The French Quarter
After the amazing Audubon Zoo experience, we headed for the historical French Quarter of New Orleans as we continued our family travels. The Big Easy has special fond memories for Mishele because she used to visit frequently when she lived in Mississippi. She was anxious to reconnect with the city.
The French Quarter, or officially known as the Vieux Carré, is the oldest part of the city of New Orleans. It includes the blocks along the Mississippi River from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue (13 blocks) and inland to North Rampart Street (nine blocks). It totals a fairly large area of 78 square blocks, so bring your walking shoes. Luckily, it largely was spared any serious damage during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so it still preserves its characteristic old style architecture and charm.
Tip: In the summer, New Orleans will be crowded, hot, and humid, try off season.
The Quarter, as locals refer to it, is an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, music venues, art galleries, and historic landmarks. It was acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Despite its name, most of the architecture is old-world Spanish. Some remnants, like the Saint Louis Cathedral, from its original French settlers are still visible. Most of the buildings date back to the late 18th century. The area as a whole is designated a National Historic Landmark. Walking around it really makes you feel like stepping back in time a little.
Our oldest son, Aaron, is a jazz music fanatic. He was very eager to see the birthplace of jazz. Many great pioneering jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, and Jelly Roll Morton started out playing in the clubs along the French Quarter. Historic places such as Preservation Hall, Latrobe’s, Snug Harbor, and the House of Blues are legendary hallowed halls where all serious jazz fans make a pilgrimage too. Aaron had them all mapped out. He was like a religious zealot in search of sacred shines.
First, however, the rest of us needed tangible nourishment. So, we headed to the world-famous Central Grocery to get a muffuletta. A traditional style muffuletta sandwich consists of a muffuletta loaf split horizontally and covered with layers of marinated olive salad, mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, and provolone. Italian immigrants brought it to New Orleans in the 1920’s. It may just be the best sandwich in America! We went up unto the levee across the street to eat as we watched the mighty Mississippi River float by. I am not sure how many calories one is, but I did not care. They are amazingly delicious. Besides, with all of the walking that we are doing, I figured we would burn them off anyway.
After our impromptu pick-nick, we headed to Preservation Hall. Unfortunately, there was a movie being filmed there. Much to Aaron’s disappointment, we could not get in. He desperately tried to ask anyone if they could slip him in, but no luck. At least he got to have his picture taken with an unknown actor. Now, he will need to wait for the movie to come out to see who it was. I know he was hugely disappointed, but it is an excuse to go back some day.
Since we were striking out with historic landmarks, we decided just to meander around the area to check out the scenery. We found a really cool store along the way. It sold original autographed memorabilia from famous people. They had a signed Jimmy Hendrix guitar! They also had a book signed by all seven original NASA astronauts. Aaron, our Naval aviator hopeful, was awe struck by it. Elijah liked the signed Howard Hughes book and picture. I wanted the first edition The Wall album cover signed by all of the band members. Mish liked the autographed Chuck Yeager model aircraft of his sound-breaking X-1 Bell. If we each had a few thousand dollars, we all could have waked out of there with something memorable. Oh well.
You never know what you will find strolling along the French Quarter. Each corner has something different to offer. No matter where you go, however, you will see street performers and artists. New Orleans is a magnet for bohemian types. Local musicians perform some of the best authentic jazz music you will find anywhere. We stopped and listened to several of them. We were very impressed. This is what really separates New Orleans from other cities, its love affair with jazz. You can hear it everywhere. After a short while, we were all swinging and swaying to the hypnotic rhythm.
We worked up an appetite. The muffalettas had burned off, so we were in search of something else. Elijah really wanted to eat a Bubba Gump’s. This is the restaurant made famous by the Tom Hanks movie Forest Gump. We decided it was worth a try. The inside is filled with memorabilia from the movie. Even the menu is movie themed. We all had some variation of shrimp. The meal was delicious, but pricey. I guess you pay extra for the experience.
Mish wanted to find a late night desert of another New Orleans favorite, beignets. They are a French pastry made from deep-fried choux pastry dough and topped with powdered sugar. They are a tradition handed down from the city’s French ancestry. Café Monde on Canal Street serves the original, and best, beignets in the city. They are must with coffee when you visit.
One drawback with New Orleans with families is that the nightlife doesn’t start until after 8:00pm, at the earliest, and goes until dawn. This is great if you want to avoid the crowds and rowdiness that comes with the jazz scene, but bad if you are tired and do not want to stay up and walk anymore. After dark, The French Quarter takes on a completely different look. The jazz clubs open, the bars rev up, and the party starts! Even though Aaron really wanted to stay around, at 17 we thought it was best for him to wait until his next trip to the Big Easy.
We finally stopped for the day and headed back to the car. I must admit, New Orleans does have a distinct atmosphere. It is a lively city with much to experience. I am not sure that I would want to be there during Mardi Gras, but our family trip was a lot of fun.
Tip: New Orleans can be a very dangerous city! Stay on the beaten path and in groups. If you find yourself in a non-tourist area, turn around.
Next week: Bayou Country!