Swamps, a Bayou and Bourbon Street

To reach New Orleans from Nashville we drove through the States of Alabama and Mississippi. We’d had no rain from Denver to Nashville but the heavens opened around lunch time on our drive. It bucketed down for a few miles, eased off then bucketed down again. The farmers and crop growers were probably very happy but it made driving conditions hazardous. It eventually stopped and we could move along at the speed limit.

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Driving into New Orleans was different, the main highway ceased as we joined a very long, wide bridge that gave you the feeling, when you reached the top, the car would just fall into the river below.   

New Orleans was new to me… I had seen and heard so much about this city I couldn’t wait to explore it.  Ty had visited NOLA in 1996 although I don’t think that counts given how long ago that was! So this is really his first time as well! Why am I calling it NOLA? I hear you ask. Well NOLA stands for New Orleans Louisiana. LA being the State code for Louisiana….. The word NOLA is on practically everything and it makes it so much easier than saying New Orleans all the time :).

I had booked us into the Hampton Inn and Suites in Carondelet street, off Canal Street, and a short walk to the French Quarter. I chose well…even if I do say so myself….lol. Arriving at the hotel the valet came to the car to tell us the hotel had valet parking only and was $40US per night….that was quite expensive. The other option, he said, was to go to the public car park on the next corner….I wandered up to check their rates and they were a little cheaper. Ty said ‘I thought we had parking included here’….I couldn’t remember…I knew we had parking in most places organised. Time to pull up the booking information whilst the valet stood by totally bemused by us seemingly not being able to decide what we wanted to do. Booking confirmation found and, yes, we had a special deal where parking was included. Problem solved, unpack the car, hand over the car keys to valet and check in. Bet he was relieved to see the end of these indecisive Aussies.

There was a short line at check in so we took a seat and waited…..no hurry, our turn eventually came. We knew the drill pretty well, Ty handed over his licence and credit card to the customer service rep who then said ‘Oh are you using this card’. ‘Yes’ we said. ‘Oh, I’ve already charged the $515.00US deposit to a card we had on file’ she replied. ‘I’ll organise for the office to reverse this charge for you….as it’s Friday it won’t happen till Monday’. ‘That’s fine we understand the bank’s processes and we’re here for 5 days’ we said. I made a mental note to check the bank account on Tuesday evening. There wasn’t any issue using the account she originally charged but I wanted to keep all charges going through one account to keep track of expenditure plus it usual practice to ask how we’re paying. These things can happen so we weren’t going to be upset by it. We’re on holiday and having a great time….you get a hiccup here and there.

Because of the error the lady behind the desk upgraded our room, which was lovely and totally unexpected…..

Ty had read somewhere that our hotel has an app to work the lifts rather than zapping your room keycard….great idea!  Ty asked about the app to use the lift but was met with a quizzical look.  He asked again but the receptionist appeared not to understand and then said ‘y’all mean the elevator?’  Yes, that’s it…an ‘elevator’ to you and a ‘lift’ to us.  The english language can be confusing sometimes, hmmm, perhaps I should say, regularly when you travel around the world.  That’s part of the fun in travelling!

After checking into our upgraded suite, which was huge, we freshened up and headed out on a walk of discovery to the French Quarter.  It was after 5.00 pm by the time we left the hotel.   The weather was hot and humid but I much prefer that to cold so I wasn’t complaining.  So excited to be in New Orleans…..we wasted not time in heading straight to Bourbon Street.

Before moving on I thought I should talk about the French Quarter and how it was named. The French Quarter was founded in 1718, by the French, of course, however much of the architecture is Spanish.  It is also known as Vieux Carre…”old square”…   I know, most of you thought it was a cocktail!  You are correct….it is – but the cocktail was not invented until the 1930’s.  The cocktail is said to be smooth, complex, fascinating and potent (no, I haven’t tried it….I should.  I think I will!) just like the French Quarter.  Ok, I’ve deviated again…talk about cocktails and my mind wanders!!   The site of the French quarter was chosen because it was the  highest part of the riverfront area and is surrounded by low lying swamp.  It’s also close to Lake Pontchartrain.  It was much easier and safer to use Lake Pontchartrain for shipping rather than the Mississippi River.   Spain gained ownership of Louisiana in 1742 and New Orleans began to prosper through river trade.DSC07423

After a fire in 1788 and a rebuild tourism became popular for the “old square’ around the  1890s. 

