We’d been hoping to explore San Antonio for the first half of the day, but the speeding ticket we got the previous night threw the whole schedule off. We ended up getting in really late, causing us to wake up really late, and had no choice but to head out toward New Orleans, which was still 9 hours away.
A warning to be heeded:
Just over the border, we saw this billboard, and for a second, I actually thought Iowa was bizarrely advertising tourism to Louisiana. Then I realized it was actually for an outlet mall in Iowa, Louisiana.
One of the few sections of Interstate I actually enjoy is I-10 along the south-east, when it travels through swamps on roads perched about twenty feet off the water.
We hit New Orleans at around midnight and checked-in to our hotel, Le Richelieu.
If you’re looking for a budget hotel in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter, you can do no better than Le Richelieu, where we had a great room for just $99/night (most hotels start at the $150-$200 range). Only a few blocks from the famous Cafe Du Monde and Bourbon Street, Le Richelieu is just far enough off the beaten path to feel like you’re escaping the crowds of tourists when you go home at night.
The decor is a bit worn but charming, and certainly beats the endless bland chain hotel rooms we’d been staying in. I believe the manager actually lives in the hotel, and pays very close attention to the daily workings of the place.
There’s a nicely lit courtyard pool, which guests can enjoy at any hour of the day (thank God – it seems like every hotel in the country universally agreed to close their pools at 9pm, which really doesn’t work for roadtrippers).
AND BEST OF ALL, YOU GET FREE PARKING! FREE! If you’ve never been to New Orleans, every hotel charges an additional parking fee, usually at a cost of about $30/day.
After checking in, we decided to walk around the neighborhood.
Along with Venice and Sevilla, New Orleans’ French Quarter is one of favorite places in the world to walk around at night, after the tourists have mostly disappeared.
I love the muggy warm air, the sudden stillness where once was revelry, and above all, the sense of mystery that pervades every street and building.
On this particular night, we barely saw anyone as we walked around.
Even Bourbon Street was on the quiet side:
The next morning, we got breakfast at Cafe Du Monde, which has been in business since 1860 and is famous for their French-style beignets, essentially fried dough.
Er, OK, it’s certainly decent enough fried dough, but at the end of the day, I think it’s a little silly to wait for 45 minutes in line for fried dough, when you certainly wouldn’t do the same at, say, a carnival. That said, I appreciate the tradition, and you’ve gotta do it at least once.
We started the day with the free city-published walking tour pamphlet, only to quickly realize that in lieu of taking us on an interesting route, it was basically forcing us to stay on Royal Street and walk by all the shops. Not really recommended (but it is free!).
Below, the Corn Stalk Hotel and its famous 165-year old cast iron fence. The apocryphal story of its origins tells of a home owner who brought his bride to live here from Iowa. Hoping to allay her homesickness, he installed this fence of corn to remind her of home.
Of course, the truth is way more mundane: the homeowner was simply trying to one up his neighbors in decor, and purchased the fence from a catalog simply because it was the most expensive one they offered.
Strangely, the doorknob/lock is installed upside down, which local ghost tours will tell you is because of a Creole funeral rite in which you reverse your doorknobs following the death of a loved one. Can’t confirm any of this online, however.
There are two main types of iron work: wrought or cast. Wrought-iron is forged by hand, and can be identified by variations and randomness in the patterns. These imperfections often give it a more lively appearance than cast-iron, which is formed from a mold.
Many of the balconies are decorated with beautiful plants and gardens:
A corner building:
A cast-iron balcony painted white:
This one seems to have gone a bit overboard with the foliage…
Real? Fake? New? Old? It’s always hard to be sure when you come across ghost ads in highly-touristed sections of town:
Awesome neon sign on the Monteleone Hotel:
At the end of this street is Pirate Alley, though no one is exactly sure why it’s called that (prior to 1960, it was Orleans Alley).
We had our po boy and gumbo lunch at Johnny’s, a New Orleans institution since 1950. The line of tourists snaking out the door always raises my culinary suspicions, but as always, it was damn good.
Next up, we headed out to one of New Orleans’ above ground cemeteries, St Louis 1. While I don’t find New Orleans’ cemeteries as beautiful as, say, the southern cemeteries in Savanna, they’re certainly interesting to walk around.
Though you’ll often hear the bodies were placed above ground due to flooding concerns, the actual reason has more to do with French and Spanish traditions. The wall of the cemetery is itself an enormous tomb (left side below), with bodies stacked three high.
The most famous grave in St. Louis 1 is that of Marie Laveau, renowned voodoo priestess…or was she? Like pretty much every legend in New Orleans, no one seems to know for sure. In fact, there’s little evidence to suggest she even practiced magic…
However, that hasn’t stopped hordes of tourists from leaving gifts and notes for Laveau in exchange for wishes:
I think it’s the concrete paths that really take away from the beauty of the cemetery, though I can only imagine it’s a necessity.
Now here’s where things get really nutty: this tomb, the latest addition to the cemetery, was purchased and built within the last few months by Nicolas Cage, and will one day be his final resting place. Yes, that Nicolas Cage.
