The Big Easy. It sounded like the perfect escape amid the turmoil of a pandemic. Life’s been hard lately. We’ve all been living with stress and fear, many of us hunkered down at home. Zoom meetings and home cooking are getting old. It’s time for a break, and heading to the Big Easy, even during a pandemic, reminds us how to enjoy life.
That said, New Orleans is definitely different these days. My favorite music clubs on Frenchmen Street remain boarded up, but the good news is there’s still live music in New Orleans. You just have to look harder to find it. And most restaurants are open and anxious for you to sample their delicious Creole, Cajun, French, and Southern fare. Mmmm.
Peter and I recently spent six days discovering new things to love about this scintillating destination and revisiting favorite haunts. With so few people traveling now, we practically had the city to ourselves. And like many tourist destinations, New Orleans needs you. There’s no better time to jump on a plane and take off to the exotic, irresistible City of New Orleans. Let’s go!
JAMNOLA: Cool Interactive Art Attraction
It’s a Love Letter to New Orleans
A new attraction on Canal Street beckoned: The Sazerac House, owned by the Sazerac spirits company, whose roots go back centuries to France, when the Sazerac family began making cognac. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you’ve probably tried a Sazerac, one of the city’s signature cocktails. Originally made with cognac, the modern version features rye whiskey, Peychaud bitters, absinthe or other anise liqueur, a sugar cube, and a twist of lemon. It’s a classic.
The Sazerac House offers free tours, and as we waited for ours to begin, a couple walked up behind us, and Peter and I were shocked to see it was an old friend from Va. Beach and his gal pal, who just happened to be visiting New Orleans while we were there. How fun to explore this shrine to the cocktail culture together. The beautifully restored building offers three floors of interactive exhibits, and along the way we sampled bitters and a tasty cocktail. Of course, a shop on the first floor sells some of the company’s 450 brands, and I couldn’t resist a bottle of Peychaud’s apertivo.
Another new interactive attraction in New Orleans is JAMNOLA (i.e., Joy Art Music New Orleans), located in the Bywater neighborhood. A collaborative 12-room art exhibit by 20+ local artists, this colorful 4500-square foot venue celebrates the city’s art, music, creativity, and food. In fact, its founder calls it “a love letter to New Orleans.” We toured the colorful rooms with a guide and two other visitors and loved the surprises around every corner—from life-sized crawfish to a golden alligator. It’s a must-see especially for Instagram aficionados.
For a more somber but enlightening experience, head to the National WWII Museum. It’s an amazing journey through the war with exhibits on the Pacific and European arenas along with a wealth of artifacts, a terrific movie narrated by Tom Hanks, and more—all designed to give visitors an up-close and personal glimpse of one of our country’s most horrific wars.
On display through Jan. 3, 2021, a temporary exhibit, The Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II, features the exploits of a special team of troops whose job was to deceive the enemy using trickery and deception—from blow-up tanks to fake radio traffic, all designed to hoodwink Hitler’s army into believing our forces were present in places they weren’t. I had no idea old-fashioned trickery and theatrics helped us win the war.
Listen to Live Music and Dance in the Rain
Find Big Sam at the Royal Sonesta
When I heard my beloved music clubs, like The Spotted Cat and Café Negril, would be closed during our visit, I almost changed my mind about coming. But with a little sleuthing we found some fabulous music offered in safe outdoor settings.
One night we made our way to the pool deck of the Royal Sonesta to hear Big Sam play. I’d heard his band, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, play both in NOLA and at a wine festival in Northern Virginia and knew he’d put on a great show. The audience was sparse, maybe due to the $25 ticket cost, and he had a smaller contingent of band members for this show, but Big Sam blew his trumpet like nobody’s business, and we loved the intimate vibe and the bucolic setting beside the pool.
Another night we heard Tuba Skinny, an award-winning ragtime, blues, and traditional jazz band that played mellow music in the courtyard of Hotel Storyville on Esplanade. Our visit had been blessed with good weather until this show, but luckily there was a pavilion to provide shelter from the rain. Some folks just popped open their umbrellas, and others danced the Lindy Hop as the rain softened to a sprinkle. In spite of the weather, it was an excellent show and gave us the music fix we needed.
More music was in store on the Jazz Dinner Cruise aboard the Steamboat New Orleans. Years ago I’d taken the cruise during a conference and was thrilled Peter could come along this time. Darkness descended as we boarded and, after temperature checks, we sat in the dining room, where a feast of Louisiana cuisine began. Instead of a buffet, servers brought us plates of steaming hot food, and we ate like kings.
My favorite dish was the Bayou Seafood Pasta, a decadent dish of shrimp and crawfish tails bathed in white wine and garlic parmesan cream sauce (see recipe below). Other dishes included gumbo, baked chicken, a delicious tossed salad with a sugar cane vinaigrette, Green Beans Amandine, and of course bread pudding and Bananas Foster for dessert. I met the Food & Beverage Director on board, and it turns out he's a Tidewater native and ODU alum. Small world!
Afterwards we waddled upstairs for a jazz combo, whose lilting melodies wafted across the Mighty Mississippi as we floated slowly along the river. A highlight of the evening was a young boy who became transfixed by the drums, standing and watching the drummer play. Finally the drummer fished out drumsticks and let the boy, whose name was Jamieson, join in. He did really well on the snare drum with an occasional cymbal crash thrown in, and the crowd hooted and hollered and cheered him on. At the end, the drummer gave Jamieson the drumsticks, and the audience went wild. Such a simple gesture of kindness, something we all need especially right now.
