A friend, planning her first visit to New Orleans, asked if it was a good idea to save some money by staying at one of the many hotels out in Kenner near the Louis Armstrong International Airport.
My answer? No way!
There are lots of nice hotels out near the airport, and if you've got business in that zone, it makes perfect sense to stay there. It's also sometimes a good idea to get a room near the airport for just the night before your flight, especially if you're flying out very early. But as a home base for a vacation? It's a terrible idea.
First off, there's very little public transportation that far out, and the buses that do run are slow, involve several route changes, and are generally just an enormous hassle, one that most vacationers don't want to deal with. Taxis from that distance are expensive (~$50 each way), and renting a car will likely cost more than the difference on a downtown hotel, not to mention causing you all sorts of hassle, parking-wise.
I'm a big advocate for staying in (or at least near) the French Quarter on your first trip to the city. Yes, it's sort of tourist central, but hey! You're a tourist! It's okay! It's fun to look out your hotel window and see the old buildings and their beautiful balconies, to be able to take a quick stroll to Jackson Square the minute you arrive in town, and to pop over to Cafe du Monde at any time of day or night. Also, let's face it, it's nice to be able to walk (or stumble) back to your hotel after you've spent a bit of time on Bourbon Street.
The French Quarter also puts you within walking distance of the fabulous Frenchmen Street in the Bywater, on the downriver side of the Quarter. If you want to go in the other direction, you'll be very close to Canal Street, where you can pick up the St. Charles Streetcar, which runs you out to the Garden District (home of, among others, the famous Commander's Palace restaurant and the elegant Lafayette Cemetery No. 1).
From Canal Street, you can also take a streetcar out to Mid-City, perhaps to visit beautiful City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art and Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
More to the point, if you need to save money on your vacation, this isn't the way to do it. There are so many free things to do in New Orleans, as well as cheap places to eat (many of which are right in the French Quarter). Save money on souvenirs by doing your shopping in a grocery store (and for that matter, save money on drinks by picking up a six-pack for the hotel room while you're there). Save money on taxis by walking or taking the aforementioned streetcars (they're a buck and a quarter per ride).
And you might be able to even save money on the hotel itself by getting on some mailing lists and waiting for sales to come through, watching deal websites like Groupon for bargains, or staying in a B&B or small inn just outside of the downtown area, but still within walking distance. Staying at the airport is just madness. Don't do it!
Travelers to Louisiana this weekend find themselves with quite the decision to make: the world-famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the slightly-less-famous Festival International de Louisiane, on the other side of the Atchafalaya Basin in the historically francophone city of Lafayette.
JazzFest is bigger. Attendance is much higher (for better and for worse), the big-name acts are much bigger (this weekend's headliners include Phish, Robin Thicke, and Eric Clapton), and there's just generally far more happening at any given moment. It also comes with a fairly hefty price tag: $70 per day at the gate, plus you have to buy all of your food and drinks inside. But it's JazzFest, and it's worth it.
Festival International is free. It takes place in the beautiful historic downtown of Lafayette on stages around the area. You can bring your own cooler or buy food and drinks from festival vendors. It's pretty likely that unless you're a world music or Louisiana music aficionado, though, you haven't heard of more than a few of the artists on the bill (this year's "big names" include Tinariwen, Bombino, The Duhks, and the Funky Meters). But it's a great place to discover something new and take in the flavor of a less-appreciated Louisiana city.
So which one am I choosing this weekend? Why, both, of course! I spent Friday at JazzFest, taking in some great local and regional talent, plus (from afar) rock legend Carlos Santana. I'll be back for all four days of weekend two (and live-tweeting any time I can find cell phone reception), but for Saturday and Sunday, I'll head to Lafayette (just a couple of hours of beautiful driving) to take in the fantastic free music on offer.
Why not do both, I ask?
And, of course, if you're in the tragic position of being able to do neither, you can listen to music from JazzFest streaming live throughout much of the weekend on WWOZ, and music from Festival International streaming live on KRVS. Or, of course, both!
Image: A Mardi Gras Indian at JazzFest 2014 / © Megan Romer, 2014
The French Quarter Festival is on!
Locals and tourists alike are flocking to the French Quarter this (long) weekend to catch over 1400 regional musicians playing on 21 stages tucked in every imaginable corner of the historic neighborhood. The best part? It's free!
