Sunday, March 11, 2012

New Orleans Trip, part 1

Last month I took a week's vacation to New Orleans. I hadn't had any time off work for a long time (I worked though all the winter holidays) and I work from home, which means that a lot of days I don't even leave the house. This all added up to an extreme case of cabin fever and restlessness, so I was really looking forward to a change of scenery.

I picked New Orleans for several reasons:
1. It has mild winters. I didn't need a tropical beach, but I did want to go someplace that wasn't stupidly cold in February. I like to do a lot of walking when I travel so I prefer a mild temperature, not roasting hot and not freezing cold. (and actually, I would never go to New Orleans in the summer, because I dislike extreme heat as much as extreme cold).
2. I've never been there, and I had such a restless feeling after working so long with no time off, I was really craving that feeling of exploring someplace new that I had never been before. In fact I've never really traveled in the South before, I did visit Raleigh, N.C. once but it was only for 2 days and I really didn't see anything.
3. New Orleans has lots of cool old stuff. If I had the time and the budget, I prefer to travel in Europe over the US, because I just love old stuff. But New Orleans is almost the next best thing, it has a very European feeling to it. It has very distinctive architecture and look to it, and I love walking around looking at architecture.
4. Mardi Gras, baby! Technically I went home before the actual Fat Tuesday (Feb 21), but Carnival season lasts from January 6 until Ash Wednesday, so I still got to see a lot of the parades, decorations, etc., while avoiding the heaviest crowds (and most expensive hotel days).
My trip began on February 8.
I arrived in New Orleans at around 4:00 pm, and the weather was absolutely perfect. Sunny, warm but not hot, a light breeze. You could walk around with a t-shirt and a thin cardigan. This is my favorite kind of weather.

Instead of taking the $38 airport shuttle into the city, I took the $2.00 public transit bus. Jefferson Parish Transit bus E-2. It goes right into the Central Business District and it stopped like 2 blocks from my hotel. This bus isn't well known to tourists, all the locals ride it to their airport jobs, but I didn't see anyone else with luggage. I recommend it highly, save your money for drinks!

I stayed at the Wyndham Garden Baronne Plaza , which is in the Central Business district but it's only one block to the French Quarter. This turned out to be an ideal location, and I was able to walk almost everywhere I wanted to go.
It's 2 blocks from the bus stop for the airport.
One block from the Canal street streetcar.
2 blocks to the St. Charles streetcar line (also a main parade route)
2 blocks to Bourbon street.
It's also pretty close to the Superdome, if you are going to any sporting event. (I didn't go there)
It was so close to all the action, but the business neighborhood was nice and quiet at night. I think that's better than having all the loud drunks right outside your windows.

The rooms were nice and big (huge, by San Francisco hotel standards), and had a big bathroom with a tub. This was much appreciated, a lot of hotels these days only have showers, but a hot bath is really relaxing after walking around sightseeing all day. I also really liked the large desk and fast wi-fi, because I brought my laptop and it came in handy to research things to do, parade times, bus schedules, etc.
(Google is my concierge!)

new orleans 004
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After checking in, I freshened up a little and then went out to explore and find something to eat. I had no planned destination, I just figured I would meaner towards the French Quarter and see what looked good.

new orleans feb 8
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The red line shows my exploration on that first night. I just LOVE that first feeling of exploring a new city, when you venture forth with no plan, no schedule, just a sense of discovery and serendipity. I found myself walking down Chartres street and I saw this cool OLD looking place called The Napoleon House.
Established 1797, old enough for ya?
It wasn't crowded and the menu looked good, so I went in. Then the host asked me if I wanted to sit inside or outside...SCORE! There was an outdoor courtyard! So of course with the gorgeous warm night, I sat outside! This is a gorgeous spot so full of atmosphere and character.

Napoleon House back patio
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The candle-lit courtyard has a koi pond, potted palm trees, old chipped brick walls, balconies overlooking it with wrought iron railings, shuttered windows on the second floor. Everything is slightly decaying, there's just the right amount of rust on the wrought iron, just the right amount of peeling paint in the shutters, it's just so perfect that it looks like a movie set of old New Orleans, LOL. Hey, I am from California, my frame of reference is Disneyland! Whenever I go to Europe and see old castles and stuff, I have the same reaction- that it's too cool, too perfect, like a fairy tale. But it's the real thing.

Napoleon House back patio
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After a great dinner and a couple of Blackened Voodoo Lagers, made by the local New Orleans Dixie brewery, I hit the streets again to continue exploring. I decided I wanted to see the Mississippi, so I headed toward the riverfront. But I couldn't see the river! I knew I was close to it, but there were always buildings or walls in the way. I didn't realize that the levee is high enough so that you won't be able to see the river from ground level! I wandered back towards Canal street and saw a sign for "Riverwalk" so I followed that. I saw the Audubon Aquarium building, which was on my list of things to do that week. I got to the foot of Canal street and finally there it was: Old Man River.

There was a blues band playing at this riverfront bar called The Crazy Lobster, which set a great mood for my first view of the Mighty Mississippi.

After sitting and watching the river for a little while, I headed back towards my hotel, and went through the huge Harrah's casino to use the restroom. (I didn't gamble though). By now my day of traveling was catching up with me, I had gotten up at 4 am that morning for my 6 am flight, so I was ready to crash. I walked back to the hotel and had a good deep sleep.
So far my first night in The Big Easy was awesome!

On this series of blog posts, I'm going to share my New Orleans Playlist, to help you get in the spirit!

There is a house in New Orleans they call the rising sun

Man I love that organ solo!

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