Louisiana Renaissance Fest is a Journey to the Past
Or Take a Swamp Tour for a Journey into Nature
One big event we planned to attend during our visit was the annual Louisiana Renaissance Fest, which opened the weekend we were there and continues weekends through mid-December. An outdoor event, it seemed a pandemic-friendly activity, so Peter and I ordered our peasant outfits, and joined by my dear friend, Grace, her husband, Christian, and their daughter, Pearl, we journeyed back in time.
It was our second Renaissance fair, but the first time Peter and I dressed up, and it was a blast. We watched jousting, a falcon show, bagpipers, acrobats, and belly dancers. The serene wooded setting made us feel like we had indeed time traveled, and Peter and I have already decided that more Renaissance fairs are in our future.
One of my favorite attractions in NOLA is the Audubon Zoo, and like so much of our trip, we had the place almost all to ourselves. What I love about this zoo is the lush landscape—giant old live oaks, ferns, flowers, and even a swamp habitat for birds and gators. The day we visited was sunny and 75°, perfect for a nature escape.
We also opted to take a kayak tour in a nearby swamp one day with New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours (504-571-9975). Our guide, Nick, said, “More people who visit New Orleans should come out and visit the swamps.” He clearly had a passion for both kayaking and conservation and shared legends and lore about the swamps as we paddled among cypress trees and arrowhead ferns. We spotted some small alligators on the bank, but mostly we enjoyed the brilliant scenery and the satisfaction of being outside, communing with nature while getting exercise.
That’s what I love about New Orleans. There’s something for everyone: music, art, nature, food, history, culture, and most of all fun. So if you’ve been thinking about a getaway, whether with family or friends or your special someone, New Orleans is waiting with open arms to welcome you back. Let the good times roll!
Top Places To Stay in NOLA
Find Affordable Hotel Rooms Right Now
Now’s an excellent time for an affordable stay in New Orleans. Hotel occupancy is down, which means rates are low. With nearly 300 hotels, the city has something for everyone—from couples who want to stay where the action is to families who want to explore the city’s magnificent museums and culture. Here are two of my favorites.
The Higgins Hotel and Conference Center
The newly opened Art Deco-inspired luxury hotel, located in the lively Arts and Warehouse District adjacent to the National WWII Museum, celebrates The Greatest Generation. In fact, revenues from the hotel support the museum’s mission to tell the story of WWII through the eyes of Americans. The hotel hosts military reunions, conferences, and educational groups and also welcomes couples and families looking for an idyllic home during their New Orleans holiday.
Our spacious room had views overlooking the Business District and was super bright and spacious. Even the bathtub offered amazing views, perfect for a soak after a day of trekking through the French Quarter. For even better views, head for Rosie’s on the Roof, the hotel’s rooftop bar, where you can order signature cocktails and small plates.
Peter and I met with Marc Becker, director of sales and marketing, on the roof one evening. Marc told us the story of Andrew Higgins, whom the hotel is named after. A local boatbuilder, Higgins had created the shallow-draft Eureka boat for oil drillers and trappers and soon was producing landing craft for WWII, many of which were used on D Day. Higgins was also forward-thinking in his hiring practices and welcomed women and minorities to his workforce, paying them equal wages.
As the sun slid down the sky, Marc regaled Peter and me with stories as we sipped wine and ate delicious tapas—crab beignettes, smoked fish dip, and loaded fries. The Higgins Hotel is a welcoming place, close to public transportation and a short walk from the French Quarter.
To book, call 833-357-1172 or visit www.higginshotelnola.com. To receive a special Eureka discount of $20 per room per night, ask the operator or, if booking online, insert the code 2971197 into the Corporate Account field of the reservation window. Offer valid through 1/31/21.
AC Hotel New Orleans Bourbon
Just a block from Bourbon Street, this European-style boutique hotel is part of a new brand by Marriott and offers guests a sleek, modern vibe, perfect for urban explorers. Our bright corner room had one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept on and amenities included European bath products and a coffeemaker with fabulous Italian coffee.
The AC Lounge offers craft cocktails, local beer, and a selection of Spanish wines, a nod to the founder of AC Hotels, Antonio Catalan, who started the brand in Europe, growing it to a total of 80 properties in Spain, France, Portugal, and Italy.
After AC Hotels and Marriott formed a joint venture in 2011, AC Hotels came to the U.S. and you can now find this innovative brand in 150 cities around the world—from Cape Town to Guadalajara.
Peter and I loved the elegant vibe at the AC New Orleans Bourbon, and you can’t beat the convenient location. The best part was knowing our lodgings were so close by after exploring the French Quarter. For a hip hotel experience, perfect for couples and families, plan a stay at the AC.
To book, visit www.marriott.com. ~ PS
For more information, visit neworleans.com.
Bayou Seafood Pasta
1 lb. cooked penne pasta
2 oz butter
1 oz minced garlic
1 lb. 36-40 shrimp
1 lb. crawfish tails
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 oz sliced green onions
1 oz white wine
1.5 cup heavy whipping cream
2 oz parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter and add garlic
Add shrimp and crawfish and sauté until shrimp turn pink in color
Add mushrooms and green onions
Deglaze the pan with white wine and continue cooking until most liquid is gone
Add whipping cream and cook until sauce coats the back of a spoon
Season to salt and pepper to taste
Add cheese and cooked penne pasta and mix well
Chef Steve Wells, Riverboat CITY of NEW ORLEANS, Steamboat NATCHEZ, New Orleans, LA