Courir de Mardi Gras

Last November our friend CBJ asked us if we wanted to go to New Orleans to help celebrate his birthday. Of course we said yes. Through a series of misunderstandings we ended up not even being there at the same time, but we were still determined to enjoy the hell out of our return to NoLa.

Sunday

It was freezing cold when we left for the airport. Like, -39 with the wind chill — that kind of cold. Despite tiny hiccups with my Global Entry status, a food order, our take-off time, and a gate change, we were soon aboard and en route. I watched Fury (imdb | rotten tomatoes) and part of This Is Where I Leave You (imdb | rotten tomatoes) and then, boom: Louisiana.

We got into a cab, but because the parades had already begun we had a long, slow slog to the downtown core, creeping through the already-large crowds of people in the French Quarter. We had to walk the last few blocks to our hotel since there was just no way to cross Canal Street.

We finally got to Loft523, dropped our bags with the front desk, adjusted to being called y’all all the time, and walked to Barcadia for some lunch. Since it was about 18 degrees their front windows were open and, as luck would have it, facing onto the current parade route on Tchoupitoulas. Our first parade! We had amazing burgers and cold, local craft beer, and revelled in being on vacation.

Full, we walked back to the room to check in and clean up, then went back down to Tchoupitoulas to see more of the parade. At this point I believe we were watching the Krewe of Mid-City. We had fun watching the floats, marching bands, dance troupes, and musical acts rolls by, and realized how easy it was to accumulate beads. You kind of have to pay attention or they’ll smack you in the face. And no, no one flashes for them. Not outside of Bourbon Street, anyway.

We knew the Krewe of Thoth would be rolling soon, so we walked over to Canal Street for a better vantage point. We stood there for a few hours, yelling for beads and other throws, throwing little foam footballs back and forth with some guys across Canal Street, and so on. It wasn’t just tourists either — there were plenty of locals who came out to watch these parades, cheering on the kids in the marching bands, high-fiving the chaperones who walk with them, etc.

After getting changed back in our room we skipped back across Canal to the French Quarter for dinner, stopping first for a drink at Saint Lawrence — which pretty much instantly became our new favourite place in the Quarter. We had a couple of killer beers (like my Belgian Dubbel from Texas made with Japanese hops!) then walked the few minutes to Sylvain, where we’d made dinner reservations. It had gotten a bit chilly by local standards so most people sat inside, but we opted for a courtyard table. And why not? It was a good 50 degrees warmer than Toronto at that moment. We shared a “southern antipasti” plate, then Nellie had the pappardelle bolognese while I had the pork Milanese. We shared a chocolate pôt de crème for dessert too.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to go home before midnight, so we walked over to Canal to see a little bit of Bacchus (including what appeared to be a very hammered Gary Busey yelling into a microphone?) and went back to our new favourite place Saint Lawrence for one more beer.

New Orleans!

Monday

I let Nellie sleep in while I walked to Merchant for some coffee and breakfast, and then we geared up for Lundi Gras. We walked out to the French Quarter, to Royal Street, and just strolled around a bit. I looked for a hat. Nellie looked at bags. We picked out masks to buy later so we wouldn’t be the only ones without costumes.

We decided to have lunch at Café Amelie. Once again, we sat outside — they have a huge courtyard. Actor John C. Reilly, this year’s Bacchus parade marshal, showed up for lunch with friends. I had a beet salad and this amazing shrimp penne with corn and cajun spice; Nellie had cajun poutine. We didn’t even mind the few drops of rain.

We walked back to Pirate Alley and bought the masks, then stopped in at the Old Absinthe House to try…well, absinthe. I didn’t love it, to be honest, but it seemed like the thing to do. I also grabbed some coffee from Spitfire, which was awesome.

Our plan for watching the Lundi Gras parades was to head over to the Avenue Pub, our favourite spot from our last trip to NoLa. The St. Charles streetcar wasn’t running because of all the parades, so we walked there, and were actually a little schvitzy by the time we arrived. We grabbed a beer and chatted with the staff about the time I mailed the tip from Canada three years ago. At 4:00 they let us onto the 2nd-floor balcony overlooking the parade route, the perfect place to see the Krewes of Proteus and Orpheus as they rolled down St. Charles. And to sample some amazing beers, obviously.

At some point in the evening it began to pour down rain, but we stuck it out. Most people ducked back inside to wait out the rain, but we didn’t come to New Orleans to be put off by a little rain. Okay, a lot of rain, but we were prepared with jackets. We made friends with local couple Jim & Pam (seriously), and briefly with a woman from Manitoba. Poor Manitoba had had way too much to drink and ended up passing out by the bathroom, ultimately requiring paramedics to come and give her IV fluids. I’d like to think we salvaged the reputation of all Canadians through our good behaviour and general awesomeness. Still, at least one guy shook his head and muttered “Yankees!” under his breath. We settled up (we remembered!) and walked back to the hotel in what was now a very cold evening, past the strewn cups and beads and throws.

We’d hoped Cochon Butcher would be open, but it was locked up tight. We walked home along Tchoupitoulas, seeing a bit of the parade I’d missed while in the bathroom at the Avenue. We got home, dried off, took stock of all the beads and throws we’d caught, and changed into something dry before heading back out. Lundi Gras wasn’t over yet.

We stopped at Saint Lawrence once again for dinner & beers. Nellie’s wings were good but my fried chicken was out-goddamn-standing. After licking our fingers clean we walked to Frenchmen Street for some live music: Little Freddie King at d.b.a.. When we arrived he was playing “Baby Please Don’t Go” and I was in bluesy heaven. A perfect end to a perfect Lundi Gras!

Tuesday

Things got started early on Mardi Gras: Zulu started rolling around 8am, so we got up and walked up to St. Charles to see them go past.

