Oooh boy, we had a long drive awaiting us. We were about to leave Tennessee behind, drive the entire length of the state of Mississippi and into Louisiana, with our end destination being New Orleans. Ben jokingly referred to this day as “Van Appreciation Day”, as we would be on the road for over eight hours (and that was just drive time, not including snack breaks and wee-stops). Ben announced that this weekend in New Orleans there was a charity “red dress race” happening, where people run a 5k or 10k race whilst wearing – you’ve guessed it – a red dress. Whilst we wouldn’t arrive in time to take part in the actual race (phew!) we would definitely be around in time for the after-party on Bourbon Street, so halfway through our long drive we stopped off at a Goodwill store to try and find some suitable attire. Even the boys were getting in on the act trying to find red dresses to wear! I was so chuffed, I found the perfect dress in exactly my size and it fit me like a glove – and it was only $8. Even better, when I took it up the lady on the till gave me half-off because “New Orleans is her favourite city” and she was so excited for us! So my bargain $8 red dress became an even bigger bargain $4 red dress!
New Orleans Day 1
It was mid-to-late afternoon by the time we pulled into the French Quarter of New Orleans. We’d be staying in a hotel for the next 2 nights which would be a real treat after a week of camping. You forget how much of a luxury sleeping in a real bed and having a nice hot shower in your own room actually is, until you’re on a camping holiday! Once our rooms were allocated (I was sharing with Amy again) and we’d unloaded all of our bags off of the van and into our new rooms, we all had an hour to freshen up and don our red dresses before we were to meet in the lobby ready for our walking tour of New Orleans. Ben took us on a half hour walk around the French Quarter, pointing out interesting historical places such as the house “American Horror Story” is based on; the St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, the famous Café du Monde (home of beignets) and the beautiful Mississippi river which flows through the city and out to sea. He gave us a little free time to roam around Jackson Square and take some photographs before we headed over to Bourbon Street for our evening meal at a place called Oceana Grill.
Here we were able to sample some traditional southern New Orleans fare – for appetisers we all sampled alligator, both blackened and deep fried – then for the main course some went for Po’ Boys (big baguette sandwiches with deep fried fillings) and others tried the “Taste of New Orleans – Creole jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice with smoked sausage. I went for the house signature dish – Redfish topped with a crawfish cream sauce. It was really tasty, the flavours were so rich it felt like proper comfort food. I always thought crawfish were just like small prawns but they were so sweet and juicy; much tastier than prawns or shrimp. I washed the whole thing down with a traditional N’Orleans Hurricane – a cocktail with 2 different kinds of rum mixed with passion fruit and orange juices and grenadine. It arrived smoking and tasted great, you really only need one before it’s a party! Would definitely recommend this place!
By this point the red dress after party was in full swing on Bourbon Street – you could even smell the party atmosphere before you left the restaurant. Rock bands were performing at every bar and flocks of people flooded the street, stumbling around holding their drinks (New Orleans lets you drink on the street) and everybody in sight was wearing a red dress with pride. We didn’t stay in amongst the red dressers for very long – we explored some of the souvenir stores, I picked up some beads from a homeless guy selling them on the street and then we headed back towards the hotel. None of my companions could get into any of the bars anyway as they were all checking ID cards and most of them were under-21 – I think I need to back to experience Bourbon Street with an older crowd!
New Orleans Day 2
I had an early start this day, as one of my companions Theo and I were the only 2 of our group who had opted to take part in a cookery class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. I’ve never taken a cooking class before and I was already really excited about sampling more of the rich, flavoursome comfort food New Orleans and the South in general is famous for. Theo was running late so I headed over to the school to book us in for the class. I had imagined that we would all be cooking the food together but when we entered the classroom, dining tables were set up for the students and there was just one kitchen area set up at the front. We were introduced to our teacher, Chef Pat, who reminded me of the stereotypical Southern Grandma. She was warm and friendly, but you could tell she didn’t suffer fools either! A real New Orleans character.
The school assistants came around with iced tea, coffee and freshly squeezed lemonade as well as warm, fresh biscuits with butter and syrup before the session started, and we all flicked through the basic recipe packs that were provided for each of us. As it was a Sunday morning, the class was only half full – this was nice, it felt intimate and everyone could see clearly what Chef Pat was up to. She started off with bread pudding as this took the longest to make. I liked how we were able to follow the directions in the basic recipe sheets that were provided, but that she also gave us lots of insider tips and tricks that we could annotate on the recipe for when we wanted to try making the meals ourselves at home. After the bread pudding, Pat showed us how to make a traditional gumbo and also a jambalaya, before finishing off the class with some pralines (chopped pecans set in a caramel disc). Then came the really fun part – we got to taste everything! In true Southern style Pat had cooked enough for about 50 people, and with only 28 people in the class there was plenty to go around. Theo and I left with our bellies full and our souls happy (but not before stopping in the school store to pick up some special gumbo spices and recipe books on the way out).
We caught up with the rest of the crew in Jackson Square, and despite how full we felt we couldn’t turn down the trip to Café du Monde for a traditional beignet (a doughnut type of treat, but square and light and coated in about an inch of powdered sugar). They were amazing and come served in 3s, but after the cookery school had filled me up I could only manage one. I would definitely head back to New Orleans in a heartbeat to try another one though! We still had a few hours to explore the French Quarter so we had a look around the French Markets (it was Sunday though so a lot of the stores were closed unfortunately but we did catch some live music from a real New Orleans brass dixie band on the street) and we even went to the Voodoo Museum. This place was seriously tiny, there was only about 3 rooms and lots of voodoo god statues that you could offer tributes of money or jewellery to. It was fairly crowded so I couldn’t spend too long reading about the gods, but I left a couple of dollars in tribute to Kalfu, the most scary looking Deity, who was apparently in charge of charms, bad luck, destruction and all manner of injustices.
After a couple of hours rest back at the hotel (this city hopping business takes it out of you!) a few of us headed back out for some evening food – this time I opted for a crawfish po’boy; it was okay but didn’t quite match up to the gumbo and other treats I’d eaten earlier in the day. Still – it filled a hole and fuelled me up ready for our evening ghost walk. This was the only part of the whole New Orleans experience that disappointed me. I don’t know if it was the tour guide or that my expectations were different, but to walk around the streets for 40 minutes (would have been over an hour but I gave up towards the end and went back to the hotel!) stopping occasionally to be told – in a dull, uninterested voice – that a prostitute had been murdered here or a family of women who were thought to be vampires lived there….it just wasn’t my idea of a ghost tour. Save your money on this if you’re ever in this part of the world, there’s better things to spend it on.
Our first leg of the journey was done; we’d said goodbye to a couple of members of our group and in the morning would be meeting our new travel companions so I opted for an early night – to be honest it was needed and I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. Texas awaited us!