The French buildings were timber but the Spanish authorities introduced a new building code for the French Quarter to prevent another fire spreading and this gave the French Quarter a more Spanish look.  I could prattle on about NOLA history for many paragraphs but that’s not what this blog is about – there are many other publications on NOLA available.

We stepped out of the hotel and turned right….this part of the street looked a little old and dilapidated but I didn’t feel unsafe, I’ve wandered through much worse.  In a few short steps we reached Canal Street which runs the length of the city from the riverfront to the beginning of the suburbs.  New Orleans has a tramway and we do love to take the tram from the city to the end of the line – and back to the city of course!   As we stood at the crossing to Canal Street we could see Bourbon St directly ahead.  “How exciting,” I thought to myself, “Bourbon Street has been on my list for years.”

Thankfully, it was not very busy which enabled us to wander slowly through Bourbon Street taking in all the beautiful buildings and and what they offered.  Music could be heard but low rather than loud  unlike Nashville where it is rings out from one end of the street to the other day and night.  Don’t get me wrong though….I love Nashville for being a medley of different types of music all day.  Although I would prefer it was true to it’s roots and every venue played country music of some type.  Back to Bourbon Street…..

Bourbon Street has an abundance of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and cafes.  Runs from Canal Street at one end to The Esplanade at the other –  passing14 blocks from start to finish.  Excellent walk if you’re counting your steps!  

Our meal this evening was at Oceana….Ty had the Cajun blackened redfish…and loved it!!  Our waitress was Sienna, very pleasant, attentive and happy girl.  Nothing was too much trouble for her.  I’m allergic to garlic so, sadly, I can be a problem customer to many restaurant chefs.  However, I soon learn which restaurants use freshly made sauces and those that use pre-made sauces.  This restaurant uses freshly cooked ingredients….how do I know?  My meal had to be made from scratch again. 

As we left the restaurant for our stroll back to our hotel the crowds were building in Bourbon Street.  The night was still balmy…..wonderful weather for an evening stroll.

Our second day in NOLA saw us spend the morning walking around the French Quarter and the waterfront before joining the obligatory swamp tour for the afternoon.  Wasn’t so sure about the swamp tour but it’s a tourist must do. I chose Cajun Encounters visiting Honey Island Swamp.  Sounds very romantic but doubt I would visit this place at night….they do have night tours if you’re so inclined but forget the romance!

The Swamp Encounter bus picked us up from a meeting point in the city.  It’s good to take a little tour here and there on a tour bus….it gives Ty a break and gets to take in the sights  around us instead of focusing on the road. I didn’t mention me as a driver because on our holidays Ty loves to drive and I take photos for notes for my blog.  Occasionally I’ll snooze especially if the road is long and scenery is mundane. For example the highway through Mississippi where the trees hide anything of interest along much of the road to Louisiana.

The information about the swamp tour mentions gliding along in a small flat bottomed boat through alligator territory – I was aware that gators are supposed to be timid and not as dangerous as our native crocodiles.  Regardless of that news I will not be tempted to sweep my hand through the swamp water.  My hands and arms will remain in my lap whilst I am in the small flat bottomed boat.  I’d also prefer the others in the group to also stay seated so they don’t rock the boat…capsizing in alligator infested waters, no matter how well they’re feed, would not make for a fun, relaxing day out.  Although, would possibly make my blog more interesting – if we survived the adventure!!

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Gator

I have to say everything we encountered on this guided swamp tour was pretty much as advertised on their website.  The houses built right on the edge of the swamp, pole homes, homes built on a timber slab.  Garages with the car facing the swamp – no garage door. 

