When it comes to a world of contrasts, no city does it more convincingly than New Orleans.
It has always heaved from one extreme to the other, yet forever retained its distinctive allure whether that stems from its pain, passion or pride ... or all of the above.
It is bewitching yet seedy, ugly but stunning, then peaceful and serene in parts though manically flamboyant and loud in others.
Rest assured, even when it isn’t world renowned Mardi Gras time, the city is still as much fun.
I rolled up to “Nawlins”, as the locals affectionately call it with their southern drawl, with three missions in mind: to check out Bourbon Street, explore the city and its history with a walking tour, and to shop till I dropped.
As part of an APT Aussie tour contingent on a Majestic Mississippi trip exploring the Deep South, all three were made easy.
Cool Vibe Smacks You Right In The Senses
For the shopping, having a New Orleans born and bred tour director was a major bonus, and he was more than happy to reel off a hit-list with ease (so jot these down):
Walmart Supercentre in Tchoupitoulas Street for just about anything; Wehmeiers in Canal Street or Cavender’s Western Outfitter in Gretna for cowboy boots; and for serious mall trawlers set your sights on the shops at Canal Place in Canal Street, the shops at Jackson Brewery in Decatur Street or Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie.
For the city tour, step off the bus and always remember to mind your step as the NOLA drivers haven’t quite accepted the pedestrian crossings installed a year ago for the Super Bowl. A colourful city with a spirit to match, a combo of its signature food, music and friendly people smacks you in the senses immediately.
And nothing says New Orleans like street music as the French Quarter gives the city a cool vibe that is all its own. Especially Frenchman Street, which is the residents’ choice for jazz clubs, rather than the more touristy Bourbon Street.
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The infamous Bourbon Street is impossible to resist.
Sure it’s grubby. It smells. Crowd members are often drunk and there’s more than one peep show on offer.
But there is a real charm about its pubs’ wrought iron balconies overhung with dazzling Mardi Gras beads, their wooden shutters flung open to welcome the jazzed-up-and-ready-to-party.
From energetic and happy bars and eateries overflowing fresh oysters, po’ boy sandwiches and smoked BBQ ribs, it’s just as easy and as fascinating in a travel sense to notice the less charming, as I’m distracted by a homeless man holding his face with both hands while slumped on a doorstep in Charters Street.
Yet another juxtaposition, his dishevelled, dusty and grey appearance clearly distinguishes him from the vibrant pastel oranges, blues and greens on the doors and walls behind him. He’s filthy, but friendly; Southern hospitality doesn’t discriminate here. It’s part of the DNA.
“Hello, my friend, welcome to ‘Nawlins’,” he says with pipes as croaky as Satchmo’s. He shakes my hand and accepts a fiver.
A Brief Audience With Her Majesty
Moments later, before reaching the bustling flea markets later on, I quickly snap a photo of a proudly flamboyant poser introducing herself as the Queen of New Orleans.
Instantly her smile turns to a glare with hand darting out as she demands “some green to help pay the Queen’s rent, honey” for the privilege of photographing her.
As the day wears on, the streets spring to life at various points throughout the French Quarter like spot fires igniting into a wild blaze of all manner of buskers, laughter, music spilling out of bars, wild fashions and people of all shapes and sizes as the roll-out of juxtapositions continues in a smorgasbord for the senses.
It’s loud and proud and, importantly, full of life in a city that’s seen so much death, disease and natural disaster.
Bourbon Street, the epicentre of contrasts, is rocking: a little bit dirty, but sexy, stinking one minute before the barbecue sizzle and aromas of seafood waft by alluringly the next.
Panhandlers abound, small children bewitching you with a tap dance “for a dollar” only to break your heart when they sneak around the corner to hand over the earnings to a modern-day Fagin.
But there is always a flow of genuinely happy and friendly people to balance it all out.
While staying close in an APT group with organised city tours makes life easier for some, free time on your own New Orleans is laid out like a military grid, so all you really need to know is where Canal St and the river are and you’ll find your way around.
For accommodation, APT sets up its guests with a bed at historic The Roosevelt New Orleans, a legendary property that is now a Waldorf Astoria with impeccable service, great facilities and charming rooms.
With APT taking care of business on flights, accommodation, cruising, food and activities, simply turn up to enjoy the spoils and adventure of the Big Easy.
Long live New Orleans.