Meanwhile, this guy (in the hat) was offering to let people take pictures inside a “real tomb” (for an implied tip). I almost distinctly remember someone doing this the last time we were here, and decided not to pay a guy for prying into graves. Anyone know if he’s legit?
At around 3:30, we got back in the car and headed an hour outside of town for the inimitable Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours, located down a dirt road off the highway.
Though there are tons of swamp tours in the area (many operating on the same swamp!), Dr. Wagner’s was the first, having opened in 1982. The online reviews were universally positive, so we decided to give it a try.
We joined our group of 14 in a covered open-air boat and began motoring into the swamp.
Our guide knew pretty much everything about the swamp, and though I’m sure he’s given this tour a zillion times, explained it all with enthusiasm and even a bit of reverence. Also, he spoke with an incredibly gravelly southern drawl, peppering his story with amusing sayings like “Time to turn on the Cajun air-conditioning” right before kicking the boat into high gear.
The swamp was absolutely beautiful.
Any fears we had that the alligators might not show were dismissed within minutes of leaving the dock, as an enormous gator swam stealthily up to the boat in search of hot dogs and marshmallows, which our guide tossed generously.
The gators LOVED the hot dogs…
…leaping waaay out of the water to get at them.
According to our guide, gators are actually shy creatures, and there had never been a recorded gator attack in the swamp. Still, when its staring up at you with its dead-black eyes, you definitely feel glad to be in the boat:
Our tour guide led us deeper into the swamp:
Much of the water was covered:
Here, you can see how high the swamp has risen in the past by the water line on the trees:
Houses like the one below were originally built for hunting and fishing:
Then, people realized they could make do without the hunting and fishing, and just come out to drink and party, which is what they’re now known for.
Most had to be restored after Katrina – this one is still waiting for some heavy repairs:
We saw at least eight alligators on our tour, including this baby (who didn’t care much for marshmallows).
I can’t recommend Dr. Wagner’s tours highly enough. Our guide was awesome, the swamp was gorgeous, and the alligators were very social. Be sure to call ahead, as tours regularly sell out.
We returned to New Orleans, ate dinner, and joined up with a late night ghost tour. Scouting NY tip: having a drink or two while you walk around makes the ghost tour experience infinitely more enjoyable.
Our tour guide was a chipper girl in her 20′s from Connecticut, who believed firmly in ghosts and told us at least someone was bound to have a paranormal experience on her tour (later on, a group of 12 year old girls in the group tittered wildly when one proclaimed to have felt a chill). Sadly, I didn’t see any ghosts…
…though I did see two women flashing from a balcony as we walked across Bourbon Street (which came off as somewhat pathetic considering Bourbon Street was half empty and no one was throwing beads or even paying attention – but you won’t hear me complaining!).
We stopped midway through the tour at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop for drinks. Lafitte’s is located in one of the oldest buildings in New Orleans, and is considered one of the oldest continually operating bars in the United States. Its also said to have once been owned by the pirate Jean Lafitte, though this is yet another New Orleans legend with zero documentation.
On the whole, the ghost stories were a bit underwhelming – that is, until we got to the LaLaurie mansion.
All of a sudden, the tone of the stories jumped from Edgar Allen Poe to Rob Zombie. According to legend, former resident Delphine LaLaurie tortured and killed nearly 100 black slaves behind these walls…but that was only the beginning.
When firemen broke in to put out a blaze in the kitchen, they found a scene out of a horror movie: slaves with sex organs surgically swapped, women nailed to the floor by their intestines, heads with brains stewed by sticks, buckets filled with genitalia, females splayed to resemble caterpillars, and on, and on, and on. Even the most bored group members perked up at this one.
Of course, this is all bullshit. The earliest the LaLaurie torture stories can be traced no further back than a 1998 New Orleans ghost tour guide written by a woman who gave tours herself. Though she claimed to have uncovered the story from old newspaper reports, not a single bit of evidence has ever confirmed this.
Ready for more Nicolas Cage wackiness? He bought the place in 2007 for $3.5M, allegedly without any knowledge of its history, and was surprised to find ghost tours taking photos every night.
These are supposedly Nicolas Cage’s Halloween decorations. The house is now for sale, following Cage’s bizarre buying spree that brought him to bankruptcy (he also purchased Anne Rice’s former house in the Garden District):
Before leaving the next day, we bought a fantastic $10 walking tour guide of the Garden District and did a self-guided tour.
Like the French Quarter, treasures await you at every turn through the Garden District, and photographs don’t do it justice.
When it comes to road-tripping, I recommend taking at least one or mini-vacations along the route in a single place to break up the driving, and two nights in New Orleans is ideal for this.
I realize that we explored the parts of the city that are almost strictly for tourists, and that a “real” New Orleans does exist outside the French Quarter and Garden District. Unfortunately, time was nipping at our ankles as always, and we had no choice but to head north…
After all, those fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches were calling!