New Orleans – Land of Mardi Gras, great food and Jazz music

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I love the USA and want to try and cover as much of the States as I can. I travel to New York at least once a year so instead of my usual return flight to JFK for my two week stay I have now started tagging on an additional destination and splitting my time.

There is so much of America that I would love to see, it’s hard to decide where to start as each area has something different to offer. The other decider for me is the flying times and making sure that there are direct routes (the less amount of flights in between, the better).  There was a lot of back and forth involved with where we should visit. The list included San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas or even a Caribbean Island before making our way to New York. All incredible places but our list was getting bigger and bigger.

A city that I took off the list was New Orleans; the reason for me removing it was the fact that we would have needed an indirect flight. It wouldn’t be an awkward connection I just couldn’t face taking a long-haul flight, then just as I calm my nerves, get on a plane again for another few hours. There’s a lot of psyching up for a long-haul flight every time I fly so not sure I am ready for connectors.  It’s a shame as this is my first choice; I got my sign in the form of British Airways. They launched several new direct flights this year and New Orleans became one of those routes in March 2017. This was the decider, as soon as this was announced I didn’t even look at the rest of my list.

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With the promotion of the new route we managed to get a great introductory fare in World Traveller Plus, this is good if you are tall as the flight is approximately 10 hours. The other bonus was that we got to fly one of the BA Dream Liners, this is the new upgraded aircraft, all the seats and cabins have been upgraded. Being the big kid I am, I was impressed with the new dipped windows, you don’t have the shutter over the window; there is a window dimmer that gently adds a deep blue filter! I was extremely impressed. The mother of all cabins on the dream liner is the first-class suites, I peeped across as we boarded and noticed how empty our flight was. I contemplated jumping into a first-class seat, reclining it to a bed and then hiding under the blanket for the duration of the flight, hoping they won’t move me.  I think the stewardess read my thoughts as she blocked my view with a smile and pointed me to the correct seat. Never mind, maybe one day!

Touchdown, into the land of Mardi Gras, voodoo, Jazz music and incredible food. New Orleans also known as the Big Easy!  It was evening when we arrived and sadly raining, but I didn’t care the excitement was too much, I just wanted to get out and explore.

A new experience I tried on this trip is my global entry, this is something worth taking if you are a regular visitor to the USA, this fast track’s your security and you can use the global entry kiosk avoiding a painful queue after a ten-hour flight. This must be the quickest I have ever got through security but, sadly having to wait an hour for my bags to join me!

You don’t need to pre- book a taxi as they are readily available as you exit the airport, in fact it is cheaper to arrange the taxi locally as we checked pre-booking with prices of over USD $100 per car per way (GBP £78 approx.). We went to the taxi rank and got into a car straight away, our hotel located in the city centre took approximately half an hour, we paid USD $35 (GBP £28 approx.).

New Orleans has a fantastic selection of hotels in the heart of all the action. I opted for the Windsor Court Hotel because of its great position, the place you want to be for all the liveliness of the city is the French Quarter, which is where the Windsor Court is located, its set back in a quieter part which is perfect. I noticed a few other top hotels nearby which is great as New Orleans during Mardi Gras is very busy so there is a great amount of available options. There are traditional hotels offering the French mansion style that the city is famous for such as Soniat House, if you want a touch of history. This is what we booked for our last night to combine our experience.

