‘What ya’ll doin’ tonight?”
Up to this point the soft-spoken elderly black taxi driver had uttered barely a word apart from a courteous, ‘Welcome to N’awlins,” at Louis Armstrong International airport.
Jetlag made worse by two late nights in Dallas prompted one of our group to answer the question with a weary: “I think I’ll be in bed by half past ten, I’m wrecked.”
If he had said he intended to drink the Mississippi dry between six and six 30, without ice or lemon, the response could not have been more incredulous; our driver’s head swivelled in disbelief at something so preposterous.
“In bed by HALF PAST TEN?!! Maan, if you’re in bed by half past ten in N’awlins one thing’s fo’sure and that is it ain’ gonna be y’own bed!”
Welcome to New Orleans. Good Time Gal meets Badass Boy ripping it up with All Night Long.
Yep, if it’s fun you’re looking for, this sure is one fun town.
Not in the Temple Bar-on-acid vibe of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras or Spring Break, which is to be avoided unless you’re in your early ‘20s and only interested in two things, one of which is drinking your head off and the other is what happens when you drink your head off.
If that’s your gig then just go to Magaluf.
N’awlins is fabulous fun in the best sense and it hits the minute you step out of your hotel.
Bursting with life, vibrant and sashaying with attitude, all to a backdrop of fantastic music and food that is simply to-die-for.
Two and a half days there should not have been enough to knock New York off its perch as my favourite American city, but it certainly was, and it did.
But such a short stay is definitely not enough to spend in a place so enchanting, so downright beautiful, so superbly stylish and such, well… such great, great fun.
Falling in love with New Orleans really should not come as a surprise to a first-time visitor, of course, but it still does. It has famously been in the seduction business for centuries, snaring the hearts and souls of countless writers, artists, musicians and assorted vagabonds along the way.
Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas all revelled and found inspiration here.
It has always been a magnet for edgy creatives, and while celeb residents like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock and Jessica Lange, might not fit that particular bill, fellow actor Nicholas Cage has played true to form by controversially erecting a huge Pyramid-style mausoleum for himself in the city’s remarkable St Louis Cemetery No1, home to New Orlean’s most famous voodoo high priestess, Marie Laveau.
This is the city of which Bob Dylan once said: “The Devil comes here and sighs”.
Mind you, he also remarked: “There are a lot of places I like. But I like New Orelans better.” Quite.
It is not only steeped in the tapestry of its rich, colourful history, a cultural melting pot of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences, it is defined by this diversity and is the most un-American of American cities.
It has always done its own independent thing, in its own spirited way, ever since the US bought Louisiana from the French in 1803.
While there is much more to the city than its famous, or infamous, two mile square French Quarter, that is a great place to kick off any visit, particularly a short one.
And to immerse yourself in the spirit of the place, what better than with a Cocktail Walking Tour.
This, after all, is the city that claims to have invented the Cocktail and has been shaking them with rattling exuberance ever since.
Gray Line runs New Orlean’s original Cocktail Walking Tour, and helpfully advises customers to wear comfortable shoes because of the “uneven sidewalks and streets”, thus neatly avoiding any need to make any mention of uneven or unsteady Cocktail-happy patrons.
This was fantastic fun, and a fascinating insight into the city’s legendary history of fine wining and dining.
I have to admit that I’m usually not one for city tours, but I would highly recommend this as a way of getting a most interesting and highly entertaining start to a stay here.
The tour guides really know their stuff and they weave you through some of the city’s most remarkable old bars and restaurants, such as Arnaud’s and Antoine’s as you savour cocktails such as French 75 (Champagne, gin, lemon) and Sazerac (Absinthe, cognac or rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters).
Comfortable shoes and uneven sidewalks, indeed.
While Arnaud’s and Antoine’s are just yards from the bedlam end of Burboun Street they could almost be on another planet.
Inside their doors it’s everything you would expect from sophisticated old-school French restaurants at the top of their game for a very long time. Antoine’s has been run by the same family since 1840, has 14 dining rooms and has served Presidents and at least one Pope, and featured in Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Even if you don’t eat at Antoine’s (starters $8 - $ 20 – including Oysters Rockerfeller, which was invented there and rocks in at $15; mains $27 - $43; cocktails $8.5 - $9.50) it’s so architecturally beautiful with such a fabled history it’s worth taking the Cocktail tour just to check it out.
