New Orleans, LA

New Orleans as a Bucket List Destination

Kristi Keller

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If you’re looking for a tale of beads and Bourbon Street, this isn’t it. Flip the page. I don’t look for the “typical” when discovering a new destination. I pull back the layers and go as deep as I can, and this is what I found in New Orleans.

When I told one of my American friends that I booked ten days in The Big Easy, he told me I should change my flights and add another destination to the itinerary. He said I could easily cover New Orleans in a few days and then move on.

Worst piece of advice I’ve ever received. I have officially forgotten what the term “moving on” actually means.

New Orleans swallowed me whole and I willingly let it happen. I gave NOLA permission to capture and hold me prisoner and she did it without hesitation.

First of all, can we just start off with the drawl y’all?

I’m Canadian, we don’t have drawl where I’m from. We don’t say “yes ma’am” as a pleasantry, and we don’t say y’all in a normal everyday sentence, or ever.

This is the type of thing we only hear in American movies about the south. Canadian Uber drivers certainly don’t answer with, “Yes baby” when you ask a question.

Speaking of Uber drivers, it seems every vehicle in the city doubles as an Uber. When you book a ride, it shows up in one minute or less and every ride within the city is $7.00. Straight up.

My first Uber was a tinted out, black BMW SUV, and all the following ones were just as fancy. My most memorable ride was from a guy we labeled, “The Bourbon Street Shooter.” He had a gold grill covering his teeth and he told tales of shootings that have taken place on Bourbon Street in the past.

Probably not the best stories to attract tourists but still highly entertaining.

So what IS the best attraction?

By far, it’s the people of New Orleans.

It was the friendliness and accommodating nature of every local I met that made my trip stand out. Without them, I would have never known that Bourbon street is NOT the place to hang out. Without them, I would have never been as captivated as I was by the history and charm of the city.

Without the locals, I would have never learned that most of them don’t want to share their stories of Hurricane Katrina. But the ones who were willing to talk transported me directly into their own stories of heroism and survival. It was mesmerizing and heartbreaking.

What a resilient and tenacious population they are. Everything you’ve heard about Katrina is true….and worse.

Before visiting I had a predisposed notion that the people of New Orleans would be rough around the edges. I expected grit. But instead, I found genuine southern souls who were truly interested in making my time in their city blow all my expectations out of the water.

My travel partner and I literally passed around our phones with note apps open and just let locals type in their recommendations of things we should do. And we did them ALL.

If and when you visit, use Uber, ride a rickshaw, take a tour bus, hop on a streetcar. And when you do, make a point of talking to the locals accommodating you.

You’ll fall in love with their spirits.

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Louisiana stirred my soul with its incredible plantation history.

My ambivalence toward standing on hallowed slave ground was confusing, to say the least. The sheer beauty of each plantation combined with their disturbing histories of slavery made me feel heavy, angry, and sad, but intrigued.

I was significantly moved.

A tour through Louisiana plantation country is eye-opening and educational in a multitude of ways. The scenery is stunning, the slave squalor is crushing, and the ghosts are very present. If you have even an ounce of thirst for knowledge you need to visit the plantations and pay homage to those spirits. Each one of them has a story to tell.

While standing inside the grand parlors of the Oak Alley Plantation house, I tried to marvel at such a life of grandeur but all I could feel was the oppression of centuries gone by. Although I’d like to say I could imagine the struggle of the slaves, I simply can’t.

They were born there, lived there, and died there, never having tasted the freedom of being human. I wondered how many of their calloused feet had touched the ground I stood on.

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The French Quarter is like a time machine. It’s old, colorful, vibrant and SO alive.

It’s where you’ll inevitably find Bourbon Street even if you’re not looking for it. I ended up on Bourbon accidentally while looking for a supermarket. Only a few blocks walk from my hotel I found the supermarket and when I looked up there it was….the Bourbon Street sign.

The vibrancy of the French Quarter, where Bourbon Street is located, shouldn’t be missed. It’s a must-do and must-see, just to say you did it. But Bourbon itself looks just like the rest of the French Quarter, which spans many city blocks.

Before visiting New Orleans I’d heard that Bourbon Street stinks. It literally does. It smells of fermentation mixed with many nights gone bad. But it’s the only place you’ll find bartenders in full swing, behind a packed bar at 10:00 a.m.

People have liquor for breakfast there. I even had liquor for breakfast at the famous Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone. It takes a special kind of bartender to hit the ground running like this on a daily basis.

Bourbon Street is a place where you’ll regularly see people stooped over, shamelessly hurling their guts out in the street by lunchtime. I witnessed it a few times but proudly never took part in this ritual.

People also told me the safety rules about pick-pocketers in the French Quarter but no one ever told me about the safety rules of the sidewalks. They’re a disaster and riddled with uneven bricks and craters. Watch where you’re walking and don’t wear heels.