The Windsor Court Hotel blew my mind, it exceeded my expectations as I walked into the grand lobby to check in. You get a real touch of English / European history with famous historical paintings hanging throughout the hotel’s public areas. Our room was ready immediately allowing us to check in to the most beautiful, and much-needed surprise after a long flight. The Deluxe suite became our home for the next three nights which had a large living room attached to a huge bedroom, the décor in keeping with the hotel in the historical European colours and furnishings, you could easily forget that you are in the deep south of America. The joy when we walked into such a beautiful suite, I am certain the whole hotel heard my excited high pitch yelp.  The highlight is the balcony with fantastic views of the Mississippi River, every so often you get to see the Natchez steam boat sail past which is one of the tours that can be booked. The Deluxe suite also offers access to the club level lounge serving complimentary breakfast, snacks throughout the day and then evening cocktail hour. The hotel has a good selection of restaurants to dine for dinner or breakfast, you can sample some of the Louisiana signature dishes within the hotel although you are just steps away from a wide variety of choice nearby. For the sweet tooth, there is Café Anglais serving coffees and pastries all day long right through till the evening. It was very hard to pull myself away from the hotel to explore the city as I was made to feel so welcomed and thoroughly spoilt by all the staff. We had a particular experience within the club lounge, it rained that morning quite heavily so with a heavy heart we were a bit unsure where to go without getting completely drenched. One of the lounge staff saw our glum looks and she decided to cheer us up by advising places to go and then surprised us with a Mimosa to lighten our moods. It was a lovely moment as we felt that it was so personal, I enjoyed talking to her could have comfortably stayed all morning learning more about my new friend.

There are so many tours to book where you can learn more about some of the things New Orleans is famous for. Jet lag being on our side for once, we were up very early on our first morning and decided to book a tour that would take us out of the city and into the Bayou (swamp area). This is a tour that you can do on a boat or an airboat through the swamp to look for alligators. This is such a fantastic experience in so many ways as you have the wildlife spotting aspect of it but the tour takes you to the real deep south, passing areas you may have seen in the movies. After around 40 minutes you will be dropped off at Honey Island swamp. You are assigned a boat and captain and then you are on the way to tour the swamp for around 2 hours. The Captains are all very clued up on the wildlife and fauna in the area, they are experts in attracting the alligators to give you a close sighting whilst they offer food, but the best part is the guides are extremely lively and a lot of fun, they will tell you all about the legends and histories of the swamps and their surroundings. The sighting of wildlife is guaranteed, we saw many alligators, water hogs, turtles and racoons, have your camera at the ready you will want to snap away (no alligator pun intended). We booked the tour locally but you can book this in advance, there are many tour companies however I can highly recommend Pearl Eco tours, they were great fun as well as looking after their customer’s safety, extremely informative and professional throughout.

New Orleans also has a lot of voodoo legends and several ghost stories to tell. There are many cemetery, voodoo or haunted tours which are popular due to the many stories attached to the city. This has become a preferred setting for top movies/TV serials such as American Horror Story or the spin off from Vampire Diaries, the Originals. Being a fan of both these shows we decided to book a Cemetary and voodoo walking tour. No advance booking is required as there are many tour companies offering these trips and they run on a regular basis. Through the TV shows I have watched I already knew the story of two famous legends in New Orleans history and that is Marie Laveau who was a well renowned voodoo priestess. She rose to fame through her magic and healing qualities which to this day she is still respected and loved for.  Voodoo has always had a negative undertone due to media and film but when you join the tour, you will learn that it was formed out of religion as New Orleans housed many African slaves, the beliefs were mainly spiritual but some of the practices were fused with Catholic beliefs. You will learn all the positive aspects of the voodoo religion and how Marie Laveau spread good work throughout becoming an absolute hero. We did learn that Marie Laveau had a daughter who continued the practice but in a much darker way, this is perhaps where the negative reputation of voodoo may have started. The other story I knew of that was mentioned during the tour is Madame Delfin La Laurie, this is a horrific story of a rich French socialite that owned a large mansion in the city (which still stands today) and housed many slaves. What people didn’t realise is that behind closed doors, La Laurie was torturing and mutilating her slaves. The story was mentioned in one season of American Horror Story and portrayed by actress Kathy Bates, I thought it was a fictitious character but found out it was true before coming to New Orleans. You can visit the mansion from outside but cannot enter as this was closed off to tourists due to the spooky things that would happen here.