Not that you will be short of wonderful places to eat and drink in this city which takes its food and booze very seriously indeed – last count there were around 1,400 restaurants in a city of only 380,000 people.
While Antoine’s, Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s are at the top end of the market, there are countless superb restaurants where you can eat like a very happy king for less than $20.
I don’t think I’ve eaten so much exquisite seafood over such a short period in my life.
And I certainly never before had a Sunday brunch like that in another New Orleans landmark, Brennan’s, which has just had an $18 million make-over and looks every opulent bit of it.
As owner Ralph Brennan says himself, they take breakfast revelry as seriously as a decadent dinner, and you’d better believe it.
What about this for a breakfast/brunch of a Sunday morning: turtle soup, seafood file gumbo (crab, shrimp, oysters, basmati rice) crab and celery remoulade, baked apple, crispy veal cheeks grillades, egg yolk carpaccio, New Orleans BBQd lobster, creole citrus crepes, artisanal eggs benedict, bananas Foster … and the menu goes on, and on…
And it’s considered de rigeur to have any or all of the above accompanied by one or more of their legendary “Eye Openers”: Caribbean Milk Punch (Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum, Makers Mark Bourbon, heavy cream, vanilla bean and nutmeg); Cajun Bloody Mary, Brandy Punch, Temperance Tea (vodka, honey liqueur, blueberry and black tea and lemon) and the champagne-driven French 75.
Recommendation: go for the turtle soup, seafood file gumbo and the lobster, and while you’re waiting have a couple of really eye-opening Cajun Bloody Marys followed by a Caribbean Milk Punch and a zippy French 75 to finish it all off nicely.
The only problem is you’ll never be able to look a lesser brunch menu in the eye again.
Actually there was a second problem. Straight after brunch we were booked on a cycling tour of this most cycle-able of cities.
We had our comfortable shoes on, but for some peculiar reason the sidewalks and even the roads appeared uneven.
But Ryan Bergeron at Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours is well used to welcoming high spirited visitors and pretty soon we were effortlessly wheeling our way around in glorious sunshine on bicycles with saddles big and padded enough they could be endorsed by the Larger Bottom Support Association.
If the Cocktail Walking tour doesn’t tick the box as a great way to kick-start your visit here, then a guided cycling tour should be given very serious consideration.
Again, it’s fun, very informative, giving a great feel for the city in a short couple of hours, and as New Orleans is very flat, it’s not in the least strenuous.
Best of all you get to see places you might want to explore later, like the ubercool Frenchmen Street (the music hub of the city, pulsing with live music joints like the Spotted Cat, day and night), the nearby Esplanade with its wonderful old Creole mansions, and the 1,300 acre outdoor oasis that is City Park with its world-class Besthoff sculpture garden (Rodin, Renoir, Magritte and lots of other greats).
There’s so much more to see and do in this most invigorating of cities, and we did manage to pack some more into the two and a bit days: a Mississippi steamboat trip, a mouth-watering lunch at the multi- award-winning Commander’s Palace for $22; a ride on the St Charles streetcar to the affluent Garden District with its architecturally stunning mansions; an unforgettable jazz session at Preservation Hall , discovered great local ‘dive’ bars, Vaughan’s (no relation!) in the Bywater district and the must-visit Candlelight Lounge, a bit off the beaten track, but where the music is so New Orleans funky that patrons who haven’t danced for many a year find them ol’ limbs a- movin’.
Yet, so much more to see in a city that should be close to the top of everybody’s Bucket List.
But unfortunately we just ran out of time, even though at no stage did anybody come even near getting to bed by half past ten. Our taxi driver would have been proud.
American Airlines flies Dublin-New Orleans return (via Chalotte, Chicago and Philadelphia) from €785 or Business Class from €2,589 including taxes.
If you can, push the boat out at the sumptuous Loewe Hotel (rooms from $400) located close to the French Quarter. www.loweshotels.com/new-orleans
Otherwise the Clarion on St Charles Avenue, rooms from $130 a night. Or airbnb’s like Joanne’s Frenchmen House ‘Red Room’ in the trendy Marigny district, for around $75.