Well, that was one of our all-time favourite trips. Here’s the play-by-play:
I’d been dreading our American Airlines flight. The last time I took American (>10 years ago) I told myself I’d never fly with them again, but we didn’t have a choice this time. But it really wasn’t too bad at all…our flight left on time and got us to Dallas in plenty of time to eat a pretzel and tacos, lounge on some recliner-ish airport chairs, and make our connection to New Orleans.
Our hotel, the Avenue Plaza Resort in the Garden District, ended up being bigger than we thought too, and not quite as ugly as the website’s pictures suggested. So the low-expectations part of our trip had both turned out pretty well. So far so good!
It was already pretty late, so our plans that night were simply to try out the Avenue Pub just down St. Charles Avenue. How lucky that our hotel was five blocks from one of the best beer places in North America. CBJ+M — our traveling companions — staked out a little table upstairs, and we drank our fill of excellent beer, ate dump truck fries (waffle fries with pulled pork and cheese) and red-beans-and-rice wontons, admired the cool art and saw our first of many “Free Sean Payton” shirts. If you don’t know who Sean Payton is, this will help.
And then, boom…we crashed.
Late to bed, late to rise. We gathered in the morning to test out the Trolley Stop Café, just a few steps from the hotel. It was already busy, and got busier before we left. The place was fairly famous on Tripadvisor for having big portions of yummy, cheap food. And Tripadvisor was not wrong. I had bacon and french toast and country sausage and eggs and grits (for the first time ever) for $6.75. Seriously. We all stuffed ourselves and were well-entertained by our server.
We jumped on the St. Charles Streetcar (don’t call it a trolley, no matter what the cafés tell you) and headed for the Central Business District, and walked from there into the French Quarter. At this point I should point out that Saturday ended up being a near-record high temperature for that time of year in New Orleans. Sunday and (part of) Monday were the same. And I should also point out that all I’d packed were jeans and dark tshirts. So walking around was getting a little toasty. Anyway. We deliberately avoided Bourbon Street; Nellie had never seen it, and we wanted her to experience it in its full glory that night. We did see a bit of Royal Street, Chartres (which is not pronounced how someone might think if they’ve been to Chartres, France…which I have…so I mispronounced it all weekend), Decatur and more. We saw ESPN setting up their analyst studio and walked along Jackson Square before splitting up. Nellie and I walked along the river, cooled down with a pint at the Crescent City Brewhouse and then walked along Royal and Chartres some more and checked out a cool little shop called Idea Factory. If we’d had a little more time we would have checked out Faulkner House Books as well. Both were recommendations from the Rather guide to New Orleans. Seriously, if you’re visiting a city for the first time and want to find interesting places, buy one of these books.
We met back up with CBJ+M for a late lunch at the Napoleon House, a building which, so the story goes, was to be a home for Napoleon if a plot to extricate him to New Orleans had gone off, and has been a bar since prohibition — by the looks of things the decor hasn’t changed much since the 30s. But the food (jambalaya for me, po’boys for everyone else) and drinks (Pimms cups, mainly) were tasty. We sat on the leafy back patio next to the koi pond and thanked the maker for the giant fan blowing directly at us.
At this point it was time to get to our real reason for being in New Orleans: the NCAA finals. Or, more accurately, the semi-finals on that evening. All day we’d seen fans walking around in Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas shirts; on the walk to the Superdome they became the norm and I, wearing a black Crywolf shirt, stood out. It obvious from the mass of humanity headed for the games that the stadium was huge, but I still kind of wasn’t ready for it. I sat down in my seat (after a long, steep climb) and took it all in.
Huge, right? 70,000 people were in those seats by the time the game started. Anyway, the games were fantastic: Kentucky/Louisville is a rivalry that’s hard to explain unless you’ve sat in the middle of it for two hours, while the huge Kansas comeback win over Ohio State was a classic game. At the end of each game, disappointed fans from the losing teams hurled commemorative seat cushions onto the crowd in the lower levels…luckily they hadn’t given out commemorative letter openers, or commemorative D-cell batteries. In retrospect we should have used our seat cushions to smack either the astronomically shrill Kentucky fan behind us (my ears are still ringing a week later) or the drunk Louisville chick in front of CBJ, who insisted on standing for the last seven minutes of the — very tense — game. On the plus side, we sat right behind a guy wearing, of all things, an Expos hat.
