Solo Destinations – New Orleans

Solo Destinations – New Orleans

New Orleans is both a vibrant 21st century major seaport and one of America’s most historic and unique cities. Having had family living there at various times, I had my first glimpse of New Orleans as a 12 year old. I was especially captivated by the St. Louis Cemetery with its above ground tombs reminiscent of campfire ghost stories and inscriptions in French making me glad to have done my homework. I was thrilled to see where Nancy Drew had bravely solved the crime of “The Haunted Showboat” and looked for modern day felons lurking around “Pirates Alley”.

Later as a college student visiting family in the summer, I had a different perspective, spending hours watching artists in the Brulatour Courtyard and taking free rides on the Mississippi River ferryboat. I was especially intrigued crossing the 23.83 mile Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, the longest bridge in the world with its own cloverleaf turnaround suspended high above the water.

It is one of the most “foreign” cities in the US as its architecture and history bear little resemblance to either US coast or heartland. From the time of 16th century Hernando Cortez, the Spanish and then the French traded back and forth being the dominant colonial power in the region. New Orleans later became a part of the US after Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in the early 19th century.

Jean Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville of Montreal is credited with founding New Orleans in the prior century. Cajun settlers primarily from eastern Canada followed as the Mississippi River became a major commercial route to the Delta. Its initial American fame dates largely from the oft-forgotten War of 1812. Although the Treaty of Ghent had officially ended the war, Gen. Andrew Jackson subsequently led his troops to a decisive US victory over the British. He is now commemorated by a life-sized statue dominating the fabled Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. Andrew Jackson now squarely faces the St. Louis Cathedral, North America’s oldest cathedral and a key sight in the Quarter.

This multifaceted city has also been famous for its annual Mardi Gras, nightlife on Bourbon Street, world-class cuisine and as the birthplace of jazz. In addition, it features sedately elegant antebellum homes and nearby bayous lined with Cypress trees veiled in Spanish Moss. The floods during Hurricane Katrina were heartrending as New Orleans’ location on the Mississippi River made it vulnerable once again to heavy flooding.

For tourists, New Orleans has four distinct sectors to visit: 1. The French Quarter or “Vieux Carre” (the “Old Square”), 2. Garden District, 3. Graceful ante-bellum homes and 4. Bayous.

The French Quarter is the heart of both historic New Orleans and its well-publicized nightlife. Revelers may start their evening sampling a rum drink from a Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Glass. Just next door, for authentic local jazz the top venue has always been Preservation Hall although it was closed for sometime after Katrina.

From Jackson Square, it is a short walk to the Café du Monde open 24/7 and offering a strong cup of coffee and its famous beignets. As you stroll through the Quarter, you may catch a jazz funeral winding its way through the streets. For more traditional interests and shopping, Royal Street is filled with top antique shops. Also on Royal, the Brulatour House is in the process of being converted to a French Quarter museum. Aside from the fame of his family home at 520 Royal, Pierre Brulatour was one of the founders of Universal Pictures and possibly Orson Welles’ inspiration for Citizen Kane. At the base of Royal Street is the luxurious Hotel Monteleone, family- owned since the 19th century.

Its colorful above-ground cemeteries or “Cities of the Dead” are necessary because of the low sea level/high water table. Inscribed in French, tombs tell a history of their own. Only walking distance from the Quarter is the most famous, the St. Louis Cemetery.

Moving on to the Garden District, elegant homes are surrounded by ornamental wrought-iron fences. I was especially enchanted by one such fence entwined with metal depictions of yellow corn cobs. The St. Charles streetcar gives easy access from downtown New Orleans. (The “Streetcar Named Desire” made famous by Tennessee Williams has now become less poetically the “bus named Desire”.) One of the most famous sites in the Garden District is a long-time top New Orleans restaurant, Commander’s Palace, owned by the Brennan family. My first memory was going to brunch on the patio while being greeted by a squawking toucan perched inside a tall white Victorian birdcage while more recently sitting on the (fortunately) enclosed patio watching a torrential downpour. It is one of the New Orleans restaurants with real staying power as past leaders, such as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s, are being eclipsed by newcomers. In any case, seafood, especially with a Cajun flavor, tops the local menu favorites. My personal preference is for Crayfish (say “Crawfish”) Etoufee.

Next on the tour must be the elegant antebellum homes outside the city. The Ormond plantation and at least 11 others flourished with the growth of cotton and commerce along the Mississippi River. Lastly, New Orleans is famous as bayou country. Those local swamps or marshes are a favorite for tourists looking for a glimpse of local wildlife. Once inhabited by pirates, today they are the home of perhaps equally dangerous denizens, alligators that can grow to 18 feet and snakes that slither by. Perhaps more welcoming are the myriad of turtles, colorful birds and even occasional bears.

The best times of year to go are spring and fall to avoid summer’s humidity or winter’s chill, the latter perhaps being better tolerated by Sugar Bowl fans! Although New Orleans is most famous for its annual pre-Lenten Mardi Gras, spring brings both the popular Jazz Fest and the Annual Spring Fiesta and Historic Home Tour. As always, look at off-season specials for best pricing for solo travelers and start your plans for the next spring season.