Tuesday, 28 August 2012

... been to New Orleans

... and admittedly, the middle of hurricane season wasn't the brightest choice of a time to go. But NOLA was on our way, we wanted to see it, we had a friend there for goodness' sake - what could possibly go wrong?

Enter Hurricane Isaac ...
On Sunday, August 26th, at around 3.30pm, Bex and I arrived in New Orleans on the Amtrak train from Memphis (see separate blog post for the details of the nine-hour journey and the folk we met on it). The weather was fine; steaming hot, as is usual for the South in August, but not unbearable. There was not a breath of wind – the proverbial calm before the storm, in fact. There was no wi-fi and very little mobile phone reception on the journey, so we were effectively incommunicado for most of the day, having boarded the train just before 7am.

We heard scraps and rumours of a tropical storm heading through the Gulf on the journey but didn't pay much attention to it, concentrating on getting our stuff to the Hotel Royal (a lovely bijou boutique place on Royal Street, in the French Quarter) and planning our visit to the Big Easy. Oh, the swamp tours we would go on, the cemeteries we would visit! We wandered around the quarter taking pictures of all the gorgeous ramshackle Spanish Colonial houses – of which there are many – and doing a bit of souvenir shopping. We made it halfway down Bourbon Street, which is reminiscent of some of the nastier alleys in Soho, with its sex shows and drinking dives, before the smell of stale beer, sick and fermenting garbage drove us back.

Bourbon Street: classy
For dinner we went to a so-so place called Pere Antoine's, (not the high-end historical Antoine's, which is amazing) which had the disadvantage of a passive-aggressive waiter called Sean, who took exception to Bex's trying to overtip him in dimes (you'll need that 40 cents one day, Sean!), but the advantage of a single dish which I, as a vegetarian, could eat: vanishingly rare in New Orleans. (It was an appetiser selection of battered mushrooms, fried cheese and fried aubergine … again, vegans beware.) Then we went back to the hotel and turned on the TV, not bothering to watch the news because, you know, Breaking Bad was on.

The next morning (Monday) after breakfast – having received some puzzling photos of hurricane lamps, bullhorns and a selection of guns from a local friend, with the tagline “We're gonna be fine!” I had a feeling that something might be up, so I turned on the news – and, specifically, the weather report. Hmm. It looked like our planned zoo expedition, swamp tour, paddleboat cruise etc. might have gone up the Swannee. It seemed that Tropical Storm Isaac was about to grow up into Hurricane Isaac – only a category 1, it's true – but after Katrina (a category 5) the locals were taking no chances. The mayor had issued a mandatory evacuation order for all non-residents (which isn't quite as hardcore as it sounds – they certainly weren't going street to street emptying houses).

However, outside the weather was glorious, people were going about their business, and things seemed normal – for the time being. But the keeper of the first shop we went into (the beautifully preserved and surprisingly cheap Royal Pharmacy (see pic on right) said that most people would be closing after lunch, and getting out of town tonight, so we did a whirlwind gift-buying tour of Royal Street and the riverfront and made it back to the hotel – via trolleybus, in case it was the last chance we got to ride one - to meet my local friend Lander (the one with the hurricane prep) for lunch.

Lander is a history buff and self-employed antiques expert and valuer, who's worked for Christie's and various other big-name auction houses before setting up on his own. He knows EVERYTHING about his city and gave us a whistle-stop tour of the most famous and notable places – with drinks.

At Jean Lafitte's blacksmith shop - now a bar at the nicer end of Bourbon, mostly for locals - he told us about the notorious Purple Drink (it was two in the afternoon so we played it safe with margaritas) and the history of the venue … he also kept up a running commentary on the buildings we passed as we wandered. As Bex said, better than a guided tour any day.

As we passed along the streets we saw various hotels, bars and shops closing up in preparation for the storm; windows being boarded up, sandbags being deployed, and general battening down of hatches going on. It felt like a Sunday; muted and quiet, but not remotely panicky. Still, it was a sign that the storm was definitely coming, though Lander reckoned, from years of experience, that Isaac was going to be something of a pussycat, as hurricanes went. He'd been here for Gustav in 2008 (when 3 million in various states had fled before it) and that was much bigger. We started to unwind slightly. Could this be … kind of fun?

The REAL Antoine's ... sheer class
To take the edge off Lander took us to the proper Antoine's for a Brandy Milk Punch and a tour of its many beautiful rooms. The Hermes bar was open but the restaurant was closed, unfortunately - and unusually, so we got our drinks to go. (One of the peculiarities of N.O. is that public drinking is fine as long as you buy your booze in a bar, and all bars are happy to give you a branded plastic cup to take your drink out in if you want to wander the streets with it ...)

Antoine's is one of the oldest and largest restaurants in the city and is decorated in a late nineteenth-century style, with dark wood, jewel-coloured walls and glass cases containing Mardi Gras memorabilia significantly classier than the pile-'em-high plastic masks spilling from every gift shop.

This is the real thing: paraphernalia of many of the older krewes (Comus and Hermes especially), sepia photos of Carnival Queens (yes, even the one from 2011 was sepia – that's how the Old South rolls) and King and Queen jewellery and regalia on display. Case after case of gorgeous bling – now wonder this place is perennially popular (well, that and the food, I suppose).  

Melrose Mansion - also pretty classy
The third restaurant we tried – Remoulade, which has both a posher, older back part and a cheaper, more casual lunch room – was open, but the usual “meat with everything” problem reared its head – I ended up having green salad and a plate of nachos for six (or that's how it felt anyway). Back at the Hotel Royal, guests were being moved to the hotel group's largest and most gorgeous property – which also has backup generators in case of a power failure – the Melrose Mansion. Lander drove us the six blocks to the new place and we arranged to meet him at his place for dinner and more drinks, later that night.

Meanwhile we frolicked around our new hotel room – the bathroom of which is about the same size as our original room at the Hotel Royal – feeling giddy and excited, and not quite sure what to do with ourselves, but a bit less like panic-buying, crapping ourselves or hiding in a ditch. Which was nice.

Our new storm shelter. Bagsy the shower.

Next time: 

- Our first hurricane party, courtesy of Lander!

- We see a proper N.O. mansion in the Garden District (also courtesy of Lander)

- Amazing Southern food (and pasta with homemade pesto for me) - also courtesy of ... well, you get the picture

- A small amount of rain! "I can't even feel it!" boasts foolhardy Brit.

- Hurricane Isaac still playing hard to get - so far ...

1 comment:

  1. Usually, it’s hard to enjoy a vacation when a major storm looms over the place you’re visiting; but you seem to have been having fun. Haha! I don’t blame New Orleans for not taking any chances on the storm that’s coming. It just goes to show that they’ve learned from the horrors of Katrina, so they’re better prepared. Your new hotel looks snazzy, by the way.

    -- Edwina Sybert