Friday, July 6, 2012

Dream-Come-True Trip

So here's the thing: I've always wanted to go to New Orleans. My studies in French pre-dispose me to wanting to see this most quintessential Frenchy city in the U.S. And I love zydeco music and so much more. Plus, of course, "The Big Easy"...who wouldn't want to go after seeing that?! ;-) (DB and I actually watched it last night -- he had never seen it -- I have seen it so many times that I know many of the lines by heart!)

In 1989, my daddy and I were planning a trip to Memphis to see Graceland and then to New Orleans. I was 27 and this would be our big "grown-up" trip together. I was so excited. We were leaving in October. He died very unexpectedly on September 10. And, all these years, there has been a part of me that was nervous about going to New if I planned a trip with someone, something would happen to them. So I never really considered going.

Then, late last year, our nephew got engaged. He's been living and teaching in Baton Rouge. And we hoped that we would be invited to the wedding...both DB and I had never been to Louisiana and this would be our perfect opportunity...even though we had been told "it's gonna be hot, y'all".

We knew the date of the wedding and had been saving that time...but time went on and on and the wedding invitation never arrived. We thought, "oh well, weddings are pricey and we have a big family so maybe they are not inviting everyone". But I encouraged DB to finally ask his sister (mother of the groom) sometime in early May. It turns out that they had sent us a "save the date" and an invitation...but to the address where DB lived with his old girlfriend 10 years ago! Oops.

We got all that straightened out and, excitedly, planned our trip. There were a few things that made me nervous: the "New Orleans curse" idea (above) and flying. I hadn't flown in two years...on purpose. My fear of flying has gotten progressively worse the past many years and there is so much to see in California that I've managed to not have to face a plane in that period of time. So I plunged in, made plane reservations, hotel reservations, car reservations...but I couldn't quite bring myself to actually believe this was all going to happen. I didn't do my usual "travel geisha" pre-reading/planning, etc. We were going to get there and be able to get around, but no tours pre-booked and very little reading about things to do and see. (I did, however, solicit recommendations from friends as to what to do in NOLA -- most of which came back with a list of places to eat! I also got some anti-anxiety meds from my doctor for the flight.)

Thursday, June 21...time to go...and that's where this story starts:

I left work early on Thursday to come home, meet DB and cab to the airport. All went smoothly. I took my meds before and on the plane and most of the flight was ok. Ate well and got into NOLA at 12:30 am Friday morning where we were staying close to the airport before picking up our car to drive to Baton Rouge Friday morning.

We got a cab at the airport and had our first of several remarkable experiences. Our cab driver was hysterical: had a Cajun accent almost impossible to decipher and was full of stories. We also think he was very probably drunk. It was a funny and fun ride to our motel.

We arrived quite late (1 am?) and the person at reception was very sweet. Already I am in love with the accents. But I am tired from my meds and we quickly get to our room and decide not to try to find any snacks...just go to bed. The bed was remarkably comfy. We slept great and woke up in New Orleans! I was so excited although there was nothing interesting in the neighborhood where we were and nothing except industrialness to see from our window. We grabbed in-room coffee and packed up for the next leg of our journey.

As we checked out, we asked to be shuttled to the airport (included in our room rate...along with breakfast which we missed, but the breakfast room looked nice). The shuttle driver was a sweetheart -- he agreed to drive us to the car rental place instead. And told us of his Katrina experience - he lives near the lake and evacuated to his wife's family about 80 miles north. When he came back, his house (that they had just bought!) had 2 feet of water in it. It took them 2 months to get an insurance adjuster out so nothing could be done until then. But insurance did apparently cover their loss and repairs.

Picked up our car and headed out for the 1-hour drive to Baton Rouge. The topography was nothing DB or I had ever seen. The highway drove over the river and bayou. Louisiana seemed mostly to be water...and very very green.

We were planning to get some coffee and breakfast on the way, but after taking two exits that promised (at the very least) McDonalds and finding the nearest food 2 to 5 miles off the exit, we gave up. Finally grabbed a McDs snack somewhere where we could see the place from the highway.

When we got to Baton Rouge, we quickly learned that traffic patterns there are not well-thought-out and so traffic is kind of a mess. But, despite this, we did make it to our hotel where two of my sisters-in-law and their spouses were staying. Everyone turned out to be running around doing different things so we headed for lunch to a restaurant recommended by the (very nice - this turned out to be a pattern in Louisiana) staff at our hotel.

