Long weekend in New Orleans

I’m all about taking every travel opportunity that presents itself. So, when my husband booked a work trip to New Orleans to attend a conference, I finagled a way to tag along.  I’d always wanted to see New Orleans but somehow had never gotten there.  Now I had no excuse!

I only had three days though – my teen son was spending the long weekend at a friend’s house.  I packed in as much as I humanly could, despite some challenges.  Here’s how I got to see a ton of stuff on the cheap and while mobility-impaired.

You know what doesn't work so great? Taking pictures out of the window of a moving tour bus.
You know what doesn’t work so great? Taking pictures out of the window of a moving tour bus.
Day 1: food, sightseeing, music, and a MAJOR FALL dammit

I got in about noon and was starving.  The hotel was just a few blocks from the French Quarter so it was a no-brainer to head that direction.  I could have eaten just about anywhere, since the tendency to “start with a roux” (e.g., butter and flour) meant that I’d have to juggle to avoid dairy wherever I went.   I ended up at Original Pierre Maspero’s for a muffaletta. It was pretty simple to ask for it to come without the cheese, got no complaints about the modification. It was wonderful – purists will scold that it isn’t the ‘original’ muffaletta, that I should have gone to the Central Grocery instead, but I was impressed.

Happy aside:  this is also where I discovered that you can order a beer and then take it to go when you leave the restaurant.  Oh New Orleans, you mad genius you!

Photo credit Simon Berube
Jackson Square park

The French Quarter in early spring is gorgeous.  It isn’t yet terribly hot and muggy, but it’s nice enough to wander all day.  This means it is also thronged with other tourists.  Which is fine, I don’t mind crowds when I’m moving well – you have to be at least people-tolerant to like urban travel I think – but I found it a bit overwhelming.  Jackson Square park was nuts.  Street performers doing their thing and busking for money! Artists displaying paintings all along the railings of the park! Thousands of sightseers everywhere drinking alcoholic drinks out of to-go cups the size of Big Gulps! And food absolutely everywhere.

It occurred to me that if I kept wandering around aimlessly I would likely not see much of anything, and I only had a few days. Plus, it had started to rain.  I’m tired and crabby, and I just want to sit down.  Normally I’m not sightseeing tour girl but I made an exception.   I chose to go with Cajun Encounters tours. Before I wax poetic – this isn’t a sponsored post, and I paid all tour fees myself. And I loved the tour I took – the City and Cemetery bus tour, which took us all over the city: Treme, one of the St. Louis cemeteries (though not the one with Marie Laveau’s tomb), the Garden District, the French Quarter, by the Superdome. Very strong tour with an experienced guide who gave information on each place but wasn’t cutesy or annoying about it. (Chipper, overly joke-y tour guides make me stabby.) The tour took hours, and included a good bit of time to wander around the cemetery and take photos. Fully disabled-accessible also. Our tour had several mobility-impaired persons and the tour pace was adjusted to fully include them without making an issue of it.

Above ground tomb in New Orleans cemetery
Above ground tomb in New Orleans cemetery

That evening we went to  Commander’s Palace for dinner, and hit Frenchmen Street for music and clubbing.  Bourbon Street gets all of the press and attention, but if you really want great music without the hype?  You want Frenchmen Street. We went to the Spotted Cat Music Club, wonderful music but a huge crowd and no real room to dance. We continued on to the Blue Nile, and I found my jam. Wonderful club! Plenty of space to dance, music was fantastic – the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio was officially my favorite New Orleans discovery and I came home with two of their CDs.   If I lived in New Orleans I could see making the Blue Nile a regular haunt.  Eventually we decided to wander back toward the hotel, but stop for beignets on the way.

That’s when circumstances combined to remind me that I have … issues … that must be accommodated when traveling. Cute shoes PLUS adorable little dress PLUS two beers PLUS cracked pavement PLUS dodging a tour bus full of drunken revelers ON TOP OF having spinal issues that can cause lack of feeling in my feet? Equals completely eating it in the middle of the street in New Orleans, apparently.

I went down so hard I was sure I’d broken my leg. I’ll spare you the bloody knee photos, but trust me: it was impressive. DH supported half of my weight as I limped up the street to the original French Market Cafe du Monde. Because goddammit: beignets.  I was hurt, not dead, and I was going to try them.

I originally promised myself I’d just order coffee, and take a bite from DH’s order.  But I was already in enough pain that I just said “fuck it” and ate two whole beignets instead of just a bite, lactose intolerance be damned. So worth it. If you’ve never had them, try them at least once if you can. Beignets are like donuts, but better. Less sweet, and less cake-like so lighter, but then positively buried under mounds of powdered sugar. Don’t inhale or exhale while taking a bite, or you’ll be coughing a white cloud and wearing half of your snack.

The rest of the night was a blur, I took painkillers and tummy meds and went to bed and slept like hell.