There are tons of ways to spend money in the French Quarter — from cheap alcohol to tacky souvenir shops to street entertainers. Bucket drummers are a thing and they’re very young. Stop and listen to one, let him entertain you, and drop your money in his bucket. It’s worth it.

I put in my time on Bourbon Street for one day and I’m happy to say I did it…just once.

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One thing I did a LOT of in New Orleans that I’ve never done anywhere else is guided tours. If you don’t do them you’ll miss the whole point of traveling, which is to learn.

You’ll never find out a fraction of the history, the culture, and the reasons why this city is what it is, without joining in on some guided tours.

I booked all of mine before I left home and they included all the nuts and bolts of New Orleans. A Voodoo tour, a ghost tour, a cemetery tour, a bayou tour on a high-speed airboat, and a riverboat dinner cruise down the Mississippi River.

Each one of them contributed to my unquenchable thirst for the knowledge I crave when traveling.

If you don’t book any tours you won’t understand why the cemeteries are above ground and you won’t know that many generations of families are housed in the same crypt, nor will you understand how they all fit into one.

The “one year and one day” factor is quite intriguing.

You also won’t know that actor, Nicholas Cage, has his own crypt reserved in the St Louis #1 cemetery, even though he’s still alive and well today.

One can’t even begin to understand the nuances of this city without knowing its culture and history, which the tour guides are eager to share.

Witnessing “Touchdown Jesus” against the dark sky of New Orleans is also something a tour guide can lead you to, while on a nighttime ghost tour through the back streets of the French Quarter.

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Getting outside the city will teach you that alligators love marshmallows for lunch as much as they love humans. This can be discovered when you find yourself two feet away from a jumping, snapping gator on a high-speed airboat in Lafitte, Louisiana.

Your authentically Cajun airboat driver will take you into the depths of the Louisiana bayou, bringing you face to face with stunning greenery and plenty of hungry gators.

Our guide, Sam, told us these boats are like the ice cream trucks of the bayou. When the boats come round the gators are in hot pursuit, just for a taste of that elusive marshmallow.

By far, the most charming excursion to experience in New Orleans is the jazz dinner cruise aboard the steamboat Natchez. This grand old paddleboat takes passengers on a two-hour journey down the Mississippi River at dusk.

Watching the city disappear behind us and the sun go down around us was nothing short of magical.

During dinner in the big, old galley, the lights dimmed and flickered occasionally, making me feel like I was aboard the Titanic in the early 1900s. It added some old-school charm and ambiance to our evening.

And for the inquisitive types, this journey comes complete with access to the steam room far below deck. The mechanics of the huge paddle wheel on this boat are incredible and the entire experience is not to be missed.

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If you’re anything like me, a person who loves the industrial urban feel, the gentrification in the south side of the inner city will fascinate you.

Upon checking into my hotel on S. Peter Street I wondered why they would plop a Hilton in such a crumby part of the city. It wasn’t until nightfall when I could see into the lit windows of the warehouse buildings, that I realized they’re all high-end condos.

They’re everywhere.

I walked for blocks and blocks….and more blocks, marveling at the old buildings turned into new homes, and wondered what the price tags might look like.

Old America has become new and fashionable.

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But let us not forget the reason we ALL want to visit New Orleans.

The Jazz. The Blues. The notes that stir up our insides and make us want to move.

Music is the real reason I came to New Orleans and I was not disappointed. Remember I mentioned those locals referring me to places other than Bourbon street? They nailed it when they said Frenchmen Street. It’s where the locals come out to play.

Frenchmen Street is literally that….just one out-of-the-way street, and it’s lined with bars where the locals hang out. Every single doorway enters into another world of incredible live music.

Cafe Negril was our first stop and we walked in just in time to soak up the soulful Dana Abbott band. I’d never heard of them before but I’m sure I’ll never forget them. They were my first live band in New Orleans.

The second most memorable spot on Frenchmen Street was the Balcony Music Club. The night we stopped in, there was an eight-piece brass band on stage and the entire club was moving. This band looked like it should be on a college football field yet here they were on a stage, in a bar, keeping the crowd alive.

Before visiting Frenchmen Street I thought those pop-up brass bands on street corners were just something you see about New Orleans on TV. But they’re absolutely real and they’re incredible! The instant one of them pops up a crowd draws quickly and the street comes alive. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

And the ONE thing I found on Frenchmen Street that completed my entire trip?

The elusive New Orleans balcony.

Those balconies on every building are just something you get to see from the ground looking up. But on Frenchmen Street, we found a bar with a balcony open to the public. We flooded onto it with the rest of the people and the view of the street action below was stellar!

My life became complete. My bucket list overflowed.

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There were 1001 more things I saw and experienced during my monumental ten day trip to New Orleans but I can’t possibly list them all.

This entire story is one huge shoutout to the entire city and its people for helping dreams come true.

Before New Orleans I thought I was living…..but now I’m truly ALIVE.

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I'm an old school travel writer who's been flung into another writing world through life experience. I have a compassionate eye, a different opinion, and strong words for this world we live in. I also know a thing or two.

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