REVIEW - 48 HOURS IN NEW ORLEANS
Grab your Rosary Beads and hold onto your Hand Grenade - we're going in for a short-but-sweet stay in the Deep South's capital of debauchery.
The Big Easy is anything but 'easy'. It requires stamina, a titanium-strength liver and the ability to withstand a relentless assault on your senses. Oh, and if you're the kind of person who wants to sleep... well, you're going to miss out on a LOT.
But is 48 hours in New Orleans even possible? Well, yes. We know, because we've done it. We wanted more - oh God we wanted more - but 48hrs in the greatest party city on the planet (that's right, Las Vegas, you heard...) is 48 hours you'll never forget.
So, how to make the most of your time in New Orleans? Well, we pulled together an itinerary just for you! Hold on to your hats, it's about to get WILD.
The Ruby Slipper Cafe, Magazine Street
We rolled into The Big Easy at 9am, and the urge to get swept up in the party spirit was already strong, with revellers still stumbling along sidewalks, lunging contentedly from lamppost to lamppost like tipsy gibbons. But we had a mission and, determined not to be swayed from our packed schedule, we made a determined dash along Magazine Street to the Ruby Slipper Cafe. While no longer exclusively a New Orleans joint (other locations include Pensacola and Orange Beach), The Ruby Slipper was born out of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, when the owners decided to take a battered old corner shop and turn it into a place famous for its Southern Brunch. And it's famous for good reason. Specialities include BBQ Shrimp & Grits, Breakfast Tacos and Chicken & French Toast Bites. In true, NOLA style, you can wash that all down with cocktails including the Big Easy Mimosa - the acceptable face of morning drinking.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, Basin Street
A sombre walk through a cemetery might not immediately spring to mind as a highlight of a weekend in New Orleans, but then, this is New Orleans, so it ain't no ordinary cemetery. The city has a long and fascinating history of Voodoo magic and the Queen of Voodoo herself, Marie Laveau is buried right here in Cemetery No.1. She lived a fascinating life, tending to prisoners on death row before they were lead to the gallows, and became a part of New Orleans folklore. It is said that if you draw a cross on her grave and yell your wish, before returning later to circle your 'x' and leave an offering to the Queen of Voodoo, she will grant your desires. However, all tours through the cemetery are guided and objects are forbidden, so I remain neither a millionaire or able to time-travel.
With all that in mind, it might come as a surprise to learn that Marie Laveau's grave isn't the strangest thing to appear in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Nope, that accolade goes to Nicolas Cage - a man who at the time of writing is very much still alive - and his gargantuan white, pyramid-shaped tomb. The story, as our guide joyously tells us, is thus: Nicolas Cage moved to New Orleans with then-wife, Lisa Marie-Presley and fell in love with the city. But, as their marriage fell apart, Lisa Marie moved to one of the city's biggest houses to live her new life as a single woman. Overcome with a desire to outdo his former flame, Cage bought a remarkably cheap mansion in the centre of the city, only there was a problem... he bought the infamous Madame Lalaurie mansion, where she tortured and murdered slaves, even carrying out horrific experiments on them before they passed. Nic, being perfectly at home with the darker side of life, decided to spend the night there - and was promptly spooked so much that he never returned. From then on, his films flopped, his life descended into chaos and his downward spiral was all put down to the curse of the Lalaurie mansion. But this is NOLA, and Voodoo rules around these parts. So, desperate to rid himself of the curse, he visited a witchdoctor who told him he could only be saved by being buried in New Orleans in the presence of Marie Laveau. Alas, he wasn't quite dead yet, so he made an offering to the gods of darkness by purchasing TWO plots in cemetery No. 1 - demolishing some already-dead folks' tombstones in the process - and built a ghastly pyramid as a symbol of his desire to stick around post-death.
Look, we told you it was going to get wild.
Napoleon House, Chartres Street
All that death, murder and questionable curse-lifting shenanigans left us hungry, which in New Orleans is no bad thing at all. We headed straight for the Napoleon House, a beautiful old building with flaking, graffiti-covered walls and more rustic charm than is fair for a single bar to hoard for itself. Named after the exiled French leader who was supposed to seek shelter in New Orleans (alas, he didn't make it), the Napoleon House serves up some of the best Muffulettas in town. "What the hell is a Muffuletta?" I hear you cry. Well, it's a NOLA staple, inspired by the Italian immigrants who made the city their home and opened deli stores along the riverfront. And it's big. As big as a plate. It's a crusty Italian loaf, stuffed full of cured meats, cheese and olive salad dressing and it might change your life forever. Like most NOLA fare, it's delicious, filling and probably invented entirely to cure a hangover. More on that later.