By now it was freaking freezing. Okay, not Canada-freezing, but it was -3 with the wind chill, and we weren’t expecting that. We didn’t last long on the parade route, and anyway we were still tired from the night before. We walked over to the Quarter and had a terrific breakfast at the Café Fleur de Lis. Even though it was only about 10am we were starting to see lots of costumes now, and intricate ones at that.

We just couldn’t get warm though, so we walked back to the hotel. Nellie had a hot bath and felt better. I had a tiny nap, but really didn’t feel well. We went out for lunch at Ole Saint, but the jambalaya didn’t help. I kept feeling worse. I even had an espresso at Spitfire, but I still felt like cold ass. We kept walking around the Quarter to see more of the Mardi Gras festivities, like mini-parades along Royal and Chartres.

We finally stopped in at Industry, which I really liked last time we went to New Orleans, but…I just couldn’t. I didn’t have a pint in me, and the place was nuts anyway. Nellie got one to go and we walked back to the hotel. Mardi Gras was defeating me.

When we got home I had a bath, and it made all the difference. Turns out I just couldn’t get warm outside, and I’d forgotten what cold humid air felt like. Anyway, the bath saved me. We got dressed and went back out, cold be damned. A beer at Saint Lawrence fixed me up, and Nellie had her traditional King Cake in cocktail form.

We decided to see how Bourbon Street was faring, and it didn’t disappoint. The fact that it was so cold probably kept the crowds smaller and made it a bit more sane. We still got pelted by beads, and saw a chick kick a dent in a car right in front of a cop though, so there’s that.

Stay classy, Bourbon Street.

We returned home again, warmed up (again!), and got changed for dinner. We did the quick walk up to Borgne in the Hyatt Regency and had an excellent meal: jalapeño duck poppers and warm bread to start; oyster spaghetti for Nellie and black drum with crab meat for me, a bottle of Chenin Blanc, and apple cake for dessert. On our way out we heard that Young Jeezy was throwing a party upstairs, much to the bafflement of some of the Hyatt Regency patrons. We flagged a cab and swung back over to d.b.a. for some more live music.

Frenchmen Street was a zoo this time, but we still got in to d.b.a. to see the Treme Brass Band. We caught the last half of their set, which was tremendous fun to jump and sing and yell along to, especially when they had to teach everyone the words to “Li’l Liza Jane”.

With their warning — “Stay out of the Quarter, y’all…you come on vacation, but you’ll leave on probation!” — fresh in our ears we walked home along the edge of the Quarter to our hotel, as the cops cleared the streets at midnight. We crashed super-hard. Happy Mardi Gras!

Wednesday

No early morning parades today, but we still got up around 8am to head back to Merchant for coffee and breakfast. Nellie’s crepe was really good, as was my prosciutto, egg, and cheese croissant.

We’d arranged to be picked up that morning for an airboat tour of the Louisiana swamps. Our driver’s name was Big Joe, because of course it was. He drove us and about twenty other people down to Lafitte, and we got in a boat with a weird couple from New York and two friends from England. Our guide’s name was Jay, and he was full-blown Cajun. His family had come from Nova Scotia, just like mine.

Even with a sweater and a jacket, when he opened up that boat to full speed, it nearly froze us solid. We actually got windburn! We drove through wide channels and narrow, shallow bayous. We saw cranes and other big birds. We saw two young-ish alligators sticking their noses and eyes out the water, which was surprising at those temperatures. We even got to hold a 14-month-old alligator, which was pretty awesome.

Big Joe drove us back into the city, and we walked to Cochon Butcher for a late lunch. The sun had come out, and we sat outside eating pulled pork sandwiches and hot dogs and drinking cold IPAs. Finally New Orleans was warming to us.

We still had time to kill, so we walked to Café du Monde just to get a token beignet, but the line was a mile long, so we bailed. We walked up to Spitfire for proper coffee instead, then back through the (much calmer) Quarter to inspect the aftermath. By this point, my feet were a bit sore, and Nellie was knackered, so we didn’t last long. Back home she had a nap while I read a bit, and luckily we didn’t have far to go for dinner.

Luke was just around the corner, a NoLa-infused brasserie. I had my first Sazerac ever. We had a plate of HUGE oysters and a bowl of delicious (!) brussels sprouts. There was a mixup with our order but we somehow ended up with a surplus of crab, some of which made it into my pasta. Nellie invented a new dish which she called New Orleans poutine: fries covered with crab meat and hot sauce. We thought we had room for some bread pudding, but we left a bunch behind. We were done. Done done done. No live music on our final night — just relaxing, packing, sorting of beads, and sleep.

Thursday

I let Nellie sleep in a bit and went back to Merchant for one more coffee & croissant. I was hoping it had warmed up overnight so I’d have a nice walk there and back. It hadn’t, and I didn’t. Alas.

Our taxi got us to the airport where we used the new TSA Pre-Check line (so much faster!), and had one last beer and spicy sandwich before boarding. The flight home whizzed by; I finished watching This Is Where I Leave You and watched part of The Equalizer (imdb | rotten tomatoes) and then whammo: polar vortex.

We came home feeling like we’d really done the shit out of New Orleans. We’d seen Thoth and Orpheus and Zulu on St. Charles and Canal and Tchoupitoulas. We’d eaten amazing food in beautiful restaurants, and tried new beers in cool bars. We’d toured swamps, sung blues, caught beads, and walked Bourbon. I guess I regret not seeing any Indians, but by all reports it’s not an easy thing for two tourists to manage. Someday.

We love you, New Orleans. And, since it turns out next year Nellie’s 40th birthday falls on Mardi Gras next year, there’s a non-zero chance we’ll be seeing you again real soon.

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