Cruising the bayou in outlying New Orleans – who knows what spirits are lurking...
I’ll be honest – from my four-day weekend in NOLA, I wanted three things: voodoo, ghosts and Hurricanes. And I wasn’t disappointed.
My first glimpse of Bourbon Street was a little disappointing – trashy bars, uninspiring cover bands, soulless strip clubs and endless strings of those tacky Mardi Gras beads.
Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo sparked my interest briefly until I stepped inside; a whole shop of poppets and hexes, yet they rely on passive-aggressive "no photo" signs to evoke fear in the disrespectful tourist? Yawn. That ain’t voodoo.
Thankfully, we stopped for dinner at the sublime Olivier’s Creole Restaurant on Decatur Street. May I recommend the taster plate of gumbo, blackened fish, jambalaya, breaded catfish and delicious homemade honey bread. And try the house-special Hurricane cocktail with fruit-infused rum. The first Hurricane of the trip – loved it.
I spent several studious hours on the flight over making a map of the eeriest city sites and promptly lost it, but instinctive wandering (via the praline stall in the French Market, oui oui) took us to a place that has been on my list for a while – the mansion of serial killer and sadistic socialite Madame Delphine LaLaurie on Royal Street.
Her atrocities are well-recorded so there is no need to revisit them here, but I will share this: when I was 15, I watched a horror film, The St. Francisville Experiment, that vaguely references LaLaurie’s crimes. It is absolute trash, but still left a dark stain on my sanity.
And hidden among the beautiful facades of the Ursuline Convent walls and hanging garden balconies is the unassuming house where these terrible events took place. Looking up at the elegant windows and rooftops where an unfortunate slave girl was chased to her death, it wasn’t hard to imagine the bitter remnants of LaLaurie’s legacy, curling a ghostly chill around my shoulders.
We tore ourselves away from the mansion and headed up Rampart Street to St. Louis Cemetery #1. Rows of ancient tombs and gravestones cut angular paths through the cemetery, like narrow back alleys. Stone angels with folded hands overlooked the dead like watchful keepers (left). A black cat slept curled up in an monolithic vase like a familiar.
Some of the tombs were decorated with beads and candles, but the offerings at the rumored resting place of Marie Laveau herself were much more lavish – photos and coins, candy and prayers written in charcoal. A bone, about the length of a human femur, wrapped in colourful ribbons. Hard not to feel a little freaked out by that.
Some of the offerings at famed voodoo priestess Marie Laveau's tomb.
The uneasy feeling followed us back down Rampart to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. This was more like it. Gris-gris amulets, powdered cat claw, loco-miroir designs and skulls wrapped in dollar bills – just how I imagined.
We met the delightful Priestess Miriam Chamani, who proudly showed us her collection of bone runes and her docile python, joking about the stars she planned to paint on the ceiling to add a more cheerful atmosphere. I do not consider myself a particularly spiritual person, but the vibe in Miriam’s temple was joyous and accepting. She clearly welcomes the curious.
On the way back to Jackson Square, we stopped at the more touristy Historic Voodoo Museum. Now, I had no way of gauging the authenticity of the exhibits, but they were certainly fascinating. Portraits of Marie Laveau and her daughter, a zombie whip (for whipping zombies, surprisingly), a "rougarou" (a Louisiana werewolf – this one had a gator head) and a shrine to their poor, departed python. Snakes are obviously big business in New Orleans.
We finished our sinister day at the world famous Café Du Monde. It was definitely worth the wait for the chicory coffee and beignets (sumptuous deep-fried pastries).
The following day, after a hearty breakfast at Johnny’s Po-Boys on St Louis Street (the bacon and egg po-boy is to die for), we headed into the swamp with Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Tour. Our swamp tour driver took us through the Lower 9th Ward, pointing out shotgun houses (the front and back doors are aligned so you can fire a gun right through) and broken homes covered by vines.
We passed abandoned hospitals, schools and even a desolate Six Flags. But the area was far from empty; we saw residents still patching up the remnants of homes and lives. Our driver shared his own sad story – he lost his home, business and everything to Katrina and the bayou.
It was a sobering sight, but I’m grateful to have seen this side of NOLA. It's a far cry from the bustling smiles in the French Quarter.
The swamp was freezing as our boat chugged among the stately cypress trees, marked with the higher levels of swamps past. We saw herons, red-tailed hawks, and turkey vultures picking at a bloated deer corpse, but no gators (apparently it was too cold for them).
On our way back to shore, we passed buckled homes slipping into the bayou, upturned shrimp boats and crab-catchers left to rot. The swamp was fun, but it was more interesting to see the real ghosts of New Orleans among the murky reeds.
It was our final night in the city, so we celebrated with cocktails and live music on Frenchmen Street. Determined to see something reptilian, I ordered deep-fried gator and it was hideous – chewy, tasteless, with a hint of fishy rubber. Another Hurricane helped it go down and a third pretty much obliterated the memory, and after that the night got a little hazy and is probably best not repeated here. The Hurricane is a strong and sirenous mistress, let’s leave it at that.
New Orleans might have beaten me, but I am counting the days until I can come back for another healthy dose of ghosts, voodoo and the spirit of the Hurricane.