The tour will cover these stories and will take you to one of the famous cemeteries called St Louis Cemetary 1. This is one of two popular cemeteries, the other being Lafayette. You can book longer walking tours that will cover both however, after learning about Marie Laveau you will find her grave in St Louis Cemetary 1.  You will also hear another story about a grave stone owned by Nicholas Cage, it is a large white pyramid that dominates the grounds of the cemetery, there is a story to go with this apparently, Nicolas Cage had to build this to break a curse he had on him (even Hollywood actors are superstitious), there is a deeper side to the story which you can learn about. A Cemetary may not be everyone’s idea of a places to see, however these are not like the ordinary cemetery you may have seen before, they are beautiful tombs that are detailed and surrounded in history. The part that fascinated me is that the bodies are not buried, New Orleans is a swampy city therefore all bodies are placed above ground! To visit St Louis Cemetary 1 you will need to do this as a guided tour, they don’t allow public access without a licensed guide.

After the tour to the cemetery you will continue walking along the famous streets in the French Quarter to finally end up outside the Marie Laveau shop. The tour lasts a total of 2 hours, a walking tour also gives you a great view of where everything is located in the city. This was a good tour and completely changed my view on voodoo, stabbing a doll will not kill your worst enemy, in fact you can buy many voodoo dolls which represent healing or luck (just don’t stab them as it won’t work).

The voodoo vibe has caught us and we decided to continue learning about Marie Laveau and her work. We found the Voodoo museum nearby and decided to check this out. The museum is small and won’t take long to walk around, there is a small entry fee of USD $7.50 (GBP £5.85) per person, and gives you an in depth look into the religion and how it all came about.

Mardi Gras is a big event that takes place around February or March and is another famous highlight that tourists will flock to, as it is one of the most spectacular events of the city. Parades and floats make their way through the streets of the French Quarter, the floats are extravagant and this is what people want to see. You will find everyone dressed up with masks and bright colours following the floats and dancing to the vast array of music and live street bands. It is ideal to book early as this is the busiest time to visit. If you visit outside of Mardi Gras then you can visit Mardi Gras World which houses all the floats used in the parades. If you look up into the trees around the city you will see loads of hanging Mardi Gras beads that are left over from the festivals. All the souvenir shops will have loads of colourful and bright masks to purchase as a keepsake and you will also find street vendors offering beads to wear. Funny story, also a helpful story, as we walked through Bourbon Street we were approached by a bead seller who without a word placed the beads over my head and then asked me for 5 bucks, not thinking much of this I gave him the money and moved on. Many people stared at me parading my new beads and a few laughingly asked, “what did you do for those beads?” I answered, “I paid for them” then walked away very confused. It was only later when I met my relatives in New York who advised that the rule in New Orleans is, you must flash your boobs for a set of beads! I walked around with them all night and waltzed proudly into our hotel not knowing why people were looking and giggling.

For a city tour, the best way is to have a walk around independently. You will see the décor still has a very French influence, the homes are like something you would see in Paris and some of the streets have French names. For a history of the city and a way to rest your feet then you can book a hop on hop off bus with city sightseeing which stops at the major highlights, you can get off once you see something you want to explore, or stay on and let it loop you around the city taking around two hours, there is a guide on board pointing everything out. If it rains this won’t ruin your experience as the open top area has a rain cover. You can buy a 3 day hop off ticket for USD $49 (approx. GBP £39) or a 1 day ticket for USD $39 (approx. GBP £30).

The bus tour you can pick up in a central area known as Jackson Square, this is close to the French Market which offers a lot of great food, souvenirs and Mardi Gras masks. This brings me onto another very big highlight of New Orleans, food! The food in Louisiana is so diverse and interesting, it has your American comfort food fused with creole spices and French influence. Try a famous Po-Boy which is a heavily filled sandwich in a baguette, there are some great rice and meat or seafood dishes such as jambalaya or a heart-warming gumbo, prices for food is amazing, you will eat well for less. I always wanted to try grits which is a corn meal dish (pretty famous in this region of America), I had this in a dumpling form with a very southern breakfast of Andouille hash (a sausage and potato spiced hash) and poached eggs. The spice in the food is delicious and probably one of the best breakfasts I’ve had.