OK, I had to have etouffee RIGHT AWAY. So we had blackened alligator and shrimp and crab etouffee (DB and I shared). Oh oh...etouffee (like most everything else in Louisiana) is served over rice. OK...I ate around the rice. And the alligator was ok - tastes like chicken, but gristly and tough. Don't need to try that again.

From the restaurant, we saw a favorite! So we headed over there for some bargain shopping. :-) I got a dress, two pairs of shorts, two shirts and a pair of capris for $20. Very happy was I.

By this time, it was time to go back to the hotel and get ready for the Friday night pre-wedding dinner. This was at a place that had good Cajun food and live zydeco...yes, a dream was about to come true, y'all!

We met our family at the restaurant and had a ball catching up, eating, drinking and dancing. The band was great...very authentic to this Yankee's ears. Slide guitar, drums, guitar and the vocalist with three accordions. I was in HEAVEN.

The wedding was at noon on Saturday so we got up, grabbed some breakfast at the hotel (the best included breakfast I ever had -- could get eggs instead of just pastries!) got gorgeous and headed out in the sweltering heat for the beginning of the love-fest. The wedding was at the Catholic cathedral downtown and the priest who conducted the wedding was an old friend of our nephew. He is a Jesuit and, in my experience, they are so much more interesting and fun as speakers so the service was really beautiful and special. Our nephew was beaming the whole time and that made me smile...he is a big charming guy, an Army major (or something similar) and his emotion was really sweet to see. We love his new wife (who we've all known for a long time since they've been together for 5ish years) too so this was a very happy celebration.

The reception was at a plantation! Seriously. It was amazing. Everything you would think it to be. We ate (best food so far...although at this point I'm starting to realize that there are no green vegetables served in Louisiana), drank, danced and strolled around the grounds. Very fun. The reception was over at 5, we threw lavender at the couple and everyone headed back to their respective hotels to freshen up for the evening.

We were all supposed to meet at a bar downtown at 7:30, but everyone seemed to arrive a little late (we had napped...which I never do!) and, when we got there, there was no food. So everyone kind of disbursed to various restaurants around downtown. We ended up at a nice place that had great salads. OK, they do have iceberg lettuce in Louisiana. ;-)

After everyone had eaten, the venue for us to hang was changed to this amazing sushi restaurant that had a huge patio overlooking the Mississippi. It was a scene! Totally packed and fire dancers entertaining. During this time, DB and his four siblings who were there had a pow-wow about the continuing saga of the sale of their parents house (which has caused a lot of bad blood). The rest of us tried to stay out of the way. ;-)

Another night's sleep in the Baton Rouge hotel on the bed that sounded, every time you turned over, like it was wrapped in plastic. I couldn't wait for a new bed...

There was a post-wedding brunch with family and friends on Sunday and, as that ended, we all said our goodbyes and we were off to NEW ORLEANS!

A friend of ours had recommended that we take a "swamp tour" between Baton Rouge and NOLA. DB had done the research and found one that looked appealing: Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. It just sounded delicious!

We arrived in plenty of time for the 2:15 (2-hour) tour. Got a quick drink and walked down by the boats (with names like "Cajun Queen")...right there by the boat, there were alligators!!! And DB walked a little ways away and there was a baby alligator about two feet long (3 years old, we learned).

The swamp was gorgeous: Spanish moss (named by the natives after invading Spaniards beards), water hyacinth (which is a huge plague on the bayous), lots of 'gators (who love marshmallows!), a cemetery, and a wonderful Cajun tour guide who told fabulous stories in his fabulous accent. Stories of not going to school because they weren't allowed to speak French and learning so much about his culture that he was offered a professorship at a university. Stories of an outlaw culture that is so much a part of Louisiana's charm and history. It was sweltering (again), but we loved it.

And then it was time to head to town...we dropped off our car at the rental agency (where they tried to charge us extra for an upgrade we had declined...DB fixed that!) and got the shuttle to the airport to get a cab to our hotel.

That's when we met THE BEST CAB DRIVER EVER. Like most of the Louisianians we met, this man was very warm and friendly. We told him it was our first time in New Orleans and he started to talk to us about this city that he very obviously loves. He evacuated before Katrina and didn't come back for 2 1/2 years because there was no work for cab drivers (obviously). He is so happy to be back now...born and raised in NOLA. He could tell we were interested so he took us on a few detours (this was a flat rate ride so he didn't get extra money for doing that) to see some Katrina damage...when we came up on the Superdome and saw the iconic overpasses where people were waiting for rescue it was quite something. (Even though we were at Burning Man when it happened in 2005 and we didn't see any of it on tv like most of the rest of the country/world as it was happening.) All through the ride, he showed us things, gave us advice about where to eat and what to go see (we never would have known that the oldest cemetery in town was just a few blocks from our hotel without him). He even got a kick out of driving us down Bourbon Street for our first time. He deserved the giant tip we gave him...what a gem. Started our time in N.O. in a special way.

