Friday, April 25, 2014

Celebrating Easter in the Big Easy

April 20-21, 2014
Bayou Segnette State Park
Westwego, Louisiana

My visions of a jazz brunch to celebrate the joys of Easter faded quickly after I tried to make reservations at nearly every restaurant listed on the Goneworleans website. The cost of brunch was also a little intimidating, so I happily made brunch for us in the beautiful and peaceful setting of the park: portabella and white cheddar omelet, chicken and apple sausage, yukon gold fingerling potatoes, and fresh berries. The only thing I forgot was to play some jazz music in the background—and to take photos of our brunch!

After a relaxing morning, we headed for the Algiers Ferry where we parked on the street for free and boarded the ferry for a five minute ride across the mighty Mississippi ($1.00 for seniors and $2.00 for adults under 65). It was a perfectly beautiful day to enjoy the views of New Orleans from the water.

From the ferry drop off point on the West Bank of the city, it was a pleasant walk down Canal Street to the St. Charles streetcar line. For $1.25, you can ride the streetcar down to the Garden District where you will see architecturally stunning mansions and gardens built in the mid-1800s. This area of New Orleans, in stark contrast to the Lower Ninth Ward, is built on higher ground and suffered little flood damage from Katrina. Known as one of the best-preserved collections of historic southern mansions in the United State, the district was settled mainly by northerners who made their fortunes on cash crops, brokerages, and manufacturing after the Louisiana Purchase. We took a self-guided walking tour using the Go Nola App. (Thanks to Ms. Heyduke for telling us about the app).

The streetcar drops you off on Magazine Street, about one block from the Lafayette Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. Because of potential flooding, cemeteries in New Orleans are actually above ground tombs or what some call “cities of the dead.” Since 1833, the cemetery has been the burial grounds for some of the most prominent residents of the city. After a year of interment, the bones can be moved and another family member can be buried in the same tomb. This allows them to put several generations in one family tomb.

This cemetery has been the filming location for several movies including  Interview with the Vampire, Double Jeopardy, Dracula and  Déjà vu.  One word of caution: There are many warnings not to visit New Orleans cemeteries on your own or at all at night (especially St. Louis #1 which borders a crime-ridden neighborhood). These above ground cemeteries are a popular place for muggers to hide.

Just across the street from the cemetery is the famed Commander’s Palace, established in 1880 and long regarded as one of the best upscale restaurants in the city. Emeril Lagasse was the head chef here before opening his own restaurant. Sad to say, we did not have the pleasure of eating here--especially sad when I found out they still offer .25 martinis at lunch (limit of 2).

From Commanders, we started our self-guided tour of the neighborhood. The architecture of these historic homes is typically Greek Revival  (popular during the Antebellum Period); Italianate and Victorian archicecture became more popular later in the 19th century. Many homes are a combination of these three styles as they often added Victorian or Italian details (more gingerbread) when the homes were remodeled.

Warwick Manor on 2427 Camp Street: This huge pink mansion was once a private home, but later became a private school for wealthy children. It is now one of the mansions that has been divided into separate apartment dwellings.

The Pritchard-Pigott house at 1407 First Street: This house is the most classic example of a Greek Revival antebellum home that did not add Victorian or Italian details.

The Morris-Israel House at 1331 First Street:  This supposedly haunted house, built for a tobacco grower and President of the Cotton Exchange, shows the combination of Greek Revival and Italianate styles as the ornate balcony and ironwork were added after the Civil War.

The “Benjamin Button” House at 2705 Coliseum Street: Much plainer in terms of architecture, this home is a popular tourist attraction because many scenes in the Brad Pitt movie took place on the porch and steps leading up to the home.

The Walter Robinson House at 1415 Third Street: Supposedly the first house in New Orleans to have indoor plumbing, this home has also been featured in many movies over the years including Jason Statham's The Mechanic in 2011. It has recently been completely restored and is for sale at $7,999,000 if interested.

The Carroll-Crawford House at 1315 First Street—Another house that shows the merging of Greek and Italian styles. The original owners of this historic mansion threw large parties that included famous guests such as Samuel Clemens and Edgar Degas. (The palm trees in front and live oaks on the sideyard make this home one of my favotires. I also like the arched windows and combination of Italian and Greek architectural details.)

The Montgomery-Hero House at 1213 Third Street  The man had who had this Swiss Chalet-style house built in 1868 wanted it to look more like the homes of Northeastern United States. It seemed a little stark compared to other homes in this neighborhood.

