Some of the best things in life seem to have come from New Orleans–jazz and cocktails, to name just two. I learn this significant fact on walking tours themed around each of these in the city.
The jazz, of course, everyone knows about. (Two words: Louis Armstrong.)
But the cocktails is a delightful discovery. On my walk, I come face to face with the potent Sazerac, the fruity Bayou Bash and the whimsical Green Fairy, among other boozy liquids. The story goes that in 1838, Antoine Peychaud, a French apothecary in New Orleans, began to serve brandy with bitters (and a secret ingredient) as a panacea.
This concoction, named after his favourite French brandy, Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils, was served in small eggcups–coquetier in French, mangled to ‘cocktail’ in English. Although over time, American rye whiskey has taken the place of brandy, and a few drops of absinthe are added on top, Sazerac remains the signature drink of New Orleans.
Located on a strategic bend on the Mississippi, New Orleans has a colourful and chequered history. It was founded by the French, then ruled by the Spanish before being bought by the United States in 1803. It was also home to a large population of Africans, brought here as slaves. Today, the city is a melting pot of French and African languages and traditions.
Traces of the distinctive Creole culture are to be found in New Orleans’ food. Seafood gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, boiled crawfish, Oysters Rockefeller, po’ boy–it’s a long and famous list. My search for vegetarian gumbo (yes, there is such a thing) is fruitless, but I do try a po’ boy–stuffed sandwiches created for the ‘poor boys’ during the Great Depression.
Early one morning, I set off with my friend to the French Quarter, which is already up and about, with buskers and artists in action. The French Quarter is the beating heart–and touristy centre–of New Orleans. It is also the city’s oldest neighbourhood, and its neat grid layout makes it easy to explore. I keep my neck craned towards the intricate grillwork balconies on the buildings lining the streets. Although the French first settled here, way back in 1718, it was the Spanish who built these, after the city was destroyed by fire in the late 18th century.
We are both high on sugar, having stopped for breakfast in the form of beignets at the accurately, if unimaginatively, named CafÃ© Beignet. Think of beignets as square doughnuts on steroids and, like Polo mints, without the hole.
Of course, everyone will tell you the place to go for beignets in New Orleans is CafÃ© Du Monde. But that is a tourist attraction in itself, with mile-long queues. And I also think of this as my way of contributing to the perennial debate on where the best beignets are to be found. So I merely smirk at the waiting throngs from the shaded comfort of the streets bounding Jackson Square, across from Du Monde.
Music is in the very air that New Orleans breathes, and nowhere more so than this neighbourhood. Spectacular brass bands appear with regularity, playing for all they’re worth, occasionally moving the audience enough to dance in a self-conscious manner.
And apart from the music, there is much else going on at this square. Clairvoyants and fortune-tellers have set up shop on tables and chairs by the kerbside. One of them beckons to me as I stop to take her picture. Her board says, “Prepare to be amazed.” I am prone to be amazed by the new and the wonderful, but not by crystal ball-gazers. But she is not offended when I refuse with a smile, and turns her attention to a couple hovering tentatively in the area.
I am more interested in the shops selling voodoo stuff (“May the curse be with you,” says one signboard). Talk of voodoo is everywhere in town, from guided tours to spiritual temples. It has origins in the city’s African immigrants from the late 18th century, who brought with them their belief in Voudon, or Great Spirit. I walk into one of the shops at random–run by an Indian immigrant–and find it stocks all manner of spells and oils for the curious and serious.
It turns out that Jackson Square is tame compared to Bourbon Street, where I head to later in the evening. Here, I feel like I have fallen through the rabbit hole and landed with a thud. Two men have painted themselves entirely in gold and silver and are seated on chairs in the middle of the road, showing passersby the middle finger (their way of asking for money). There are people holding up signs advertising ‘Big Ass Beers’ (and others holding up massive mugs of said beer). A small, squat machine is blowing out soap bubbles non-stop. And to one corner of the road, a young woman clad in just enough accessories to keep her from getting arrested, poses with tourists in exchange for dollars.
Earlier, when I had asked a resident for directions to a popular jazz club, he’d said, “It’s at the nice end of Bourbon Street.” And he added for emphasis, “Not on that side.” I was, at the time, clueless about what that side was, but had nodded knowingly. Now, I know.
Having said that, I have no reason to smirk. For a good hour, I sip on a noxious drink called Hand Grenade, served in a fluorescent green plastic container, shaped like, yes, a hand grenade with a long stem. This is another trademark New Orleans cocktail, but one that did not feature in my earlier tour, for obvious reasons. You must understand that the Hand Grenade is advertised as “the strongest cocktail in New Orleans” (a fact I was not aware of when I purchased the drink). And I believe it.
Later at night, I Google the ingredients of this cocktail, but give up reading after grain alcohol, gin, vodka and melon liqueur. Some things one is better off not knowing. But hey, I’m in N’Awlins! And here, everything goes. Even drinking in public, with bars helpfully serving drinks in to-go glasses.
In contrast, Frenchmen Street, a little distance away from the French Quarter, is quiet, with all the buzz contained indoors. Frenchmen Street boasts of some of the best jazz bars in town, including the iconic Spotted Cat. This one is sadly silent between gigs, and I am there only for the music. So my friend and I walk up and down the street a couple of times, torn between snatches of wonderful music emanating from each of them.
We finally decide on entering one where the music has me twitching my feet. We settle down on stools to drink and listen. I sense that there is a lot of alcohol flowing through this story. But remember that bit about New Orleans being the birthplace of cocktails? I am merely paying homage.
This bar does not feature in any of the lists of best music clubs in town but, as someone had told me earlier, you can’t go wrong anywhere on Frenchmen Street. Gig finished, we head out into the cool night air, in search of the next place that would stir our souls with the music.
We have not walked far when we come across a quartet swinging it on a street corner. Despite the lateness of the hour, a small crowd is watching, a few heads nodding and feet tapping in time to the music. With or without the costumes, in N’Awlins, every day is Mardi Gras.
The best option is to fly into New York’s JFK airport and take a connecting flight to New Orleans. The cheapest return fares to JFK from India are on Etihad and Turkish Airlines (from â‚¹68,000 return on economy class.)
Where to Stay
Stay in the French Quarter, at the Omni Royal Orleans (omnihotels.com) or the Royal Sonesta (sonesta.com). Both offer rooms from â‚¹8,000. Luxury hotels such as Ritz-Carlton, Intercontinental and Marriott are also within walking distance.
What to See & Do
For a break from the hubbub of the French Quarter, hop on to a tram going towards St Charles Avenue, a quiet residential street lined with elegant 19th-century mansions.
Take a cruise on the Mississippi on a paddlewheel steamboat for glimpses into the city’s past.
Go jazz club-hopping on Frenchmen Street and Bourbon Street to catch the local music.
Try to plan your trip around the Mardi Gras (February/March) or the Jazz Festival (April/May) for the most intense N’Awlins experience.