Founded by the French in 1718 on the swampy flood plain of the lower Mississippi River, New Orleans is almost entirely surrounded by water, which since its earliest days has both isolated it from the interior and connected it to the outside world. By the time the Americans bought it in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, this was a cosmopolitan city whose ethnically diverse population had mingled to create a distinctive Creole culture. In the 19th century its importance as a port brought in smugglers, gamblers, prostitute and pirates that gave it the decadent title “sin city.”
I’ve been dreaming about New Orleans since I was a child. The city plays home to one of America’s most robust film industries which has produced award winning titles such as The Client, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave. My obsession with food and drink has also had me lusting after NOLA’s infamous culinary offerings where creative cocktails (you can drink them in the street, my lord!) and spicy creole cuisine made famous to the Food Network generation via Emeril Lagasse offer a hedonistic taste of place.
It would be criminal if I didn’t also tip my hat to John Kennedy Toole the author of my favourite book of all time, Pulitzer Prize winner “A Confederacy of Dunces.” The hero here is Ignatius J. Reilly, “huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter,” who perhaps offers the most humorous and honest perspective of sin city. Fans of the epic novel can have their picture taken with Ignatius, the books larger than life character who has been immortalized in bronze, standing on Canal Street just south of the Ritz Carlton.
A short three hours after arriving in New Orleans I paused and made a mental note, “this is one of the few cities that offers exactly what films, books and television try so hard to romanticize.” New Orleans offers soul: where stag parties slosh through the streets, feasts start with a grin but end with a waddle and an enthusiastic melting pot of cultures who have weathered many storms welcome you with open arms. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the authenticity that is New Orleans!
I stayed just outside of the French Quarter, happy to call the Beaux-Arts “boutique meets luxury” International House home. Arriving shortly after dusk, the hotel’s lobby glowed with the flicker of candlelight and offered up an aromatic perfume of citrus and bitters which wafted over from the bar. My room was aptly titled the Panoramic Corner King, offering 12 foot ceilings and two window-walls of natural light clad in theatrical sheers and velveteen drapes. Like the city itself, there is an ecclesiastical and handmade element woven into the rooms design. Gali Art’s wrought-iron bedside table with cruciform feet, Erica Larken’s totem-inspired cafe tables and the Pagan Cross corner console ebonized and silver-leafed, are topped with honed Calcutta gold marble. A lux seating area features 5′ x 8′ mirror, crystal chandelier and LM Chair which is upholstered in antiqued velvet.
Using the International House as my home base I spent three days marching through the city. Thankfully NOLA’s top attractions are all a pedestrian friendly stroll away so be sure to lace up your sneakers and pound the pavement where the lullaby of live jazz floats over jaw dropping Mardi Gras bedazzled balconies.
Sips and Nibbles
New Orleans is first and foremost a food mecca. Foodies treat their first visit as a pilgrimage and serious research must be done to ensure one doesn’t miss a thing. A special page of American culinary history lives right here and the pot in its kitchen offers a unique opportunity to enjoy Creole flavours, a unique mix of French, Spanish, Italian and African with a Southern twist.
Highlights from the dinner hour include acclaimed Chef John Besh’s homage to the old brasserie where German and French old-world cooking techniques impress at Luke. Or enjoy Dickie Brennan’s Tableau, which specializes in the execution of classic Creole dishes.
Café Au Lait Massage
The Ritz Carlton Spa New Orleans features 22 treatment rooms, over 100 therapies, quiet cafe and state of the art fitness centre. What makes the Ritz Spa in NOLA stand above the rest is not only its physical decor but its extravagant variety of therapies and unique treatments. Expertly performed in a beautiful setting where draped chandeliers, bubbling fountains and hint of magnolia fill the air to calm the mind and body. I opted for the Cafe au Lait massage (just a few hours after indulging in a hot cup of the real thing at Cafe de Monde). Fans of coffee time can recharge their spirit and nourish their skin with this relaxing Swedish massage that incorporates the healing properties of coffee (café) and milk (au lait). Peppermint, rosemary and citrus essential oils are also incorporated into this relax-to-the-max indulgence.
Skipping Through The French Quarter
The heartbreakingly beautiful French Quarter – or Vieux Carre (“old square”) is where New Orleans all began. Today it is the heart of tourist town and the best place in the city to people watch. First stop off at breezy Jackson Square and pop into St Louis Cathedral, The Cabildo (which houses a museum that picks its way through the complex tangles of cultures, classes and races that binds together Louisiana’s history) and The Presbytere which currently houses two exhibits (on the main floor a somber look at Hurricane Katrina and up top the smile inducing Mardi Gras exhibit). East of the square you’ll find The Old Ursuline Convent and French Market which sits a stones throw from the mighty Mississippi River.
March in Your Own Parade at Mardi Gras World
Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World is a working facility, where year-round you can see artists preparing, constructing and painting the overblown, brightly coloured papier-mache floats used in the official carnival parades. Kern’s team have been building floats since 1947 and are recognized for being at the top of their field, building props for parades and theme parks all over the world. Without a doubt the very best education you will ever get on the history and traditions which make Mardi Gras in New Orleans the most celebrated street party on earth.
Southern Art Crawl
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art is a sleek, four storey museum which represents the south in all of its complexity, strangeness and beauty. The collection runs the gamut from rare 18th century watercolours through self-taught art to photography and modernist sculpture. The gallery is located beside the National WW II Museum and a quick 30 minute stroll allows for a quick capture of Louisiana’s take on artistic expression from “then to now.”
Cruise the Mississippi
Hop on a short two hour cruise on one of America’s most important waterways. Leaving from the Toulouse Street wharf behind the Jackson Brewery mall, the Steamboat Natchez heads seven miles downriver before looping back near the Chalmette battlefield. The captain gives a running commentary and while inside you can dine on a buffet featuring rice and beans, fried catfish and cornbread while accompanied by a cheerful Dixieland band.
Live Music on Frenchmen Street
Jazz fans should head to Frenchmen Street at night, a hugely popular place to hang out where revellers spill out onto the street to create a block party. I hopped by after dinner one eve to enjoy a cocktail at The Three Muses which by 9pm was packed to the brim as a local band crooned in the corner. The Orange Blossom Sazerac certainly packs a punch (house infused vanilla-sazerac rye whiskey, cointreau and house orange-fennel seed bitters) a perfect sipper to enjoy while watching the free spirits that dance by the bar.
Have a Gay Ol Time
I was blown away by New Orleans’ gay scene and was ever so lucky to have Tony Leggio as my Queer Spirit Guide. A staple in the NOLA LGBT community, Tony spent an evening giving me the ultimate tour of New Orleans’ thriving (and to many cities, enviable) queer nightlife offering. Throughout the evening everyone from leather clad Bears, energetic Twinks, chiseled bartenders and fierce Drag Queens would yell “Hi Tony!” when they spotted him. His notoriety is well earned as for many years he was the captain of the Mystic Krewe of Satyricon, the largest gay Carnival krewe and is on the board of the Friday Night Before Mardi Gras a hugely fabulous gay ball.
New Orlean’s gay scene immediately reminded me of the chaos and good fun one can find in Bangkok: sipping cocktails on the street (because that should be legal everywhere), drag queens chirping this way and that, strippers hopping up on the bar while you sip gay drinks and an eclectic mix of locals and tourists enjoying a good time. While the city offers a dizzying number of gay bars I found the best vibe at Good Friends Bar, Oz and Bourbon Pub Parade.
A gay night out in NOLA? Perfect proof that the city serves up its own Mardi Gras 365 days a year!