1312 First Street: Having painted quite a few houses ourselves, we were quite impressed with the details of this recently restored Victorian style home currently listed for sale at $2,250,0000  

Somehow I missed taking a photo of  Anne Rice’s former home which is depicted in her novel, The Witching Hour. I have not read this book but apparently almost every detail of this home is described in the novel including the address of 1239 First Street.
The Payne-Strachan House at 1134 First Street: I must have been distracted by the plaque in front of this home as I never did get a photo of the actual house. As the plaque notes, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, died in this home of his friend, a local judge.

The house where Jefferson died is another classic example of Greek Revival architecture.  I did take a photo of one of the Ionic Greek column details that flank the front porch.

The "Cornstalk Fence" House at 1448 Fourth Street: Yet another house that stood out more for its unusual details, namely, the cornstalk fence. We knew there had to be story behind it. Here is what I learned: The owner, Kentucky Colonel Robert Short, bought this expensive fence for his wife who complained of missing the cornfields in her native Iowa. Story number two: the Colonel’s wife requested it because it was the most expensive fence in the building catalog.

At the risk of getting carried away with my photos and descriptions of our Garden District tour, here are a few more shots that capture some other visual delights of our afternoon walk.


Whew--enough of the Garden District already (but it was a great place to stroll around). And now for the best part of our day. We took the streetcar back to the French Quarter just in time to catch the Fifteenth Annual New Orleans Gay Easter Parade roll through the streets.  I will let the photos in this collage I made speak for themselves!

gay easter parade collage

Our final treat for the day was a stop at Café du Monde for their famous beignets before catching the final ferry of the day, It wouldn't be a real visit to N’awlins without getting powdered sugar all over your face.

Laissez le bon temps rouler!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Big EZ’s first trip to the Big Easy

April 17-19, 2014
Bayou Segnette State Park
Westwego, Louisiana

Last year when we traveled through Louisiana for the first time, we blew right past all the exits to New Orleans and headed right to the heart of Cajun country to stay at Betty’s RV Park in Abbeville. It turned out to be a great decision for us as our time at Betty’s still ranks as one of the top highlights of our life on the road. This year, however, we said “yes” to New Orleans and planned a five night stay at Bayou Segnette State Park, a campground that came highly recommended by several bloggers we follow. The best part about the park is its peaceful contrast to the party scene atmosphere of the French Quarter.

We did have a rather big challenge when we arrived; our site was not level and because it was Easter weekend the whole park was booked and they were not able to give us a different site. After about six attempts parking at different angles, we finally decided we would need to use blocks under the tires or jacks to balance out the coach.

I happened to find a  2 x 8 in the fire pit across from us that worked perfectly to prop up the two tires on the driver’s side of the coach. Vic will not ever settle for the jacks being down with any tires lifted off the ground, so we were lucky the board took care of our challenge.

Now on to our exploration of this storied place. It is a little overwhelming to figure out what to see and do on a first visit here. I started with Trip Advisor, then read several blogs to get an idea of how we were going to spend our time. The obvious choices were to wander Bourbon Street at night, have beignets at Café du Monde, and tour the Garden District. We both also wanted to see the progress that has been made in rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward, the hardest hit area from Katrina. I read about the controversy of having tour buses stop there to take photos of the devastation, so we decided to do our own car tour, taking discreet photos only when it felt appropriate.

Hard to believe Katrina hit nine years ago already. The Ninth Ward still shows plenty of scars from the event, but there were hopeful signs of restored life as well. Perhaps the most hopeful was the rebuilt levees which lined the banks of the river.

Probably the saddest thing we saw were FEMA trailers that looked like they were still lived in. The starkest aspect of this area is the widespread poverty.

fema trailers

The economic downturn of 2008 must have been a double blow to an area that was just beginning to be inhabitable again. We have friends who came here with Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes. They described this area as similar to the third world poverty they have seen in Haiti and Guatemala. It still hasn’t come too far beyond that state (although it looks like this home does have satellite TV!).

ninth ward house2

It’s surprising that the French Quarter, the heart of New Orleans, is fewer than five miles away from the Lower Ninth Ward. There are few signs still remaining of the storm’s destruction here, but the restoration of this area was a big priority in terms of tourism. After driving through the Ninth Ward, we drove around the Treme District. The Treme, New Orleans oldest African-American neighborhood, did not match our image of it from the HBO series. Most of what we saw were old neighborhoods and the more well-known landmarks of the Louis Armstrong Park and Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. I thought there would be street musicians and interesting shops here but we didn’t see anything like that. We did see the New Orleans African-American of Art, Culture, and History in the Treme but we did not take the time to tour this venue. Probably a mistake in terms of learning more about this historic neighborhood.

