New Orleans. The Crescent City. NOLA. The City That Care Forgot. N’awlins! If you’ve never been to New Orleans (pronounced New Or-luns rather than New Or-leans to avoid being pegged for a tourist straight away), I’m going to do my best to bring her to you. I first fell in love with this city 5 years ago when my husband surprised me with a trip to celebrate my 40th birthday. Unbeknownst to me, he had collaborated with our best friends, Scott and Wendy, to meet us there, whom we’d met years ago right after we married, living below them in our very first apartment in Columbia, SC.
It was a fast and easy friendship for us at a time when I wasn’t really looking for friends. New to motherhood, pursuing a career in interior design and figuring out marriage and adulthood all around seemed to be a full time gig. Our husbands had common interests in playing basketball and golf; we began watching Friends together every Thursday night during NBC’s Must See TV, complete with a spaghetti dinner, one of the few meals either of us young brides knew how to make at the time.
Wendy played second mother to our daughter Lucie, which was invaluable help and support with our families living so far away. In the end, we bought houses side-by-side, had babies together, even ended up in the same hospital room just months apart when our daughters were born, Amelia and Olivia, who have grown up knowing each other always and remain wonderfully close friends. We added two more little girls to the mix, Sally then Ella and even went as far as adopting our dogs, both Maltese, brother and sister, from the same breeder during the same year.
There is more common ground, but this is starting to sound weird.
It wasn’t long before jobs and circumstances took us in different directions, geographically speaking. Scott and Wendy moved back home to be near family, as did we, but our bonds of friendship have stood the test of time.
So on the birthday trip to New Orleans, 5 years ago, Scott and Wendy were waiting for us in a lounge off of the hotel lobby. It was one of two times in my life when I was truly surprised. I was so caught off guard, completely shocked at the sight of our dearest friends serendipitously standing in the same hotel, in the same fabulous city, I cried like a baby and peed my pants at the same time.
I wish I were kidding.
We all went on to have an unforgettable time and Tom and I started planning our next visit before the birthday trip was even over. So imagine our surprise and delight when we got word that after years of military service, Scott and Wendy's family were being relocated to New Orleans! We’ve had the good fortune to make the trip to visit them twice since.
New Orleans is situated between the mighty Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. We all watched when on August 29, 2005, the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina caused approximately 23 breaches in drainage canal and navigational canal levees and floodwalls, flooding and ravaging 80 percent of the city and outlying parishes (Louisiana is 1 of 2 states to have parishes rather than counties) while miraculously sparing the heart of the city, The French Quarter, with all its rich history and nuances of Bourbon St, Royal St, Magazine St and the Garden District, St. Louis Cathedral, Cafe du Monde, the French Market and some of the oldest architecture in our history still standing. The aftermath of Katrina has a living presence here and it seems impossible when talking with the locals for it not to come up. To me, there seems to be ‘before Katrina’ and ‘after Katrina’ and everyone has their story.
I don’t think New Orleans is for everyone. I’d once heard her described so perfectly as ‘an elegant woman with dirty fingernails’. With many sections of the city situated below sea level, you can’t quite catch a breath of fresh air here. It’s a mixture of stale beer, urine, garbage and a little bit of marajuana mixed in. They wash and hose it away every morning, but, really, it has no place to go. And NOLA makes no apologies for this. You can love her or leave her, if she's not your cup of tea.
That’s why I love it here. There is just a shameless, unapologetic sinful pride about everything New Orleanian. The City That Care Forgot is home to its signature Hurricane drink, voodoo, jazz, poker, Creole cuisine, Mardi Gras, beignets, legendary vampires and ghosts, haunted places, drive-through daiquiris, cemeteries with above ground tombs, along with it’s share of grave robberies, po-boys, daily parades for the seemingly helluvit (weddings and funerals alike), and the sexiest American accent in the country, if you’re asking me, Harry Connick, Jr.
The city has its own authenticity and vibe. While there is plenty of Spanish and French influence here, you won’t find anything typical or reminiscent of other U.S. cities. Not much is borrowed from anywhere else. It’s all theirs, baby.
