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New Orleans – ‘Nola’ as it’s known by the locals – is stunning, blending smells, sounds, culture and cuisine into one of the most unique experiences the US has to offer. European and Caribbean influences are evident in the architecture and food, but the city also shamelessly and fantastically flaunts its Native American and voodoo heritage. It’s a melting pot in the truest sense. New Orleans’ cuisine is superb! Be prepared to savour forkfuls of the culture, tradition and recipe perfection that have earned the city its culinary legacy. A trip to New Orleans is not complete without a steamy helping of gumbo. Classic gumbo recipes call for okra simmered for hours in a stock made as rich as possible using a variety of meats, onions, celery and bell peppers. Served over rice, variations include seafood gumbo with shrimp, oysters and crabmeat, or chicken gumbo with andouille sausage. Seafood, chicken and creole dishes are readily available everywhere and more often than not accompanied by some dulcet jazz tones in the background.
Highly recommended is the low key but excellent Sylvain’s on St. Chartres Street, which has a distinguished wine list, food and craft beer selection. At New Orleans’ heart though – of course – is its music scene. The Spotted Cat is cool… it doesn’t try hard, it’s not brash or pretentious, it is just effortless cool. Located at the top of Frenchman Street deep in the city’s French Quarter, this small but highly recommended bar instantly makes you understand why New Orleans is famous for jazz.
Like a bright-eyed tourist, I sit on a long bench next to an old gentleman in a fedora (the bar is packed!) and soak in the sounds of the local classic ‘Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans’. Halfway through the song, my concentration is broken by the high shrills of a trumpet. Startled, I turn around and to my surprise old fedora is playing in perfect time and key with the music. The band introduces him as an acclaimed local jazz player and they finish the song together – it’s just that kind of place. Afterwards, fedora leaves, making a show of heavily tipping the band, and says to the crowd: “First rule: ALWAYS tip the band”. Bands in New Orleans don’t get paid a fee for performing, relying on tips from the public instead.
So good is the quality of music in these bars that you could easily spend days exploring; taking in the sounds, atmosphere and ambience of the place. Enjoy the French Quarter; the bright lights and sights of Bourbon Street and the quasi French architecture are wondrous, creating a party vibe that is truly unique in the US. This is especially true in February, as an eruption of colour, dancing and parades heralds the arrival of Mardi Gras. This vibrant feel-good carnival transforms New Orleans into a 24-hour party unlike anything you’ve ever experienced and will surely stick with you long after you’ve left Nola. The trees lining the streets remain covered in Mardi Gras beads all year round, serving as a colourful reminder that no matter what time of year, the party atmosphere lives on.
The Garden District in New Orleans is a pleasure to just walk around and survey – no two houses are the same. Situated near the city centre and easily accessible by the St. Charles Avenue tram, the combination of boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts and trendy bars like The Avenue make this a popular place to stay. I stayed at the Grand Victorian and would absolutely stay there again. It is run by Bonnie the innkeeper – a classic example of the unique and fascinating characters that populate this city. Full of free advice – like buying a three-day tram pass rather than paying per journey – Bonnie and many others made me feel more than welcome in their city.
Prefer peace and quiet? New Orleans has got this covered too. One of the most beautiful experiences Nola has to offer is its swamps. No bug spray required! There are a plethora of tours that will take you through the city’s ongoing rebuild from hurricane Katrina (yes, it’s taken 10 years so far) all the way out to the swamps of Louisiana. Wildlife ranges from racoons to wild pigs, and of course gators. A ten foot alligator is quite the sight and the captains of the boats that navigate the bayous – think small creeks densely populated with overhanging trees – are both informative and wildly entertaining. Worlds away from the bustle of the French Quarter, it’s well worth a look for the meagre price of $25.
If you’re booking an American road trip, simply in the vicinity or after something completely unique in a travel experience, consider the US Deep South. I guarantee you’ll know what it means to miss New Orleans!