Before we knew it, we ended up in the French Quarter. Yikes—pretty crazy to drive a car here and banish the thought of driving in this area in a motorhome—driving in on I-10 was nerve-wracking enough. There is a relatively expensive RV park, French Quarter RV Resort, that has great reviews in terms of location, but I would not like to negotiate a motorhome anywhere near this part of town, We were much happier staying away from the traffic and potential crime.

An area I read about that intrigued me is the Marigny District—just next to the French Quarter— is less touristy and more Bohemian. We parked next to Washington Square Park here (for $1.50 hour) and wandered along Frenchman Street where we came across the Spotted Cat Music Club, supposedly a good place for local music, and Coop’s Place, a popular dive bar with a reputation for good food, drinks, and music.

Mostly, we were scouting opportunities for coming back at night. One great find in the Marigny was Maison, a bar that was advertising a Fais Do Do to be held Saturday afternoon. More on that later.

By now we were growing hungry and didn’t want to just eat anywhere. My choice was the outdoor garden of Café Amelie, described as a romantic courtyard.

cafe amelie internet image

Sadly, we arrived about 2:30 and they had already stopped taking names for afternoon seating. With a yearning for something French, we found a small creperie nearby that was perfect for a late afternoon lunch.

Our final exploration of the day took us through the French Market, a charming area with lots of little shops as well as a flea market atmosphere. It was fun to look at the voodoo paraphernalia, Mardi-Gras themed accessories, and plethora of Cajun food offerings.

By now we had walked several miles of the city including a good portion of Bourbon Street. Like my friend, Suzi (of Beluga’s Adventures) says, the city is “a bit shabby in daylight though, as lots of the French Quarter is. . . . It’s a city that almost requires the suspension of disbelief. Just go with it”—which seems especially true of Bourbon Street.  Having said that, this young woman’s hat seems quite traditional in terms of an Easter bonnet--course it wasn't nighttime yet.

Our big adventure for day two did not begin until later in the afternoon on Saturday as we planned to first go to the Fais Do Do at Maison, eat seafood at the Acme Oyster House, and explore the nighttime highlights of Bourbon Street. We were happy to learn that a fais do do means Cajun dance party.

When we arrived at Maison, great Zydeco music was blasting into the street and dancers were spilling out to the sidewalk in front. Fortunately, they also had a dance floor in the back where there was plenty of room. I had my first Sazerac here, a famous New Orleans drink made of rye, Peychauds bitters, and Herbsaint or Absinthe. It tastes like a manhattan minus the sweet vermouth.  Vic’s main focus was getting on that dance floor.

We got right back into the rhythm of Cajun dancing even though it had been a year since we danced this style of two-step and waltz. How fun! This place was a great find. Not only was there no cover charge, but when the Zydeco band took a break, a Cajun band hopped right on the back stage and filled in for a half hour with more terrific music.

Next it was off to the Oyster House which was about a mile and a half walk with a good portion of it down Bourbon Street, giving us a chance to get a flavor of party central as it was around 7 p.m. and the streets were starting to fill up with revelers.

Now I get the requirement for "a suspension of disbelief" when you walk down Bourbon Street at night. 

Acme had a 45-minute wait that required standing in a long line. Not worth it. We opted to go to Felix’s Oyster House just across the street and had the best charbroiled oysters we have ever eaten. The shrimp gumbo was also delicious, so we were quite happy with our alternative choice.

We spent the rest of the evening wandering down the entire length of Bourbon Street and passing through Jackson Square where several street entertainers and artists lined the sidewalks.

Jackson Square reminded us of Mallory Square in Key West and Bourbon Street reminded us of Fremont Street in Vegas. Sadly to us, much of the music on Bourbon Street was geared for younger crowds with hip hop and techno music blaring out of the bars. We read about a similar response from Heyduke’s post on New Orleans and found it to be true—not much jazz or blues music luring us in. One night of Bourbon Street was more than enough for us. We definitely preferred our little discovery of the Marigny and the music at Maison.

Our next challenge was how to spend Easter Sunday in New Orleans.  A jazz brunch, champagne, and an Easter parade were all on the docket. Stay tuned for part deux.

easter deco in cg2