Prior to departing for a vacation, I would suggest reading a novel, seeing a movie or renting a video that features your destination. If you are heading for New Orleans, a “must read” is the classic A Confederacy of Dunces, a Pulitzer Prize winner by John Kennedy Toole. The unforgettable Ignatius Reilly is one of the most outrageous literary characters ever invented. There is even a statue on Canal Street in New Orleans commemorating him. This novel brings alive the off beat character of New Orleans. Another reading suggestion is any book by James Lee Burke that features ex-detective Dave Robicheaux and rent the movie “The Big Easy” starring Dennis Quaid. Pay close attention to the soundtrack which features Cajun, Zydeco and blues; music that influences and is influenced by the region and city.
Flying into New Orleans is easy because most major airlines serve the city. Transportation from the airport to town is surprisingly inexpensive. The visitor information personnel located in the baggage claim area can explain the various choices. Once there, you will find that New Orleans is an easy and inexpensive town to get around. There are taxis, vans, buses, ferries, horse drawn carriages and, of course, the famous streetcars.
Our home away from home was the two year old International House. This turn of the century beaux-arts style, trade center building was remarkably transformed into a boutique hotel and oasis of chic. There is 24 hour concierge service and the staff is attentive, knowledgeable and friendly. The location is ideal. The International House is situated two blocks from the French Quarter in the historic Business District of New Orleans and within easy walking distance to the Convention Center and river front attractions. The candle-lit Loa bar (named for Voodoo deities) and the Lemon Grass Café, featuring contemporary French-Vietnamese dishes, are both situated in the hotel and are favorites of locals.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and that evening we were off to the French Quarter to the grand dame of New Orleans restaurants, Arnoud’s, for dinner. Arnoud’s offers several dining areas including the formal Main Dining Room, the Richelieu Room, the Remoulade Café, and an upstairs dining room. One can cozy up with a drink in either the Richelieu Bar or Cigar Bar. That evening we chose to dine in the Richelieu Room which is a casual bistro featuring a jazz trio. Dinner started with a roasted tomato, garlic and eggplant soup, followed by crab cakes and the signature dish, “Shrimp Arnoud.” Dessert was Bananas Foster, another specialty of the house. Wonderful, lively ambience, good food and jazz; a great way to start our trip.
Sunday morning we walked along Decatur Street to Café du Monde for chicory, café au lait and beignets, the New Orleans version of a donut. Plan to arrive early because locals and tourists flock there. We took our breakfast, walked to the levee, sat on a bench and ate while watching the Mississippi flow by. Then we strolled to the nearby Farmers Market and Flea Market, a great place to pick up gifts and souvenirs. Market stalls sell everything imaginable from Voodoo dolls to local arts and crafts. Vendors also sell fresh produce and food items.
That day we made advanced reservations at the Praline Connection for the Sunday Brunch and Gospel Show. Buffet tables were laden with fried chicken, fish, carved ham and roast beef as well as eggs benedict, scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, link sausage and even vegetables and salads for the health conscious. Also included were two New Orleans specialties, King Cake and red beans with rice. There were two buffet tables piled high with desserts. The Gospel Show was lively and entertaining. This is a real treat; down home cooking and vibrant, hand clapping, high energy music and singing. As they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler – Let the good times roll!”
Our Monday schedule included cooking and Voodoo. In the morning we attended the New Orleans School of Cooking, located in the French Quarter. We learned how the local food scene is influenced by the Creole, French, Caribbean, and Cajun cultures that contribute to Louisiana cuisine. The menu, which changes daily, was classically New Orleans. We watched as our wonderfully entertaining chef/teacher cooked red beans and rice, corn bread, bread pudding, pecan pie and, of course, the famous New Orleans treat, pralines. It was a delightful, entertaining and educational morning. Then came the best part – we got to eat what was cooked! Their retail shop features cooking supplies, utensils, food items, cookbooks, and spices; everything imaginable for your kitchen.
Next on our schedule was the Voodoo and Haunted Mystery Walking Tour. It was an educational and sometimes macabre experience. Among the highlights was a trip to the St. Louis Cemetery. There we learned about the unique and practical way people are buried in a city that is below sea level. Bodies are entombed above ground in a unique and space saving way. Family crypts actually serve as a natural crematoria after a twelve month interment that includes one the muggy, hot New Orleans summer. That’s the secret to how so many generations fit in one tomb.
Friends had suggested Cuvee for dinner located in the Warehouse District in a completely restored brick building. One unusual feature of this terrific restaurant is their special Degustation Menu. “Degustation” is defined as a tasting or sampling. Basically it is small portions of the chef’s specialities.Our first sampling included timbale of crab and shrimp ravigote with marinated cucumber and Vidalia onions. We were then served seared sea bass, grilled eggplant, and calamata risotto. Our next course was smoked duck and foie gras emapanada with grilled portobello fennel slaw and roasted chili aioli. Our entree was grilled tournedo of beef with Creole mashed potatoes, roasted shallots and asparagus beignets. Each course was accompanied by an appropriate wine; vintages from Santa Barbara, France, Australia, and the Napa Valley. Dessert included a Louisiana blueberry cake with lemon buttermilk sorbet and a plate of cheeses. It was a remarkable dining experience.
The next day we decided to take a guided walking tour of the French Quarter sponsored by the non profit group, Friends of the Cabildo. It is a perfect way to get an overview of New Orleans. The tour features the history, architecture, culture and folklore of the area and is led by knowledgeable, licensed guides. I would recommend taking this tour on your first day. The Cabildo, by the way, is the name of the building where the Louisiana Purchase agreement was signed with France.
