Once we left Canada, out of the various stops we had picked for our overland trip from south to north, NOLA (short for New Orleans, Louisiana) was the one I most looked forward to. I had wanted to visit the city for a long time, and that hadn’t changed with Hurricane Katrina.
NOLA has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to crime, and particularly murders (promptly the night we arrived, there was a shooting in the French Quarter killing one and injuring nine). When Paul and I researched where to stay we checked which suburbs to avoid before we decided to book short-term rental accommodation in Metairie, north-west of downtown, a few blocks south of Lake Pontchartrain. While it took a while to travel into town every day, involving a 15min walk, followed by a bus and a streetcar ride, the journey through the suburbs is always interesting as you get to meet the locals and see more than just the touristy spots.
Our host Hoang, a Vietnamese-American worked on his PhD at the University of New Orleans Department for Planning and Urban Studies and had a major exam/assignment due on the day we left. Nevertheless, he was very welcoming and made sure we had the best time in NOLA. This included making a different breakfast each day and cooking a tasty dinner for us one night. Having worked and lived in places like Mozambique and done urban planning and development projects around the globe, Hoang was a wealth of knowledge despite being only in his early 30s. We had the best conversations with anyone so far on our trip… about slavery, human rights and poverty, Katrina and its impact on the city, politics and greed, sustainable energy production…
We had flown into NOLA from Toronto and the first thing we noticed was the vast swamps and wetlands (and of course the mighty Mississippi) surrounding the city, which looked beautiful from the air and reminded us of the Amazon. Shame only the landscape was dotted with big industrial areas (refineries and the like).
While NOLA is beautiful on the eye with its mix of architecture (colourful shotgun houses, Creole cottages and townhouses, Greek and Egyptian revival style mansions…) the first thing you notice is the friendliness and genuine warmth of its people.
As we had six nights in NOLA, we could take our time exploring. Our first full day in town, we spent roaming around the Garden District with its grand mansions (one of them is the house of Anne Rice, the author of Interview with the Vampire) and enjoying a late lunch at the Red Dog Diner.
On other days, we
- strolled around and listened to street musicians in the French Quarter,
- learned a lot about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the slow revival of a local community in the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum,
- enjoyed the performance of Sarah McCoy and The Oopsie Daisies at The Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchmen Street and strolled around the local art market,
- admired the New Orleans Museum of Art’s unique sculpture collection in City Park,
- were fortunate to observe a variety of animals (alligators, turtles, racoons, blue herons, egrets, water snakes and nutria) during a boat tour through the Honey Island swamp north of NOLA with Cajun Encounters,
- learned a lot about the history of slavery in the US while visiting the Whitney Plantation west of NOLA (we had hired a car for 2 days to be able to do the swamp tour and visit the plantation both of which are about 45min by car out of town).
We also tried some Southern comfort food: gumbo (a stew/soup with meat, rice and veggies), jambalaya (a kind of risotto, again with meat and veggies), beignets (a kind of doughnut – though shaped differently – covered in icing sugar), oysters and crabs… yum. Cane & Table in the French Quarter and Bravo in Metairie are two other places we have tried and are happy to recommend.
I could have easily stayed longer in NOLA, not only to try more of the local food specialities. It just was such a warm, welcoming and relaxing place with lots more to see and do. We’ll definitely be back one day.