The lineup is, admittedly, more than a little bit overwhelming, so your best bet is to just wander around the neighborhood and follow your ears. Still, if you want to catch some New Orleans legends, do make a beeline for Irma Thomas (today at 2:15 on the Abita Beer Stage in Woldenberg Park), Dr. John and the Night Trippers (Friday at 4:00 on the Abita Beer Stage), Russell Batiste & Friends with the Wild Tchoupitoulas featuring Jason Neville (Saturday at 2:00 on the GE Capital/New Orleans Tech Big River Stage, in the Audubon Aquarium plaza), and Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jr. and the Wild Magnolias (Saturday at 7:15 on the GE Capital/New Orleans Tech Big River Stage).
And that's just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Also among my local favorites: Bonerama (5:30 today, Abita Beer Stage), Corey Ledet (3:45 today, at the Chevron Cajun/Zydeco Showcase by the Bienville Statue on N. Peters St.), Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers (2:15 Friday, Abita Beer Stage), George Porter, Jr. (7:15 Friday, GE Capital/New Orleans Tech River Stage), The Lost Bayou Ramblers (2:00 Saturday, Chevron Cajun/Zydeco Showcase), Charmaine Neville (3:45 Saturday, Capital One Bank Jackson Square Stage), The Believers (Noon Sunday, BMI Songwriters Stage at the Historic New Orleans Collection), and Feufollet (3:30 Sunday, Chevron Cajun/Zydeco Showcase).
Plus about a hundred others. My cup runneth over, y'all.
The festival is free, but part of the deal is that you're not supposed to bring your own food into the scene, because food vendors provide much-needed income for the event. This is hardly a struggle, though, as many of the best restaurants and caterers in town are selling food, all of which is very reasonably-priced, especially by festivals standards.
In fact, the French Quarter Festival is a great place to get a sampling from many of New Orleans' best restaurants, without shelling out for a full sit-down service. Try the shrimp remoulade from Galatoire's for $8, the roast beef po-boy with horseradish cream from Boucherie for $5, a smoked duck and mushroom strudel from Broussard's for $7, fish tacos from GW Fins for $3, or a beef debris po-boy with truffle slaw from Restaurant R'evolution for $8.
Okay, now how fast can you run?
What are you most excited to hear and/or eat at this weekend's festival? Leave a comment and let us know!
Kermit Ruffins Photo © Derek Bridges / Creative Commons via Flickr
New Orleans is aswarm with fans of the WWE this weekend. They're in town for WrestleMania XXX, which takes place at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, April 6th. I admit that I don't know a lot about wrestling, but even I know that WrestleMania is a big deal.
If you're one of the thousands upon thousands of fans who've come to Louisiana to enjoy this event, I encourage you to make sure you take in a little bit of the city outside the Superdome before the events take place. There's so much to do, much of which is beyond Bourbon Street.
If you're feeling fancy, hit up one of our legendary old-line Creole restaurants (I'd particularly recommend trying to squeeze in a lunch at Commander's Palace, one of my favorite New Orleans experiences).
Not so fancy? Well, you've come to the right place. The French Quarter offers up lots of gourmet food on the cheap. If you're feeling adventurous and don't need the pretense of table service, seek out my own favorite po-boy shop, Verti Marte, and try the "All That Jazz" po-boy, dressed. Don't ask, just do it.
Looking to pick up some culture while you're in town? Check out one of our fantastic museums. The WWII Museum is particularly amazing, and there's a great Civil War Photography exhibit on at the New Orleans Museum of Art right now.
Or go see some music! Frenchmen Street is the place to go for live music on any given night of the week, with more than a dozen clubs offering up even more genres of music. Or seek out one of the city's great Cajun and Zydeco venues for music you almost certainly won't hear back at home.
And once you've seen a bit of the city, it's time to check out the main event. I don't have much advice to offer you on that front, but our About.com Pro Wrestling Expert, Eric Cohen, has basically everything you could possibly want to know covered at his WrestleMania Central. Have a great time and come back soon!
Mercedes-Benz Superdome Image © Megan Romer, 2014
One of the iconic New Orleans experiences, and one that I recommend to all visitors, is to hop the St. Charles streetcar at Canal Street and ride it all the way out to Carrollton and back. It's about an hour and a half round trip if you stay on the whole time, but you could spend a whole day jumping on and off and exploring some of the gorgeous neighborhoods and quirky hidden gems that are found on and near the streetcar line.
