You’ve got only two days in New Orleans, what do you do? Does it make a difference whether you’re male or female? We sent out Megan Arkinstall and Steve Madgwick (separately) into the cultural melting pot that is The Big Easy. Here’s how Megan’s spent her 48 hours.
10am – Local flair
From the window of our car, I spot a portly man strutting down the street in a pink wig, black vest, leotard, fishnet stockings, platform boots, and heart-shaped sunglasses.
“Welcome to N’Awlins!” our driver says in a slow Southern drawl.
10:30am – Breakfast of legends
“Is that who I think it is!?” I ask, discreetly (read: embarrassingly) glancing my eyes to the left to see if the pink-haired figure in oversized sunglasses is the one and only Cyndi Lauper.
We’re having breakfast at Brennan’s – a New Orleans institution since 1946 – among friends… and celebs, as it turns out. It’s Sunday and the place is packed with diners.
More than a meal, this local tradition sees friends spending hours over breakfast and a few bottles of wine. We choose a Bloody Mary instead.
A waiter wheels a trolley to our table for the finale: the restaurant’s most famous dish, Bananas Foster.
Created in the 1950s, the devilishly sweet dessert made of bananas, sugar, cinnamon, banana liqueur and aged rum is flambéed at our table; flames seemingly lick the ornamental ceiling.
We’re told the restaurant sets alight more than 15,000 kilograms of bananas each year. That is, literally, bananas, I muse.
12:10pm – I’ll have one to go
“Why should conviviality be confined to a bar?” our tour guide Elizabeth Pearce asks, waving a cocktail in the air. We all say cheers to that with a St Charles Hotel Punch.
We’re on a Drink & Learn walking tour: a crash course on the city’s history with the help of some stiff drinks that complement the stories we are told. Elizabeth is an expert on the topic, given her rather unique credentials: cocktail historian.
A few cocktails and centuries later, our final drink begins with the shortage of whiskey during WWII. In order to be able to purchase just one case of this liquid gold, local bar owners were forced to also purchase 50 cases of rum.
And so, with a surplus of rum, local publican Pat O’Brien created the Hurricane. Some cheaper versions “taste like chemicals and disappointment,” Elizabeth warns.
This one does not, so I pour the rest in a to-go cup for the road. This is the Big Easy y’all: every hour is happy hour.
Before we part ways, Elizabeth hands me a copy of her book The French Quarter Drinking Companion in which she’s written: “To Megan, on your trip to New Orleans, a city you can’t forget, full of nights you may not remember.” I consider reforming.
6pm – The secret garden
We’re in the well-heeled Garden District at another cornerstone restaurant, Commander’s Palace, which has been serving haute Creole cuisine since 1893. This palatial blue and white Victorian mansion was formerly only patronised by distinguished local families.
Though we’re not local, nor (dare I say it) distinguished, our dolled-up party is escorted through a labyrinth of rooms to a table by a large window overlooking a whimsical oak tree-filled courtyard.
The jackets-preferred dress code may rub some casual Joes up the wrong way, but the waistcoated, bow-tied staff who don’t miss a beat and serve our artfully prepared meals in synchrony more than justify it.
When I ask for directions to the (very lovely) bathroom, I am escorted arm-in-arm by my waiter as though we’re headed to a ball. I thank him, hoping he doesn’t wait to escort me back, but he politely bids me adieu.
9pm – A taste of debauchery
Post-dinner, we slingshot ourselves far from the leafy streets of the Garden District to the seedy surrounds of Bourbon Street: where good-time gals and guys stagger from bar to bar with to-go cups full of Sazerac and whatever else they can get their hands on.
One local described Bourbon Street to me as “beautifully vulgar”.
To me, it’s Cavill Avenue circa 2002. But I give in, because it would be blasphemous not to, and perch myself on a chair at the merry-go-round Carousel Bar and order a Vieux Carré. Or two. I stop myself at that, not wanting Elizabeth’s parting words to ring true.
9am – Do-nut miss this
When in New Orleans, do as the every-man-and-his-dog do; we are told Cafe du Monde is the place to do it. Established in 1862 in New Orleans French Market, this cafe has perfected the melt-in-your-mouth recipe of beignets.
We arrive to find a line-up as long as the Mississippi and a cafe bursting with people with powdered sugar on their lips. We don’t give up easily and eventually squeeze in among the sweet-toothed crowd. After my first bite, I am hooked. Worth the wait? Oui.
10am – Lessons from Big Kev
More food!? I don’t think I can do it. But Kevin Bolton has other ideas. “They call it fat in Louisiana, but this is credibility,” he says.
“We’ll eat anything that walks, crawls, swims or flys. A gator might come out fighting but then it says, oh back up, back up, they’re gonna eat us!”
At six-foot-nine and almost 200 kilograms, his credibility is off the Richter.
We’re at the New Orleans School of Cooking, and Big Kev is showing us how to make some of the city’s most famous dishes.
I’m not sure how much I’m learning, but I belly-laugh my way through it and leave with a belly full of flavour-bursting jambalaya.
3:30pm – The party business
Mardi Gras is a serious business here. Locals and visitors alike spend weeks, nay months, poring over costume ideas and planning celebrations for the 12-day festival in which there are more than 60 parades through the city.
We’re not here for the actual event, (I can only imagine how crazy that time would be) so we head to Mardi Gras World, to see the big and brash floats and glitzy costumes from years past and to watch artisans work on floats for next year.
10pm – Facing the music
I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor in Preservation Hall. The building (circa 1750) with its discoloured façade, crumbling plaster and creaky floorboards transports me to yesteryear when jazz reigned supreme.
I’m so close to the band that I have to jolt my head back a few times to avoid clashing with the trombone. The soulful player’s eyes are closed; he’s moving absorbedly to the syncopated rhythms, and probably can’t even see me sitting inches from a brassy blow.
Before the final song, the main vocalist cries out to the crowd: “Have you been to church lately?” A few hesitant murmurs ensue. “Well y’all going tonight!” he cries. Amen!
THE DETAILS: New Orleans – for her
Getting there: Megan flew Qantas which has daily flights via Dallas.
Staying there: Megan stayed at the modern, recently renovated Le Meridien New Orleans, a short walk from the Mississippi River and town. From $224 a night.
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