New Orleans is a place that I never used to have much interest in visiting. I’m not the partying type, I don’t like hot weather and I usually prefer to go overseas anyway, so the fact that I visited the Big Easy back in 2004 was really more of a fluke than anything else.
You see, back in spring of 2003, I accepted a three month temporary nursing job in Connecticut for the summer. I was planning to take my dog and my cat with me, but I didn’t do enough research when I booked my flight from Vancouver to New York to start my new job. The flight itself was quite reasonable. Unfortunately, the cost to transport two animals on an international flight was close to $500! I ended up flying to Toronto with the pets instead and travelling to Connecticut by land, which worked out to be way cheaper.
What does this have to do with New Orleans, you might ask? Well, back in the ancient days of 2004, it was possible to talk to a real person at a major American airline, explain why you needed to cancel a flight and receive a credit for nearly the entire amount that you paid, good for the next 12 months. Crazy, right?
Well, I ended up waiting until the next spring to use my flight credit and ended up deciding to book a flight to St. Louis, Missouri to visit my brother, who was working on his PhD at a University there. And since there’s only so much that a person can do in the fine metropolis of St Louis, we decided to rent a car for a week and head down the Mississippi River to do some exploring.
We visited all kinds of amazing places on that trip. We drove through towns where the average house value was probably less than the value of the pickup truck parked in front of it, and marveled at the variety of deep fried goods in the restaurants. We saw the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, the birthplace of Elvis, civil war battlefields and some pretty amazing plantation houses. But my favourite stop was the two days we spent in New Orleans.
First of all, forget about the stereotypes of drunken parties on Bourbon Street and debauchery at Mardi Gras. Under all the glitz and beads, the French quarter is just plain beautiful. The architecture is like nowhere else in the world and even the slight air of crumbling decay can’t take away it’s beauty. Street after street had houses with intricate cast iron railing covered with vines and flowers. The St Cathedral of St Louis towered above the French Quarter, giving the district a distinctly European look.
Outside the French Quarter it certainly wasn’t all beautiful, but it was certainly interesting. We were careful to do our exploring during the day and stay in populated areas, but the contrast between the mansions of the Garden District and the poverty of the Treme district just north of the French Quarter could probably teach you more about American economic inequality than you could learn in a university course. Some areas had brick tenement style housing projects that looked like something straight out of a Dickens novel. Adding to the otherworldly atmosphere was a sign on one wall stating that cock fighting was illegal and would result in seizure of animals. It seemed crazy to me that this neighbourhood was a 15 minute walk from the tourist bustle of Bourbon Street.
But New Orleans has so much more to offer than the architecture of the French Quarter and the other fascinating neighbourhoods. For a city of it’s size, New Orleans has a great variety of other options. We visited the fantastic World War II Museum near the convention centre downtown when we were there. I’m not much of a war buff, but even I was able to find more than enough to interest me for half a day. There are some great options for families such as an Aquarium, an Insectarium, and a fantastic zoo as well as the Louisiana Children’s Museum close by.
And then there are the little things that make New Orleans so unique. When wandering around the French Quarter you can hear music coming from various street corners and from inside little bars and restaurants. You can just follow your ears to hear great jazz, blues, Cajun and bluegrass all over the place. The food is also amazing and it seems like the cheapest places are often the most authentic. There are little markets selling creepy voodoo curios and dried alligator parts, and you can’t pass up the Seven Eleven type machines serving up giant styrofoam cups of alcoholic slushies.
Now, this being a family travel blog, the question of the day is would I take my family there? Sure, it’s an amazing and unique place, but can a place that is synonymous with partying really be a good family destination? Well, I would say yes. I don’t know if it would be ideal for babies or toddlers, but families with older kids would find a lot to do there. The city certainly has it’s unsafe areas and I probably would be a little more careful with my wanderings if I had kids in tow, but we tend to do our exploring during daylight hours anyway. New Orleans is just so beautiful and unique, it would be a shame to stay away just because it has a few rough edges and a reputation for partying.
So, stay tuned, I may find a way to get in a family trip to New Orleans sometime in the next few years. Until then, I’ll have to be content with looking at the pictures, listening to the music and dreaming.