But even just the very act of riding, especially during the warm months when you can open the windows and feel the breeze on your face, is a pleasant experience. The rattling, clattering cars take you past some of the most beautiful domestic architecture in the world, and all for a buck and a quarter. You can't beat it.
At the moment, though, and for the foreseeable future, the streetcar experience is interrupted by some obnoxious but necessary track repair. For 10 or so blocks in the middle of the line (depending on where the construction actually falls and the practicality of starting and stopping streetcars at those points), passengers have to disembark, hop on a bus, and then hop back on the streetcar on the far side. It's a pain, yes, but it's still worth it, and you'll still get most of the streetcar experience.
The RTA claims that they're repairing approximately three blocks of tracks every ten days, which means they should finish by the end of the summer, but I wouldn't recommend counting your chickens before they hatch on that one. Hopefully they're done by the end of the year. Until then, a short shuttle bus ride and we're back in business. Want to know more about riding the St. Charles streetcar line? Read on: How to Take the Streetcar from the French Quarter to the Garden District... and Beyond
St. Charles Streetcar Image © Jo Jakeman / Creative Commons via Flickr
Winter is officially over in Louisiana, and there's no truer sign of spring around these parts than the arrival of strawberry season. For a few weeks now, our local Rouse's supermarket has proudly boasted a display of Louisiana strawberries -- increasingly fat and red as the days pass by -- and strawberry specialties have found their way on menus all over the state.
And North of New Orleans, in the tiny town of Ponchatoula, which calls itself the Strawberry Capital of the World, they're gearing up for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, which will be taking place on April 11-13, 2014. Alongside strawberry eating contests, sack races, egg tosses, and other small-town festival fun, there'll be live music and strawberry dishes too numerous to count.
If you can't make the Strawberry Festival but happen to be in the area anyway, you can celebrate strawberry season by ordering every single menu item you see that boasts the words "Louisiana strawberries" or "Ponchatoula strawberries" in the description. It doesn't matter what it is, really -- the strawberries are to die for and you can't go wrong.
If you prefer strawberries in their natural state, pick up a pint at the Crescent City Farmers Market, the French Market, or the closest grocery store (as I mentioned, Rouse's is always good for Louisiana produce in season).
If you're really motivated (and in my opinion, you should be), go ahead and seek out some of the town's tastiest strawberry concoctions. For my money, you won't do better than the strawberry shortcake at Commander's Palace (pictured above). Made with fresh Ponchatoula strawberries, lightly macerated in Grand Marnier and sugar, as well as crème Chantilly and buttermilk biscuits, this damn-near-perfect dessert enhances the sweet sunshine-y flavor of the strawberries with just a kick of creaminess. It's about as close as you'll ever get to putting spring itself on a plate.
Image © Megan Romer, 2014
Image © Derek Bridges / Creative Commons via Flickr
Whether you're filling out a long-standing itinerary for this weekend or thinking about a last-minute trip into town, there's a lot to get pumped about this weekend, no matter where your interests lie.
Literature and theater lovers are swarming to the French Quarter for the annual Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, where at venues all over the neighborhood (and beyond), lectures, master classes, public readings of poems and fictional pieces, performances of Tennessee Williams plays and new works will take place.
The wildly popular and entertaining culmination of the festival is the famous Stella Yelling Contest. Contestants from all over will line up to channel their inner Stanley Kowalski and scream "STEEEEELLLLAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!" at the top of their lungs. Ladies are welcome to scream "Stanley" instead. Head over to Jackson Square at 4:15 on Sunday to give it a try (or just be entertained by the proceedings). More info at the official Tennessee Williams Fest website.
Thousands of music lovers will be spending their weekend over at Mardi Gras World, where the BUKU Music + Art Project is taking place. Headliners of this relatively new festival include Nas, The Flaming Lips, and David Guetta. It looks to be a major scene this year. More info at the official BUKU website.
If you missed catching the Mardi Gras Indians on Mardi Gras proper this year, this is the weekend to see them. Super Sunday (which was pushed back from last weekend because of rain) sees these cultural ambassadors parading through the streets, "battling" with rival tribes in their full regalia. It's an incredible sight, and one that's absolutely worth seeking out. Learn more at MardiGrasNewOrleans.com.