They have 4 seasons here: Shrimp, Oyster, Crawfish and Crab. At first glance you’d be hard pressed to find a plant-based option on any menu in New Orleans with restaurants offering their rich signature dishes of Gumbo, Jambalaya, Andouille, Crawfish Etouffee, Shrimp Creole, Muffuletta, and Oysters Rockefeller. But it’s not impossible. Staying with friends makes things easier by cooking meals at home, while generally eating out once a day. I’ve had great options at local restaurants such as jerk vegetable tacos, black beans and plantains, vegetarian Cajun stew, Jane Deaux braised greens tacos and in the one case when the restaurant did not offer a vegetarian option I was able to use my shop-the-sides strategy, ordering a plain baked potato, side salad and grilled asparagus.
Personally, I don’t normally seek out vegan restaurants when traveling. Not wanting to force that decision for my fellow diners, I tend to do pretty well at mainstream places and find many vegan restaurants use highly processed “fake” meats and other ingredients I only enjoy as the occasional treat. If you’re planning a trip to the Big Easy and want to check out the vegan scene, PETA has compiled a list of eateries for you here.
Shop-the-sides when the menu is lacking vegetarian or vegan options!
Finding yourself with a few days to burn here in New Orleans? Here are a few of my recommendations for taking in much of what this great city has to offer plus a few
off-the-beaten path local highlights:
Cafe du Monde: Start here in the morning at the original French Market stand for the city's famous coffee and beignets.
The French Market: Take a stroll through 6 blocks of farmers market, flea market , local food and drinks; open 7 days a week.
Royal Street: Wander through colorful art galleries and classy boutiques featuring local artists and enjoy live music in every direction.
St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square: Check out the city’s most prominent landmark, St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States. Take in a walk around the square with its local artists, fortune tellers, street performers and live music.
Pat O’Briens and Bourbon Street: Get your Hurricane here while enjoying the courtyard and ambience of NOLA’s pre-Prohibition bar and piano lounge. Bourbon Street isn't my favorite scene, but it's a worth taking a peek and sets the bar for people watching. #wow.
Voodoo Authentica: Don’t bother with the other touristy voodoo shops if you’re curious about New Orleans voodoo, or its cultural form of Afro-American religions developed by enslaved West and Central African populations in Louisiana. These people seem to be the real deal and can sort out what you think you may already know about these religious folkways and traditions.
St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square
The National WWII Museum: Formerly known as the D-Day Museum, this military history museum is located in the Central Business District of New Orleans. It’s pretty impressive and a great way to spend the morning or afternoon.
New Orleans’ Streetcar: Take a ride on the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. I recommend taking the longest of the lines, St. Charles Avenue, getting on in the Garden District and riding all the way through the Quarter.
The Rum House: Located on Magazine Street in the Garden District, this is a popular restaurant for great Caribbean food and tacos. Try the Jerk Vegetable tacos and their signature drink, the Painkiller, a good remedy for all the walking you'll be doing.
The Bayou Beer Garden: More of a local scene, this oddly connected property is complete with its charming lit patios, beer and wine bars and meandering pathways. Kind of a fun way to do some people watching and take in a game or two.
Taceaux Loceaux Food Truck: We first learned of New Orleans' beloved taco truck when it was featured in Anthony Bourdain's The Layover in 2013. It’s easiest to keep up with them via social media...I follow on Instagram @tlnola where they post their location. We caught up with them at Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar.
Taceaux Loceaux offers several vegan options regularly.
John Laffite’s Swamp Tours: Located only twenty-five minutes from New Orleans in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Jean Lafitte Swamp and Airboat Tours explore Louisiana's back country along its meandering bayous abundant with wildlife and exotic plant life. Trained navigators escort you into the murky waters of Louisiana swamps where you will come face to face with the beauty and beasts of nature. We got lucky on this trip to watch a bald eagle feed her babies in a nearby nest. We saw plenty of alligators and turtles of all ages and even caught sight of a feral pig wandering around the bayou.
John Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve: FREE. Just up the road from John Lafitte’s Swamp Tours, this preserve protects significant examples of the rich natural and cultural resources of Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta region. We walked the nature trails through the Barataria Preserve seeing many local plant species and the occasional alligator.
Jeanmare and Cristy are creators and contributors of the Living Simply Nourished Blog. Grab a cup of tea (or coffee!), find a cozy spot, scroll around, read some stories, find some inspiration, and enjoy!
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