Could be disastrous if the driver has a ‘senior moment’ jumps in the car, puts it in drive and drives straight into the swamp.  There was also a house with a double seated swing above their slab on the edge of the swamp…..hopefully the swing doesn’t swing out past the edge of the slab.  Neither sight filled me with confidence that an accident wouldn’t happen.  Living on the swamp must have it’s challenges.  Do gators wander up onto land, if so, what’s the possibility of them wandering into your house?  Scary thoughts…moving on!

On our swamp tour  we saw raccoons looking at us from behind trees, wild pigs (boar), beautiful blue water birds,  alligators which our small flat bottomed boat captain stopped to feed.  A couple of the alligators jumped up out of the water for the food, others were too lazy and waited for it to drop in the water.  They glided slowly around the boat and for the most part people sat still…I know I did!  Several people at the front thought it a good idea to stand and rock the boat thankfully they were told to sit down by the captain. I’m sure more people than me secretly cheered and felt relieved when the captain said that –  LOL.

Whilst gliding around the swamp we saw turtles resting on logs or swimming around.  Hadn’t they heard that alligators have jaws tough enough to crush their little shells?  

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The moss hanging from the swamp trees, the green plants growing over sections of the swamp and the afternoon shadows made areas of the swamp extremely picturesque….in the daytime.  Swamp Encounters offer a sunset night tour where they illuminate the swamp with  a spotlight.  They say the spotlight brings the swamp to life – I have no doubt about that – a bit too alive for me!   I’ll leave that tour for the very brave people who aren’t easily frightened by ‘things’ lurking in the night and the horror movie vision of the moss hanging creepily from the trees.  My husband has offered to accompany our US tour group (should anyone want to) on a sunset swamp tour – when our US tour is able to go ahead again!  Are you wondering about our tour? It’s Music of the South and New York  – itinerary available on http://www.eystravelplanners.com.au.

Guide explained that Cajun people (descendants of French-Canadian who were expelled from Canada under British Rule) live along the Bayou.  In 1764 the descendants were invited to settle into, what was at the time, Spanish Louisiana.

After an enjoyable afternoon on the Bayou and Swamp we were taken back to the city.  There is a difference – the Bayou is French/English term for a slow moving body of water found in flat, low lying areas whereas a Swamp is a wetland with trees.  We were drifting around both!

We decided to walk along Decatur Street this evening and wind our way to  BB King’s Blues Club – all good intentions!  However, we curiously, found the country music bar in the middle of Bourbon Street aptly named the Bourbon Cowboy.  Of course, Ty being a country music tragic…lol, we headed into this tiny bar and took up a bar stool to listen to the musicians.   Ty says the only reason we were allowed into the bar was because the bouncer/security guard looked at Ty’s cowboy boots and nodded ….the way cowboys do (apparently)!

The bar was a boot scootin’ rodeo salon, the band was playing good country music and the vodka had a dash of coca cola in it…lol.  Only had one or Ty would be carrying me out…not a good look!  The mechanical bull had a few contenders – no I wasn’t one!  

BB King will have to wait for another night!  Time to go back to our suite at the Hampton – I had booked us in for a city tour in the morning.  We normally take a guided city tour in a new city.  It gives you an insight into things you might miss on your own.  I research the places we’re visiting but there’s always one or two things that only a local will know.

Friday morning I open the curtains to light rain falling.  Oh well, I cross my fingers the rain stops or at least doesn’t get any heavier. 

We walk to the meeting point where our tour guide and bus will pick us up.  Rain is still falling lightly.  First stop is the City Park which is larger than Central Park NY.  The park contains sculpture gardens, bayous, cafes, an amazing garden, a golf course, a beautiful antique carousel, boating on the Big Lake, Pepsi Tennis Centre and I could go on – what we had time to see was just magnificent.  As with Central Park a person could spend days just visiting this park.  

