New Orleans is known for many things—jazz music, beautiful architecture, its signature cuisine, and a flamboyant style that is unlike any other place you will ever visit. My favorite section of the city is the French Quarter (Vieux Carré), which is also the oldest area and—in my opinion—the loveliest. There are many “must see” sights and attractions, as well as several “must taste” eating experiences, so prepare to get up close and personal with the Big Easy.
Things to see and do…
Jackson Square: Named for one of three statues of President Andrew Jackson located in the square, this large area in front of the St. Louis Cathedral is the perfect spot to begin your tour of New Orleans. In addition to the cathedral, the Square is home to museums, shops, restaurants, artists and their artwork, street performers, carriage rides, and much more.
St. Louis Cathedral: This beautiful white church with its impressive triple spires provides an amazing focal point whether viewed from land or from the nearby Mississippi River. It is the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States and is open for tours at specified times.
Walking Tour: You may choose to join a guided walking tour, or—as I prefer to do—begin in Jackson Square and take a self-guided tour, winding your way through the French Quarter on foot. Take time to admire the wrought-iron balconies and wide Southern porches that adorn many of the historic homes and buildings and soak in the “feel” of the city. Pop in and out of the many shops, galleries, and eateries at your leisure.
Carriage Tour: Locate an available carriage and driver on the street in front of Jackson Square and prepare to be informed and entertained as you take in the sights.
Riverboat Cruise: Steam up and down the Mississippi River aboard the Natchez and view the New Orleans skyline and sights beyond. We took the lunch cruise and the buffet meal was actually very good.
French Market: Primarily aimed at enticing the tourist crowd, this open-air market covers a five-to-six-block area near Jackson Square and is said to be the oldest such market in the country. Browse the specialty shops, pick up some fresh produce, sample freshly-made pralines, and pause to appreciate local musical talent—all while strolling through the market.
National World War II Museum: Designated by Congress as America’s official World War II Museum, this huge complex is every history buff’s dream come true! In my opinion, the introductory movie alone is worth the cost of admission. Touring the museum was truly a moving experience.
Civil War Museum: Small, but worth a visit. This museum contains a wealth of historical treasures dating back to the American Civil War. Flags, weaponry, personal items, correspondence, and other carefully preserved artifacts are on display. (Be sure to see the monument topped by Confederate General Robert E. Lee in nearby Lee Circle.)
Streetcar Ride: Three separate lines originate in downtown and go to different parts of the city. You can buy a day pass or pay with exact change when you climb aboard.
Preservation Hall: No visit to the Birthplace of Jazz would be complete without hearing some authentic New Orleans jazz—and Preservation Hall offers the best! With three shows a night, no climate control, and no bar, you will be surprised to find that the line forms early and gets long quickly. Plan accordingly…if you want a seat!
Where to eat…
Mr. B’s Bistro: New Orleans’ original Creole bistro, Mr. B’s boasts an extensive menu with a wide selection of mouth-watering regional favorites. I have never had anything there that was less than excellent. Really…you’re going to love it!
Cafe du Monde: Never, ever visit New Orleans without dropping by Cafe du Monde (the original French market coffee stand) for beignets and coffee! It is typically crowded with a long line, but that is because it is worth it! If you just can’t bring yourself to wait for an available table, at least order a few beignets to go. You won’t regret it!
The Court of Two Sisters: This charming restaurant serves a fabulous jazz brunch (buffet) served in an outdoor courtyard complete with linen-draped wrought iron tables, white-coated wait staff, and a brightly colored wishing well. I would go back for the grits and chilled shrimp, if for no other reason.
Café Maspero: Housed in the Old Slave Exchange building, Maspero’s is where you go for traditional New Orleans muffulettas, seafood, and Cajun and Creole classics—as well as the best pecan pie you have ever put in your mouth!
Luke: This spiffy little restaurant is located inside the Hilton Hotel on St. Charles. You may be wondering why I am recommending hotel fare, but Luke has received rave reviews from the likes of Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Times-Picayune. The hearty Southern breakfast—bacon, eggs, grits, and the works—is delicious. Give it a whirl!
Jeri Nims Soda Shop (inside the National WWII Museum): Eating here is a fun throwback to the “good ole days.” Though located inside the museum (but with a street entrance as well), this is an ideal place to grab a quick bite for lunch.
Where to stay…
Hilton New Orleans St. Charles: This self-described “Newly Renovated but Historically Unique” hotel is the perfect place to stay. Close enough to the action (within walking distance of all attractions named above) yet far enough from the craziness to be safe and quiet. We arranged for transportation to and from the airport through the hotel concierge, ate breakfast daily in the hotel restaurant, and found our room to be clean, comfortable, and satisfactory in every way. (This is the only hotel I have ever stayed at in New Orleans, so will not comment on any others.)
