Food, wine, travel, music
Louisiana is open for business, but life is tough. Recovery from hurricanes is a slow process and any trip to the southern crescent state needs to be done with a certain lack of expectation that everything has returned to normal. Hurricane Katrina hit on 28 August 2005 and soon after Hurricane Rita followed causing at least $136 billion in economic damage to an area that doesn’t seem to have received the government support of more vote-catching states of the USA. There is work to be done on the towns and cities to bring them back to their clapperboard, brightly-coloured vibrancy. It must have been beautiful at its best, but in the raw, the languid pace still has some appeal. “Water came up to the roof of my house”, said James Spurlock (pictured, left) an 85 year old taxi driver who brought me around the most devastated area of the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. “I’m lucky I got my health. I love people so I’m in a good place, but compensation was no darn good and people are still sufferin’.”
The French wooden, colonial style architecture of didn’t survive the ravages of the winds and floods which came together to devastate 5,000 homes. Investment in 150 homes by stars such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have helped rebuild some of the worst in the ward, but there are as many sad gaps as there are rebuilds. One set of steps is all that is left on one site. No door, no house, just steps. Musician Fats Domino has his studio there, but lives across the river now. There is a lot of recovering to do yet.
Here the Mississippi goes from West to East on its way to Mexico, and at one point is half a mile wide. Maritime activity includes toursity steamboats and less container traffic than in former years. Commercial interests are working on ‘Reinventing the Crescent’, but even now there are interesting riverside walks.
The centre of New Orleans is a pastiche of French colonial pastel colours on balconied clapperboard buildings and the relics of old decency – John Philip Souza played on the bandstand in the park. At the same time the famous Bourbon Street is a little seedy, with strip joints and less jazz and more a mix of different styles of music from rock to rap. Frenchman Street is a better bet for music. The French influence crops up everywhere. The city was controlled by the French who founded it in 1718, later by the Spanish, then the French again and in the early 1800s German and Irish immigrants arrived, and then the American Civil War established Union rule. The history is complicated and we see echoes of each phase in the food: You eat beignets, not doughnuts, and dine on Creole food, a mix of influences from French and Spanish settlers and some black Africans (Creoles of colour). Cajun is the other influence coming from the descendents of the French Canadian maritime provinces of ancient Acadia. Local dishes include Gumbo, a stew of fish or meats typically chicken and sausage. Crab is often served in a creamy sauce, topped with cheesey breadcrumbs, or as a delicious soup. There are oysters available, but local oyster beds need to have salinity restored since last year’s BP oil spill. Farmers have yet to receive compensation and there is much grumbling. Spicy Bread Pudding is a typically substantial dessert, often topped with flambéed bananas. Delicious. Louisiana is not a place to be on a diet.
Shops have jazz memorabilia, antique bric-a-brac, antique books, music shops, a cigar making factory shop, contrasting with a skyscraper branch of Saks of 5th Avenue and contemporary office buildings. It’s quite a melting pot of traditions. Lots of French quarter preservation has not been worked on enough to make it homogenous, so you find a mix of derelict and stylish esplanade and lots of uneven pathways. Watch where you go. I didn’t and twisted my ankle.
While I wouldn’t take a flight from Ireland to New Orleans especially, and certainly not as a jazz fan, it’s worth an overnight when in the area to enjoy a look at life very dfferent to home, a look back to a time when black employees still worked in the most menial jobs. Their struggle for equality isn’t over yet.
Windsor Court Hotel, 300 Gravier St, New Orleans, LA 70130. Tel: (504) 523 6000. http://www.windsorcourthotel.com. Comfortable, with great views in the heart of the city. Breakfast is expensive. Instead use the opportunity to explore local cafés.
Mother’s Restaurant 01 Poydras, New Orleans, LA 70130. Tel: (504) 523-9656. This 1938 diner is a good way to discover typical dishes of the area. It’s always humming with a mix of locals and tourists. Open 7am to 10pm.
Café du Monde is probably the most popular café with locals and visitors. Good coffee, quick service and plenty of action. 800 Decatur Street. You can’t miss it.
Herbsaint restaurant. 701 St Charles Avenue. Tel: (504) 524-4114. For interesting contemporary twists on traditional dishes, lots of flair without forgetting the essentials of basic, genuinely tasty meat and fish.Go for dinner. Essential to book. Dress to impress.
Beckhams bookshop on 823 Chartres St and 228 Decatur St. Secondhand booksellers in the French quarter for over 40 years (a long time for Louisiana).
Cigar factory 415 Decatur street and 206 Bourbon Street.
Audubon Insectarium in the 1840s US Customs House. 70 interactive exhibits sit alongside thousands of mounted and live species.
New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course in operation since 1872 is America’s third oldest thoroughbread race track. It hosts the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival.
New Orleans Cooking Experience: To learn how to cook Creole and Cajun style: www.neworleanscookingexperience.com
Degas House Museum. While born in France, Degas’ mother was from New Orleans. In 1870s missing the boat he had to stay another two months until the next boat came.
Flea market in the French quarter. Not impressive by Irish standards, but truck farmers – moving greengrocers – regularly tag on to the end of the flea market to sell their produce.
Take a free ferry at the foot of Canal Street to get the best photographs of the French quarter. Take a streetcar to get other views of the city.
Jackson Square’s St Louis cathedral boasts the oldest Catholic congregation in US. In 1721 it was a military parade ground called Place des Armes, and in 1852 the square was renamed after the president. On either side are what is claimed to be the nation’s first apartment blocks.
Watch for the statue of Joan of Arc (Joanie on the Pony) in the French market area (pictured left).
Norbert Relllieux, known as a ‘Free man of colour’ came from New Orleans and is famous for having created the process of granulating sugar.
Avery Island nature preserve has 250 acres of jungle gardens with many varieties of azaleas, bamboo and camellias as well as snowy egret, raccoons, bears and deer. A 90 minute drive from New Orleans, there is a 1 dollar conservation admission fee for getting on to the island and 8 dollar admission fee to the jungle gardens.
Flights: There are plenty of hubs connecting with New Orleans and Lafayette. I flew ex Heathrow via Atlanta and returned via Houston. Play around with airlines, dates and connecting flights to get the best deal.