Friday, May 27, 2011

Guide to The Big Easy

I just recently returned from a fabulous, debauchery filled girls trip to New Orleans.  I'm still recovering and left wondering how we managed to go such full-throttle in our effort to paint this riverside city red.  Before I detail the nightlife that one could argue is this city's hallmark, this post will give you the basics on what you should expect if you're planning a visit.

Timeframe: Not dissimilar to Vegas, the amount of time one should spend in New Orleans is debatable.  If your plan is to attack the city for all its worth (aka eat and drink your face off), then I'm thinking a long weekend is probably all your body can handle.  We spent Thursday evening through Monday morning and I can tell you that we spent pretty much all our Sunday in recovery mode (with some of us barely even able to leave the comforts of our hotel room).  However, if your plan is to be more relaxed and perhaps not give in to the many sins of Bourbon Street, then I would feel more comfortable recommending an extension to your stay.

Flight options: For those of you in the Boston area, there are simply very limited non-stop flight options. Jet Blue is your only option and as the number of booked seats rise, so does the price of your ticket.  Kristen and I opted to stay away from this ~$700 flight option and went with the more reasonable $220 round-trip, one-stop ticket with American.

Hotel options: If you want to stay in the centrally positioned and well traveled French Quarter, the bad news is that it doesn't come cheap.  This was a pill we weren't expecting to swallow when we first thought to vacation in Nola, but, hey, the ability to walk home safely and avoid cab-rides is rather priceless in my view.  Our choice ended up being the 4-star Ritz Carlton New Orleans on Canal Street.

The hotel was simply lovely, almost too lovely for the neighboring, stale-air endless happy hour on Bourbon Street.  The four of us piled into our ~$300 a night room and were thankful to see that it was very spacious.  The hotel is also home to a lovely, outdoor courtyard.
Another attraction to the hotel is the Davenport Lounge, named for its featured performer on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Jeremy Davenport.  We caught him for the back-half of his act on Saturday evening and it was quite enjoyable to listen to his cool tunes while sitting in the swanky lounge.  If you're a ballroom dancer, there's also room to bust your move front an center in front of Jeremy and his band.
Shopping: Although we didn't leave a ton of time to shop during our stay, we noted that a great source of boutiques is Royal Street in the French Quarter.  We popped into a few ladies clothing, art and knick-knack boutiques and also noticed a few Art Markets and antique stores around Jackson Square.

Sightseeing: Because eating and drinking were at the top of our to-do list, we didn't to see as many of the sights as we wanted (namely the Garden District for us).  However, there are definitely a lot of things to consider doing during your stay.  One of our priorities was to board a steamship on the Mississippi River.  We board the Steamship Natches for an afternoon cruise that lasted 2 hours.  However, the Natches also does daily Jazz rides in the evening if that's more your style.
You should visit Jackson Square, home to a lot of the shopping I mentioned above as well as the St Louis Cathedral and Andrew Jackson memorial.
Just outside the square, you'll also find this little guy who would be oh-so-happy to give you a tour around the Quarter:
If horses aren't your thing, you can always walk about a block or two towards the water near Jackson Brewery to catch a ride on the famous Street Cars.
Other attractions that we heard about that did not have the time to do include tours of (i) historic New Orleans mansions and (ii) ghosts and cemeteries.

Restaurants: Gumbo, jambalaya and po'boys OH MY! There is no shortage of great places to eat in this city!  In fact, there are so many places that people tend to recommend, you might find yourselves overwhelmed.  Kristen from Indulge Inspire Imbibe already recapped our delightful dinners at Irene's Cuisine and Emeril Lagasse's NOLA so I will not go into a foodie-worthy review.  However, please don't take my shortened review a sign of lessened satisfaction! Irene's was further from the core French Quarter happenings but managed to feel quaint and traditional despite a fairly substantial restaurant layout.  The food was also beyond reproach.
Scenes at Irene's
NOLA was very different than Irene's but was similarly fantastic.  I enjoyed a bowl of gumbo and Emeril's barbeque shrimp for my meal.
Scenes at NOLA
For lunch, we dined at Port of Call and Napolean House. Port of Call was a little off the beaten path at the very end of Bourbon Street.  It's famous for it's burgers, which were calling to us in our respective hangover states on Friday afternoon.  However, you should know going in that they pretty much ONLY have burgers on their menu (aside from about a ~$30 filet mignon).  We had to laugh at this limitation because we had no idea going in, but, at least, they were very tasty and generously portioned burgers!
The Napolean House has been around for ~200 years and provides traditional New Orleans food & drink in a casual ambiance.  It was here that I sipped my first Pimm's Cup cocktail (Pimm's #1 i.e. gin, lemonade, sprite, garnished with cucumber) which is now in my hall of fame of refreshing drinks.  I also had my first muffuletta sandwich at Napolean.  They serve them in quarters, halves and wholes.  Please note that if you're pairing it with a side of jambalaya, you likely only need a quarter!
Pimm's Cup
Jambalaya and Muffuletta
For brunch consider Brennan's on Royal Street in the French District.  It is not inexpensive but you still won't be disappointed.  I had the best 3-course breakfast here, which included:

(i) Southern Baked Apple with Double Cream

(ii) Eggs Portuguese: Flaky pastry shells filled with freshly chopped tomatoes sauteed in butter with parsley and shallots. Topped with poached eggs and covered with Hollandaise sauce.

(iii) Traditional Cheesecake (or Banana's Fosters made homemade in front of your table)
Banana's Fosters preparation, watch out!
World famous end result
Open container law: Also consistent with Vegas, New Orleans allows you to carouse its streets with a beverage of your choice in hand.  We found it a pleasure to be able to take your drink to go and head off in the direction of Bourbon Street to get in some quality people watching time.

Hope this initial guide was helpful...up next is a review of the night life!