Friday, April 24, 2009

New Orleans, The Review

WARNING: LONGEST POST EVER AHEAD.
My hubby tragically had to go to New Orleans for a conference. Tragically. A whole three days. During the middle of the week. How terrible. I heard about it, and promptly said, "Oh hey, look! Inexpensive plane tickets!" CLICK.

So on Tuesday, I loaded up my little booger into the car, and off we headed to Charleston. Okay, so we took the long route. But the babysitters were down there, and the plane tickets were cheaper out of CHS, so I decided it was a win-win situation. I dropped her off with Grammy and whatever it is we're calling my dad until Ava vocalizes something, and off I flew to beautiful Bayou country. I got off the plane, and took a shuttle to the hotel, The Royal Sonesta -- which isn't just on Bourbon Street. It's situated in the heart of Bourbon Street. We drove up, and literally there were two cabaret show and sixteen bars in various locations surrounding the building on all sides, with intermittent t-shirt shops.

The best part is, we're on Bourbon Street -- which is normally a place I might typically avoid completely -- at an odd time of year. Meaning, it's a lot less crowded and exponentially more bearable than I had expected. We walked down Bourbon Street the first night, and my husband got a ticket for being a sour puss. He offered us a hat "for a donation," and since he made the hubby laugh, I figured it was worth it. We strolled forever down the street, went to another little bar area just southeast of Bourbon, then walked back. We stopped at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, and had a beer. It was the perfect thing, too. There was a slight, cool breeze flowing, the place was dark and not very crowded at all, a girl was playing songs on a piano, and the place is entirely candlelit. I loved it!

The next morning, I got up, did a little browsing down Bourbon, then got some beignets (ben-yays) and cafe au lait at Cafe Beignet with the hubby -- I know, I know, "No Cafe DuMonde???" But the place was right across the street, and the concierge said it was the best beignet in town, unless you were looking for the Cafe DuMonde experience. I was not disappointed in any way. It was a perfect way to spend breakfast/lunch with the hubby, who got a very tasty shrimp po boy. And they were in fact somehow better than the Cafe DuMonde!

I went back to the hotel, sprayed down with sunscreen, and headed out to the Garden District. It took me forever to find the place to get a pass, but, hey, I needed the exercise. I jumped on the streetcar -- which was an awesome ride, especially if you manage to grab a window seat -- and took it down to Washington Avenue, where I walked down through the Garden District to Magazine Street where a lawyer I had met on the plane directed me for some shopping. And it was a pretty cool little area. Mostly boutiques, antique shops, and local food, which was awesome. A little gelato shop, La Divinia, offered me a sample of a strawberry sobretto, and it was knock-your-eyes-out-delicious. (That's a technical term.) I meant to grab some on my way back to the hotel, so I wasn't carrying it around while I was shopping, and somehow I missed it, and now I'm kicking myself for it. But at least I know what I must do next time I come here.

I did manage to not walk out of there with lots of large, heavy and expensive things. Actually I only bought a book for Cutezilla, Blueberry Girl, by Neil Gaiman, master of science fiction. I meant to pick up a little New Orleans story book, but so far I haven't found the right one. I also picked up a magnet for the fridge... and that was it! Ta-da! I jumped back on the streetcar and went back to the hotel, where I caught up with the hubby. We saw the concierge again, who set us up with a table at Muriel's Soiree, where I had probably the second best filet mignon of my life. It was amazing! The appetizers were a fantastic goat cheese and shrimp crepe as well as hubby's favorite, escargot. My steak came on a bed of oyster dressing with a reduction sauce that, while it was very good, had no business being near this steak. It was that good. Hubby ordered a pretty tasty seafood au gratin, and both of us were pretty much stuffed by the time dessert came around. We had orginally intended to split dessert -- a vanilla bean creme brulee -- but when the waiter came around with two of them, we were all a little surprised, including the waiter. He said, "I'm not sure why, but the kitchen had two for you, so here they are!" And oh my God, am I glad I didn't have to share. In the realm of creme brulees, maybe it wasn't extremely special, but creme brulee is something of a specialty in my mind, and always a preferred dessert. You bet your butt I'm making this one at home. And again, I'm probably NOT going to share!

After that we walked over a block or two for what was probably the most graphic ghost story tour I have ever been on. And it was fantastic. The best part was, the guide had done research on every facet of every story and had evidence for every single gruesome detail. It was awesome! I was actually a little worried when we started the tour. The guide said he'd disillusion us on other ghost stories we might have heard, and tell us why those stories are bad ghost stories, that he would tell us the real stories, stories based on fact, not hearsay or reports of impressions from random sources, and so on. Randy, our guide, took us to a few places where ghost stories are rampant -- including one where a guy had recorded creaking boards in an old building from the 1700's.

"Gee. Imagine that!" Randy said. He then proceeded to tell us of Jean Laffitte, a notorious pirate who controlled the entire coast from New Orleans down to Brazil. He was also a massive slave smuggler, since Governor O'Reilly, New Orleans Spanish governor (yes, that's correct, I swear) outlawed the importation of slaves. Apparently his prices were so affordable, plantation owners could buy enough slaves to work the planting and harvesting seasons, then slaughter them all in the down-time, and just buy more in the spring. While extraordinarily gruesome, they only estimate those figures to be in the tens of thousands -- however, in comparison to the actual production numbers of those seasons -- the highest of any in Louisiana's history before or since -- many people feel the numbers are highly underestimated, and could be as astronomical as a million or more.