New Orleans has quite a few famous restaurants, probably more per capita than anywhere else in the world A lot of them are famous because they've been serving food for ridiculously long amounts of time (100 years or more is not uncommon) and their sheer longevity has made them iconic. Others are famous because they've got a celebrity chef at the helm, who has loaned his or her own name to the place's popularity. And a few -- not many, but there are a few -- are famous based solely on having really, really spectacular food.
But getting famous is only half the battle. Once you've become a restaurant with an international reputation, how you got there stops mattering and maintaining the great reputation becomes the new challenge.
And let's not kid ourselves: it doesn't always happen. There are more than a few restaurants in the fine city of New Orleans, none of which I'll name (today, anyway) who are coasting based solely on an outdated reputation (often coupled with a convenient location) and who really aren't living up to their own legendary status.
But there are several who are. Some big, some small. Some with enormous menus, some with a menu that's just a few items long. They're in diverse neighborhoods: the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the Treme. They've all earned serious international fame, one way or another (there are plenty of nearly-famous restaurants that didn't make this list; these are the biggest of the big guns), and they're all still endeavoring to keep those reputations pristine. Wanna see my picks? Read on! 6 Famous New Orleans Restaurants that Totally Live up to the Hype
Cafe du Monde Image © Megan Romer, 2014
Mardi Gras is in less than a week, and for whatever reason, you are just now deciding that you might just pack up the ol' station wagon and drive on down.
Well, I'm not going to try to talk you into or out of it, but I will say that yes, it is totally possible to plan a Mardi Gras trip at the last minute. Because the majority of the cool stuff that happens in the city (the parades and the French Quarter revelry, in particular) happens outside and is entirely free and un-ticketed, there's always time to join in the fun.
The hard part, of course, is going to be finding somewhere to sleep. French Quarter hotels are incredibly expensive during Mardi Gras, if you can even find a room (many of them are fully booked months in advance). And you can't just say, "I'll stay up all night," of course, because at midnight on Mardi Gras, the city shuts down. (Seriously, when the party's done, it's done. The cops clear everyone out of the Quarter and everything.)
And it's a pretty terrible idea to try showing up without any reservations at all, because you really might not find a room at all, and you don't want to be driving around at 1:00 after the Mardi Gras party looking for a room. I'm pretty sure there are horror movies that have started that way.
So where should you go? Well, I've got some ideas for places to look for rooms in my convenient mini-guide: Planning a Mardi Gras Trip at the Last Minute. Any other questions? Leave a comment and ask away!
French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day Image © Brad Coy / Creative Commons via Flickr
Are you stocking up your car's CD changer for a Mardi Gras road trip? Maybe you're packing your iThing full of tunes to listen to on the airplane to get yourself all psyched up for the big party. Or maybe, just maybe, you're stuck in one of those tragic places where Mardi Gras is just called Shrove Tuesday and is celebrated with a lonesome stack of pancakes. In any case (especially that last one), you're going to need some solid Mardi Gras tunes to get you through.
So here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna start with some solid New Orleans oldies; really iconic Mardi Gras rhythm and blues and funk sides, as recommended by About.com's Oldies Music Expert (who happens to be a New Orleanian), Robert Fontenot. Robert's recommendations include essentials like Professor Longhair's "Go To the Mardi Gras" and the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo," among a whole slate of others, some of which you might be hearing for the first time. Get 'em all: The Top 10 Mardi Gras Oldies
And once you get your vintage New Orleans stuff taken care of, you're gonna dig into some rough and ready Cajun and Zydeco tunes. These will, of course, include the spooky, ancient-sounding "Danse de Mardi Gras," but also some more upbeat, dance-ready tunes that'll have you two-stepping in your airplane seat: Cajun and Zydeco Songs for Mardi Gras
And from there, you'll want to make sure you've got some of the best of the contemporary brass band and trad jazz scenes represented, so get you some Treme Brass Band and some Kermit Ruffins and some Rebirth and some Soul Rebels, and that might get you through your roadtrip/plane trip/sad stack of pancakes.
Kermit Ruffins Image © Derek Bridges / Creative Commons via Flickr