New Orleans, for the very first time

Gators, history, and great food


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I think of myself as a relatively well traveled person, but there have been some gaping holes in my map. The places that have bothered me the most are the really close (to Denver) places that most of my friends and family have visited on a long weekend. Las Vegas, Phoenix, and New Orleans were the ones that made me itch the most.

Until February, I had never been to Las Vegas. I’ll let that sink in. I’m 37 and had never been to Las Vegas. The social stigma was unbearable; I might as well have been the 40-year-old virgin, or the kid raised by lions. I didn’t belong to THE club.

But, after having spent nearly a month there and knowing my younger self, it’s probably a good thing that I hadn’t been to Vegas. I would have moved there and gone nuts. I definitely would have ended up living in a van, down by the river (which is pretty much where we ended up anyway, ironically).

Now, we’ve been to Las Vegas 3 times. We lived outside Phoenix for a few months, with the Snowbirds over the winter (we were affectionately known as the “Snow-chickens”). We’ve also spent a month in Mexico, which I didn’t even know was on my bucket list.

That left us with New Orleans. Neither Danielle or I had been here, until now.

We stayed at Pontchartrain Landing, 10 minutes northeast of downtown, in an industrial-waterfront area in the northwest corner of the Gentilly neighborhood. It is a great place to stay, and one of the most accommodating, friendly places we’ve parked the house. People make all the difference. You don’t even have to have an RV to stay there, as they rent water-front villas and have shuttle service to the French Quarter.

I’ll admit that I’m an urban enthusiast. I want to visit all of the big cities and dig in, meet the people, smell the air, burn some shoe leather, and walk the neighborhoods. I want to contribute to the bustle of the city, help clog traffic, and feel the scale of the environment. This is my comfort zone.

On a side note, I used to love map books. These large, ring-bound books break a city down into a grid, all contained in one book. Remember them?

They were introduced to me at a young age, and I credit my Dad (for dropping one into my lap, and making me learn it) for my keen sense of direction.

I’m nostalgic for a time when you found your way around a new city by tracing your steps across a grid. It was challenging and fun. But, obviously Google maps has taken over that role. Now the tool is easy, and awesome, but we’re loosing a time-honored skill in the process, an important skill.

Here’s to analog map reading, and development of the internal compass. May they rest in peace.

New Orleans is an amazing city and didn’t disappoint me. There is a common theme I’ve noticed among big cities. They all lie in very strategic, scenic locations. New Orleans is a great example of that theme.

The whole region is below sea level, definitely an engineering marvel. This is a fact that I was aware of, but couldn’t grasp the magnitude of that engineering until I saw it for my self. Lake Pontchartrain, to the north of the city, protects the city from the flood waters of the numerous local rivers that are trying to drain into the ocean.

The Mississippi river cuts right through the center of the city, and it is something to behold. Ships tower above the streets, and levees are 59 feet high in places. Which is totally creepy and fascinating at the same time.

Holy ship!

That’s the top of a massive industrial ship at the end of the street. Just, you know, at the end of the block. In the Bywater neighborhood, apparently that’s normal. We stopped at J&J’s Sports Lounge for beer at the neighborhood bar before the ship came sailing any closer down the street.

J & J’s Sports Lounge

Here’s how low the Gentilly neighborhood is below the seawall, for perspective.

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As I understand it, the damage done by Hurricane Katrina is mostly due to the rerouting of the rivers in the area. As the rivers have been controlled and diverted, the wetlands that have traditionally protected the city have been disappearing. If efforts had been made to protect the wetlands, Katrina likely wouldn’t have caused as much damage.

My personal experience with Katrina was completely shaped by the news coverage. People waiving desperately for help from the roof of their home. Helicopters and boats making rounds to help evacuate the trapped families. Warnings came too late, damage was far beyond what anyone anticipated, and help couldn’t come fast enough.

We wanted to see what it looks like now, nearly 12 years later, in person. So, we drove around the the Lower 9th Ward. This was the hardest hit area, with the entire neighborhood submerged.

Here are the pictures we took from the lower 9th ward, June 2017:

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The neighborhood is rebuilding, and like many other cities, you can see gentrification spreading. There are nearly as many solar panels as there are empty lots, and more Tibetan-Prayer Flags than solar panels. Despite the rebuilding, the majority of lots are empty and appear abandoned, in various stages of neglect.

Properties are maintained in a totally random fashion. Between the inhabited homes are the remains of surviving houses, relatively untouched since they were submerged. There’s still the eerie spray paint on the front of some buildings from the initial search and rescue efforts. These homes are holding out for paint, solar panels, and prayer flags; they’re waiting for their resurrection.

As a city, New Orleans, is completely surrounded, just waiting for an invasion by one of the rivers or the ocean. Tom, our swamp tour guide, explained that people from the region consider this home, and they’ve always dealt with big storms. “We don’ care. We leave for a couple days, then we come back and rebuild. It’s just how life is here.”

Here’s Tom, feeding his gators…

Gator Tom
Tom names each gator and has watched them grow up.

We visited the Garden District, which is one of the most beautiful urban neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. We could walk the dogs around that area every day, for months, without getting tired of the scenery. It was one of my favorite parts of the city. Magazine Street reminds me of several familiar neighborhoods, stretched into one long street.

Of course, we had to visit the French Quarter. It’s amazing how large that neighborhood is. In my mind, I pictured it as a strip of quaint buildings stretching up Bourbon Street for a few blocks. Boy, I was wrong. It’s about 70 square blocks. Flip-flops were a mistake.

Unfortunately, my phone died during our tour of the French Quarter, so I don’t have may pictures…

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We ate at a couple of notable places, but Acme Oyster House, was our favorite spot in the French Quarter. This was recommended by my brother, who has been to NOLA several times. Plus, I’ve learned over the years that when Jonathan says “just do it,” you do it. He never disappoints.

They have a laid-back family atmosphere and the salty smell of ocean wafting from the back. You don’t go to Acme for a quick bite. You go to talk to get some high quality seafood, amazing hospitality, and a great selection of local beer.

Of the other places that we ate, our favorite was Cajun Seafood. You’re not likely to find this in the guide books or hotel flyers. This ended up being a favorite local spot with a line out the door.

Everyone is standing in line for their selection of fresh-boiled seafood. Craw fish, shrimp, and crab legs, with all of the “fixins,” are available at a counter that reminds me of a Subway restaurant. Danielle ate a mixture of boiled fare, and I ordered a medium catfish po-boy. I was shocked by the 18″ sandwich that was tossed across the counter at me, but I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

The place is a mad house and has no cohesive identity. It’s part quick-serve seafood restaurant, sub-shop, part convenience store, liquor store, and raw seafood market. It was something to behold. If you want craw fish and grape soda, you can. If you want a po-boy and bottle of whiskey, you can. It’s not hard to see why the line goes out the door.

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Sadly, you can never see everything in one trip while traveling. You really have to come back, or live there, to see all the nooks and crannies that a city is hiding. So, we fully intend on coming back for a month or more to fully explore the area.

But, on this trip, I think we got what we were looking for: great food with local flavor, tourist traps that were new to us,  beautiful architecture, nature, several history lessons, and unexpected, hidden gems,. For a week long stay, I’d say that’s successful.

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