The next stop was more macabre than any movie producer could have ever imagined. Delphine LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite, was born to a prominent family who was killed in a violent slave uprising. She was a widow (twice over under mysterious circumstances) who married a third time to a doctor who graduated bottom of his class from a medical university in Germany. Our guide proceeded to tell us about the LaLauries and how they bought a house on Royal Street to throw parties. Our guide related the details of reports from the local fire departments when a fire was set in the kitchen and put out, only to discover two slaves chained to the stove, who did not just set the fire -- they set themselves on fire. Some stories say it was a valiant effort to gain the attention of authorities, but our guide maintained that the slaves set themselves on fire to escape their mistress. Not only were they worked to death with no nourishment, but the LaLauries were also performing horrible and beyond grotesque experiments. Several incidents happened, all with reports or mentions in the social columns. When the LaLauries were finally going to be taken to justice, they escaped and fled the city, and presumably lived in France and died of old age. There is much more to the story, but there is no way to do the it justice without a few thousand words or so. But even our guide admitted, while cynical to the extreme, as well as obsessed with the historical truth, could not explain away the numerous reports of seeing a woman fitting the description of Delphine LaLaurie on her roof, whipping a slave girl until she took an out from her existence and pushed herself off the roof to her death.

Our guide then told us the story of Marie Laveau, the [Catholic] voodoo priestess, who duped the New Orleans wealthy into paying her masses of money to help her free hundreds of slaves as they and their families came off the boats to be sold in New Orleans. He also told us of her twelve children, at least five of which were girls, and almost all named Marie in some way, and how it is possible and even probable that her girls took up the family business, thus creating the myth that Marie Laveau was always young and beautiful, that her powers of Voodoo kept her that way until her death at the age of 90.

There are much more to the stories, of course. We spent almost three hours on the tour, listening to our guide. In the end, while the stories were graphic in the extreme, their horror made even more poignant because of the historical records to back them up -- the tour ended on an amazingly positive note, about humanity and it's ability to overcome the odds set before it. About the fact that while some ghost stories are vague and easily picked apart, there are others that are truly unexplainable, that speak incredibly of other forces in this world that people are rarely asked to acknowledge, no matter what you believe their sources might be -- spirits or Hand of God, alike. Our guide sang an old Catholic song in Latin, his voice eerily filling and echoing in the alley alongside a church where a priest and his followers sang this same song as they walked, carrying the bodies of executed French rebels to a nearby graveyard, against the judgement passed that these men would not be allowed burial of any kind.

We hung out with the guides for some time, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We passed by some shops on our way home, and I picked up a few things, and then in the morning, we checked out, and headed to the Cafe DuMonde, where we lounged along the river as we ate our beignets and drank our cafe au lait by the river and enjoyed the glorious gardens in bloom. Then we walked around some more, did a little more shopping, then joined up with some friends from the Hubby's grad school days at our hotel. We grabbed some lunch at Mother's, a famous little hole-in-the-wall that is so fantastically famous, they can charge $14 for a sandwich and still have a line out the door and around the corner. We actually went at a good time though and managed to get a seat immediately. The staff was really polite every time they came to take something away, and even though the sandwich was expensive, it was still pretty good.

We got our friends checked into their hotel, left our bags with them, and then headed out to Jazz Fest. Even though I know almost nothing about jazz, neither the music nor the history, the festival was really enjoyable. They had a Mahala Jackson tribute in the gospel tent, Joe Cocker played(who was also staying at our hotel), and my favorite: a congo group with a full band behind them, being led by Wynton Marsalis, who is apparently pretty famous even if I was totally unaware. The band list was amazing and HUGE; they had twelve stages worth of performers just for ONE DAY. Even if we only went for a few hours, it was still pretty awesome.

We spent our last real night in New Orleans back on Bourbon Street, at the Bourbon House Seafood, one of the top five ranked seafood houses in the United States... and I came in craving a hamburger. I ordered a steak, and yeah, it was decent, but I should have ordered another plate of the appetizer we had: a triple helping of Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters Fonseca, and Oysters Bienville. They were unbelievably delicious. After dinner, we grabbed a hand grenade on our way back to our friend's hotel, where we nearly passed out. Probably the combination of the hand grenade and the Abita Andygator (which was also delicious) did me in. But we got our things, grabbed a taxi and headed out to a hotel by the airport where we crashed until our flights left. (After, of course, our taxi driver took us to the wrong hotel, and then after we grabbed a second taxi, the driver had to run back into the first hotel after the drunk guy he had just dropped off forgot to pay him.)

I got home to Charleston on Saturday around 2pm. I took a nap while waiting for Cutezilla and my mother to get back from a baby shower. (I made another diaper cake -- but that's another post.) Cutezilla wouldn't even speak to me when she saw me. I asked for a hug and she threw herself... at my mother. She snubbed me for most of the day, but on Sunday, she was pretty happy to see me. Then we headed home to meet up with Hubby and spent the rest of the day lounging and rolling around on the bed and playing. I have to say, we've had some pretty awesome vacations -- England, San Francisco, Houston -- and this one, like the rest will be hard to beat. But it's hard to beat the high of elation after such a fantastic week in such a fabulous city with friends and loved ones.

Blueberry Girl:

3 comments:

Harmony said...

Sounds like a FABULOUS trip! Andy and my first trip together was to New Orleans :) I've wanted to do one of those ghost tours forever - anywhere! - but still haven't.

BTW - there's an award for you on my blog.

The Stein Family said...

yeah, um...we just went to San fran for a vacation...got back last night...i now truly understand the reason behind taking vacation WITHOUT kids...and I didn't need this post to drive it home...but thanks anyway :)

Megan said...

How great!! I was in New Orleans last summer and loved it. I'll have to try that other beignet place next time because we just did Cafe Dumonde. Glad to hear you got a break from the little monster! ;)