Sunday, September 19, 2010

PHOTO ESSAY: New Orleans

Apologies in advance for what's sure to be a much-too-long post, but I'll promise not to make it sound too much like "What I Did On My Summer Vacation."

Last week, on family business, my wife Jamie and I drove to Lake Charles, Louisiana, a straight shot south from Kansas City almost all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Since Lake Charles is only about three hours west of New Orleans, we decided to take the week and spend some time in the Big Easy.

In the six years, 364 days of our marriage (that's right - our seven-year anniversary is tomorrow, Sept. 20), this is the biggest vacation Jamie and I have taken since our honeymoon.

Since I have been accused of being a serial planner when it comes to travel, our plan for this trip was not to plan, only to make hotel reservations in the French Quarter and go where the wind took us.
From Lake Charles, you can take the quick, easy route to New Orleans via Highway 10, but we decided to detour south, through the bayou, on Route 90. This took us through some backwoods. I'm talking deep backwoods, the kind of places you only see in movies.

Off the highway we saw a sign for the TABASCO factory. The place where they make the sauce. I pulled off, thinking we'd just drive by the place and see what it was all about. Once we left the highway we noticed it was six miles out of the way. I was ready to drive on, but Jamie convinced me to head toward TABASCO-land.
What a smart cookie my wife is.
The six-mile drive took us to Avery Island, Louisiana, and in fact it's the place where all TABASCO Sauce is made. We had to pay a one-dollar toll to drive onto the island.

Our first stop was not the factory, but instead a place called Jungle Gardens, which was built by the McIlhenny family decades ago. It's basically a bayou nature preserve.

The place is absolutely stunning. They have tons of native plants and trees, including many covered with beautiful Spanish moss:

They have lots of alligators:

And they even have a 900-year-old Buddha statue with a fascinating back story:

Then we made our way to the TABASCO factory. It was your standard, run-of-the-mill factory tour, but the TABASCO country store was cool.

They gave lots of free samples, including some unique concoctions. A word of warning: Never, ever, under any circumstances, no matter what anyone else tries to say, NEVER taste TABASCO ice cream. NEVER EVER EVER! It's quite possibly the most vile thing I've ever eaten. On the other hand, a few drops of TABASCO in a Coke makes for a surprisingly refreshing beverage.

I would go back to Louisiana just to visit Avery Island.

Then we made our way to New Orleans.

Our hotel, the Hotel St. Marie, was in the French Quarter, on Toulouse, a half block off Bourbon Street. It's the off-season now, so the room was only about 60 bucks per night. Hell, you can't get a Motel 6 in Blue Springs for sixty bucks. The kicker, though, was the parking fee of $28 per night. It was worth it, though. Everything in the French Quarter was in walking distance.

Our first impression of the French Quarter was that it's pretty much a smelly, disgusting hole. The garbage smell was overpowering at times. That's not surprising; there's really no such thing as a "week night" on Bourbon Street. I can't imagine what it would be like during Mardi Gras.

Most of the bars along Bourbon Street are targeted at frat-boy, bachelor-party types, and the places were much, much sleazier than I imagined they would be. We learned a lot about human anatomy and subtlety in advertising. One establishment advertised to the masses via people holding signs emblazoned with the words "TITS 'n' WHISKEY."

The two famous drinks in New Orleans are the Hurricane and the Hand Grenade. My impression of these drinks and others in the French Quarter are that they're expensive, overly sweet and fruity, and not nearly as strong as people would like to think. I discovered this through rigorous testing over the course of our stay.

Our best drinking experiences were at the bars off Bourbon Street, the places that aren't quite flashy enough for the other tourists. Once or twice Jamie and I found ourselves as the only customers in some of these great local haunts.

We had some terrific food, including, of course, gumbo, jambalaya, poboys and etouffee. Jamie even found a handful of vegetarian options. And for breakfast one morning we ventured to Cafe Du Monde, known for their chicory coffee and beignets:

My favorite experience from New Orleans was buying a book. I purchased a copy of William Faulkner's "Soldier's Pay" at a little bookshop on Pirate's Alley. The shop used to be a house, and William Faulkner lived in that house when he wrote "Soldier's Pay."

That book will always be a cherished keepsake for me.

New Orleans is a dirty, stinky, wonderful place. I don't know if we'll ever go back again. But I'm sure as hell glad we went this time.

-- Matt Kelsey

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