quarter street with classy architecture and soft jazz whispering around every corner. Instead I found Bourbon Street was as much of a culture shock as when I drove down Santa Monica Boulevard on Halloween—a bombardment of bright colors, questionable smells and exposed body parts. Things started off pretty lively when a passerby threw some gold beads through the window of my car onto my lap—my first Bourbon Street souvenir and I didn’t even have take my top off! But after that, I discovered it wasn’t really my scene.

Anybody hoping for a steamy piece of juicy gossip regarding our time on Bourbon Street is in for a disappointment. I admit that I am pretty much your all-around, down-to-earth, homegrown American girl. I don’t do one-night stands, I hate the smell of marijuana and hearing gangster rap on the street doesn’t exactly make me want to dance and socialize. If these are things that you’re into, more power to you–I just prefer a more low-key, quiet atmosphere where I can have a nice conversation without someone assuming that I trade flashes for drinks.

I can only imagine the debauchery that went on centuries ago when revelry had to be done indoors to avoid any question of impropriety. I think it’s this historic party culture that gives New Orleans a deceptively chic persona. Several buildings look quite rundown from the outside but when you walk in, you find it’s a 4-star restaurant. I’m quite sure the days of people being concerned with indecency have pretty much gone out the window, it does add a bit of excitement and mystery—you never really know what you’re going to get. That’s why you have to try everything!

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On the calmer side, one thing we definitely did not want to miss was a plantation tour. Oak Alley Plantation was the closest thing to Twelve Oaks (for any Gone with the Wind fans out there), so that was our play. How incredible it is to stand in the same room as generations past! It’s a good thing we have movies that give unimaginative people like me a visual of what life may have been like back then with women in hoop skirts doing needlepoint while the men drink brandy and talk about the appalling price of cotton.

Of course, it was not all la vie en rose. Several of the Roman family’s children died under the age of 10 due to disease and ignorance, not to mention their fortune was built upon the forced misery of slaves. It’s a bittersweet sensation—being enthralled by the lavishness of plantation life yet feeling guilty about the suffering of those who built it. This must be why they sell Mint Juleps at the door.

By the way, it was not until I went home in the midst of the Halloween season and watched Interview with the Vampire that I recognized several scenes that were filmed at Oak Alley! In fact, IMDB trivia says Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt both signed the Plantation guest book. Now that I think about it, had I known that before I went, my visit would’ve been much more disturbing.

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The other uber-touristy thing we decided to do was take a ride on the historic Steamboat Natchez. I was super impressed by the boat itself! Coming from Los Angeles, the closest I’d ever been to a steamboat was riding the Mark Twain at Disneyland. But once again I felt like Huckleberry Finn (or rather Elijah Wood—minus the dimples and black eye) riding up the “Mighty Mississippi.” One thing I will say, though, is that I was expecting prettier scenery. Rather than being a pastoral bayou, we sailed past several burned-out docks, two navy ships, and an abandoned sugar cane factory. It may have been the depressing remnants of Hurricane Katrina. But once again, NOLA comes through—they sell Bloody Marys on board.

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A few quick extras that I would also recommend are driving (or streetcar-ing) down St. Charles Street, visiting Audubon Park, the Aquarium, and City Park.

I would love to return to New Orleans someday to do a swamp tour (by kayak!), visit the Roosevelt Hotel, and basically every other restaurant and bar in the French Quarter.

What I discovered about New Orleans (other than the fact that I apparently have a curiously disturbing crush on Huckleberry Finn), is that it is a city of extremes. There are places that I absolutely loved and places that I visited once but don’t feel the need to go again. There are people who were super nice and others who were quite rude. There are bathrooms with quadruple-ply toilet paper and bathrooms with no doors. It’s truly a matter of personality, preference and standards.

I also learned to be careful with preconceived notions—both positive and negative. You can hear a thousand different things from a thousand different people, but in the end, all that matters is your own experience. There is no right or wrong answer. It’s your life. All you have to do is live it.

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