Beignets were still worth it.

Day 2: Lurching about New Orleans – voodoo, pedicabs, and a steamboat

When I woke up the next morning I couldn’t really walk. Which sucked, considering I had booked another tour – a WALKING tour of the French Quarter and cemeteries. Since my pace was now “sloth on quaaludes,” that wasn’t going to work. The nice people at Cajun Encounters waived their advance notice for cancellation once I explained my situation, and they gave me a 50% refund. (Shout out: you folks are awesome, thank you!) Then I sat for maybe ten minutes in the hotel room and cried and felt sorry for myself, then I went out to try to figure out how to salvage two days of a three day trip.

You know what you CAN do in New Orleans even when you can’t really walk much? You can take a Mississippi river tour on the Steamboat Natchez. Highly recommended – fully accessible for any level of mobility impairment, with both ramps and stairs and plenty of open space for wheelchairs as well as seating by railings and against walls. If I had known ahead of time I’d be booking, I might have gone for the brunch cruise. As it was, I got to listen to jazz while meandering down the river and sipping a cajun bloody mary.

Another pro tip for the mobility-impaired who aren’t in wheelchairs: pedicabs! Pedicabs saved me on this trip, for real. They were far less expensive than actual cabs, they let me feel like I was having an additional cool experience in the city instead of ‘missing out’ on being out on the street like any other person, and I used them to get me to clusters of things I wanted to see so I could then lurch along slowly and get my tourist on. If you take a pedicab and like the driver, get their card. You can then call him/her to pick you up if you start out on your own because you think you’re fine but then discover along the way that maybe, not so much. I am not sure about how wheelchair-user-friendly they are, but you might check with individual companies. I went with Bike Taxi Unlimited and had a great experience the whole weekend.

Caveat for for the mobility-impaired who aren’t using wheelchairs: New Orleans pavement is a challenge. I had a serious limp and needed to favor my back, and it was veeeeeery slow going.  I was constantly watching out for ruts and dips in the sidewalks. Still, worth the trip, I would have gone even if I’d known I was having a flare at the outset, but something to bear in mind when planning your itinerary and time. New Orleans is old, scenic, and ‘rustic’ right down to the sidewalks.  Everyone was super nice though – NO ONE snarked at me to get out of their way, sighed loudly because I was holding them up, or dodged abruptly around me. Several people, on the other hand, stopped on the street to ask me if I was ok or if I needed help.  Such a pleasant surprise for someone coming from the DC metro area, where if you stand in the wrong place on the metro escalator people scold you.

Get yer voodoo on!

Thanks to two pedicabs and some careful planning, I got to do my fill of voodoo tourism.  If you are a fan of voodoo or esoterica in general, I recommend the following:

  • The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.  720 Dumaine Street, New Orleans LA 70116. If I only had time to go to one voodoo location, and I couldn’t do a walking tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1, this would be my pick.  Admission is less than $10, there is no guide so you can linger and take the time you want, there are many voodoo altars to view and some you can leave offerings at if you wish (I would ask first).  Visitors are welcome to take all of the pictures they want. Coolest thing on display: Marie Laveau’s prayer bench.
  • For voodoo-related shopping or souvenirs, go to Voodoo Authentica. The products here are mainly the type that are used by practitioners, so you will want to purchase carefully and ask how to use what you buy. Shop staff are friendly and willing to talk with newbies and tourists no problem, so don’t feel like you aren’t ‘in the know.’  No pictures allowed. Right up the street from the voodoo museum,  612 Dumaine Street, New Orleans LA 70116.
  •  Esoterica Occult Goods, 541 Dumaine, New Orleans LA 70116. Great range of small batch products created by the shop’s owner. Try the various incenses, a tiny pinch goes a long way and you don’t need a charcoal round to burn them.
  • Want a more eclectic range of witchy products?  Go to Hex Old World Witchery, 1219 Decatur Street, New Orleans LA 70116. This shop had a bit more of a commercial-touristy feel to it, but was also exuberant, friendly, and fun. They have spell kits, offer psychic and tarot readings, there are tons of books about New Orleans-related esoterica and witchcraft or magic more generally. The day I was there the salespeople were so friendly and outgoing I wanted to hang out with them, but didn’t say anything because that would be creepy.
  • Next, go to Erzulie’s at 807 Rue Royal, New Orleans LA 70116. There are some funky gifts and souvenirs – tshirts especially recommended – ,but there are also some items and supplies for serious practitioners.  The manager at the time I was there was very professional but also very strict – there is NO picture taking in the store (apparently people steal formulas and ideas – who steals from someone who does voodoo? WTH?, but I digress) and not all items can be purchased by tourists who aren’t practitioners.  Ask before picking anything up.
Mother’s Restaurant: good food, long lines, zero ambiance

When I am moving badly, crowded spaces are more of a concern.  I can’t slip in and out among closely-spaced tables, and if I get bumped hard it can be an issue.  On my second night in New Orleans, after dragging my injured ass all up and down the French Quarter hunting for voodoo, I needed somewhere I could sit back and eat and not worry so much.