The 33-block National Historic Landmark District of Natchitoches is jam-packed with things to see and do. Once you have strolled down Front Street, checked out the Roque House and Beau Jardin, and rambled along the banks of Cane River, it is time to branch out and see the sights a street or two over. One way to gain an overall bird’s-eye view of the area is to hop aboard a trolley or climb into a horse-drawn buggy for a tour. Personally, I prefer sightseeing on foot so that I can go at my own pace—stopping to snap a photograph or popping into the corner coffee shop for a caramel macchiato whenever I feel the urge. Regardless of which option you choose, you will be treated to a feast for the eyes–beautifully restored homes, meticulously manicured lawns, stately live oaks, gracious magnolias, and classic buildings rich with history and character. In this limited space I will showcase a small sampling of interesting sights that can be found in close proximity to Front Street.
I Saw In Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing, by Walt Whitman
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing, All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the branches; Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous leaves of dark green, And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself; But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves, standing alone there, without its friend, its lover near—for I knew I could not;
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss, And brought it away—and I have placed it in sight in my room; It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends, (For I believe lately I think of little else than of them;)
Yet it remains to me a curious token—it makes me think of manly love; —For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana, solitary, in a wide flat space, Uttering joyous leaves all its life, without a friend, a lover, near, I know very well I could not.
Photo: Live Oak Tree and Spanish Moss – Shadows on the Teche, New Iberia, Louisiana (June 2013)
In the 1920′s New Orleans author, William Spratling, wrote the following description of the Roque House and its owner, Philamene Roque: “Madame Aubert (Roque) lived rather humbly in a small house of mud and half-timber which was built in the 18th century by some of her French forebears. All her life she had lived here on the Isle Brevelle. In front a bit of provincial France, an old fashioned garden, variously colorful, lay within the confines of a lichen-covered and battered fence of split palings. Madam Aubert, throwing open the blue-green shutter of the front of the house, hastened down to meet us.” (Source: http://www.natchitoches.net/attractions/historic-district/roque-house/)
The Roque House
Gardens in front of the Roque House
Looking toward Cane River from the Roque House
“River Through Stone”
Brick pathway approaching the Roque House
The Roque House
Front Porch – The Roque House
Brick pathway along the side of The Roque House
Looking toward Front Street
The view from Front Street
Tree branches bowing to the ground
Spring flowers abound in the gardens
Gardens – The Roque House
Moved twenty-two miles north to its present location on the banks of Cane River Lake in 1967, the Roque House has been fully restored by the Natchitoches Historic Foundation. Built as a personal residence around 1803 by a freed slave named Yves (called Pacale), it has served as a museum, a store, and the Headquarters for the Cane River National Heritage Area Commission. It is an exceptionally fine example of French Creole architecture with its post in the ground design, hipped roof, encircling gallery, and central chimney. Constructed of cypress timbers and bousillage (a mixture of mud, Spanish moss, and deer hair), the house is jointed (built without nails) and has a cedar shingle roof. The left-side bedroom and double fireplace were damaged in transit during the move, but some of the original bricks remain in the fireplace.
The Roque House holds court on the riverbank at the end of Front Street below the Visitor Information Center. When you visit downtown Natchitoches, make plans to relax on a wrought iron bench in the shade of the grand oak trees. Allow enough time to properly bask in the beauty of the gardens and enjoy the gentle lapping of the river against the shoreline. It is a little piece of heaven…
It’s true what they say—you can never go back. You can visit, however, and that is exactly what I did over the weekend. I made a quick trip to my hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana and spent several hours luxuriating in nostalgia. I took a leisurely stroll through its iconic historic district…passing over the same bricks that have paved Front Street since the early 20th century; ambling along the banks of the beautiful Cane River (which is actually a lake, not a river); gazing into shop windows, temptingly bedecked, within the revitalized shopping corridor. I reveled in the opportunity to savor sights and sounds that were familiar, yet somehow new and different.
It has been more than twenty years since I moved away and many things have changed. Happily, the changes appear to be favorable ones–improvements that have breathed fresh life into a city that just as easily could have gone the way of so many of its contemporaries–crumbling into insignificant oblivion. You may recognize Natchitoches as the setting for Steel Magnolias–the cinematic remake of Robert Harling’s off-Broadway play by the same name. (Incidentally, Harling is himself a Natchitoches native.) This quintessential Southern town has enough charm to win over the dourest of visitors, and offers plenty to do—both in the downtown area and beyond. 2014 is the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Natchitoches and many special Tri-Centennial activities have been planned. (Visit http://www.natchitoches.com/tricentennial for more information about the celebration.) I have decided to focus on Natchitoches for the rest of the week, and will do my best to provide appealing imagery, cogent tourist information, and useful links and resources. Welcome to your virtual tour of Natchitoches…Day One, Front Street!
As contradictory as it may seem, there is nothing as relaxing—and simultaneously stimulating—as roadtripping through eastern Texas and western Louisiana in the springtime! I took a little jaunt over that way during the Easter holiday and encountered breath-taking beauty on every side. Vibrant ribbons of rich reds, purples, and yellows unrolled along the roadway for mile after mile; brilliant bursts of pink, white, and green sprang from the fields, meadows, and lawns as I passed. Everything was clean and fresh and new. Who would believe that there could be so many varying shades of green?? Absolutely gorgeous!