I’m not a student anymore, but I still like to take a break in the spring to travel. My favorite place in the world to take a spring break trip is New Orleans. Who needs Paris in April when you can have New Orleans at a much lower cost and just as much fun? I recently spent a relaxing, magical week there filled with great food, great music and warm memories.
There are 56 festivals in Louisiana in April, and it’s probably the best time to visit weather-wise. The French Quarter Festival featuring local musicians usually precedes Jazz Fest by a few weeks. I missed both of these this year, but no matter; there’s never a shortage of great music in the Big Easy. There were loads of street performers and bands in the French Quarter. My favorite was the Smoking Time Jazz Club. They were selling their CDs for $10 as they enraptured onlookers with an energetic performance.
Lafayette Square near downtown was hopping on Wednesday night when Kermit Ruffins performed his magic with the trumpet. Perhaps the closest thing to a present-day Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, Ruffins came to national attention in the HBO series Treme. They’ve known about him in N’awlins for years.
Kermit is a showman and he had the crowd rocking at Lafayette Square with several electric performances. The expressions on the faces of the women dancing in front of me can only be described as sheer joy. Catch him Thursdays with his band The Barbecue Swingers at Vaughn’s in the Bywater district.
It can be overwhelming to choose from all the possibilities for musical performances when visiting New Orleans. But you can’t go wrong seeing Kermit play on Thursday at Vaughn’s. On Friday, head over to Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street to see Ellis Marsalis and his band. Take cabs to both locations if you don’t have a car, as walking there gets a little dicey after dark (especially to Vaughn’s).
Frenchmen Street has several jazz clubs, but Snug Harbor is a local favorite as they have quality jazz every night. Tipitina’s is a favorite uptown club on Napoleon Ave and Tchopitoulas near the river. Pick up a free copy of Offbeat Magazine to see who's playing where on which nights.
A perennial favorite for quality jazz is Preservation Hall on St. Peter’s near Bourbon St. Get in line by 7 p.m. to ensure a seat for the 8 p.m. performance. We stood in the back but it wasn’t a problem, as the club is very intimate. It’s next door to Pat O’Brien’s, where you can sample the legendary hurricane drink. I prefer the hurricane to the mint julep, which I tried for the first time.
Random comment overheard while walking through the Quarter: “Jim, I’m calling from New Orleans on Bourbon Street. Ask me if I give a crap about insurance right now. The answer would be no. Call me when I get back.”
I lunched at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, where Emeril Legasse and other world-famous chefs got their start. It was expensive, but what’s a trip to New Orleans without at least one splurge on a world-class dining experience? My waiter kindly invited me to take one of their colorful menus home as a souvenir. After a fabulous lunch, I exited through the kitchen where the head chef was filming a TV spot.
A block away from Commander’s at the Garden District Bookstore I bought two books of local interest. Both are highly recommended: Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza and Bayou Farewell by Mike Tidwell, which offers a look into the (nearly extinct after Katrina, Rita and BP) lifestyles of Cajun fisherman. Tidwell also touches on the necessity of coastal restoration in salvaging the wetlands and questions our budgetary priorities and national will to protect this part of the country.
On the way back to the streetcar, I took a picture of the Manning residence where Peyton and Eli grew up. A friend of mine, a huge football fan, laments that he walked right by without even realizing it. It’s a block from Anne Rice’s old residence in the heart of the Garden District. As the streetcar rumbled down St. Charles Avenue, I watched hundreds of beads hanging down from stately oak trees, the remnants of Mardi Gras in February.
I later journeyed to a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop uptown near the river named Domilise’s, which many locals believe serves the best oyster po’ boys in the city. You can get a great meal in the most nondescript joints in New Orleans. I even tried some crawfish enchiladas, a new one for me — not bad!
The city is still recovering from Katrina, but according to the locals I spoke to, many neighborhoods such as Lakeview are making progress. The exceptions are those in the low-lying flood plains such as the Ninth Ward. These may never fully recover. Down here, Katrina is referred to as a man-made disaster caused by the incompetence and negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers.
A local friend of mine and I ventured beyond the wrought iron balconies of the French Quarter to historic Congo Square in the Treme district, where slaves used to gather to sing and dance. Congo Square is sometimes called “the soul of New Orleans.” Renamed Louis Armstrong Park, it is currently closed to the public because of political squabbles.
We then entered the former site of historic J&M Studios on N. Rampart Street where several New Orleans musicians got their start. It is now a laundromat called the Clothes Spin with several plaques on the wall celebrating its rich history.
As we walked this area of town, called Storyville, my friend described the jazz funerals that are a tradition on these streets: “Life is celebrated and death is to be received in style. Everybody in this city knows what they’re going to be buried in. You want to look good in your casket.” She added, “We may not be able to bring our favorite things to the other side, but we’re going to try. We want to enjoy our lives today, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.“
My first two days in New Orleans were cloudless and free of the sticky humidity that enshrouds the area in the summer. It was perfect weather, but what’s a visit to New Orleans without a few drops, at least a touch of thunder and lightning? I got my wish for a little tropical downpour on my last day there. My trip would not have been complete without it.