Seat cushions or no, our asses were sore after sitting for 6+ hours, so were happy to stand up and walk out of the stadium. We re-joined the mass of humanity and made for the French Quarter. Nellie was very excited to see Bourbon Street; about seconds into our trip down Bourbon Street she was very excited to leave. Seriously, it’s one of the most awful places on earth unless you’re a) an olympic-calibre drunk, b) a bead manufacturer or c) a street preacher.
We fled down Bienville to the corner of Decatur, where we found Industry Bar & Kitchen. It was an oasis in the ridiculous clubland that is the Quarter at night: a calm bar with great beer selection, early 90s alternative music on the speakers (okay, that might be more exciting for me than for others), and pizzas made and sold in the far corner. We stood at a table, drank our craft beers (NOLA Hopitoulas and Delirium Nocturnum for me, if I remember right), watched the hilarity of the quarter unfold outside the bar, and enjoyed the scene of the bartender building a tower plastic of cups on the head of a guy who’d passed out at the bar.
Tossing our beers in go-cups (you can walk around with open liquor, as long as it’s not glass, but even that doesn’t seem to be enforced) we walked over to Canal to catch the streetcar home. When that failed we tried to catch a cab. That wasn’t easy either, but we finally managed to snag one and bombed home.
Something we noticed after seeing the omnipresent New Orleans beads strung from every wire and railing on Bourbon Street was that they’re actually strung all over the city…any trees or horizontal edge along a Mardi Gras parade route is strewn with beads.
We didn’t have another giant Trolley Stop breakfast in us, so we grabbed a bite at the nice little Avenue Cafe next door. The food was good, and the wifi password was ‘bestcoffeeever’. I didn’t try the coffee myself, but…cute. Full, we jumped on the streetcar; three of us jumped off at Lee Circle and walked down Andrew Higgins Drive to the National WWII museum. You may recognize Higgins’ name — he was the man who designed the landing craft used during the Normandy landing and throughout WWII. The museum itself was very good: informative, well presented, with a good flow through the sequence of events that led to war, to America’s involvement in Europe and the Pacific, and to the conclusion of each. The end of the Pacific section, with pretty music playing over looping footage of Enola Gay loading and dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was particularly moving for me. I wish we’d stopped our visit there instead of heading next for Beyond All Boundaries, a 48-minute “4D” film produced by Tom Hanks. It was an interesting concept, what with the fake snow dropped on the audience during the Bastogne scenes, or the guard tower rising from the floor during the prison camp sequence, or the blinding flash of light and rumbling chairs representing the atomic bomb detonation, but…it was also pretty cheesy. Far more jingoistic, too, than the museum proper had been. Museums are meant to educate, not celebrate; the museum did the former, but Beyond All Boundaries felt very much like the latter.
By this point we were getting hungry, so we continued south from the museum to the corner of Tchoupitoulas where we found Cochon. Or rather, Cochon Butcher, the smaller and takeout-ier sister to Cochon, which was closed. The place was rammed with locals, always a good sign. The ladies stuck to salads, while CBJ and I each got a BBQ pulled pork sandwich (so! good!) with potato salad and a beer. I’ve had a lot of pulled pork sammies in my life, but that might have been my favourite…the quality of the meat was so good they didn’t even have to soak it in sauce, they just stuck some cole slaw in it. And the soft egg bun and the OOOOOOOOOOOKAY I’m drooling. Time to stop reminiscing.
