“Is it your first time in New Orleans?” asked the desk clerk at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. No ma’am. I’ve been to New Orleans (specifically the French Quarter) 20 times in 20 years, with a few post-university trips with my girlfriends before that. Why?
I think he got that right. New Orleans is definitely a place to unwind and give your brain a rest. In fact, most people go for three reasons: the jazz, the food, and the endless parties. I’ll add a fourth – exploring. The parties were more the draw 30 years ago, but now I just like discovering new gems – like quiet speakeasies where jazz greats play, historical museums, and great coffee. I’ll share a few of my old favourites and new finds, from my April 2019 trip.
First, the hotel. Yep, it’s the Royal Sonesta Hotel, at the corner of Bourbon (the main drag) and Bienville, in the middle of everything. I’ve stayed at the Monteleone from time to time as well (with its world famous Carousel Bar), but the Royal Sonesta (not to be confused with Sonesta House, a nice hotel but not nearly the same thing) is my go-to. Splurge and get a deluxe interior balcony room if you can. Most open on the pool (as mine did this time), or over a lovely courtyard, and are generally quiet at night. The Royal Sonesta has an outdoor pool, which is a real plus since it is routinely 30C+ from May onwards. The hotel is pricey for New Orleans, but if you go during a week when there is NOT a festival (like Jazz Fest, or Mardi Gras, or the French Quarter Festival), prices can be up to $100 per night cheaper. Visit PJ’s Coffee in the hotel lobby in the morning to get your caffeine fix.
The food….oh my. I fuelled up at the Monteleone Hotel for breakfast. The breakfast food there is generally just solid (although the atmosphere is excellent – with service straight out of the 1920s). but this time I chose the beignets. A New Orleans classic, these are lighter-than-air croissant type things covered in white powdered sugar. And since the Monteleone didn’t think that was sweet enough, they added the caramel sauce and strawberries. You hungry yet?
For non-sugary food, head over to the Crescent City Brewhouse on Decatur Street. Get the fried chicken salad to get your greens in. Then try the tasting flight of 6 house-made craft beers. Walk back to the hotel and take a nap.
For a very special dinner, you could try Revolution, just around the corner from the hotel on Bienville. The fish and steaks are both something else and beautifully presented. Two must-visit bars for a late night drink are Mr. B’s Bistro across from the Monteleone on Royal (get the milk punch), and Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House across from the Royal Sonesta. They serve absinthe at the latter, although my preferred drink is a cold Abita Amber beer. Legend has it this old dive bar is where Andrew Jackson recruited Jean Lafitte’s pirate army to help him win the battle of New Orleans, ending the War of 1812.
My new food find was Kilwin’s on Decatur, in the old Jax Brewery. They make ok ice cream and unbelievable fudge, which comes in about 20 flavours and is over 800 calories per slice. If you’re dieting, don’t come here.
My music find was Snug Harbor, a little spot at 626 Frenchmen Street. The Marsalis brothers and their various bands play there. Yes, those Marsalis brothers – the four sons of Ellis Marsalis, including Wynton.
History buffs should not miss the World War II museum, about a mile away from the French Quarter in the Central Business District. I spent two hours there one afternoon and learned how much the tide of WWII turned in 4 minutes on a crucial decision to take one more look for enemy destroyers at Midway.
In addition to great food, fantastic music, and cultural icons, there are some natural sights as well. If you walk down to Decatur Street, and go just up the rise in the land, you’ll come up to the mighty Mississippi River. There’s a wide boardwalk, and usually some sunshine, even…gasp…in April. Right after I took the photo below, I forgot I was no longer 25 and decided to take a shortcut and hop off the low stone wall I was standing on. (It seemed like such a good idea, Bob). I went sprawling on the cobblestones below, landing on my right knee and wrist. I was helped up by…two French Canadians. Merci!
I’m on the mend. Until next year, New Orleans!