We got to our hotel about 6 pm and checked in quickly. The room was huge and nice. But we had paid extra to have a balcony and were disappointed when we realized that, although we had two balconies and there was a table and chairs on one, we would have had to crawl out a regular window to get to it. The rooms on the floor below had French doors so you could actually use your balcony...oh well. We were sweaty and tired so we went to the hotel bar for a drink (free with hotel room)...the bar was adorable, dark and mysterious. It used to be a brothel! We met a couple from St. Louis and, thanks to them, had our first taste of one of the quintessential N.O. cocktails, the Sazarac. I loved it.

After resting a bit, we headed over to Bourbon Street (our hotel was only a block away) to stroll. It was kind of exciting to see it the first night...neon, balconies, lots of bars, restaurants and junky tourist gift shops. But it was NEW ORLEANS. There was a line at the first place we tried for dinner (recommended by our cab driver and someone I had met in our hometown). We should have waited, but I was impatient so we walked...and ended up at a place that looked cute where we could eat on the second floor balcony overlooking the street. That, unfortunately, was the only good thing about that restaurant. The service and food were horrible. The less I remember it, the better.

Then we started to just wander around the French Quarter. We stopped at a grocery store to get some water and soda for our room and saw the best music of our week -- a trio playing in the street outside the grocery, trumpet, accordion and stand-up bass. They were great! New Orleans!

On the way home, we stopped at a bar around the corner from our hotel (oh yeah, in case you don't know, you can get drinks "to go" in NOLA...everyone wanders around drinking!) that advertised "Frozen Irish Coffee". This was basically an alcoholic milkshake. And we loved it...that was the first, but not the last one we had!

[One thing I should mention here is that Bourbon St. smells like vomit 24/7. Our hotel was a block away and it was fine until you got within a half a block of it. Yuck. I got tired of that pretty quickly.]

Monday we wanted to do a tour of the city to get the lay of the land and some basic history and information. Unfortunately, the tour company that we wanted to book through was already totally booked that afternoon. But we found another one (with air-conditioned coaches which was KEY) and booked for the 3-hour afternoon tour.

Around 10 am, we set off walking toward the famous Cafe du Monde, planning to try a beignet for breakfast. On the way, walking down a street in the Quarter, DB noticed a tunnel into what looked like a beautiful oasis of a courtyard. It appeared to be a hotel...and there was a sign out front advertising a jazz breakfast buffet. We wandered in through this dark tunnel, then bar, and into the courtyard garden. It was so beautiful! A large fountain, ironwork tables, umbrellas, lots of greenery...and a jazz trio. Brunch was $29, but we decided it was worth it...and it was.

The place is called Court of the Two Sisters and is apparently very famous. The buffet was perfect because we could taste small portions of all the traditional and classic New Orleans dishes. And, oh happy day, they had broccoli!!! That was the first green vegetable I had had in Louisiana except for iceberg lettuce for over 3 days!! (Wait, I had 4 asparagus spears at the wedding reception...the only green veg on that buffet!) The broccoli was delicious as was everything else. My favorite things were the turtle soup (best thing in Louisiana that I ate) and bread pudding (I had a few bites only...did that with most of the carby stuff down there...including some yummy grits on Sunday). The Bloody Mary was also quite good. Anyway, this was the place where we tasted everything, sat in an amazing courtyard and listened to NOLA jazz.

After this, Cafe du Monde was for another day so we kept on walking down toward the river. Saw the cathedral and Jackson Square and the riverbank. Walked down to see where Cafe du Monde was (because we knew we'd have to go there on Tuesday, our last day), then walked around the Quarter more until it was time for our tour...including a stop at a National Park site that we happened upon.

The tour was perfect. It was a sweltering day so it was great to be in a small air-conditioned tour bus. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot about the history of the city. Of course, Katrina has become part of that history and I'm sure that most tourists, like us, are very interested. As we drove from the Quarter toward the Lower Ninth Ward, our guide would say "here the water was 3 feet deep, here it was 8 feet deep, here it was 20 feet deep" was chilling. When we got to the Lower Ninth, we didn't see too much destruction...the city has torn down most of the is an area full of empty lots. But it's also an area of renewal -- there was a really cool memorial as you come off the bridge into the neighborhood -- and we drove all through the "Brad Pitt houses" (he gave something like $5M to help rebuild). The houses were fascinating -- very modern looking, but somehow with traditional New Orleans "shotgun" house style. They are all up on stilts -- parking underneath. Most have escape hatches out of the roof.