The next step in the day’s plan was to walk back over toward the Quarter, and so we took a long shortcut (longcut?) through the Riverwalk, a cheesy indoor mall designed for cruise ship passengers but whatever…it was air-conditioned. Once we spilled out onto Canal we parted ways again, with CBJ+M heading off in search of some shirts and Nellie and I just wandering to the east. We checked out Bourbon Street again, just to see it in the daylight…yup, still awful. We tried some alternate streets, still heading east, and eventually reached the Marigny neighbourhood. We were close enough to Frenchmen Street to stop by another Beeradvocate-recommended bar: D.B.A.. They were temporarily closed for filming (fair enough, it was 4:00 on a Sunday afternoon) so we checked out the upcoming lineups at neighbouring bars (Kermit Ruffins? John Boutté? Clearly Frenchmen Street was a good place to hear live music; alas, not for us that night) and rested our tired feet in Washington Square before returning. And D.B.A.? Such a cool place. Obviously great beer selection, but good vibe with locals (the guy sitting next to me at the bar was named “Barnaby”, because it was New Orleans and of course he was), and swing-dancing class happening in the next room, and a pregnant bartender, and a sign that said “No Miller, Coors or Bud Lite. Get over it!”, and ‘drinkgoodstuff’ for a wifi password. Again…cute!
We were supposed to be meeting up with CBJ+M again soon, back at the Avenue Pub near our hotel, so Nellie put her remaining beer in a go-cup and we went outside to find a cab. As luck would have it one drove by the second we stepped outside. I ran to climb in, while Nellie — conditioned by years of banned public drinking — chugged her remaining beer and ran to the cab. The cabbie calmly informed us that it was perfectly okay to bring a go-cup into the cab, and Nellie cursed her cautious drinking habits (ha!) as we drove west. Through a funny string of conversation (in which Nellie learned where Kansas is) we ended up chatting with our cabbie quite a bit, who advised us on the best time of year to visit New Orleans (about 2 weeks after Easter, says he) and the ridiculous inconsistency of New Orleans street name pronunciation. He dropped us at the Avenue where we staked out a brilliant spot on the balcony and drank cold beer (my ginger-infused Japanese weissbeer was particularly good) in the heat of the late afternoon, waited for CBJ+M to arrive and tried to figure out a way to stay in that very spot forever.
We got cleaned and spiffied a bit before dinner at Coquette, a wine bar in the Garden District. What a find. We started with drinks (a phenomenal bacon-infused bourbon for me, a champagne/gin/lemon French 75 for Nellie) before getting on with the incredible food. My starter was pickled baby beets with burrata and duck ham (which is exactly as kickass as it sounds) and my main was duck breast with fennel & peas. Nellie, meanwhile, had fried gulf oysters paired with a glass of Chardonnay followed by cochon de lait (aka sucking pig), which my forkful or two (or six) told me was outstanding. I honestly can’t remember what CBJ+M got, except that CBJ got a cocktail called the Mutiny (blackstrap rum, spiced rum, lime, Angostura bitters, hot sauce) which was damned tasty. Our mains were paired with a 2008 Emeritus Pinot Noir from the Russian River. Then came an entirely unnecessary dessert of milk chocolate mousse with salted caramel and peanut butter sorbet. Nellie, preferring to drink her desserts, had a glass of Bordeaux instead. It was an incredible meal, one of the best we’ve had in ages, and it cost less than half of what we would have paid in Toronto. Which somehow made it taste even better.
We started packing Monday morning, knowing we’d have to get up at 3:45AM the next day (boo! hiss!) and not having much time that evening. But by late morning we were on the St. Charles streetcar one more time, this time jammed in like sardines, heading over to Canal. I stopped at one of the dozens of pop-up stores selling team tshirts and made a rare find: a) a Kentucky tshirt (there were only a few left anywhere) which b) wasn’t the same as the generic shirts being sold all over the city and c) fit me and d) was super-thin (which came in handy on a hot day like that). Score! We grabbed a little lunch and cooled off at Crescent City, then walked east along Decatur and west along Royal, stopping in the odd store and art gallery along the way.
