4 Things – NOLA
New Orleans is known for Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, but you’ll be rewarded if you venture beyond its French Quarter.
1. Gawk at Mardi Gras Indian costumes.
African-Americans who dress up in ornate feathered, beaded and sequined full-body costumes and parade on Fat Tuesday, St. Joseph’s Day (a saint dear to Sicilians, who make up most of southern Louisiana’s large Italian population) and Super Sunday call themselves Mardi Gras Indians. Their more-than-century-old tradition honors Native Americans who provided assistance during slavery days.
You don’t have to be at Mardi Gras to see the costumes, often weighing 100 pounds, of the different New Orleans “tribes.” Just visit the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where many costumes, vintage photos and descriptions of the customs are on display. It’s located in Treme, the historic African-American neighborhood next to the French Quarter (across North Rampart Street). The opulent hand-sewn costumes on display at the museum include fanciful riffs on the attire of the Plains Indians in the western U.S., similar to the attire worn during the national tours of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which was popular toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th.
2. Do Christmas New Orleans style.
Make your reservations now: New Orleans is magical in December. The month is jam-packed with over 100 free events. Hear free gospel choir, jazz and classical concerts at St. Louis Cathedral. Sing carols by candlelight in Jackson Square, which is across the street. Dine on Reveillon menus, festive four-course meals, and special holiday cocktails at 75 restaurants and bars. Reveillon (meaning “awakening” in French) is a tradition that dates to the early 1800s in this former French colony, when locals broke their daylong fast and indulged in feasts after coming home from midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Admire how the city dresses up for the holidays, when outdoor trees are hung with ornaments (some in Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green), and balconies, doors, fences and trees are bedecked with lights and wreaths, especially in the Garden District and French Quarter. The most spectacular? City Park, where the New Orleans Museum of Art, lagoons and canals are located. Its centuries-old oaks are festooned with hundreds of thousands of lights and displays. Bonfires are lighted atop Mississippi River levees just outside New Orleans, illuminating the way for Papa Noel — on a boat pulled by eight alligators (led by a white one) — to deliver presents to good children in the old Cajun custom. (Cajuns are descendants of French-speaking settlers who were driven out of eastern Canada by the British in the 1700s and then welcomed by Catholic Louisiana.) In and near New Orleans, everything’s a little different.
3. Stay in a former church.
A church, school, convent and rectory have been reborn as a boutique hotel in Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood full of 19th century shotgun houses and Creole cottages next to the French Quarter (the other side of Esplanade Avenue). Strictly speaking, your guest room at the Hotel Peter & Paul is in the former school or rectory; the church is now a lovely event space, as its owners didn’t want it carved up into rooms. If you love live music, the location is perfect. It’s just two blocks from Frenchmen Street, which is lined with clubs such as The Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor and d.b.a.
The hotel’s food is from Bacchanal, a wine shop that serves local fare in a huge backyard and offers live musical performances in the same location at night. The building’s tattered facade belies a spot once known mostly to locals (you’d never suspect that a perpetual party and a quirky selection from small producers — wine from Lebanon, anyone? — was going on behind).
I was stunned on my last visit to find that Bacchanal now boasts a second-floor bar that overlooks a patio strewn with colorful lights, plus a window for ordering food. It was more like (gasp) a real restaurant. It’s in the Bywater, the neighborhood just east of the Marigny, but artier and funkier. It contains an eclectic mix of shotgun and Creole cottages, with a riot of brightly colored facades, some superbly renovated, others shabby.
Another delightful Bywater restaurant is The Country Club, a Greek Revival-style mansion where you’ll find a backyard pool (purchase a day pass), a chef from the venerable Commander’s Palace restaurant, and beautiful murals of blue iris, bird-of-paradise and other flowers. Art galleries and music clubs abound on St. Claude Avenue, a commercial strip in both the Marigny and Bywater.
4. Kayak Bayou St. John.
A peaceful way to experience New Orleans from a totally different perspective is to glide along this quiet waterway, itself a piece of history in the center of the city. You’ll pass grand homes, including Pitot House, a restored 1799 Creole mansion, biking and walking trails, and a 2-mile stretch of City Park. You’ll also see herons, egrets and ducks while experiencing a welcome breeze on a hot day. Once a vitally important trade route for Native Americans because it extended all the way north to Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou St. John’s strategic location was the reason for the city’s founding in 1718, about a century before steamboats sailed the Mississippi. Rent a kayak from Bayou Paddlesports, located in Mid-City. That’s the neighborhood where the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival is held in April and May. Mid-City is also home to delightful restaurants like Parkway Bakery and Tavern, famous for its fried shrimp po’-boy sandwich, Liuzza’s By the Track, known for its barbecue shrimp po’ boy, and Cafe Degas, named for the French painter whose mother was from New Orleans.
During the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, a three-day festival in May, the bayou is crammed with boats. Jazz, funk and zydeco performers rock its shores, and food vendors sell yummy local snacks and art.