In the afternoon we attended the Cajun School of Creole Cooking located at Riverwalk, an indoor shopping mall, running parallel to and overlooking the Mississippi. Our menu was shrimp remoulade, bourbon chicken and pecan pie. The kitchen set up is first rate and the chef’s presentation was interesting and informative. What a bargain: cooking lessons, entertainment and a meal. Don’t miss the well stocked gift shop. It is a great place to purchase interesting cooking and gift items including the cookbook, the Cookin’ Cajun Cooking School Cookbook, by owners Lisette Verklander and Susan Murphy. A hint: small packages of unusual spices or sauces and kitchen gadgets make great gifts and are easy to pack and carry.
Riverwalk has one of the most extensive food courts I’ve ever seen. It’s an inexpensive place to grab a meal. If you don’t know the difference between a muffulleta and a po’ boy, this is the place to learn. Shops in the mall range from chains like Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer to local merchants and kiosks. The real surprise was when we looked out the ceiling high windows and saw the R/B River Explorer docked at Riverwalk. This was to be our “quarters” for the next segment of our vacation. More about our barge trip up the Mississippi in an upcoming article.
Before You Go: Travel Tips and Money Savers from the Practical Traveler
Contact the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. These folks really have their act together. They understand the importance of taking care of their tourists and represent Southern hospitality and charm at its best. Brochures, maps, and books are free and very useful for planning your trip. They can be reached at 1-800-672-6124 or online at www.neworleanscvb.com. I highly recommend getting the New Orleans Self Guided Walking and Driving Tours brochure, Calendar of Events, and the Official Visitors Guide.
Purchase a copy of the Entertainment Book for New Orleans. There are versions for almost every major US city and the discounts at hotels, merchants, attractions and restaurants make this a valuable travel tool. The investment is small compared to the potential savings. Check out their cities at www.entertainment.com or contact them at 1-800-374-4464.
Most hotels stock visitor guides and maps that feature calendars of events such as music festivals, art exhibits, special activities and tourist information. They also contain valuable coupons and discounts. Examples are Visitor and New Orleans (www.neworleansonline.com).
The International House features 119 rooms and suites with CD players, ceiling fans (of course it is air conditioned), spa-like bathrooms, terry robes, two-line speaker phones with data port and cable TV with complimentary movie channels. The comfortable lobby features lots of marble and makes a grand statement. Rates vary according to the time of the year and conventions in town. Call for reservations (1-800-633-5770) and ask for specials. Also look online at www.ihhotel.com. This little gem offers a cool, quiet environment and is a terrific place to stay.
While You Are There Don’t Forget Your Walking Shoes
The Friends of the Cabildo offer a wonderful two hour tour of the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) emphasizing the history, architecture, culture and folklore of New Orleans. They can be reached at 1-504-523-3939. You can learn the difference between a Creole, a Cajun and a Quadroon and why the French Quarter is misnamed. This is an educational, first rate tour and a bargain at $10 per person.
Haunted History Tours offers various delightful guided walks around the Garden District, the St. Louis Cemetery, Phantom Haunts of the French Quarter, and a kitschy Witchcraft and Voodoo District tour. They can be reached at 1-888-6GHOSTS or online: www.hauntedhistorytours.com.
Walk and wander the streets and neighborhoods of New Orleans; it is terrific city to stroll and explore. While roaming we found some wonderful spots to visit. The Warehouse section, across Canal Street from the French Quarter is gentrifying rapidly. Restaurants, bars, attractions, condos and hotels are springing up. While there, drop by the New Orleans School of Glassworks and Printmaking Studio and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Both display wonderful examples of the local art scene.
In the French Quarter don’t miss Jackson Square, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, the St. Louis Cathedral, and the French Market. An early morning visit to Café Du Monde for beignets and café au lait or chicory is mandatory.
Reservations are highly recommended for Cuvee. Call 1-504-587-9001. The Degustation Menu is $60 per person for food and $40 per person for wine. Splurge, it’s worth it and it is nice to have a pro pick your wine. The regular menu features entrees in the $18-$30 range.
For reservations at Arnaud’s, call 1-800-453-1020 or visit online at www.arnauds.com. The fixe price dinner menu at $38 per person is a value. Ala carte prices for entrees are in the $19-$40 range. Also consider their famous Sunday brunch.
The Praline Connection is in the Warehouse District and reservations are recommended. Call 1-504-523-3973 for lively gospel music and down home cooking.
Since much of the appeal of the “Big Easy” is its unique food, it is fitting to spend time learning the secrets of Creole and Cajun cooking. Plan on spending a delightful few hours in the kitchen.
The New Orleans School of Cooking and Louisiana General Store is located smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter in a renovated molasses warehouse built in the early 1800’s. They’ve been around for over 20 years. Call 1-800-850-3008 for reservations and/or a catalog or contact them online at www.neworleansschoolofcooking.com.
The Cookin’ Cajun Cooking School is located in the Riverwalk Shopping Mall overlooking the Mississippi. The business started over 20 years ago as a small praline shop in Jackson Square. The Verlander family takes great pride in their school and gourmet kitchen and gift shop. Their cookbook is a must for your library or as a present. They can be contacted for reservations or a catalog at 1-800-786-0941 or online at www.cookingcajun.com.
Reminder: Check the start times and daily menus at both cooking schools.