Once we’d had enough shopping we decided to finally check out Bracket Town, part of the NCAA celebrations. We walked over to Poydras Street, then walked all the way back through the Riverwalk thingy, and then the whole length of the convention center (which is, like, half a mile long, goddammit) to Bracket Town. We thought there’d be some stuff in there that we’d enjoy. We were wrong. We regrouped after about 10 minutes, long enough for Nellie and I to toss down a couple of free Coke Zero samples, and then decided to go back to the adult part of town. But, uh, in a cab. We got dropped off at Café du Monde, ate some delicious & messy beignets as all good visitors to New Orleans must, and watched with concern as some storm clouds rose on the horizon.
Knowing we’d eventually have to walk toward the Superdome, and having confirmed that the weather forecast called for severe thunderstorms soon, we began walking back toward Canal. We stopped at our old friend Industry just in time; ten minutes after we arrived the rain started, and then it really started. Then came the lightning and thunder, some of which was so loud and so sharp it sounded like a gunshot. Seriously, the bartender came out of the back room when he heard it, ducked low to avoid flying bullets. We stayed out of the rain, drinking and eating pizza until most of it had let up. Still, it was time to go and the rain hadn’t stopped completely, so we knew were going to get wet. We ran to the Canal streetcar which took us most of the way there, but we still had to run the five blocks to the Superdome and…well, yeah. Wet.
The staff ushered us in through the underground parking ramps, high-fiving us as we ran in. You can imagine the humidity in a concrete parking structure during a thunderstorm in New Orleans, so it was pretty sporty in there. But hey, it was dry. We got to our seats in decent time, took in the pre-game excitement, and watched Kentucky storm out to an enormous lead over Kansas. Kansas made it close down the stretch, but Kentucky held on and took the championship. We watched with 70,000+ other people as fireworks exploded and confetti fell, as the team was interviewed and cut down the net, and (more or less) as they played “One Shining Moment” with the video montage. Pretty. Damn. Cool.
The walk home was nearly as wet as the walk there, so when the opportunity came to jump in a cab we took it. It was all-out piracy in the city by then; mysteriously, every cab meter in the city was malfunctioning and they could charge whatever they wanted. Whatever; we were home, and drier than we otherwise would have been. We packed our remaining stuff (including some very wet clothing, unfortunately), watched the ESPN highlights and commentary and tried, post-game high notwithstanding, to go to sleep for a few hours.
Our alarm went off at approximately stupid o’clock AM and we dragged ourselves into action. We’d pre-arranged a cab…or at least we thought we had. We actually ended up squeezing into an SUV with six other people, all bound for the airport. Turns out a lot of the cabs were making so much money into the wee hours of the previous night that no one was reporting for duty on Tuesday morning. Anyway, we thought leaving for the airport at 4:30 for a 6:00 flight would give us enough time, but as it was we just barely made it. My Nexus/Global Entry pass got us into the expedited security line, and from there we walked up to the gate with maybe five minutes to spare. If we’d been stuck in the (enormous!) standard security line we’d have missed our flight. Our flight to Miami was uneventful, apart from being full of Kentucky fans who look like they’d not bothered to go to sleep the night before. Also: wi-fi! I paid for access on both legs, MSY -> MIA and MIA -> YYZ, and will happily do it again if I ever get the chance.
We had originally been scheduled to return via Dallas; when American changed our flight to a 6AM departure via Miami we were pretty pissed but left with no alternative. However, we were pretty thankful when we arrived home and saw that all flights out of DFW — including CBJ+M’s flight, the one we were originally meant to be on — were canceled due to tornadoes in the area. So suddenly an early flight time didn’t seem like such a big deal.
We’ve been thinking about and planning this trip since last August when CBJ+M found out they’d won the Final Four tickets. Now that it’s over, we’re already thinking about when we’ll go back to New Orleans. We want to enjoy the city when it’s not full of tens of thousands of basketball fans. The food, the drink, the architecture, the friendliness of the people, the history…it all adds up to give the city so much character, and we want more of it. New Orleans, we’ll see you again soon.
Oh, and…Free Sean Payton!