by Nancy Van Veen
“In America, there might be better gastronomic destinations than New Orleans,
but there is no place more uniquely wonderful.”
~ Anthony Bourdain
Venturing through the French Quarter and stepping onto legendary Bourbon Street, one feels like a wide-eyed child prancing through the gates of Disneyland. Or perhaps it’s more like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, descending into a world of trippy architecture, old school Jazz, Cajun culinary delights and complete debauchery. The friendly locals recognize a newbie, and most are so proud of their city that they’ll enthusiastically point out all the primo spots. Such was the case for us, when a street-wise tarot card reader gave us the lowdown on the Big Easy.
New Orleans is overwhelming, so we took the sassy psychic’s advice and beelined it to the Grape Vine Bar to chill and get our bearings. It was there that serendipity struck — I asked the suave older man perched next to me about the instrument at his side. To my delight, I discovered he was a trombone player at the historic Preservation Hall. Freddie Lonzo graciously promised to get us on the guest list for the next performance, and true to his word, we skipped the endless lineup and scored seats for a truly spiritual concert. It was so retro-magical, I would not have blinked if Louis Armstrong himself sauntered on stage and belted out a tune.
Within a couple days we had established all our favourite haunts — The Spotted Cat and Bamboulas on Frenchman Street, and Maison Bourbon and Fritzel’s European Jazz Bar on Bourbon. Fritzel’s especially captivated me with its extraordinary jazz ensembles, featuring amazing talent such as Richard Scott. We gravitated there nightly, tapping our toes and snapping our fingers to such classics as “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Pennies from Heaven” and “What a Wonderful World.” These timeless tunes still ear-worm through my brain, bringing a smile.
And the food! Lord have mercy, ditch your diet, friends — talk about living large! It’s all to die for: oyster po’ boys, crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo, pralines, pecan pie and the decadent beignets at the Cafe Du Monde on Decatur Street. (I passed on the gator bites and frog legs, though.)
As sensational as all this is, it would be a mistake to stay confined to the French Quarter. The natural habitat and history of the Deep South is darkly fascinating. I recommend taking a city tour to discover the eerie, classical beauty of New Orleans’ infamous cemeteries, where the bones of generations co-mingle in above-ground family tombs, resembling tiny houses. Next take a ride through the Ninth Ward to learn of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and the spirit of love and survival that has persevered. Then in juxtaposition, drive past the quirky shotgun houses to the Garden District with its grand heritage houses shaded by old magnolias and oak trees decorated with Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads. A plantation tour, while heart-breaking, is also an invaluable experience. Finally, escape on a swamp tour to float past ramshackle Cajun cottages on the water and cruise through cypress and gum trees seeking out bird life, racoons, alligators, snakes, and the always hungry, hilarious wild boars that swim right up to your water craft snorting happily.
New Orleans is a gritty city, surrounded by eerie swamps, bayous and old plantations with nefarious pasts. And yet the allure and spicy flavour of this mesmerizing place gets right under your skin like voodoo magic. The late, great Anthony Bourdain was right — the Big Easy is uniquely wonderful.