We decided to go to Mother’s Restaurant (401 Poydras Street), which bills itself as having the “world’s best baked ham.” There was a major line to get in which didn’t thrill me, as standing was an issue.  I don’t recommend this if you cannot stand unsupported for 15-20 minutes. Also, the entryway seems to be ADA accessible, but I wouldn’t want to have to navigate the line in a chair if I didn’t really really really want ham.

Anyhow.

After what was basically forever and ever, I ordered the seafood gumbo with a side of red beans and rice.  The gumbo was fantastic – take lactaid if you avoid dairy! or skip! – and the beans and rice were some of the best I’ve had, but took a very long time to arrive at the table considering we’d already been in line about forty minutes total.  Skip the bread pudding though.  It looked to contain canned fruit cocktail and was a huge disappointment.

If you have mobility issues ask to be seated in the back dining room. It’s wide open and the tables are spaced far enough apart that working my way around without bumping things or people was a breeze.  That was a big positive, and made me forgive the wait for the food and the ambiance which is more ‘prison lunchroom’ than ‘great dining experience.’  Overall I don’t know if I would go there again, but I got my money’s worth and ate well.

Day 3: Jazz Brunch at the  Court of Two Sisters, art galleries, and Ole’ Saint

My last day in New Orleans was only a half-day, since I still needed to get to the airport and fly home. I decided to go to the Court of Two Sisters (613 Royal Street) for their famous Jazz Brunch. You DO want to call in and get a reservation.  It wasn’t hard for me to get one for that same day but I probably got lucky.  The wait to get in wasn’t terrible (there was a line but once in the building you could theoretically sit along the hall or at the bar for a bit).

This would be a great place to sit for a while and wait for your assigned reservation time slot.
This would be a great place to sit for a while and wait for your assigned reservation time slot.

When you get to the front of the line, you’ll be led to a seat out on the patio.   (Don’t just seat yourself like I did.  I sat in someone’s seat not realizing it .  Embarrassing!)  The patio is gorgeous, plants and trees and hanging fairy lights are restful and lovely.  Order coffee,  then wander back inside to the chef’s stations and cold buffet as many times as you like.

You are going to EAT.  This was my one meal of that day before getting onto the plane, and I was fine.  The brunch isn’t cheap but the variety was perfect, so I could eat my fill and wasn’t stuck with just eggs and fruit.  It would be reasonably easy for someone with non-religious food restrictions to find at least a few dishes to eat.  I don’t recommend coming here if you try to keep kosher or have a shellfish allergy though, as there were shrimp just everywhere – gumbos, big bowls on ice, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting shellfish.

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So. Much. Food. And you can’t even see the carving station and omelet bar that is to the right of the center display with plates!

After brunch, I set out on Royal Street.  Royal is full of art galleries and antique shops.    I recommend that you a point of stopping by the Red Truck Gallery (938 Royal Street) if you like modern or outsider art! I spent thirty minutes here, and it is a small gallery.  Plus if you decide to purchase something you can pay at the gallery and then have them ship it to your home address. Much better than trying to figure out how to get a new piece of art through airport security and baggage claim safely!

I also popped into Ole’ Saint (132 Royal Street) for a bit. I was full from brunch so didn’t order food.  I *did* have space for beer, as I have a separate beer stomach, so I tried tasters of several of the local offerings. They had a nice selection of craft brews from Louisiana and Mississippi, including some brewed right in New Orleans, along with offerings from further afield. Highly recommended for beer lovers. Ask about getting custom mixes if you are feeling adventurous. The bartender while I was there mixed Abita Andygator and Purple Haze for me, which is called a “Barney.” Not something I’d drink regularly, but fun to try.

What I missed this trip, but have on the list for next time

When I travel I research ahead of time as much as possible, and I always have a list of things I really want to do.  Of course then I never get to do them all.  Here are the places that I wish I’d been able to hit – but that just mean I’ll have to go back to New Orleans (darn):

  • The Upperline Restaurant,  argued to be the best in New Orleans
  • The tomb of Marie Laveau. Sadly, because of vandals, now you have to be on a tour to get into the cemetery where it is located
  • Drink some of the infused vodka out of the vegetable-filled dispenser carafe (onions! olives! sundried tomatoes! green beans! okra!) at the Creole House Restaurant
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I mean GOOD LORD just look at it!
  • Take a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking.  You can watch a demonstration and then try the food, or do a hands-on cooking class.  The dishes vary and you can see what you are signing up for before you reserve a spot.  I love to cook, even to cook things I can’t myself eat, so this is a definite priority for me.

Did I miss anything awesome, New Orleans natives and experts?  Chime in, and I’ll add it to my list for next time!

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