Bacchanal Wine, Poland Avenue
It's early evening and there's no holding off any more - it's time to get our livers prepped for an evening in New Orleans. But because we're sophisticated, we're easing ourselves in gently by heading away from the epicentre of debauchery to a bar that was recommended to us by our American friends. And it's an absolute revelation. In fact, it's our favourite place in NOLA.
Bacchanal is, in essence, a wine shop. But if you've read this far, you'll be aware that New Orleans doesn't do normal, and this isn't a normal wine shop. Perched beside the end of the line (meaning by early evening there are already a few dusty old locomotives parked up outside) on the edge of the Lower Ninth Ward that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Bacchanal should be empty. But we arrive to a queue snaking out of the door.
The wine-shop vibe remains - guests pick up their own bottles from the floor-to-ceiling shelves, before heading to the counter, where a smorgasbord of fine cheeses also awaits. Hand them over to the staff, go find a seat and they'll deliver your drinks and food to your table. The garden, complete with gentle festoon lights criss-crossing between the bayou trees, is where this place comes alive. A charmingly ramshackle stage plays host to the best musicians the area has to offer, and we sip wine and cocktails as the night sky darkens above us.
OK, OK, listing Bourbon Street as a single itinerary item is both a cop out and glaringly obvious, but we've got our reasons. Firstly, Bourbon Street is an experience in itself and no bar could rightfully take its place here on its own, such is the way the party overflows from venues into the street, which is both a dance floor and a stage for the many street musicians plying their trade in the warm NOLA night. And secondly, it's because if you're doing Bourbon Street right, it's impossible to track your every movement the following morning.
The street is 13 blocks long with bars scattered throughout, but the real action starts at Canal Street and spreads north to St Philip. Along the way, you'll find everything from pricey cocktail bars to raucous karaoke joints, and you're never more than ten feet from someone clutching the famous, neon-coloured slushy cocktail, the Hand Grenade. That's despite only five bars being licensed to sell them - Tropical Isle Original, Papa Joe's, Bayou Club, New Orleans Grapevine and Music Bar. They're the type of gruesome drink that gives you every clue you need that it's made from nuclear waste and medicinal grade alcohol and yet you'll still buy it, guzzle it with joy and head back to refill the hand grenade-shaped glass before your body recovers full functionality.
For a more refined beverage, The Old Absinthe House has it all. The bar, opened in 1807, was the scene of a meeting between the American Army and local Pirates to find a way to defeat the oncoming British troops. Oh, and it sells absinthe, but you probably already worked that out.
Preservation Hall pumps out the best trad jazz in a dingy hall where you'll have a front row seat wherever you perch, and Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop - named after the pirate who helped save the city after the aforementioned meeting - claims to date back to the 1700s, when New Orleans was the capital of French Louisiana. It hosted duelling pianos when we visited, and guests dropped dollars into a cup to request everything from Bruce Springsteen to Elton John.
Truth be told, from there on in, memories start to become a little hazy. Even an early morning visit to NOLA Poboys is more a preventative measure for tomorrow morning's escapades, when our itinerary will become a little clearer.
Is it the Bayou air? The omnipotent buzz of excitement that fizzes throughout the city? Maybe it's just the late night Poboy. But for whatever reason, we're far perkier the following morning than we've any right to be. That's a good thing, because with 12 hours left, we've plenty to fit in.
Cafe du Monde, Decatur Street
If you're in need of coffee, there are far worse places to get it than the retro-glam surroundings of Cafe du Monde on the bank of the Mississippi River. What started in 1942 as a coffee stand in the French Market has grown into one of the most iconic NOLA venues and to visit the cafe without adding one of their famous Beignets should be a crime punishable at the very least by a good dose of shame and regret.
Mardis Gras World, Port of New Orleans Place
Further south along the Mississippi, Mardis Gras World looks fairly unassuming from the street. A half-empty car park next to a drab warehouse in the shadow of sprawling industrial buildings. But inside couldn't be more different.
This is where the elaborate floats, giant puppets and wild decorations are made, and stored when the city isn't in full carnival mode. Mardis Gras is a month when the city is allowed to fully embrace its insanity and this storage facility is the hot-pot of madness that quietly bubbles away for 12 months a year, keeping the Mardis Gras spirit alive.
As you'd expect, it's a riot of colour and absurdity; like walking through a toddler's dream. Huge, multicoloured dragons sit next to smiling Jesters; Marilyn Monroe watches over a herd of flamingoes; there is a 40-foot alligator by the entrance to the toilets and a New Orleans Saints football player leans somewhat perilously on the severed head of The Grinch. The Presidents are all here, as is Spongebob Squarepants. There are jazz musicians and bananas; Kings, Queens, the Devil and a cheery octopus playing the drums.