I must recommend the most amazing sweet dish, when I think about it now I drool, it’s a Beignet. The Beignet is a type of doughnut, not like any doughnut you may have tried before. There are no words to describe how delicious they are and all I can suggest is to head to the French market and stop at Café Du Monde, order yourself a coffee and a plate of Beignet, they will arrive warm and dusted in icing sugar. Don’t be delicate grab it and take a bite, you will get a warm crunch and then a soft cake like texture, the icing sugar will have completely covered your lips which you can lick and prepare for the second bite. Leave me a comment once you have tried this, and by the way, you are very welcome! Café Du Monde is the best place to have your Beignet experience, it’s an open café so great for people watching whilst your taste buds are dancing in delight.

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Jazz music all originates from New Orleans and was home to one of the musical legends Louis Armstrong, you can visit the Louis Armstrong park in the French Quarter. Jazz music still has a strong influence when you visit various bars and restaurants. There are some great places around the French Market, we strolled into what appeared to be a very quiet bar with a live band in the process of setting up. There was a happy hour on and a band scheduled to perform in the next twenty minutes. Being empty there was a lot of available tables so we sat close to the band and ordered our drinks. The waiter then pointed out that along with happy hour they are offering $0.50c chicken wings! I thought I was drunk and asked him to repeat himself. Can you believe that, where would you ever have cheap drinks, a live band and a bowl of chicken for $0.50c (approx. GBP £0.40p). I’ve paid more for a kit kat! That was the decider we were not leaving this bar, which is called 30/90 Degrees. It turned out that the band were incredible, they had such a different sound with a great lead singer, a pianist, a drummer, a guy on the trombone but the one that sent shivers through my body was the saxophone player. I am not sure if it was the instrument or how well he played but I was mesmerised and pretty sure he became extra attractive to me (it could have been the strong and cheap cocktails influence). This was very unplanned and we had just walked into a random bar which ended up being great fun. It also became busy once the band who I found out are called the Bayou Saints performed.

Soniat House for the last night is a great experience in itself, the hotel is part of the Small Luxury Hotels as it’s a beautiful historical mansion that has been restored from the 1800’s. The stay will offer you experiential luxury and is made to feel like a private home rather than a hotel. The location couldn’t be more perfect as it is in the thick of all the liveliness within the French Quarter. The rooms are set back in a private courtyard so shields you from any noise at night.  The part I discovered which caused me a little uneasiness as I am quite a scaredy cat, Delfin La Lauries house (also known as a haunted mansion) is 2 minutes from Soniat House and is almost at the back of it! I cleverly read online that people have seen haunted sightings at the house and even heard screams at night, we had to walk past the mansion a few times to get to our hotel so I would speed past and not look back. I can happily say you are very safe in the Soniat House, no hauntings or ghoulish screams. In fact, this was a perfect end to our trip and you will find a great review of Soniat in the book 1000 places to see before you die.

I am sad to say the trip is over and perhaps too short for my liking. I spent four days and crammed in as much as possible. The part I missed out on was a plantation tour, they take you further into the deep south to one of the old plantations where you can learn about the owners and slave trade, there are several plantations you can visit which makes up a full day tour. I particularly wanted to visit the Whitney Plantation and the only free day I could have squeezed this in would have been a Tuesday which is a day they are closed. A week in New Orleans would be ideal as there is a lot to see and do, in the time we spent we only scratched the surface. Food plays a great part of the trip which I learnt very quickly with the wide choices and great price. The French Quarter is the best place to be in the evening for nightlife, good music and even better food, if you take a walk-through Bourbon Street in the evening there are always great deals on drinks and they have a lot of bars/restaurants with balconies overlooking Bourbon Street for great people watching and street entertainment. New Orleans has been a wonderful experience and a must see in the USA. With direct flights on British Airways you have even more incentive to visit the Big Easy.

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