We did a short stop in the Lower Ninth at a house where they make homemade pralines. Now, you know I am not a real sugar-lover, but these things were A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. We tasted factory ones in town and they were nothing like these homemade ones. I wish I would have bought 10 instead of 2...but then I would have gained more... ;-)

After that neighborhood, we went to one of the newer cemeteries (most all above-ground). It was so hot that none of us wanted to walk around too much, but we could. And then off for a refreshment stop in City Park. Everyone got drinks and stretched their legs.

Finally we headed to the Garden District -- didn't learn too much about it, but the houses were, as promised, truly lovely. Next time we go back, I'd like to spend some more time there.

By the time the tour was over, it was about 5:30, so we stopped at our hotel bar for a drink then went to frolic in the pool to cool off. After that, it was time for a nap (yes, I actually napped twice while we were away...unheard of!)

For dinner on Monday, we went to a restaurant (Deanie's) that was close to our hotel and highly recommended by a friend in L.A. It seemed to be less of a tourist place, not fancy, but the food was excellent. We had salad, boiled shrimp, gumbo...and, I think a bit more, but the meals are all running together now!

After dinner, we walked back toward our hotel because we intended to get a cab over to Frenchman St. where all the locals go to hear music. We ended up flagging down a pedi-cab (I can't believe people actually pedal others around in that heat, but they do!). Taking the pedi-cab over was fun -- riding through the streets of the Quarter at night (this was about 10 pm), looking up at the wrought-iron balconies, breathing the steamy air -- it was evocative!

When we got to Frenchman St., we went into the first club where we heard music we liked. No cover, one-drink minimum and, wow, what great music for that bargain! I remember the lead singer most -- a trumpet playing woman and vocalist. Everyone was having a grand old time. But, after a while there, we were getting tired so we wandered around a little bit more, didn't hear anything else compelling, and grabbed a regular cab "home".

Tuesday morning was our last in NOLA. We slept in, packed up, stowed our luggage, arranged for a cab to take us to the airport at 3 and, after grabbing a frozen Irish coffee to go, were off to visit the oldest cemetery in the city, St. Louis 1. It was just a couple of blocks from our hotel and very very old. Rumor has it that the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau is buried there. It's very mysterious and we didn't see her grave...but we saw a couple that very likely were what people refer to. I'd like to take a tour with someone who knows about it someday. It was cool.

Next it was time for Cafe du Monde. I'm going to say some sacrilege here: we didn't really like the beignets. I didn't like the chicory coffee that much either, but DB had plain coffee and said it was great. Oh well...

After more Quarter wandering, we had a final special Southern drink -- mint juleps. We happened onto this place that specializes in them and, wow, were they yummy and refreshing. And not a bad thing to calm me down as I was starting to anticipate the flight home.

Our cab ride to the airport was uneventful and so was the flight home (except for my anxiety).

Once we got back (June 26) it's been non-stop ever since. I'm a bridesmaid in a friend's wedding on August 4 so we had her shower and bachelorette party last weekend. I'm scrambling to get all the stuff done for our wedding (July 23...we leave July 20). And work is slammed. I told DB this morning that I feel like everything is running away with me...but he assured me that we'll get everything done.

I have my appointment with my wedding dress alteration lady Monday evening...I am hoping that she can work her wonders because I have not lost the final 5 pounds that I wanted to. If she can't, I'm going to have to just eat lettuce for the next two weeks! ;-) I also have to get my bridesmaid dress altered -- it has the opposite problem -- too huge. Oh well, First World Problems.

Time to get back to work...I've got two weeks to do about 4 weeks worth of work!!!


Vickie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vickie said...

What a surprise to find this lovely post this morning. Loved every word.

Husband said there is a box from Macy's waiting for me at home. I have a feeling they sent your wedding gift to my house, even though I saw her type in your address. Will be home on Sunday and figure it out.

Vickie said...

Delete was me, used husband's name, which hardly ever happens, in real life I find myself saying "middle", etc.

Vickie said...

your wedding gift, did indeed come to our house, it was reshipped, to you, by Macy's, on Monday or Tuesday.

Vickie said...

Is this wedding weekend or next?