Our guide is brilliant - he explains the complex system of Krewes (the clubs who each put on their own parades at Mardis Gras) and leads us through the vast warehouse before dumping us back into the New Orleans morning air, where we glance around the colourless world like Dorothy returning from Oz.
Antoine's, St Louis Street
We head back across town to Antoine's for a spot of refined dining - it is our last day, after all. A NOLA institution, Antoine's has been in the same family since it was opened in 1840 (meaning it's only 36 years younger than the United States of America) and lays claim to having invented some of the South's much-loved dishes. One of these is Oysters Rockefeller, a glorious concoction of oysters topped with green sauce and bread crumbs before being baked. It's deliciously rich, which is why it was named after America's wealthiest man.
Despite its celebrated history and definite slant towards fine-dining, Antoine's offers changing lunch-special deals where you can pick up two courses for around $22, so time it right and you can check it out without breaking the bank.
Barrel Proof, Magazine Street
If you're a bourbon fan like us, a stop at NOLA's finest whiskey bar is a must. Housed in a windowless wooden shack, Barrel Proof works hard to create the feeling of a cozy cabin, with cowhide rugs, leather banquettes and low, wooden ceilings. But we, just like everybody else in the house, are here for the whiskey, and there’s over 300 bottles to choose from, ranging from bog-standard Jack Daniel’s through to the elusive Pappy Van Winkel if you time your visit right.
While we’re sticking to the South’s own bourbon, you’ll also find Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies on offer, as well as cocktails, beer and shots. Make your way here late afternoon to take advantage of their generous happy hour (technically two hours, from 4-6) for $5 Mini Margs and Old Fashioneds.
And while NOLA is not short of eateries serving excellent local fare, you’d do worse than to grab a snack or two from the Barrel Proof kitchen - the dishes are created to pair with whiskey, and with so much of the world’s finest liquor on offer, lining your stomach is a wise move.
New Orleans Ghost, True Crime, Voodoo and Vampire Walking Tour
We're fans of walking tours - they're a great way to pack a handful of sights in without wasting hours squinting at Google Maps, and there's always a chance to grab a bit of local knowledge from your tour guide as you're on the route. With NOLA's fascinating history of Voodoo, the dark arts, murder and horror, this tour immediately took our fancy. A two-hour stroll through the streets of the French Quarter took in gruesome mass-murders, stories of true-crime and its perpetrators and victims, and some wonderfully fanciful lores of ghosts and ghouls which seem all the more believable set against the historic backdrop of the Big Easy. The tours leave at 5pm and 8pm - we opted for the earlier meet to allow a little more time for New Orleans' nightlife - but the later showing would take advantage of the darkness for a spookier experience.
This was an adults-only tour due to the graphic descriptions and nightmare-inducing tales, but if you fancy something a little more restrained, there are tours focusing on the city's incredible food, cocktails, the Garden District and historical sights. www.getyourguide.co.uk
While the lure of Bourbon Street is strong and we could easily spend a long weekend traipsing along its pavements without visiting every bar, we decided to head to its slightly less famous (though no less raucous) little brother - Frenchman Street.
A word of warning: The area between the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street can be a little sketchy after dark, so a quick cab or the Riverside Streetcar (which finishes at 11pm) will take you there without the stress.
But once you’re on the street itself, you’ll find the familiar NOLA atmosphere - great music on every corner, parties spilling out onto the sidewalks and hordes of people in the midst of a wild bar crawl.
If Bourbon Street is NOLA’s Mecca for party animals, Frenchmen is where music lovers will find their home.
Igor’s Checkpoint Charlie is somewhat of an anomaly in the city, eschewing the local aesthetic for what looks like a punk dive bar. And it’s not entirely out of character - they host bands playing everything from hardcore to jazz.
Further up the street, The Maison is a bigger, more traditional music venue where you can choose a spot in the crowd or take a higher view from the balcony as jazz bands perform all evening. If you enjoyed your visit to Mardis Gras World, you might want to pay a visit to Dat Dog - specifically the second floor - which is packed full of decorations from the Krewe of Chewbacchus, a bizarrely brilliant science fiction-themed Mardis Gras gang. We feel confident in suggesting it’s the only place in the world where you can order your drinks under the watchful eye of a six-armed Chewbacca/Durga mashup.
Finish your night in the intimate Spotted Cat, where we sipped whiskey cocktails and enjoyed the sounds of a majestic jazz three-piece while watching a man in a blow-up Slimer from Ghostbusters outfit, slowly deflate as he fell asleep in his chair.
If you need to sum up New Orleans to anyone who hasn’t been, you can take that last sentence and put it on a postcard.