From the City Park we moved on to the St Louis Cemetery (1789), a catholic cemetery. Actually it is 3  Catholic cemeteries. Majority of the inhabitants are interred in above ground in around 700 vaults. Why so many vaults?  Partly because burial plots can only be shallow in NOLA due to the very high water table.  If the grave is dug too far down it will become soggy and fill with water….this makes the casket float.  History documents tell us in-ground burials were not uncommon but the vaults reflected the French and Spanish influence however it is thought their continued use was due to periodical flooding.  I found the visit very interesting and, I’m sure, if my daughter had been with us, she would’ve been very excited to visit the grave of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.  My daughter loves everything ghoulish! Of course NOLA is a great place to purchase all sorts of voodoo goodies for her.  I have to admit though, I do like a lot of their colourful masks. NOLA Mardi Gras ( a Catholic celebration) would be an amazing sight. I’ve placed it on my travel wish list!!  One festival I particularly like the sound of is Bayou Boogaloo. A 3 day floating party for everyone including the family pet.

Our tour continued on through the places ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.  The force of the wind pushed the sea 12 feet above sea level.  The levies built to protect NOLA didn’t hold when Hurricane Katrina struck.  Many houses are still boarded up and there is evidence. The guide pointed out a very large house that Hurricane Barry decimated…the house had been missed by Katrina 2005 only to be totally destroyed by Barry in 2019.

Our guide told us several interesting facts about NOLA. (I’m sure there were more facts)

  1. There are 50 pumphouses used to continually pump out underground water to stop flooding – not just during a hurricane but each and every day because NOLA sits below sea level.  
  2.  Red Cypress is used for building old houses because it doesn’t mold and termites will not attack it.  

All I know is the humidity here is playing havoc with my hair….cannot keep it in any style at all!

Back in the city we decided to take a cruise on a Mississippi paddle wheeler – “when in Rome’.  The return trip was a couple of hours.  It was a relaxing way to pass the time.  Again we saw the destruction caused by Katrina with buildings and wharves partly demolished or totally flattened.  We saw the massive sugar refinery.  Food was available on board but we’d had lunch so I can’t report on the food.  The boat stopped at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and the Chalmette Battlefield.  We stayed on the boat and relaxed as we, rightly or wrongly,  weren’t really interested in this piece of US history.  We had been to other famous monuments and battlefields we knew about. We just sat back and relaxed – as much as you could on the timber slat seats…lol.  I’m sure we had a flat bottom by the time we disembarked!!!

When we walked back in to the main section of town we couldn’t believe the number of people with luggage being dropped off at the hotels.  Staggering!  The French Quarter and Canal Street was crowded.  Friday night in NOLA everything was happening….what a great place!

We all know Jazz is the music of New Orleans and can be heard all through Bourbon Street and beyond every night.    Blues bars were also popular and, finally,  we spent a fun few hours in BB King’s Blues Club.  The musicians were fabulous and fun.  They really enjoyed performing and were very animated….some included the audience in their set.  Cocktails weren’t too bad either. As with most bars where musicians perform the hat is taken around at the end of their performance because they mostly work for tips. Imagine trying to introduce  that in Australia!!

Our 5 days in NOLA was quickly coming to a close with one more day of sightseeing and night time entertainment left in this great city.

A person cannot leave New Orleans without visiting a plantation – these make up so much of the history of Louisiana – whether it be good or bad the history needs to be told as it was.  We chose Laura Plantation for our visit this morning because it had an extensive  history back before the land was purchased by Duparc 1804.  Pre booking is advisable.  Laura is a Creole Plantation situated at Vacherie on the banks of the Mississippi River.  It was owned by sugar farmer Gillaume Duparc who purchased the property in 1804 and built the house that still stands today.  One thing to know, if you visit, take insect repellant – the mosquito’s are huge out there!  There was only slight rain for our visit for which we were thankful as a large part of the tour is in the grounds of the plantation.  As we headed back to the city the rain came tumbling down!!

It was now time to take the

Trolley bus/cable car from the centre of the city to it’s terminus.  We do this in all cities (if there’s a trolley bus, local bus or light rail) to take a glimpse of the suburbs outside the main city district.  Unfortunately, on this trip we didn’t see as much as we had hoped as the heavens opened and a deluge ensued for a good section of the trip. 

It was afternoon tea time and Café Du Monde was the place to be. It was crowded but no line up today so we stepped inside the tent like structure and luckily found a table that people had just left.  The waitress was very prompt cleaning the table for us.  We checked the menu and decided on the house specialty – Beignets and coffee. Our order was taken and we looked around to see what others were eating and I mainly noticed the amount of white dust all over the tables and on empty plates.  I also noticed that now there was a large line gathering outside the door to the tent and the rain started, gently at first, then it poured.  All those people in line had no undercover to go to and if they didn’t have an umbrella they just stood in the rain.  These beignets must be something extra special and we still had no real idea of what they were but I knew it was something sweet so I was quite happy to try them.

There was a slight delay in receiving our order but we didn’t mind, the rain was still coming down, we were dry and in no rush to go anywhere!  “Ahh, the waitress looks like she’s coming our way” I whispered to Ty.  Oh she certainly was and when put the plates we couldn’t believe our eyes, thank goodness we only ordered one plate of 3 beignets too share.  We ordered café au lait they were ok but nothing like café au lait we’re used to. 

The bun was covered in pure icing sugar (powdered sugar in US) which meant we could brush much of it off. 

The bun was similar in taste to a donut and was delicious with a very small amount of icing sugar on top.  Very filling and I’m sure not good for the hips but a must do!! We managed to demolish all three buns!!  Icing sugar was everywhere. It reminded me of my much younger years when my mother kept icing sugar in a large tin, my sister and I would creep out in the early morning, open the lid and eat lumps of this mass of pure sugar.  We stopped after we were found out and given a large dose of thoroughly disgusting castor oil by our mother!  To this day I have no idea what that nasty stuff was supposed to do except make you heave and feel very ill. 

 There was a table of young men beside us and they ordered 3 buns each and they were in fits at the size and the amount of icing sugar.  I have to say that we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon tea in the big crowded tent not as fancy as High Tea at the Ritz or Tiffany’s but definitely a great experience all round.

The rain had stopped our plate was empty except for a mass of icing sugar people were still lined up waiting for a table….time to head back out and take a wander along the waterfront.

Saturday night in Bourbon Street and the French Quarter is mad….barely room to move, lines outside all restaurants and music venues, a religious group carrying a very large cross pushing their way through the throng trying to save our souls, police on horseback on each corner in the busiest sections and people everywhere up and down the street. It was a very colourful scene.

I noticed, as we started our walk through Bourbon Street, colourful bead necklaces all over the road similar to ones I had purchased earlier in the day.  I pointed it out to Ty and we couldn’t think why.  So we continued on our stroll dropping in to a couple of music venues when the music attracted us.  On our way back the balconies on the bars and restaurants lining Bourbon Street were absolutely crowded with people drinking, laughing, chatting, a very animated scene.  Suddenly lots of yelling and men hanging over balconies caught out eye.  We stopped to see what was happening, stopping anywhere along the street was difficult but there were a number of other people stopped as well.  Everyone  had their eyes focused on a couple of balconies on the left of the street….men were yelling down at the crowd.  Took a little while to work out what they were saying and then it clicked when we looked across in the direction they were yelling.  They were asking women to lift their tops and each time a woman obliged they threw her beads.  An odd ritual which I haven’t researched LOL!  No, I did not oblige besides I’d already purchased NOLA souvenirs and if I needed more beads I could’ve picked them up from the ground 🙂

A fun end to a fabulous 5 days in New Orleans. Would go back to NOLA in a heartbeat there’s so much more to discover.  

What’s that you say?  Ahh, you want to know if I did any shopping!  Mostly purchased souvenirs for family and friends from NOLA.  There is still time to ‘hit’ the shops when we get to Texas.

Sunday morning arrives all too quickly, it’s 7.40am light drizzle is falling and we’re now on our way to Dallas, Texas.  Heavy rain stayed with us until we reached Port Barre.